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Is Repentance Necessary?

Updated: Dec 14, 2023

As the House of Bishops commend "Prayers of Love and Faith",

there are deeper questions that need to be asked.



The novelist Ken Follett has produced the fifth book in his “Kingsbridge” series, “The Armour of Light”.

The book is all over the supermarket shelves and will be under many a Christmas tree in 12 days’ time.

If any reader cannot abide even the most minor of plot-spoilers before taking on another 735 pages from Follett, then this piece is not for you.

Towards the end of the book, as if in 1824, the best-selling writer puts these words into the mouth of the aged anti-hero,

“Hornbeam’s life now seemed valueless. As a boy he had lived by violence and theft. As a man he had done the same things less openly… he knew there was a solution to his problem, a cure for his illness. It was mentioned regularly in every Christian church in the world: confession and repentance. A man could be forgiven for doing wrong.”

That global Christian “given” at the end of the Napoleonic Wars is in striking contrast to what well known activist, and until her recent resignation, member of General Synod, Jayne Ozanne wrote for Premier Christianity a few days ago.

“It seems we have two versions of Christianity being taught within our churches today. One believes in the unconditional love of God. The other seeks to add in various caveats and exception clauses, making our salvation a transactional exchange, dependent on various actions we take rather than solely what Christ has done for us.

“Until we agree which version of the Christian gospel we believe in, I fear we are destined to continue in an endless Groundhog Day of tennis-match-style debates on matters such as sexuality”.

Ozanne writes in response to this piece, by the National Director of the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches. To her issues around sexuality are merely one of the areas in which a deeper theological issue - the indispensability or otherwise of the need for repentance - comes to the surface.

Her starting point is Hornbeam's real-life parallel - the thief on the cross (Luke 23:43). She asserts,

“We know hardly anything about this man - his criminal lifestyle, his home life or even his love life. We do know he admitted to have done something for which he deserved to die. Did he repent of it. No. But he did recognise who Jesus was and asked to be with him- a request that Jesus immediately and unconditionally granted.

“You see unconditional love is just that- Un-condition-al. The power of the Christian gospel (and its core difference when compared to all other faiths) is that it is all about what God does for us and never about what we do for God. It is ‘Amazing Grace’- totally extravagant, lavishly generous. We don’t deserve it, we can never earn it and we must never put limits or exclusion clauses on it.”

From this Ms Ozanne argues that repentance is not a “salvation issue”,

“But what, then, about repentance? Surely this is central to our salvation. Well, I want to share some good news. No, it's not. God’s unconditional love is that radical.

“Of course, repentance is important. It is something we do when we are so overwhelmed by love that we want to change, in order to become more like the source of that love. It is not, however the condition on which our salvation hinges. We see that in Jesus’ act of abundant grace while he was dying on the cross. We know the proclamation in John 3:15: “that whoever believes in him may have eternal life”. No caveats. It is simply what God does for us”.

Of course, Ozanne has a goal in mind - if repentance is not essential then there is no need, indeed no real point, in categorising some behaviour as “sinful”, and all can agree to disagree on matters of sexuality.

Jayne Ozanne has long described herself as an “evangelical”- it is a part of her claim to be credible, but no recognised evangelicals, indeed few Christians of the last 200 years, and longer would recognise her claims as even vaguely mainstream. So much so, that only the briefest rebuttal of them is required. At best, the arguments are from silence, but as John Calvin points out, [1] they appear inconsistent with the thief’s move from scorn to trust to advocacy, they are certainly inconsistent with the witness of the whole of scripture. Strikingly, Ms Ozanne is in particular inconsistent with herself - she has spent years excoriating the Church for a whole variety of the most 'twenty-first century' categories of 'sins'. It is difficult to see why she has done that if she never thought that, by way of response, her opponents should “come to their senses” and return “home” to her view of a Biblical faith.

The author of the FIEC piece has posted a suitably concise response correcting many of Ozanne’s errors.

On one thing, however, Jayne Ozanne is half right - when the doctines of salvation and repentance are brought into question, there are two incompatible understandings of the gospel abroad, but decidedly not two possible versions of the one true gospel.

Sadly, hers is the fake gospel of which 2 Corinthians 11 warns,

“…I feel a divine jealousy for you since I betrothed you to one husband, to present you as a pure virgin to Christ. But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ”.

Paul proclaimed that there is but one true Jesus, spirit and gospel received by all believers. And repentance is at the heart of it.

This generation has been warned

And this generation has been copiously warned of dangers of any dilution of the full message of salvation. Warned both by scripture and by those who witness to it, not least William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army,

“The chief danger of the twentieth century will be religion without the Holy Ghost, Christianity without Christ, forgiveness without repentance, salvation without regeneration, and heaven without hell.”

Booth was born 5 years “after” Hornbeam’s statement of Christian orthodoxy and his words could have been written as a critique of Premier Christianity’s article of nearly 200 years later.

And there have been more recent warnings:

At the second Gafcon, in 2013 in Nairobi, the late Rev Dr Mike Ovey delivered what has become to be recognised as a seminal address, ientitled "The Grace of God OR the world of the West", in which he quoted Dietrich Bonhoeffer,

"Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession.... Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.'ʹ [2]

In, what was tragically to be his last oppportunity to speak to the gathered global Communion, Mike Ovey warned,

"But please understand that this theology has been running round, and indeed running, the Church of England for decades. And it opens the door to cheap grace, because it says yes not just to Jesus but also to the world. It’s not an explicit ‘no’ to Jesus, but it is a Jesus and the world approach. As you look at us in the Church of England, I’m afraid you are looking at a church which has an increasingly worldly view of grace, a cheap grace in which repentance is redundant, and which we can safely bestow on ourselves because we already have divine light within us and we know when God will give grace to us. Frighteningly, on this view God will never disagree with this, because his voice comes from within us."

Booth, Bonhoeffer, Ovey, and more recently Archbishop Samy Fawzy, Archbishop of Alexandria and Benjamin John, have all sounded the warning trumpet - but unfortunately few have been listening.

All false teaching has catastrophic salvific consequences and they are also, inevitably, attended by disastrous pastoral consequences.

The Church of England's disastrous "pastoral" prayers

In response to revisionists led by the likes of Jayne Ozanne, the Bishops of the Church of England yesterday commended the “Prayers of Love and Faith” (PLF) to bless same-sex relationships.

The (forty-four pages of) so-called “Pastoral Guidance” accompanying the prayers, comes in “question and answer format” and includes (paragraph 1.2.3.),

“Do the PLF presuppose sexual activity? Could or should a minister ask questions of the couple with regards to sexual activity?

“The PLF make no assumption with regards to sexual intimacy. Instead they seek to encourage the relationship as a whole to display virtues of stability, faithfulness, loyalty and exclusivity and to seek God’s help in growing in those.

“It would not be appropriate for a minister to ask questions that concentrate on the details of any couple’s intimate relationship- whether this is a couple asking for the PLF, or an opposite-sex wedding couple.”

This is, of course, entirely disingenuous - the Church does presuppose sexual activity for a “wedding couple” and so the parallel with a “PLF couple” is only valid if the same applies to them. Furthermore, no one seems able to explain what the House of Bishops mean by “exclusivity”, if it is not the intimate, sexual exclusivity meant by the word (again in the context of heterosexual marriage) since at least 1866, when Sir James Wilde (later Lord Penzance) in the case of Hyde v Hyde stated,

“I conceive that marriage, as understood in Christendom, may for this purpose be defined as the voluntary union for life of one man and one woman, to the exclusion of all others”.

Disingenuity apart, the bishops intend that a minister should not even enquire as to whether repentance might be expected of one or more of a couple seeking the Church’s blessing, let alone call for it. The salvific consequences are obvious (1 Corinthians 6:9-11) as are the pastoral ones - sin, not just unrepented of but, wholly unacknowledged, is a fundamental misunderstanding of God’s intent for human relationships, not least because it tends towards repetition of that sin.

Also included (paragraph 1.2.12) is,

“If someone has been divorced, or had a civil partnership dissolved, does this affect whether we can offer the prayers? Should appropriate prayers of repentance be included?

“This should be approached with an appropriate sense of pastoral tenderness and attention to God’s abundant grace. There will be individual circumstances in which there may well be a longing for an opportunity for repentance, but it will be important to contextualize that in a rich and gracious sense that while all enter marriage and civil partnerships with a commitment to lifelong faithfulness and devotion some relationships break down for a multitude of reasons, and new promise is offered in new relationships; no sense of judgement or condemnation should be implied by any kind of conversation about relationships which have come to an end”.

The observant reader will see the dual commonalities between the work of Ozanne and the work of the bishops. First, in the deployment of the term “abundant grace”. And, second in repentance as not something objectively required but, at most, subjectively desired and thus appropriately “contextualised” and without any necessary implication of actual wrongdoing.

Note, however, the pastoral wickedness.

Unquestionably, the church should be unequivocal that a partner, be they of the same or opposite sex, has a right to know if their intended’s previous relationship ended because of terrible behaviour, most of all, abuse. As currently stated the, in fact, “anything-but Pastoral” guidance gets that entirely wrong. The "Guidance" suggests that even criminal offending, however evil, and however vulnerable the new partner may be, should not even be raised as an issue, and certainly not with any, “sense of judgment or condemnation” . Similarly, someone who has a history of (serial) unfaithfulness is no longer encouraged by the Church to be honest about that, and so will be, if they desire, allowed deceive their new partner by silence.

Instead of promoting transparency and repentance, the minister is shamefully advised to advance the unqualified statement that, “… new promise is offered in new relationships”. That is a lie. A new relationship does not necessarily offer “new promise”. TwillSuch a suggestion will be music to the ears of the dishonest people (mainly men) who constantly expect to be believed when they say they’ve “turned over a new leaf” or “won’t do it again” or who “contextualise” their behaviour as just “one of those things” or whom blame their victim.

This is the pastoral mess that churches get into when they lose hold on the fullness of the message of salvation.

This is not the last word, however, on all things recent about repentance.

The danger of structural division

The day before the House of Bishops’ announcement, “The Alliance”, “from the traditional catholic, evangelical and charismatic wings of the church” opposed to the PLF, published a letter written to the bishops.

The bishops ignored their plea not to go ahead with the PLF.

Notwithstanding that, the letter concludes,

“We support the next key area of work identified by the bishops in the letter from +Helen-Ann and +Martyn of 4th December- the exploration of a formal legal structural provision. We are convinced that an outcome needs to begin to be worked out now. First, this will enable those who feel compelled to pursue changes to doctrine and practice to be able to minister freely without their actions causing growing schism in the Church of England. Second, it will allow those of us who hold on to the received Anglican heritage to oversight, training, licensing and appointments that are aligned with current doctrine and practice. Third, it will enable LGBTQI+ people who hold to the received teaching, as well as those who hold to a progressive view, both to find the sort of welcome, teaching, and pastoral care they are looking for, from churches that are living out similar convictions to their own.

“We continue to be ready to work together with all parts of the Church of England to achieve an outcome which maintains the maximum degree of unity possible of the one Church under God for all people. Our priority is to work towards such an outcome now.”

Thus, this broad “Alliance”, maybe unwittingly, proposes a section of the Church of England in which it is explicitly understood that same-sex sexual activity is not just unrepented of, not merely accepted, but, rather, actively affirmed and “pastorally” “nurtured” by those who teach a false gospel. It would simply not be credible for those in the Alliance then to call to repentance those in the alternative structure, as created by the Alliance, precisely to ensure that revisionists do not have to experience such a call, or in fact anything other than absolute affirmation.

Amid the prevailing confusion about the necessity for repentance in salvation and pastoral care, many are asking whether that is too high a price to pay for “formal structural provision”. Better one church, in which the orthodox can call anyone to repentance, than tacitly accepting the "Ozanne line" that there are two possible views on the need for repentance and therefore two versions of the one gospel.

As the Kigali Commitment said:

"Repentance defines and shapes the Christian life and the life of the church."

But there is good news

In her article, Jayne Ozanne rewrites the experience of John Newton just as much as she does that of the thief/terrorist.

As all know, what Newton himself wrote about his encounter with repentance of “Amazing Grace” was,

“Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, And grace my fears relieved; How precious did that grace appear The hour I first believed”.

As Ms Ozanne asserted, there are two gospels being promoted, and she is right that they cannot co-exist.

The true gospel is obvious and is to the “exclusion of all others”: a gospel without repentance as essential to salvation turns Newton’s “precious” grace into Ozanne’s “cheap” grace. And that must not stand.

It could not be clearer that the real issues at stake are not sexual ethics but the very nature of what is a legitimate understanding of the gospel and that must be defeated, not just as false teaching, but as outright heresy.

It will be an epic struggle- one which, as Follett’s title and frontispiece reminds us is nothing less than the calling,

“Cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light”. (Romans 13 :12)

 

With thanks to Anglican TV for image of Mike Ovey.


[1] For it was not by the natural movement of the flesh that he laid aside his fierce cruelty and proud contempt of God, so as to repent immediately, but he was subdued by the hand of God; as the whole of Scripture shows that repentance is His work. And so much the more excellent is this grace, that it came beyond the expectation of all. For who would ever have thought that a robber, in the very article of death, would become not only a devout worshiper of God, but a distinguished teacher of faith and piety to the whole world, so that we too must receive from his mouth the rule of a true and proper confession? Now the first proof which he gave of his repentance was, that he severely reproved and restrained the wicked forwardness of his companion. He then added a second, by humbling himself in open acknowledgment of his crimes, and ascribing to Christ the praise due to his righteousness. Thirdly, he displayed astonishing faith by committing himself and his salvation to the protection of Christ, while he saw him hanging on the cross and near death." Luke 23 Calvin's Commentaries (biblehub.com)

[2] The Cost of Discipleship, London.  SCM  1963:47

 

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