So it comes as great disappointment to those in the Church when Christians do not behave better or differently just as it comes to the great joy of those outside that the Christians, despite their repentance, are mere hypocrites. Behavior has become the object of repentance just like it was the object of the Law. It is as if the Gospel were merely an attempt to accomplish what the law did not -- an external and outward change in the person.
But the truth is that the Gospel is not about behaving better by people who have behaved badly. It is not that small. It makes repentance trivial and it makes God's purpose and will trivial. It makes us small and its makes our God small. If God were merely concerned about us behaving, the law was more than enough to accomplish this transformation. Nothing accomplishes a change in behavior faster or better than fear of punishment. If this were all God intended, He had ample means in the form of the law and with the power to punish the ill-behaved. Jesus began His ministry with the call to change the mind, the call to repent. We miss this. English does not acknowledge that repentance is more than a change in behavior or that the change in behavior flows from the thinking differently about God, about us, and about life itself. Jesus opens His ministry by saying “Repent and believe the Good News” (cf. Mark 1:15; Matt 3:2). The reform or change of which He speaks is not the reform of the external of our lives. This is not simply about doing good, not doing evil, ceasing sin. This connotates a change in thinking that informs this behavior. It is the will that Jesus is after -- not behavior and not niceness.
Unfortunately, too much of our attention inside and outside the Church has been on behavior. But holiness is not doing the wrong things and doing the right things. It is a heart made pure so that the thinking of the mind is also transformed. From these flow the outward changes that preoccupy us. Although the most common meaning of “to repent” is to reform one’s behavior, to do good and avoid evil, to stop sinning, the Greek word behind it means something much more, much deeper. Μετανοείτε (metanoeite) literally means “to come to a new mind or way of thinking.” It comes from meta -- a word rather to translate into English but most often change -- and nous or noieo (meaning mind or thought). Put them together and metanoeite means to think differently, to come to a new mind. The call to repentance is then the call to think differently and to come to a new mind, aided and empowered by the Holy Spirit and, indeed, impossible without the ministry of the Spirit.
Jesus is not your mother telling you it is time to clean up your room because company is coming. Jesus is not some taskmaster forcing us to labor against our will for a cause not our own. Christ changes us by changing our hearts, changing our desires, changing what we value, changing what we love, and changing the behavior as a result of this transformation of heart, mind, and will. He does this not through a new law or command but by drowning the old person in baptismal water and raising us up as His new creation. Romans is the locus of much of this. From the hand of St. Paul we hear:
18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world,[g] in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.
24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.
26 For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; 27 and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.
28 And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. 29 They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, 31 foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32 Though they know God's righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them. Rom. 1:18ff
This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time, declares the Lord. I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people (Heb 8:10). Echoing Jeremiah, the writer to the Hebrews speaks of so much more than behavior but of God's Word and will written upon the minds and hearts of God's people.
The legalism of Rome and the practical gospel of Evangelicalism both fall short of the fullness of Christ's intention and His gift. What was promised is not a new law or command but new ears to hear the voice of God and new minds to understand His revelation and new hearts to desire what it is that He offers. Only in this context is repentance about behavior. Perhaps we need to learn how to preach this as much as seem adept at preaching the law. So if you are thinking that God is interested in New Year's resolutions, think again.