Sometimes, true repentance has to include “restitution.” This means putting things right with other people, whom we may have injured. All our sins wound God, and nothing we do can heal the wound. Only the atoning death of our Saviour, Jesus Christ, can do this. But when our sins have damaged other people, we can sometimes help to repair the damage, and where we can, we must. Zacchaeus, the dishonest tax-collector, more than repaid the money he had stolen from his clients and promised to give away half his capital to the poor to compensate (no doubt) for thefts he could not make good. We must follow his example. There may be money or time for us to pay back, rumours to be contradicted, property to return, apologies to be made, or broken relationships to be mended.
We must not be excessively over-scrupulous in this matter, however. It would be foolish to rummage through past years and make an issue of insignificant words or deeds long ago forgotten by the offended person. Nevertheless, we must be realistic about this duty. I have known a student rightly confess to the university authorities that she had cheated in an exam, and another return textbooks which he had lifted from a shop. An army officer sent to the War Department a list of items he had “scrounged.” If we really repent, we shall want to do everything in our power to redress the past. We cannot continue to enjoy the fruits of the sins we want to be forgiven.
Second, there must be a renunciation of self. In order to follow Christ we must not only forsake isolated sins, but renounce the very principle of self-will which lies at the root of every act of sin. To follow Christ is to surrender to him the rights over our own lives. It is to abdicate the throne of our heart and do homage to him as our King. This renunciation of self is vividly described by Jesus in three phrases.
It is to deny ourselves: “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself.” The same verb is used of Peter’s denial of the Lord in the courtyard of the high priest’s palace. We are to disown ourselves as completely as Peter disowned Christ when he said “I do not know the man.” Self-denial is not just giving up sweets and cigarettes, either for good or for a period of voluntary abstinence. For it is not to deny things to myself, but to deny myself to myself. It is to say no to self, and yes to Christ; to repudiate self and acknowledge Christ.
The next phrase Jesus used is to take up the cross: “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” If we had lived in Palestine and seen a man carrying his cross, we should at once have recognized him as a convicted prisoner being led out to pay the supreme penalty. For Palestine was an occupied country, and this is what the Romans compelled their convicted criminals to do. So, writes Professor H.B. Swete in his commentary on Mark’s Gospel, to take up the cross is “to put oneself into the position of a condemned man on his way to execution.” In other words, the attitude to self which we are to adopt is that of crucifixion. Paul uses the same metaphor when he declares that “those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh (i.e. their fallen nature) with its passions and desires.”
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