How You Can Hijack Repentance

by Thabiti Anyabwile

I’d like to list a few ways the biblical idea of repentance can indeed be “hijacked” or stolen.

Unhitch Method

One way to hijack something would be to unhitch the word from the meaning the way a hijacker might disconnect the cab of an 18-wheeler from the cargo carrying trailer behind. In this approach, “repentance” gets disconnected from the fruit of repentance. Think Matthew 3:8 and Acts 26:20. Genuine repentance produces fruit, new behaviors that match the turning toward God that is true repentance.

Without such works of repentance we have reason to doubt that someone has changed their minds and direction toward a new way. The deeds are unhitched from the claim.

Diversion Method

Diverting a driver from their path is another way something may be hijacked. The unsuspecting driver motors along their chosen route when a band of robbers force them from the road, perhaps to a side street, and into a waiting ambush where the entire vehicle may be stolen.

It happens with repentance too. People show up to bewitch the “repenter” and lead them into sin’s trap. Think Galatians 3:1; 5:7-9 and the arrogant acceptance of immorality in 1 Corinthians 5:1-2. The man in Corinth likely claimed to be repentant; he was certainly part of the church there. The Galatians were seduced from the gospel itself–not only was repentance hijacked but the entire faith.

Heist Method

By now you can tell I watch too many Fast & Furious movies and enjoy a good whodunit too much. With a heist you simply empty the vault or the container of its valuables while leaving the vault or container intact. You dangle from suspension wires, avoiding motion sensors to gently remove the crown jewel from its perch in the museum. Then you quietly retrace your stealthy steps to flee the property.

Think the false brethren in Jude’s day who “crept in unnoticed” to turn grace of our Lord into license or sensuality (Jude 4). They stole grace and along with it repentance right from the church’s pedestal while no one noticed.

Switch Method

With this method a would-be hijacker not only performs a heist but also leaves behind a worthless replica in place of the original. The goal is to make it look like the real jewel continues to be in place and there’s no reason for alarm.

Sometimes repentance gets switched with a counterfeit. Think 2 Corinthians 7:10 where godly sorrow that leads to repentance gets replaced with worldly sorrow that produces death. Of course 2 Corinthians teaches us that genuine repentance has its roots not merely in behavior or intellectual change, but in the affections or emotions. Repentance arises from seeing God in his holiness, seeing our sin as a personal affront to him, and really grieving the grievousness of sin such that we change in the power of the Holy Spirit. “Repentance” gets hijacked when people produce sugary substitutes and we settle for it.

Extortion Method

Okay, last one. Perhaps this is what “Chocolate Knox” had in mind. I’m not sure. But extortioners steal one thing by holding you hostage to another. They perhaps bilk small business owners for “protection money” by holding a serious threat over the business owners’ heads. It’s coercion not repentance. It’s lording it over the faith of others (Matt. 20:25) rather than demonstrating that kindness that’s meant to lead to repentance.

The apostles did not practice such tactics but worked together with the saints for their joy. Think 2 Corinthians 1:24. Or think 1 Thessalonians 2:6-7 where the apostles refused to make demands of the churches but were gentle like parents.

These are all ways I suppose someone could “hijack repentance.” Of course, “Chocolate Knox” asserted that a hijacking of repentance occurred at the MLK50 Conference by conference speakers. In context, I think he was referring to the notion that anything might be required of white brethren in Christ before reconciliation could occur with black brethren in Christ. He seemed to suggest that the addition of those requirements nullified the reconciliation we have in Christ and the repentance that brought us to faith in Christ. I hope I have not misunderstood him. If so, I’m sure he’ll correct me.

But if I have understood his response, then I would offer a couple of quick thoughts. There are many ways repentance can be hijacked. But before we can recognize those methods we first have to be clear on repentance itself.

First, as can be seen by many texts of Scripture, repentance toward God requires subsequent repentance toward any we have wronged. We don’t get to say, “I’m repentant and have placed my faith in Christ” and thereby absolve ourselves of any responsibility for any needed repentance in relationships with neighbor. Zacchaeus demonstrates that point marvelously. He proves his repentance toward God by returning fourfold anything he’s taken unrighteously from others (Luke 19:8). He was, of course, repenting in precisely the way the law required in such cases. These were his “deeds in keeping with repentance.” So “hijacking repentance” would mean defining repentance in such that repentance leaves off restitution for wrongs. I can’t speak for the MLK50 speakers (I’ve only heard two talks), but if they called for restitution for wrongs then they were not the hijackers. Those who unhitched such deeds from claims of repentance are the hijackers.

Second, some people seem to be making a category mistake in the discussion of repentance. Some (I don’t lay this accusation at “Chocolate Knox’s” feet) seem to be suggesting that the position of reconciliation we have in Christ somehow dissolves the practice of reconciliation in Christ. The claim seems to run along these lines: “Since we have been reconciled in Christ (Eph. 2, for example) then there are no longer any problems requiring reconciliation and not even any distinctions between people groups in the body of Christ. So, calls for repentance of racism and the like essentially rebuild the dividing wall of hostility.”

That’s a pretty significant category mistake. It is true that we are positionally reconciled in Christ, joined together in a spiritual union in him. It is true that the law and commandments that formed a dividing wall and produced hostility in sinful men have been torn down. Praise God. But those spiritual and positional truths have to be worked out in relational and practical ways. That’s why the apostles held the Jerusalem Counsel in Acts 15, why Paul rebuked Peter to his face for the ethnic favoritism that had him out of step with the gospel in Galatians, and why we get so much instruction about reconciling and reconciliation itself in the pages of the New Testament. The practice must follow the position, otherwise we’re not living out what has been achieved for us in Christ. Insisting on the practice (in this case repentance and relational reconciliation where necessary) is not hijacking repentance but proving it. Those who conflate positional and practical categories attempt a heist or a switch we should avoid.

Finally, it’s important to note that the citation of both tragedy and kindness are meant to lead us to repentance. The Lord Jesus called his disciples to repent at the tragic news of a collapsing tower and a madman murdering worshipers (Luke 13). Though they had nothing to do with those events, the lesson was made painfully clear: Unless you repent, the same could befall you. The apostle Paul tells us that the goodness of the Lord is meant to lead to repentance (Rom. 2:4). There’s a sense in which all our observations between the tragic and the beautifully good are designed by God to turn us back to him.

Some think that pointing to the sins of other generations and calling this generation to suspect problems of their own amounts to hijacking repentance. But it’s not. Naming sins and calling onlookers to tragedy to repent is entirely consistent with biblical strategy. In the face of tragedy or goodness, we’re not supposed to “keep calm and carry on,” getting to the next thing on the agenda. The announcement of the tragedy should excite us to turn to God. So should reminders of this country’s sinful past. That’s not hijacking repentance.

Anyway, thanks to “Chocolate Knox” for the phrase. Now that I have cited you, the next time I use it I will preface it with “As I always say . . .”! Used by permission.



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