By David Hegg
Recently, as a result of the examination of some of our politicians’ lives, the subject of redemption has become part of the national conversation. It usually goes like this:
“Did you hear about what he did?”
“Yes, I did, but that was 20 years ago, and he has changed, found faith, and is a different person now. Surely you believe in redemption, don’t you?”
When redemption becomes a topic, we clergy think we have something to say. After all, redemption is our thing. That’s what we preach and teach and declare to be necessary in every life.
The problem is that redemption isn’t the nice, little, clear-cut experience so many make it out to be today. In fact, one of the hardest things I encounter in pastoral ministry is trying to determine the reality of redemption. How do we know for sure that someone has been “brought back” out of decadence into virtue? What can we say authenticates true life-change, especially in areas of morality and ethics? By what measurements do we conclude that a liar is no longer lying, a philanderer is now faithful, and a serial flip-flopper has become a courageous, consistent and uncompromising leader?
When we turn to the topic of ethical systems, we find ourselves walking in the fields of knowledge that have long dealt with the questions of reality and hypocrisy. And almost universally we find that the necessary prerequisite to true redemption is a little thing called repentance.
In the Bible, the word “repentance” translates the Greek word that means literally to “change the mind.” But to the ancients, this word was much more than a mere decision to think differently. It was a life decision to turn away from previous ways of thinking and living in order to pursue the way of virtue and righteousness. And just what was the cause of this change? It was the opening of the eyes of the heart to see the disastrous consequences of the present course of life.
Jesus told a story that vividly illustrates the point. A young man, no longer content to work for his father, demanded and got his inheritance. He took off to a far country and spent it all on decadent living. Starving, and finding himself needing to work with the pigs in order to live, the young man is said to have “come to his senses.” He woke up. He suddenly saw the reality of his choices, his selfishness, his foolishness. Then he went further and realized that he was responsible for those choices, and was in fact, as bad as they were. His decisions were just the fruit of who he actually was. He determined to do two things: change his life direction, and also return to repair what his arrogance and wickedness had broken.
In the story, the reality of his repentance is seen in that he admitted both that he had acted wickedly, and that he no longer deserved to be viewed as a son. He simply wanted to return and be in the father’s household, even as a slave. His repentance was primarily seen in his humility. And as the story ends, the father recognizes that his son has truly been changed and accepts him back with full forgiveness and reconciliation. That is redemption.
So, how do we measure those who claim to be new people, with new and improved lives? First, have they “come to their senses” or did they get caught? Have they taken full responsibility for their actions as well as their polluted hearts? Have they demonstrated over time a new way of living, wrapped in humility?
Before anyone can claim the label of redemption, there must be true repentance wrapped in an attitude of complete humility. And my theology recognizes that such a change of heart and mind is impossible apart from divine assistance. So, maybe the greatest sign of redemption is humility before God rising out of the recognition that even on our best day we’ll never live up to our highest standards, let alone his. And that’s why God set into motion the greatest redemption project ever when he sent his son to do for us what we could never do alone. Redemption is something we all need, and only God can fully accomplish.
Local resident David Hegg is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church. “Ethically Speaking” appears Sundays.