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Sin and repentance

Are we really poor miserable sinners? 

Let us now return to ourselves as individuals and have a careful look at our identity in God. The Anglican Litany makes it clear.

O God the Father of heaven: have mercy upon us miserable sinners. O God the Son, Redeemer of the world: have mercy upon us miserable sinners. O God the Holy Ghost, proceeding from the Father and the Son: have mercy upon us miserable sinners.

Miserable sinners, eh (or poor miserable sinners if you’re a Lutheran, as the words were first penned by Martin Luther, not the Gospel writers). Wealthy TV preacher, Joyce Meyer certainly doesn’t think so. On a teaching tape she exclaimed, “All I was ever taught to say was "I, a poor, miserable sinner." I am not poor, I am not miserable and I am not a sinner. That is a lie from the pit of hell.” (Joyce Meyer, From the Cross to the Throne tape, Life Christian Center in Saint Louis, Mo., date unknown)

An extreme reaction that probably tells you more about Meyer than she would like. Are we poor, miserable sinners? It seems at odds with the triumphant rich life that is promised by much preaching these days, an attractive gospel message for the disinterested masses. Poor miserable sinners. It seems a bit of a put-down because aren’t we also called more than conquerors (Romans 8:37)?

Well the fact is that these days we tend to neglect the “sin question” in the same way that earlier generations would have stressed it. We need to get back to basics to remind ourselves that there is a massive gulf between man and God, created by our sin nature and even those of us who are redeemed are still conscious of their sin. Sin doesn’t just go away when we become believers, but the power of it does. It may help some to think of themselves as poor miserable sinners but we should live as if we are richly-blessed joyful conquerors, because of the hope that God puts in our heart. It’s all a matter of balance.

Yet the one thing that is often neglected is repentance, what to do when we have sinned. It is interesting when we examine the different approaches of the Hebrew and the Greek mindsets. To start us off, here is one of Jesus’ first instructions to us in the New Testament:

“The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15)

Repent! He commanded. The Hebrew word he would have used is nacham, translated into the Greek word metanoia. Nacham conveys the sense of being sorry, or to be comforted or to sigh over something and metanoia is slightly stronger, meaning a change of mind, though the exact meaning is still debated. Yet the word itself doesn’t give an understanding of what’s involved with this change of mind. In the way that we understand repentance, metanoia is a strange word to use. There is perhaps a better word that could have been used, shuv, appearing over 1,000 times in the Hebrew Scriptures, with the meaning of “turning from something”. This word is the root of a highly significant word for Jewish theologians. The word is teshuvah and it’s the Jewish word for repentance as a return to God. And it always implies action, a change of direction.

Although we must accept that the writers in the New Testament used nacham rather than shuv for the instances where repentance has been indicated, one can see the basic difference in the way that Christianity and Judaism operate on this issue. The Jews stress the Hebraic sense of a change of direction or action, whereas our accepted Christian response is of a change of mind. Actions and thoughts, the theme that keeps reoccurring.

We are biblical Christians and the accepted understanding of repentance as a “change of mind” may be sufficient for our understanding yet it is surely helpful to realise that a “change in direction” is also needed, with physical actions energised in the repentance process. In fact, teshuvah is seen as a four stage process; acknowledgement of our sins, remorse over our sins, a resolve not to repeat the action and reconciliation with God. This last action is key as it represents the objective of restoration with God. It is so sad that, in Judaism, this final stage is not cemented with the full assurance of forgiveness we have as believers in Messiah Jesus. 

This is an extract from the book, Hebraic Church, available for £10 at http://www.sppublishing.com/hebraic-church-101-p.asp

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