Elmer ColyerElmer Colyer is professor of systematic theology at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary, and pastor of a Methodist congregation. Dr. Colyer received his Ph.D. from Boston College/Andover Newton in 1992.

Dr. Colyer discusses repentance with us and why we don’t repent well on our own.

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Edited transcript

J. Michael Feazell: Let’s talk about repentance. What is repentance, how do you know if you’ve really repented? If you don’t feel you’ve repented, do you need to repent again? What is repentance all about?

Elmer Colyer: Repentance – the Greek root word metanoia basically means to change 180 degrees and face the other direction. Repentance becomes such a focus, particularly in more conservative churches that really want to honor God, because this is the focus on what we need to do if we’re going to show that we want to be in a right relationship with God. If we want renewal to happen in the church, we need to repent.

One of the tragic things about this is that in the pattern of salvation, the way grace realizes itself in our life, at whatever point we make part of that something that we do in and of ourselves apart from grace, there’s something we need to do to get it right in order for salvation to work or for renewal to work or whatever, that always becomes the place where we focus our energy, and it always becomes the weak link in the chain.

It’s particularly tragic with repentance, because if there’s anything that quickly becomes evident for Christians, is that we don’t repent very well. We think we’ve repented, we’ve really changed our mind about something, and then about two days later we find out we haven’t done a very good job of it, and so you have almost this ongoing cycle where people try to repent and repent and repent over and over again, and it never works very well.

JMF: So you never believe that you ever did repent, because repent means to change, and if you still are struggling, then you haven’t repented. And until you do repent, you’re not going to be forgiven.

EC: Yes. It takes us back to this point that we talked about in an earlier interview, that Christianity is not difficult – it is impossible. This refers to all aspects of Christian faith. At any point in the order of salvation where part of it becomes an autonomous act that we do on our own apart from grace, that always becomes the weak link of the chain, where we never get it right and we keep circling back around and around that particular point. This is why repentance in church has become such a problem.

The story that I used a couple years ago when I did one of these interviews, about the man from California who was walking on this ice, and crawling across on his belly because he was afraid that he was going to go through, and then a truck comes with a load of logs and goes across the ice, and how they both had radically different experiences – one was absolutely scared and the other one was not afraid at all. The important point of the illustration is not about the quality of the faith of either one of them, it’s about the quality of the ice. And Christ is thick ice. It holds us up in our weak faith. The same is true with repentance and every other aspect of the order of salvation. As soon as we turn it into something primarily that we do apart from Christ, we get our self in a whole heap of trouble, and it doesn’t work very well. The bottom line is, we don’t repent aright. Christ even had to do that for us.

Jesus’ baptism at the Jordan, a lot of times people have a difficult time making sense of it. Why did Jesus have to be baptized – he had never sinned, there were no sins to repent of? Whose sins was he confessing and repenting of in the Jordan? It wasn’t his own, it was ours… In his total identification with us, taking our diseased and sinful humanity that we never can turn back to God on our own, never rightly repent – that’s part of what Christ’s life and death and resurrection is all about – repenting in our place. He goes down into the Jordan confessing all of our sins – repenting for them in a way that we never repent for them aright…and he comes out and then receives the Spirit of God into the human nature of that he took from us in the Incarnation.

We don’t even repent aright, so Christ has to repent for us. Our repentance never can be anything but an echo of his repentance on our behalf.

This is tremendously freeing, because once we realize that we don’t even repent aright, when we repent, we can repent as much as we can at that particular point in time, and not all the time be looking at our shoulder wondering whether we got it right or not. Because what actually happens when we repent – it’s already the Spirit of God echoing Christ’s repentance in us that leads us to that point. When we repent as much as we can at that particular moment in time, the Spirit takes our imperfect repentance, Christ seated at the right hand of the Father even now, takes our repentance, perfects it, does it right, and presents it to the Father on our behalf. So we don’t need to worry about whether or not we repent aright.

This is where a lot of people misunderstand the relationship between divine agency and human agency in our salvation.

JMF: You mean what we have to do…

EC: …and what God has to do for us.

As my good friend Gary Deddo says, “Many Christians turn the relationship between divine agency and human agency in salvation into a zero-sum game.” So either God does 100 percent and we do nothing…so when I say “Christ repents on our behalf,” that means we don’t have to do anything at all…we don’t have to repent… or God does part and we do part, and this is where most Christians come out, secretly (even if they don’t admit it theologically), they think there’s something that they’ve got to do in and out of themselves to contribute to their salvation, and if they don’t do it right, then it’s going to mess the whole thing up.

Whether it’s repentance, whether it’s faith, whether it’s love, whatever it is at any point where they think it’s something they have to do in and out of themselves, 50 percent God but this is their 50 percent or 10 percent or however they parcel it out, that becomes the weak link in the chain, where they’re found in bondage.

The problem is, this is the wrong way to think about the relationship between divine agency and human agency in salvation. The best way to think about this is to go back to Jesus Christ himself. The second person of the Trinity incarnate as a human being…where we have 100 percent divine agency; the second person of the Trinity has assumed our diseased and alienated humanity…100 percent divine agency throughout Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. And yet, we have a fully human Jesus, too.

In theology we talk about this as the enhypostasis/anhypostasis couplet. Anhypostasis means that there is no separate human being apart from the Incarnation, in other words, if the second person of the Trinity had not become incarnate as Jesus of Nazareth, there never would have been a Jesus. It’s only because of the Incarnation, because of the virgin birth, that there is an actual Jesus. Enhypostasis means, enhypostatic is the word, in the Incarnation, there is a real Jesus, a real human Jesus. Indeed, in some respects, Jesus is far more human and more of a character than we are.

This is part of the reason I love John’s Gospel. Remember the miracle that Jesus does first in John’s Gospel? It’s the turning of water into wine. There are a lot of Christians that have a problem with this human Jesus in John’s Gospel there at the wedding. First of all, he’s at a wedding. The Son of Man, the Son of God Incarnate who’s got all this great work to do to redeem humanity, and here he is messing around at a wedding. What’s all that about?

The first miracle he does is changing the water into wine. The servants say there is no more wine, and Mary, Jesus’ mother, comes to him, “They have no more wine.” He rolled his eyes, you know, “Why do you involve me, woman?” He ends up changing the water into wine, five or six stone containers that probably held about 30 gallons of wine. So that’s maybe 120 to 150 gallons of wine. My entire seminary could get a little tipsy on that much wine. Jesus does this miracle to allow the celebration to continue. It says something about the profound character of his humanity.

So is there anything incompatible in Jesus’ life, his death, and his resurrection between 100 percent human agency and 100 percent divine agency? They’re completely compatible. Why would we think that any place in the order of salvation it would be any different? God’s grace, when God’s grace is actively involved in our life, it doesn’t in any way dehumanize us, it doesn’t undermine our human agency, indeed, we become more fully human, more fully personal, more fully Mike and El than we ever were before.

To try to help people think about this, I tell my students in seminary, think about the time in your life when you were most profoundly aware of God’s love and presence in your life…most profoundly aware that you were loved by God and forgiven. In that moment of time, did you somehow cease to be human when God’s agency was actively involved in your life? Did you somehow turn into a robot at that moment? Weren’t you more fully the human that you are, at that moment of your life, more than any other time? So you see, there’s no inconsistency between divine and human agency and reality, it’s in our thinking about it that we get into trouble.

The more the Spirit of God is filling us… This is what it says in Ephesians chapter 5, where being filled with the Spirit of God, the more Christ is living his life through us… Galatians 2:20, “It’s no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me, and the life I now live in the body I live by faith in the Son of God.”

When the Spirit fills us and Christ is living his life through us, it’s the same reality – one looked at from the perspective of the Holy Spirit’s activity, one looked at from the perspective of Christ’s activity, and what happens? We obey God the Father. So Christ living his life through us, the Spirit filling us, and us obeying God the Father are simply looking at the same reality from the activity of each of the persons of the Trinity. When that happens, we become more fully human, more fully personal, more fully agentic than we ever were before. In other words, it frees us. God’s grace frees us for our human agency – it doesn’t undermine it.

Part of the problem is that when we human beings think about free will and agency, we tend to think about it in making choices between two different things – like in the supermarket you can choose between Rice Krispies and corn flakes. But what Christian faith means by Christian liberty is something far more complicated. If we had a piano in this room, I’d have the freedom to sit down and play the piano, but I don’t know how to play the piano, and I don’t read music very well. While I can plunk the keys, I do not have the liberty to play Mozart. The only way I would be able to play Mozart is if I became a different kind of human being, if I had the skills and the abilities to be able to do that. Christian liberty is more like the liberty to play Mozart than it is freedom of will to choose between A and B.

The grace of God sets us at liberty to be able to respond. There isn’t an incompatibility between divine and human agency. That’s why it’s only when the grace of God is actively involved in our life that we can repent at all, and even when we do it imperfectly, Christ takes it and perfects it and presents it to God on our behalf. That’s true of every aspect of Christian faith, whether it’s faith, whether it’s repentance, whether it’s obedience, those are all things that are absolutely impossibilities. We do not have the human potentiality to do it apart from Christ living his life through us.

JMF: So repentance and faith are pretty much the same thing, in that in repentance, what we’re doing is trusting Christ to be who he is for us. And even in that trust, we’re trusting him to trust for us, in who he is for us.

EC: Right. The great irony is, it is precisely in that moment when we realize that it’s not about the quality of our faith, not about the quality of our repentance, not about the quality of our obedience, but about the quality of our Savior, that we paradoxically at that moment find the freedom to be able to do it. Even though we don’t do it perfectly, it’s when the fear that we’re not going to get it right is finally removed, because we’re absolutely convinced that Christ has already done it right on our behalf in our place – not in a way that displaces our response, but a way that undergirds it and sets it free. Then, guess what? We lose the fear that we’re not going to get it right, and it becomes something that’s entirely natural.

Another way to explain this relation between divine and human agencies… Torrance uses it in terms of his children; I use it in terms of my son. When my sons were first trying to learn how to walk, they would grab my finger with their hands, and I would grab their hands with my hands, and I would hold them as they walked. Now, who is really holding who? They’re gripping my finger, but it’s not really their grip on my finger that’s the controlling issue, is it? It’s my grip of their fingers. It’s the same way in the relationship between divine and human agency. We really do respond in faith, but it’s very imperfect and it’s not the quality of our faith or any of our responses that’s finally determinative, it’s the quality of what Christ has already done, and God’s grasp of us in Christ that never lets go.

JMF: It’s Christ we’re trusting, not our faith we’re trusting. I’ve found myself needing to say that sometimes to remind myself. I have to say, I really don’t have much faith here in how this is playing out. But I have to tell myself I don’t need to worry about that, because Christ has enough faith for both of us. I’m trusting him, not me, so I don’t need to worry about my lack of faith, he’ll take care of it. Sometimes you have to just be very concrete with yourself…not everybody does, but sometimes I need to rehearse it, and so that helps me to remember it’s him I’m trusting. It’s not that I need enough faith, because I don’t have enough faith.

EC: That’s right. In my life as a pastor, my own life as a Christian, I found that almost always there’s some aspect in that order of salvation, some human aspect in there where one Christian or another will attach to it – “That’s what I’ve got to do.” That always becomes that weak link they fixate on. It’s always the thing they worry about that they haven’t done right.

JMF: They become obsessed with it.

EC: They become obsessed with it, and it becomes the thing that messes up their Christian freedom and liberty, because they think if they don’t get it right, again, it’s that deus absconditus back there. They’re not going to get their part right, the whole thing is going to collapse like a house of cards, and they’re going to end up being on the outside.

JMF: Yeah, and it’s like God is going to come out and throw a curse at you, and Jesus is holding him at bay as best he can. But in the end, he’s really mad and he’s going to get one of those lightning bolts past Jesus’ catcher’s mitt, and it’s going to hit you.

EC: Right. It goes back to other things that we’ve talked about, that often the God that people most believe in, in their heart of hearts… (The thing about ultimate beliefs…it’s not the ones in our head, it’s the ones that go to the core of our being, and influence fundamental behavior at this level, that are really the core ones.) A lot of times what people believe in their head and how they actually behave, what their ultimate beliefs in their heart are, are not commensurate. You’re right. Oftentimes behind the back of Jesus is the angry God the Father. The “one God” that they develop on the basis of taking human attributes and perfecting them and projecting them onto God. Jesus becomes the intermediary.

But when you look at the cross, what you find is that it isn’t simply Jesus that identifies with us. All the persons of the Trinity suffered there on the cross. The Father suffers, giving up the Son in the death. We have no idea what it meant…the cost God the Father paid for our redemption. All the persons are involved in it there. You can’t have an angry God the Father doing something different than the Son. This is an inadequate understanding of God and an inadequate doctrine of the Trinity. This is why the doctrine of the Trinity calls that doctrine of the one God, and all of the funky attributes that go along with it, the deus absconditus that we’re worried about, it calls it into question. Jesus, on the cross, is a window into the very heart of God. There is no different God the Father or any other God behind the back that we have to fear.

One of the interesting places this plays itself out and goes back to this whole issue of how we interpret Scripture, that we can pick up maybe in another session. It’s always interesting to me the scripture that Christians fasten on as the key troubling text. Almost always they’re texts about what we have to do. Those are the ones that resonate with that deus absconditus, resonate with that human agency having to contribute something, and so they become the primary texts that blind our eyes to what the other texts say. This is an inadequate way, this is why the concordance method of doing interpretation, just looking up what Scripture has to say about a particular theme, never works. You have to look at the entire fabric of Scripture to get it.

In John 15, Jesus says, “If you love me you will obey my commands.” They forget the first part of John 15, which is what? Jesus says, “I am the vine, you are the branches. If a branch remains in me it will bear much fruit.” Then comes the verse that we just really don’t believe in our heart of hearts, “Apart from me you can do nothing.” You mean there isn’t something we can contribute on our own? Jesus seems to say there isn’t, in that text.

If you look in there, the word “remain” is meno. If you read John’s Gospel and look at everything it has to say about meno, it’s the same word that Jesus uses in terms of the relationship between Jesus and the Father, “The Father is in me and I am in the Father.” It’s meno. Jesus says that’s the same thing we’re to do with him, we’re to meno. He’s to remain in us and we’re to remain in him. Unless we do that, we can do nothing.

That’s the absolute good news of the gospel, because that means there isn’t anything in the Christian life that we ever do, have to do, ever need to do, on our own apart from what Christ has already done for us in his vicarious life, death, and resurrection. He has already done it all – not in a way that cancels our humanity, but a way that frees us. He echoes his faith, his repentance, his obedience, in us. It’s when we stop worrying about the quality of our faith, our repentance, and our obedience, guess what? It becomes easier to be able to do those things. Even then, we don’t do it perfectly, and we always have to depend upon Christ our High Priest, who is at the right hand of God.

JMF: It’s ironic that we obsess and fixate on our weakest point and spend most of our time worried about that, concerned about it, working on it, going through this step and that step, listening to sermons or preparing sermons on it. That distracts us from what we really need to be focused on, which is all good, because we’re so focused on these areas of weakness.

EC: That’s a good point. It again shows, particularly in North America, how our rugged individualism, that we’re expected all along the way to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps, and we have the capacity to do these things, while at the same time we have all these 12-step groups of compulsive behaviors, where we have to admit that we’re powerless.

We could learn from the 12-step groups. In some respects all the 12-step groups, when it says “I’m powerless before this habit” is basically echoing what Jesus says in John 15, “Apart from me you can do nothing.” Apart from a higher power, apart from Christ, we cannot break the holds on our things. If Christians, if every time we get in that mode where we obsess about something and get worried about it, if we could just remember that verse and remember we are powerless apart from the grace of God in Christ, we’d be a lot better off. That’s why it’s not difficult to be a Christian, it’s impossible. The sooner we learn it the better off we’d be.

Same thing is true with ministry. Sometimes pastors think ministry becomes their responsibility. You want to turn ministry into a drudgery, and you just think of ministry as primarily what we do for God in response to the gospel. That’s not what ministry is in the New Testament. Ministry is primarily Jesus’ high priestly ministry now at the right hand of God, where he is still the incarnate Savior that he was. What takes place in Christ’s life, death, and resurrection isn’t a passing episode. It isn’t simply past.

This is why the resurrection and the ascension are so crucial to Christian faith. Christ still is the incarnate one. He still has that vicarious humanity, where he believed in our place, repented in our place, obeyed in our place throughout his life. That humanity is still right now in the presence of God. He is our Great High Priest. That’s absolutely crucial, and when we lose that, we lose something fundamental.

The same is true with ministry. It’s not primarily our ministry, it’s primarily Christ’s ministry. And insofar as we’re willing to step back from any situation in ministry and acknowledge that he’s the one who has to do the work, we’re a lot more effective. The more we think the burden of responsibility rests on us, that’s a surefire way for pastoral burnout. Just think that some aspect or all of ministry is primarily our responsibility, not Christ’s responsibility… When we know that Christ is the real minister and we’re simply called to participate in his ministry, it makes ministry a joy.

Sometimes at the end of the day you can ask Christ, “What did you do for my ministry today?” If we knew what he did, we’d either be disappointed that it didn’t conform to what we expected, or we’d become arrogant that he’d done so much, but sometimes Christ just says to me, “Mind your own business. I’ll take care of my part. Your part is simply to allow me to work through you in each and every situation that you’re in and trust that I’m doing it, without worrying all the time about the results.”

JMF: Isn’t that what we often do with the idea of making disciples? We get the idea that it’s our job to go out and make disciples. We make the congregation feel guilt-ridden if we can, that they haven’t done enough to go out and make disciples, so we turn that into a fresh kind of work that is on our shoulders – now that we’ve been forgiven, we have the obligation and responsibility to go out and make disciples. There’s a lot of guilt associated with that.

EC: For all the pastors out there, my question for them is, how is that working for you?

JMF: Yeah, how’s it going? But it seems like at the end of every week, we’ve got a brand new plan, a brand new program, a brand new set of steps, a brand new set of sermons to make it happen.

EC: We Methodists, we’re even going to take it one step further. We don’t simply do our obedience. We’re shrinking so dramatically – we’ve lost 60,000 members a year on average since 1968, when we became the United Methodist Church. We’ve shrunk so dramatically that now we’re encouraging people to do evangelism and to reach out because of survival. We’re concerned that unless we do that, we’re not going to have enough people to pay the bills.

If you want to turn people off, just have a congregation that’s in survival mode. People come in the door and they smell it. You can’t hide it. When you’re in ministry out of fear or out of guilt [JMF: Or desperation.], it just doesn’t work. That’s why many of the programs that we try don’t work. It isn’t that the programs are bad in themselves, it’s that we’re doing them out of desperation, or we’re doing them out of guilt, because we know we need to do something …

JMF: Or to pay the bills.

EC: …or to pay the bills, whatever it is. All those motives betray the gospel at the core. When I get sent by the bishop and cabinet to small, struggling congregations, I know that until I get them out of that mindset, where ministry and mission is what they do “because they have to,” it’s their responsibility, they’re doing it out of guilt…

JMF: Or “should.”

EC: Or they’re doing it out of desperation, because if they don’t, they’ll die. Until I get them out of that mindset, no matter what program we use, it will not work. So the first thing I have to get them convinced of is that even if there’s only a handful of people, elderly people (it’s a dying congregation in a dying farming community, which is where I get appointed to a lot around Dubuque), they are a little missionary outpost. They are the people of God who have been claimed by Christ, entrusted with the treasure of the gospel, and simply are called on to let Christ do his work in and through them, as inadequate as they seem to the task. This is where the Gospels so helpfully illuminate for us the pattern of ministry that we ought to have.

There’s that wonderful story of Jesus feeding the 5000, plus the women and the children. Jesus has taught them all day, the kids are getting restless, the disciples come and say, “Send the people away so they can get something to eat.”

John’s Gospel says, “Jesus said, ‘you give them something eat.’” Jesus already had in mind what he was going to do. The disciples say, “It’s utterly impossible. You can’t feed all these people with what we’ve got.”

The only person in that story that seems to have a clue about this is the little boy who has the five barley loaves and the two small fish. He’s not stupid. He knows that they can’t feed 5000 men plus the women and the children. But he knows something about who Jesus is, and so he takes the little that he has and he trusts it into the hand of Jesus and trusts that Jesus will do the rest. And Jesus does an astonishing miracle.

When we think about ministry – a struggling congregation with a handful of people – many of us who are pastors, we realize we’re not the most effective pastors in the world, what could Christ ever do through us? We’re a lot like those five barley loaves and two small fish. There’s no way that we have the human resources and the ability to fulfill what Christ asked us to do. It’s not difficult, it’s impossible in ministry, too. So we lay it in the hands of Jesus, and we let him take us, and break us, and use us, and he does what’s absolutely impossible. The same is true with ministry.

My word to all those pastors listening today, those persons in congregations who are maybe struggling: Focus your eyes on the one who has touched your life. Realize that he is the one who is sufficient to the task of ministry, and you’re just barley loaves and fish, and place yourself in Christ’s hands, and whatever program you use, you’ll be a lot further ahead than if you think the responsibility primarily falls upon you.

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Last modified: Sunday, March 28, 2021, 9:22 PM