So there’s this one small detail we’ve been leaving out. The good news of Jesus Christ comes as the free gift of grace, and that sounds exactly like this: “Repent, and believe in the Gospel” (Mk. 1:15). We’re quite happy to talk about the swinging door of the Gospel, but how is it that we so often avoid mentioning the threshold of the Gospel?
Since grace is free, it is assumed, we mustn’t associate our faith with any costs, any requirements, anything on our end that might be expected of us and so nullify grace as grace. But the fact is: grace is free only because we cannot afford it. Its value is, in fact, infinite, because it is based on the immeasurable worth of Jesus Christ, and him crucified. It’s true, God isn’t looking for us to give him any-thing. He’s looking for us to give ourselves.
Grace is spilt blood, not melted ice cream. We should acknowledge, then, that while there is nothing of worth we can offer in exchange for the grace of God it is only so because God is not looking for us to barter with him with little pieces of our lives and pocketbooks. That’s no different than the old bartering system of sacrifices and burnt offerings, the one Zechariah was employed by. But the stakes were being raised from sacrificial lambs on the altar to the sacrificial Lamb on the cross. Herein lies the heart of the Gospel. The Gospel reveals that God doesn’t want our “goods and services”—as though God were in need of anything at all, as though everything weren’t already his (Ps. 24!)—but rather he wants all of us, and so he gives us all of himself.
God has removed the barter system altogether. He wants to remove the distance that that economy creates. He wants us for us because he loves us—like a father but more than father—and only when we are awakened to that basic truth will we be bold enough to unfetter our desires to want him back. We want nothing less than all of God. That is why desire is always stronger than satisfaction (Rolheiser), why the end of every pursuit reveals only a new beginning. All symphonies remain unfinished (Nouwen). Life is more like jazz than Brethoven’s 9th. This is why the sober heart prays along with A.W. Tozer, when he said, “I want the whole presence of God Himself, or I don’t want anything at all to do with religion… I want all that God is or I don’t want anything at all.”
That’s just a soul daring to tell the truth. But when it comes to loving God, we are our own worst enemies, because we continue to try to barter with God. We do “this and that” for God hoping to appease him. We tithe little pieces of our lives as though God were in need of our support. And in so doing, we find ourselves constantly negotiating with our conscience over what is “enough” for God, being tossed about between our own unrighteousness and self-righteousness, wondering why we never feel wholly at peace with God, with one another, and with the mirror. The reason is simply this: nothing is enough.
But Christ is enough!
So what does this have to do with repentance? With Zechariah?
Repentance does not mean “do something differently,” or even the popular definition, “turn around.” It means, quite simply, “change your mind.” Zechariah was going to have to repent, because his whole priestly bartering system was about to be rendered obsolete. Christ was giving us all of himself. All altars would be closed for business. This Lamb would need no assistance, nor assistants.
So think about what we’re doing when we cheapen the idea of repentance, minimizing the cost of discipleship, making it out as if people can nickel and dime their way to God because, well, grace is “free.” What we are doing is inviting people back into the barter system and denying them the truly free grace of God, the only grace that brings true freedom: spilt blood, not melted ice cream. As Bonhoeffer, “When Christ calls a man he bids him come and die.” Therein lies resurrection freedom.
But it’s not even Christmas yet, so we shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves. For now, we need to think about changing our minds. How can the Church rediscover the language of repentance, calling people to “Repent, and believe the Gospel”? Because as long as the Gospel doesn’t require repentance, as long as it is something we can fit into our budget, the good news just isn’t good enough. And in that case, we need to stop selling ourselves short, and selling others short, and reclaim the cost of discipleship: it will cost you not a penny less than the life of God.