One of the most tedious and mysterious questions you will ever ponder is the tension between God’s role in our lives and our responsibility to respond to Him. Ultimately, the problem is unanswerable in a satisfying way. But an unresolvable conundrum does not mean we should refrain from thinking about such lofty topics. One of our supporters wanted to know how to help a person if repentance is a gift that needs God’s preemptive interaction first.
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What Is My Role?
I have been counseling an unrepentant person for the past six months. My question is, how do you balance his lack of repentance with my call to help him to change? Since God grants repentance, according to 2 Timothy 2:24-26, is this person a victim—someone who can’t do anything until God moves him to change?
Of course, I don’t believe that, but I’m wondering what role we both play in the process of change as we “wait” on the Lord to do the work in his heart. Should I be patient with him and not expect too much until repentance happens, which is the victim mentality?
Repentance Is a Gift
This question is an intelligent one and has many different layers. If you’re not familiar with the text that our supporter referenced, it will serve you well to study what Paul told Timothy. Every discipler needs to know how to apply this verse to those within their care practically. These verses are not the “end-all” in this discussion, but it must be part of how you think about it.
And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will. (2 Timothy 2:24-26).
These verses and the question at hand remind me of the chicken and the egg: which came first? If I repent, did God grant it to me before my humble action? Or does my initiation cause the Lord to give me the gift of repentance? Do I move the Lord into action, as though I’m the primary causal agent in my repentance? Or does He do a pre-work in my heart before I respond to Him?
God Made You Alive
Let me answer the question first, and then we can work through this mysterious puzzle (Deuteronomy 29:29). If an individual repents of their sin, it is God who did the “pre-work” in their heart to bring them to the place of repentance. Whether you’re talking about salvation or sanctification, the Lord was “on the scene” before you were, drawing you to a place of confession and forgiveness.
But God’s leading role in the story arc does not mean you’re an unimportant actor with no responsibility in the process. Repentance is a cooperative effort, but the first point for you to nail down is, who begins the process of change? (You could add, who gets the glory for it?) Did you believe first, and then God made you alive? Or did God bring you to the place of repentance so you could trust Him? Reflect on how Paul answered this question.
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (Ephesians 2:1-5).
It could not have been both of you initiating an action at the same time. As you see in the Ephesian passage, God is the initiator. You perceive this truth acted out in real life with the story of Lazarus (John 11:43). Jesus called the dead man from the grave, and he responded to the call from Christ. Whether spiritually dead (Ephesians) or physically dead (John), someone has to act on you to make you alive.
Am I Passive?
If you bury yourself in the theological weeds of this tension, you will get lost and may conclude that the unrepentant person is a total victim because he cannot do anything until God acts on him. But Scriptures teach a different story. Every person has a “cooperating responsibility” in the repentance process. We are not hapless victims with no responsibility for the decisions that we make.
Common sense tells you that an “irresponsible victimhood” posture cannot be accurate. Though Adam did try to play the “I am not responsible” victim card, it was morally wrong for him to do so (Genesis 3:12). He made a deliberate choice to sin when his wife offered him the forbidden fruit. He was not a robot, incapable of making moral choices. And though you are a “victim” in at least three ways, you also must make the right choices regardless of your circumstances or the actions from others.
- Adam’s Fall – The condition of your soul is “total depravity,” which means there is nothing about you that is pure.
- Others’ Sin – Living in fallen environments bends and shapes you negatively. You have no option but to live with fallen individuals.
- Your Choices – You have and continue to make sinful choices that adversely affect you.
The Complex Tension
Rather than getting hung-up over the word, victim or passivity, it would be more productive to think about personal responsibility. I’ll use an illustration from my life to demonstrate how to define the complexity of victimization and the need for the right response, though you could easily insert stories from your experience here to make a similar point.
My father was an alcoholic. He drank himself to death by the time he was forty-two. I was nineteen-years-old when the paramedics came to our home to haul his lifeless body to the morgue. I felt little sadness as I stared at the sheet that covered his body as they rolled him out the back door. His physical and verbal abuse was relentless.
Mercifully, my heavenly Father replaced what my dad did to me with the gospel. My heart found grace and peace, where turmoil used to churn daily. I was a victim of my daddy’s brutalities. But I was a responsible and free moral agent who had the opportunity to choose how I would respond to him.
Now, let’s turnover the “shaping influence coin” and look at the positive side of other people’s actions? You have a similar obligation: to respond the right way. Regardless of what others do, positively or negatively, you cannot be a passive actor.
From a discipler’s perspective, you want to be one of those positive influences, which is part of your question. Your friend cannot be passive and neither should you. There should be three active agents working in your possible repentance context.
- The Spirit of God is the one who initiates and brings change if repentance is going to happen.
- The discipler is the one God uses as His “agent” to bring His Word to bear in a person’s life.
- The one who is receiving God’s care through you must choose if he is going to respond to God.
The discipler’s job is to be a positive shaping influence—unlike my father—on the person that he is leading to God. The discipler does this by yielding himself to the Spirit of God and His Word. Every believer wants to be a portal for God’s mercy to work through as the Lord penetrates the heart of the individual who needs to change.
Don’t Commit Treason
It would be easy to get caught inside the “chicken and the egg” trap: do I do something, or do I wait on the Lord to act? There is a mystery there, no doubt, and nobody will solve this problem adequately. But what you do know is that there are three actors, and they must work together.
- God is the primary cause that grants repentance.
- You have a responsibility to share God’s Word.
- The hearer is responsible for how he responds to the Word.
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:17-19).
How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent (Romans 10:14-15)?
Not to step up to the responsibility of soul care is to miss the point of the gospel. Not to bring God’s Word to bear on a person who needs to hear it is high treason. It is one of the most unloving things a Christian could ever do. If we don’t bring God’s loving care to others, we are betraying the death of Christ on the cross, who died for the very purpose of changing lives. God enlists you and me in that process of change. We are ministers of reconciliation (Matthew 28:19-20).
It’s a Cooperative Effort
You must view the way God grants repentance through a multi-perspectival lens. It’s the discipler, disciple (or unregenerate), and the Lord: it’s all three, which is the recipe for repentance. I can’t tell you all the intricacies of this mystery, but I do know we all have a cooperative role, and your job is to be faithful in sharing God’s Word with others.
Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ (Galatians 6:1-2).
If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses (Matthew 18:15-16).
It’s when I attempt to stretch the three actors out and sequence them in a way that I can understand it that my mind explodes. What I do know is that God is the primary cause, and I’m the secondary one. He does His job, I have to do mine, and I trust the Lord will grant repentance to the person I’m serving.
Call to Action
- When you sequence the repentance process, which comes first? Does God act and the person repents, or does the person initiate repentance, and then the Lord moves on them?
- Do you see yourself as an active agent in evangelism and discipleship? What does that look in with your closest relationships? What about in your church and community?
- In what specific ways do you struggle with what you’ve read? Will you talk to us about those issues?
- Read my book, Change Me, which is one of the best for helping folks break habits, mature in Christ, and build relationally with each other.
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