What Quakers Believe about… Repentance and Remission of Sins

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And that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. – Luke 24:47 (AV)

What Quakers believe about anything is, for better or for worse, conditioned by what they’ll allow themselves to believe. Those of little faith may believe some of what they read in the newspaper, some of the time, while those of great faith may be working major “signs and wonders” to the glory of God. One thing Friends tend to agree on, though, is that we ought to speak from personal experience, and be able to answer affirmatively to the query, “Is it inwardly from God?” If it’s simply an opinion – early Friend George Fox wrote, “We own not opinions.” What follows, I believe, is inwardly from God.

According to the author of the Gospel of Luke, Jesus left his followers with a commission to preach, that is, to announce the availability of, a changed state of mind (metanoia or “repentance”) that would allow one to know oneself to be sinless: in other words, that one’s previously acknowledged sins had been dismissed, forgiven, and declared null and void. The original Greek reads metanoia eis aphesin hamartiōn, literally “repentance into remission of sins, so we know that Jesus didn’t intend us to think that “repentance” and “remission of sins” were two separate and independent gifts, but one thing that led directly into the other.

And yes, they are gifts: repentance isn’t something we can achieve by ourselves, any more than we can lift ourselves by our own bootstraps. As the first generation of Christians recognized (Acts 11:18), it comes to us as a gift from outside ourselves, or not at all. Otherwise there’d be a huge industry peddling repentance like a drug, and how-to-forgive-yourself books would be on every combat veteran’s Kindle. Churches would be fitness centers of the soul, where moms and dads would put in a half hour on the treadmill after work to sweat out the day’s lies, white-collar crimes and adulterous fantasies, then go home to the kids fresh as a daisy. Of course there are preachers who’ll exhort you to repent as if you could do it at will: but I, who had to “repent” of smoking seven times before I could stay quit, can tell them otherwise: it was granted me to quit smoking.

How would we know that we ourselves, or another person, are in a genuine state of repentance and not in a mere mood or delusion? For there are people that do dreadful things without feeling the least bit sinful about them; we call them psychopaths. But “by their fruits you shall know them” (Matthew 7:16-20). Jesus, in Luke 7:36-50, shows us the signs of a person who knows she’s been forgiven all her sins – she’s exuberant, loving, and generous, even to the point of letting herself look a little foolish: she weeps in public, she kisses Jesus’ feet. It’s a kind of behavior not easily counterfeited.

Moreover, repentant people who’ve experienced remission of sins should be able to describe how they know their sins were remitted. Since George Fox’s day, Quakers have been in the habit of asking claimants to religious truth, “What canst thou say?” I could answer you, for example, that I was sitting in meeting one day, obsessively berating myself for some past foolishness, when I heard an authoritative Voice in my mind say, “That sin is forgiven: put it away!” During another Quaker meeting I heard that Voice say “I will not let you fall into sin.” And there were other experiences, so that today I feel still temptable, but powerfully protected, and discouraged from worrying. But ask for your own convincing experience!

Luke records that remission of sins is to be preached in Jesus’ name, and it’s a fact that among North American Quakers today, some preach in Jesus’ name and some do not. Some might argue that, before Jesus’ time, the Buddha also taught a way to sinlessness that erases the karma and vāsanās of sin: of whether this way works I confess my ignorance, not having followed that path. I preach repentance and remission of sins in Jesus’ name for these reasons:

1. I’ve felt myself given “a mouth, and wisdom” (Luke 21:15) to do so by the Lord Jesus Himself, who has made me a member of Christ. In this work “I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me” (Galatians 2:20). This is a condition available to everyone, though it requires a kind of voluntary dying to one’s old ways.

2. Only in the ministry of Jesus, for the first time in known history, do we find an instruction to forgive everyone everything, modeled perfectly for us by the Teacher’s own behavior, coupled with a declaration that God our Creator is of the same all-forgiving spirit. It is extremely important for men and women to know this about God. But to know this about God, we must practice that all-forgiving spirit ourselves, and ask God’s help with it.

One thing Quakers are rightly known for is their truthfulness, and I would be less than truthful if I claimed or even implied that what I’ve written here is typical of contemporary Quaker thought. But I do hope to help make it so.

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6 Responses to “What Quakers Believe about… Repentance and Remission of Sins”

  1. Marshall Massey Says:

    In my readings of early Friends, I have never noticed any of them claiming that remission of sins (release from the guilt or penalty of sins) follows directly from repentance alone. Repentance is important; they made no bones about that. But remission can only exist where salvation exists; there is no state in which sin is remitted but the person is still unsaved. And salvation comes through perfection, and perfection through thorough-going obedience to the Guide, and such obedience through a combination of *finding* the Guide (and thereafter accepting it and following it), *seeing* oneself as one truly is (and thereby repenting and opening up to being changed), *yielding oneself* to the crossing of one’s will, bearing fruits as the gospel commands, and of course, the grace or gifting that makes it all possible.

    • John Edminster Says:

      Thank thee, Marshall, for this! Thee’s sent me to the Quaker Bible Index (QBI) to look for references and allusions to Luke 24:47 in the writings of early Friends (at http://esr.earlham.edu/qbi/5syn/mat27-28.htm#luk24:47q, where I find the notation “(Luk 24:47) GF2: 321; GF4: 60; IP3: 214, 280; WPR 239; WPT 53.”) I think that two of the QBI’s citations are worth quoting from, because they make clear that remission of sins was no “cheap grace” to be acquired with a glib “I’m sorry.” One must, in Penington’s words, be ready to enter the fire and sit down in it.
      GF2:231 (which means page 231 of volume 2 of the 1990 New Foundation reprint of the 1831 Philadelphia/New York edition of George Fox’s _Works_) records Fox’s doings in and around Greater London in 1687, where in Sixth Month he wrote three short “papers,” the first of which cites a number of N.T. passages about repentance (including Luke 24:47), and concludes:
      “Here ye may see people must repent before they believe and are baptized, and before they receive the holy Ghost and the kingdom of God. They must repent of their vain life and conversation before they receive the gospel, and must be turned from darkness to the light of Christ, for the power of satan unto God, before they receive his holy spirit and his gospel of life and salvation. The Lord doth command all men every where to repent, and do works meet for repentance. They must show that their lives, conversations, and tongues are changed, and that they serve God with newness of life, with new tongues and new hearts.”
      IP3:214 refers to page 214 of the third volume (1996) of the Quaker Heritage Press edition of Isaac Penington’s _Works_. Here the reader is a dozen pages into Penington’s “The Holy Truth and People Defended,” a polemic written from Reading Jail in 1672. Penington’s anonymous detractor claims (on p. 213) that we may sit down in Christ “in a state of rest and reconciliation, heavenly and divine, before and without the consideration of any works of righteousness which we have wrought, &c.,” but Penington rebuts this as “directly contrary to scripture,” which teaches in various places “that persons do not sit down in eternal blessedness in Christ, before or without consideration of any works wrought by them.” Prior to this sitting down comes a state of discipleship, in which none can dwell and abide in Christ, “_but he that can dwell with devouring fire and everlasting burnings:_ for the pure word of life is a fire, and he that sits down in the heavenly place in him, must sit down in that fire.” Penington continues:
      “He [Penington’s detractor] saith, This state can never fall, nor be finally fallen from.
      “Ans. There is a way of coming to Christ, and there is a way of preservation in Christ. For there is a power that redeems; and men are preserved by that power in subjection to it. And so every one, _that thinketh he standeth, is to fear, and to take heed lest he fall;_ and not to boast and say, _I am in a state of justification, which is firm and cannot be moved;_ and it cannot fall, nor be finally fallen from. ‘For ye are kept by the power of God, through faith unto salvation.’ Keep to the power which preserves, ‘hold that fast which thou hast, let no man take thy crown.’ Keep the faith, make not shipwreck of it, and of a good conscience. Oh that men knew the right doctrine and way of coming to Christ! which they cannot do, till they are taught of the Father, John 6:45, and the right doctrine and way of standing and abiding in him. For truly men’s professed coming to Christ, believing and standing at this day, is generally notional, outward, without; but not in the inward life and power itself, without which no man can come to him, nor stand nor abide in him.”

  2. micahbales Says:

    Great post, John.

  3. Steven Bhardwaj Says:

    Hi John,

    Re: “Only in the ministry of Jesus, for the first time in known history, do we find an instruction to forgive everyone everything, modeled perfectly for us by the Teacher’s own behavior, coupled with a declaration that God our Creator is of the same all-forgiving spirit.”

    -> The Jains also do a pretty good job of those three points too, and may have nosed ahead of Jesus by a few hundred years. Although, they tend to describe a more distributed ontology of god-in-souls (my assessment of “jiva”), rather than emphasizing the centralized agency of the god-self, if that’s important.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jainism
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Forgiveness#Jainism

    Cheers,
    Steven

  4. Steve Finnell Says:

    WHAT I DON’T BELIEVE BY STEVE FINNELL

    I believe every word of the Bible. I believe every verse of Scripture. I believe everything God says in His book.

    WHAT I DON’T BELIEVE IS WHAT THE BIBLE DOES NOT SAY.

    I believed Jesus when He said, in John 3:16, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.

    WHAT I DON’T BELIEVE, IS WHAT JESUS DID NOT SAY IN John 3:16.

    1. Jesus did not say, sprinkling water on infants, is Christian baptism.
    2. Jesus did not say water baptism precedes believing in Him.
    3. Jesus did not say, to baptize unbelieving babies or unbelieving adults and then teach them to have faith at a later date. ( If you can baptized non-believing babies, then why not baptize non-believing adults?)
    4. Jesus did not say, infants who have been sprinkled are part of His body.
    5. Jesus did not say, men are saved by “faith only.”
    6. Jesus did not say, men are saved by “grace alone.”
    7. Jesus did not say, men are saved before they are baptized in water.
    8. Jesus did not say, water baptism is just a testimony of the believers faith and has nothing to do with the forgiveness of sins.
    9. Jesus did not say, God has selected a few men to be saved and has appointed all others to burn in hell.
    10. Jesus did not say, men did not have to repent to have their sins forgiven.(Repentance means to make the commitment to turn from sin and turn toward God)
    11. Jesus did not say, men do not have to confess Him, as the Son of God, in order to have their sins forgiven.
    12. Jesus did not say that men do not have to confess Him as Lord and Savior in order to enter the kingdom of God.
    13. Jesus did not say men do not have to believe in His death, His burial, and His resurrection from the grave in order to be saved.
    14. Jesus did not say men will will be saved as long as they are sincere in what they believe.
    15. Jesus did not say, I am just one of many ways to the Father.
    16. Jesus did not say, there is not a literal hell where the lost will spend eternity.
    17. Jesus did not say, you do not have to be born of water and Spirit in order to enter the kingdom of God.
    18. Jesus did not say, God will give, those He selects for salvation, the faith to believe, so they can be saved.
    19. Jesus did not say, speaking in tongues is evidence that men have been saved.
    20. Jesus did not say, if you were on on your death bed and wanted to believe, but died before you believed that He would saved you anyway.
    21. Jesus did not say, if you believed, but died before you had time to be baptized in water, that you would sill be saved.
    22. Jesus did not say, water baptism is not essential to have your sins forgiven.
    23. Jesus did not say, you can be saved without faith.
    24. Jesus did not say, you can be saved without confessing Him.
    25. Jesus did not say, you can have your sins forgiven without repentance.
    26 Jesus did not say, water baptism is just an act of obedience.
    27. Jesus did not say, all men are guilty of Adam’s sin.
    28. Jesus did not say, everyone is guilty of original sin in the mothers womb.
    29. Jesus did not say, infants are sinners.
    30. Jesus did not say, we should pray to the Virgin Mary.
    31. Jesus did not say, Peter was the first Pope of the Roman Catholic Church.
    32. Jesus did not say, when I return all the Jews and Gentiles who have rejected Me will get a second chance for salvation.

    WHAT I DON’T BELIEVE IS WHAT JESUS DID NOT SAY.

    WHAT I DON’T BELIEVE IS DOCTRINE NOT FOUND IN THE BIBLE.

    WHAT I DON’T BELIEVE IS MAN-MADE DOCTRINE.

    (Scripture quote from : NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE)

    YOU ARE INVITED TO FOLLOW MY BLOG. http://steve-finnell.blogspot.com

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