New York City is filled with people who were raised and baptised in various churches but who abandoned their faith in their teens and college and have not thought much about it for years. Then something brings them up short and they find themselves in spiritual search mode. They work through the basics of the Christian faith and it seems to them they had never really understood it before. Their question to me as a pastor is “I don’t really know if I am a Christian or not. Am I returning to my faith or finding it for the first time?” The answer is simple - I can’t tell, and it doesn’t matter. If you want to either connect to God or reconnect to God, you have to do the same two things. What are those two things?
The first thing you have to do is repent. That’s not a very elegant sounding word but there is no getting around it. The repentance that begins a new relationship with God is not primarily a matter of drawing up lists of specific sins you are sorry for and want to change. Don’t get me wrong: If you are gouging the poor or cheating on your spouse, and you want to put your faith in Christ, then by all means stop doing those things. A Christian should love the poor and be faithful to his or her marriage vows. But those behavioural changes alone will not make you a Christian. Lots of people in the world are socially and personally ethical but do not have a relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Repentance is not less than being sorry for individual sins, but it means much more.
The repentance that really changes your heart and your relationship with God begins when you recognise that your main sin, the sin under the rest of your sins, is your self-salvation project. ... in both our bad deeds and in our good deeds we are seeking to be our own Saviours and Lords. We have alternative trusts and “gods,” even though we do not call them that. We try to prove ourselves by our moral goodness or through achievement or family or career. Even diligent involvement in church and religion may need to be repented of once we understand that it was all a way to put God and others in our debt.
Repentance, then, is confessing the things besides God himself that you have been relying on for your hope, significance, and security. That means we should repent not only for things we have done wrong (like cheating or lying), but also for the motivations beneath our good works.
from p232 - 233 The Reason For God by Timothy Keller
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