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    Repentance, Conversion, and Faith

    Jesus transforms, jolts, and disorders for the better every life he touches.

    By William H. Willimon

    October 27, 2021
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    • Bradley Bahler

      More "hip" than hope.

    Three excerpts from the book God Turned Toward Us: The ABCs of Christian Faith

    Repentance

    Wising up. Turning to the God who, in Christ, has turned to you – to change your heart and life.

    Metanoia (Greek for repentance) is cousin of metamorphosis. When John the Baptist prepared the way for Christ, he told the crowds to hear the good news, get washed up, be drowned, give away surplus clothing, practice justice, in short, “Repent!”

    Although Jesus discourages us from showing off our goodness, he commends public admission (confession) of badness. Critics attempted to trap Jesus in a discussion of tragedy by asking, “Hear about the tower that fell and killed those people in Siloam [natural evil] or the Galileans whom Herod executed [human evil]? What did they do to deserve that?”

    Jesus responded with a non sequitur: “Unless you change your hearts and lives, you will die just as they did.” If we can’t repent of our temptation to keep God at a distance with our detached theological discussions of others’ pain and injustice (and maybe even our books on Christian vocabulary), we’ll never know much about God.

    Repentance is turning and facing in a different direction whereby we are enabled to see. Until we stand under the gospel, we can’t understand it. Faith is best known from the inside looking out. Salvation is free and very costly. Jesus transforms, jolts, and disorders for the better every life he touches. When God turns toward you, and you turn toward God, your life turns around.

    Conversion

    Detoxification. The God whom we wanted on our terms, taking us on God’s terms.

    Crabby Tertullian said, “Christians are made, not born.” Christians come from the church’s baptismal font, not people’s loins. Because Jesus and his kingdom fundamentally challenge everything we thought we knew for sure, conversion is part of the project. Paul didn’t know whether to describe what happened to him, when he met Christ, as birth or death. It felt like both at the same time.

    Christian is not synonymous with being born American. Conversion is mandatory. Rarely is the Christian life an orderly progression toward God. More typically, it’s a series of jerks and jolts, lurches to the left or right. Fasten your seat belts, you could end up miles from here.

    photograph of sails in sunlight

    Photograph by Andrea Zignin

    Nobody ever gets so adept at being a Christian that you lose your amateur status. Seldom a one-and-done experience, as Christ told old Nicodemus, “You must be born again,” to which Wesleyans add, and again, and again, and probably again. Birth to death, darkness to light then, at the end, death leading to life.

    Warning: I’m not saying that the Holy Spirit takes advantage of us when we’re down, but if you are going through a particularly painful time in your life, know that Christ enjoys showing up at such moments and working them to his gain. On the other hand, if you are happy with the life you are living, pleased as punch with the person you are, happy with the world as it is, be careful hanging around Jesus. He may take you just as you are but never leaves you there. Everyone he touches, Christ transforms.

    Extreme makeover, like our salvation, is something that God does to you rather than something you do for yourself. Baptism is not a declaration that you’ve at last found a faith that works for you but rather your bodacious willingness to let this faith work on you. Christ’s baptismal promises: you are not doomed to plod along in the life your parents handed you. By the power of the Holy Spirit, anybody can be a saint, everyone can have fate transformed into destiny by God. You, even you, can hit the road with Jesus. “Come die with me,” he says, “that you might rise to the life I wanted to give you in the first place.”

    As Jesus headed down the road one day a man comes up and asks him a deep theological question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” One Gospel says that the man was a “ruler,” another that he was “young.” All agree that he was rich. Jesus brushes him off by telling him to obey all the commandments. Turns out this man is really good at being good; he’s been totally obedient since he was a kid, a hard-core success, both materially and spiritually. Then Jesus speaks those converting words that Christians like me have always wished he hadn’t: “Go … sell … give … follow me.”

    If you journey with Jesus, expect a rough ride.

    Faith

    Acknowledgement that what scripture says is happening, actually is. Willingness to be whom God has created us to be; readiness to be transformed and transfigured by someone who works beyond, beneath, and above things as they seem to our senses. More a welcoming wave than a stiff salute, when Christ turns to us. Paying attention. Overcome by light. Enraptured.

    Faith happens when reality, first experienced as mundane and speechless, overflows, so that we hear something and exclaim, “I believe.” Better than some innate human yearning, faith is our reasonable response to an occurrence that has happened to us, named Jesus Christ. More than intellectual assent, the Christian faith is about walking with Christ even when you aren’t sure where he’s taking you. Being faithful more than having faith.

    Faith arises when we begin to trust Jesus more than ourselves. Most of us come to trust the God that Christianity talks about before we sign up for the whole system. Once you take that first trusting step toward the God who turns to you, Christian teaching, beliefs, and behavior begin to make sense.

    Paul didn’t know whether to describe what happened to him, when he met Christ, as birth or death. It felt like both at the same time.

    Jesus asked a man born blind, whom he has just healed, whether or not he “believes” in the Human One (or Son of Man). Jesus isn’t asking the man if he thinks that Jesus exists – Jesus stands in front of him. Jesus is asking if the healed person is ready to trust the one he is staring at. The man responds simply, “I believe.” When a gang of religious scholars gives the man hell for saying he believes in Jesus, the man replies, “Don’t know much ‘bout theology. All I know was I once was blind but now I see.” This dynamic – believing before all the evidence is in – occurs in the souls of millions.

    We are saved “through faith,” which sounds to us pragmatic, mother-I’d-rather-do-it-myself Americans like another assignment for self-betterment. No, faith is a gift. Not what we should, ought, must but rather God’s having done, finished, given. If we can say, “I trust Christ,” it’s a sure sign that God has made good on God’s electing promise: I will be your God; you will be my people.

    Paul says that Abraham (who wasn’t a Christian) is the prime exemplar of faith. Old Abram saddling up the camels, his geriatric wife pregnant, heading out on the basis of a cockeyed promise from a God he had only recently, briefly met. Abraham and Sarah are about as good examples of faith as we’ve got.

    However, Jesus repeatedly rebukes his disciples for their lack of faith, little faith, slow faith, and inability to believe what prophets said about him. Fortunately, we don’t need much of it; faith the size of a mustard seed will do. Bring on those mountains.

    “Faith” categorized as a generic human tendency is insipid. Everything depends on what you have faith in. The bland expressions “people of faith” or “faith community” presume that all faiths are the same and that there are people who have “faith” and people who don’t. When someone says, “I don’t have faith in Christ,” it means, not that they are faithless but rather that they have put their faith in someone other than a Jew from Nazareth who lived briefly, died violently, and rose unexpectedly. When free-floating “faith” becomes “faith in Christ,” that’s when our lackluster little lives become adventurous and talk of “faith” becomes interesting.

    Have trouble trusting that Christ is the truth about God? Be patient. Faith comes to you rather than you to it. The God whom you have difficulty turning toward has promised to turn toward you. Besides, who wants a God who is no more than the one you chose?

    Contributed By Will Willimon William H. Willimon

    Will Willimon is a professor at Duke Divinity School and a retired United Methodist bishop.

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