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Friday, August 04, 2006

The Call to Repentance Before I begin, I would like to wish you all a happy weekend. I will try to post more in Todd's absence, but won't have a chance to do so until Monday. ... In his current "Life in Christ" column, the Orthodox priest John Breck continues to discuss "divine wrath." He had previously asserted that God does not punish us, and now wishes to answer the question that inevitably comes next: How, then, are we to understand the biblical images of judgment and condemnation that occur in Jesus’ parables and other teaching? Incidentally, the two quotations in his last paragraph are from St Isaiah the Solitary and St John of Karpathos and can be found in the Philokalia. Here is Fr Breck: The biblical terms ilasmos and ilasterion should be translated “expiation” rather than “propitiation” (as for example, in 1 Jn 2:2; 4:10; Rom 3:25). They signify the work of “atonement” in the sense of reparation for sin by means of God’s self-offering in Christ. It is that divine initiative, that self-offering by God Himself, which elicits from us faith manifested as repentance and good deeds. The work of atonement – achieving redemption and reconciliation between ourselves and God – is wholly God’s: it is not our offering to the Father, but his gracious offering to us. In His boundless mercy and love, “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself” (2 Cor 5:19). Our response to divine judgment, in other words, is not to offer propitiation: some payment we make or punishment we suffer in order to purchase forgiveness and salvation. Our response, rather, is to turn, to change direction, in an inner movement – inspired and directed by the indwelling Spirit of God – that leads us from “works of the flesh” to “gifts of the Spirit” (Gal 5:16-25), from sin and death to repentance and faith (which are two sides of the same coin). What then of “divine wrath”? Although the ancient Israelites believed in a God who became angry and vengeful, as well as forgiving and merciful, Jesus and the apostolic writers present God as preeminently the God of love. To St Paul’s mind, in any case, divine wrath is always directed toward non-believers, those who have heard the gospel message and have rejected it. For the apostle, “divine wrath” is a metaphorical expression (an “anthropomorphism”) that describes God’s way of responding to unrepentant sinners: by allowing them “to stew in their own juice.” Like the notion of punishment, divine wrath is to be understood not as God’s direct action against us, but as an expression of His silence, His apparent absence in the life and experience of those who reject Him. While we are in this state in which He has seemingly abandoned us, God allows us to suffer the consequences of our sinful actions, including our refusal to repent. It is not God who punishes and condemns us; we do it to ourselves (God “gives us up” to the consequences of the sin for which we are wholly responsible, Rom 1:24f). As One whose very nature is Love, God desires that all come to repentance, in order that we may enjoy the free, unmerited gift of eternal life and eternal joy. The way to that life and that joy, once again, is repentance: a change of “mind” (meta- noia) a conversion and radical reorientation of our life from slavery in sin to freedom in the Spirit. The great spiritual elders of the Church can certainly speak of “the great anger of God the Judge," and of the spiritual benefits that accrue from “fear of punishment” for our sins. We need to take these indications very seriously, for God does manifest Himself as “angered” by our rebellion; and as St Symeon declares, “Fear of punishment hereafter and the suffering it engenders are beneficial to all who are starting out on the spiritual way." The image of divine anger, and the summons to “fear punishment,” however, serve a single purpose: to call us to repentance. As the Fathers also insist, “When a man abandons his sins and returns to God, his repentance regenerates him and renews him entirely.” This renewal restores in us the very image of God: not because we have “become perfect,” but because, by humbly confessing our sins and turning from them – again and again throughout this life, and only by the grace and mercy of the God who loves us beyond all we can hope or expect – we “regain our true splendor, just as the moon after the period of waning clothes itself once more in its full light.”

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