I’m often confronted by a stark contrast between what the Bible says about repentance and faith and the way many in the church portray it. It’s not my goal to explain how we got to this place, but I suspect a large part of the problem arose out of what was a serious and faithful desire for evangelism. Much of the evangelistic strategy of the past fifty years has focused on things like the Romans’ Road and the Four Spiritual Laws, both of which have a tendency to lead to the Sinner’s Prayer. Again, the Sinner’s Prayer in itself is not wrong, but this prayer and pressuring for decisions has a tendency to place too much stress on that prayer and too little on true repentance.
But what is true repentance? Many define repentance as a complete 180, a change of direction away from sin and movement towards Christ. It is a complete change of the way we live—formerly for ourselves as we pursued the things of this world, now for God and others as we pursue the kingdom to come. But we have used the term repentance and set forth this definition of it so often that I worry that many have stopped listening. We need a vision of biblical repentance that awakens us to the reality of true repentance. One such beautiful (and biblical) picture of repentance comes in the story of Eustace in C. S. Lewis’s novel, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.
Our first introduction to Eustace comes in the opening lines of this book, and these words are one of my favorite opening lines in all literature—“There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” Lewis immediately gives us the perception the Eustace is not a boy we would like to know, and his behavior in the next few chapters bears this out. Eventually, Eustace’s greed leads to him becoming a dragon. But while he is a dragon, things begin to change. Reepicheep, though mistreated repeatedly by Eustace early in the novel, becomes his constant companion. Eustace begins to soften until he finally meets Aslan. And it is in this encounter with Aslan where we see most vividly and beautifully the true nature of biblical repentance.
When Eustace the dragon first meets Aslan, he says he was “terribly afraid.” Aslan then tells Eustace to follow him and undress. Though Eustace is able to shed the outer skin a few times, he fails to make any noticeable difference. Aslan then says, “You will have to let me undress you.” Eustace then recalls, “The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off.” After removing the skin, Aslan tosses Eustace into the water, and it is during this time that Eustace realizes he has become a boy again. He exits the pool and then Aslan dresses him in new clothes.
Not only is this story a beautiful depiction of Eustace’s change, but it parallels closely what the Scriptures teach about the nature of repentance. We, like Eustace, are sinners when Jesus calls us to follow. We don’t clean up our act first and make ourselves agreeable in God’s eyes; instead, he calls sinners to follow. Then, we are called to cast off the old self, but this is a work that we cannot do on our own, no matter how hard we try. The enslaving power of sin clings to us as the dragon skin did to Eustace. What we need is the power of Christ to remove our sin from us completely, not just on the surface. But like Eustace, this process often hurts. It digs into our heart and opens wounds that reside in the very core of our being. But this pain is bearable because of the pleasure that accompanies the freedom from this sin. Then we, like Eustace, obediently enter the waters of baptism, and these waters bring comfort and a recognition of our new identity. Upon leaving the baptismal waters, we are raised to walk in newness of life, putting on the new self as new clothes that mark our new identity in Christ (cf. Col 3).
Feature Image: Public Domain, accessed at https://pixabay.com/en/dragon-dragoon-black-no-background-2802000/.