If an angel brought us into a room filled with boxes and told us that we could have any one of them, we would examine the labels listing their contents before we made our choice.
And if, among the boxes, there was one labeled “God’s Gifts” and another labeled “Repentance,” my hunch is that the “Gifts” box would have many more takers than “Repentance.” God’s gifts are wonderful, and we would welcome receiving more of them. On the other hand, we tend to view a call to repentance as the spiritual equivalent of our doctor telling us to eat more vegetables, exercise, and lose weight.
Thus, the title of Kevin Perrotta’s latest book brings us up short: The Gift of Repentance. This Scripture study, the latest in the Keys to the Bible series, presents repentance as one of the good things God offers us out of love. It treats repentance not as a chore, but as the priceless gift by which God draws us closer to himself and makes us the kind of people we would be happy to be forever.
A Joint Project. In our moments of honest self-appraisal, we know that some areas in our lives need to change. And if we have a hard time identifying these areas, our family members and close friends will likely be happy to help! But knowing something and actually doing something about it are two different matters. Sometimes we see clearly what needs changing but deep down are unwilling to change; sometimes we are willing and make an effort but see no immediate results.
One obstacle is viewing repentance as a self-improvement program. Of course, whenever we need to improve, the self must be involved—we have to take action. But repentance is not like giving up chocolates for Lent. It’s a cooperative effort, a joint project with God that helps prepare us to be with him forever.
In his book, Perrotta makes it clear that God does most of the heavy lifting. As Paul told the Christians of Philippi, “It is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13, NRSVCE). God gives us both the desire to repent and the grace to carry it out.
Digging Deeper. The Gift of Repentance leads us through six sets of reflections on Scripture passages and related readings that throw light on what repentance really is and how to go about it. The first passage is one that I have read many times, but never with an eye for what it teaches about repentance: the story of Joseph, sold into slavery in Egypt but at long last reconciled with his brothers (Genesis 44:18–45:15). Perrotta brings out aspects and implications of the account that had never occurred to me. He continues with Jesus’ parable about a father who had two sons (Luke 15:1-3, 11-32). This passage is one that many have pondered for what it says about repentance, but it, too, takes on greater meaning through the author’s perceptive comments and probing questions.
The third session takes up my favorite psalm of repentance, Psalm 51. The psalmist recognizes that his sin is an offense against God, and he is tormented by guilt. This anguish is, “in a strange way, a sign of God’s presence,” Perrotta notes:
Like feeling a dentist’s drill grinding away at a decayed portion of a tooth, it is no cause for despair. So the psalmist calls out vigorously to God. “Put me through the laundry! Bleach out my sins!” (7). “Remove the guilt that is crushing me, and save me from the mess I’ve made of myself!”
The next two sessions explore the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:21–30, 38–48), in which Jesus sets standards to help us examine our consciences, and parts of Paul’s letter to the Christians of Rome, which addresses some deeper dimensions of repentance—our being saved and transformed by Christ. Perrotta takes a realistic approach:
The power of the Spirit in us is great, but the process of transformation is uneven. We do experience healing of our hearts and minds, but while some weaknesses to temptation disappear, others remain. Each of us is like a house getting a makeover that doesn’t proceed according to a formula. A couple of rooms are quickly renovated, the attic is cleared out, the water in the basement is drained, but other parts of the building remain depressingly the same. . . . It is crucial to trust in God. He has his particular way of carrying out each renovation.
The grace of God that Paul talks about enables us to persevere, room by room, change by change, transformation by transformation.
Finally, Perrotta highlights Peter and his last exchange with Jesus on the shore of the Sea of Galilee (John 21:15-22). Here is the disciple who denied the One whom he had been blessed to confess as the Messiah; here too is Jesus, who tenderly rehabilitates him and calls him to love. The scene can strengthen us: “For us, as for Peter, Jesus’ friendship becomes the deepest motivation for repentance and change of heart. Jesus shows himself to be the friend beyond all friends, who enables us to be true friends of him—the very thing we want as we come to know him more deeply.”
There is much more in The Gift of Repentance—stories, reflections by spiritual writers, questions, and study aids—but I hope you have gotten the idea. Thank you, Kevin Perrotta, for helping to unpack the precious contents of that unsung box marked “Repentance”!
George Martin was the founding editor of God’s Word Today magazine. His most recent book is Bringing the Gospel of Luke to Life.
The Gift of Repentance: God’s Call for a Change of Heart, by Kevin Perrotta is available from The Word Among Us at wau.org and amazon.com. To read an excerpt, visit our online bookstore. There too you’ll find a supplementary podcast by Kevin Perrotta for each session of this Scripture study.