By Osvaldo and Kristen Padilla
It has been the suggestion of a number of Protestant denominations that the matter of LGBTQ can be separated from the basics of the gospel. That is, that one can be affirming of homosexual unions (please note the clarification about this at the bottom) but this need not affect the traditional core of the gospel. Or to put it another way, the receiving into the churches of LGBTQ folk who want to continue in those relationships is something that is not in the same sphere as the core doctrines of the church. The acceptance of LGBTQ folk as stated above has nothing to do with the continual upholding of central belief commitments such as are expressed in the Apostles Creed or Nicaea. The reception of LGBTQ people who want to continue actively in those relationships does not at all affect my evangelical identity, to the extent that that identity is determined by certain core, doctrinal beliefs. So the argument goes. We want to suggest that a recent event involving popular Christian speaker and author Jen Hatmaker and Katelyn Beaty, managing editor of the evangelical flagship popular magazine Christianity Today, proves that such arguments are entirely incorrect.
The recent event is actually a continuation of an event that occurred two years ago. In March 2014, Hatmaker penned a controversial blog post entitled, “World Vision, Gay Marriage, and a Different Way Through,” in which she left room for those who believe same-sex marriage is OK to be within the tent of orthodox Christianity. Or to put it another way, there was no connection between the basic doctrines of Christianity and same-sex marriage.
Last week Hatmaker spoke out again regarding the issue of homosexuality, causing another stir. In an April 23rd post, Hatmaker writes,
One thing I said was that it is high time Christians opened wide their arms, wide their churches, wide their tables, wide their homes to the LGBT community. … Here are my arms open wide. So wide that every last one of you can jump inside. You are so dear, so beloved, so precious and important. You matter so desperately and your life is worthy and beautiful. There is nothing “wrong with you,” or in any case, nothing more right or wrong than any of us, which is to say we are all hopelessly screwed up but Jesus still loves us beyond all reason and lives to make us all new, restored, whole.
Standing by itself, her ambiguous post (just what does it mean to love and to open arms wide?) on love does not say much. In fact at first glance her words should be echoed by all of us who love sacrificially and without exception. But what does it mean to be loved by God? Does being loved by God imply a relationship with God? What does she mean by “there is nothing ‘wrong with you’”? In particular, since Christians through the ages have said that repentance is the gateway to a relationship with God, what is the connection between repentance and the love of God?1
Enter Beaty. She provides a defense of Hatmaker’s statements by concentrating on the love of God. The title of her piece is: “What Jen Hatmaker gets right about Christian love.” Beaty’s conclusion is that the angry response to Hatmaker is indicative of a misunderstanding of God’s love.
But the response from both sides of the spectrum also highlights how confused we Christians are about the nature of love—the love that God has for us, and the love we are to have for those who don’t know him.
Beaty sees as the problem with the opponents of Hatmaker that they put a condition for the acceptance of LGBTQ folks. The condition that Beaty sees is repentance. Consider the following statement:
This radical love of God in Christ is precisely what compels us to love God in return and to repent accordingly—not the other way around. And oh, do we so often confuse the order of love and repentance. Driven by mere human logic, we want to make ourselves right with God before he can declare it. We still want to do something to earn his love, and we want others to do the same—to repent first and really mean it, lest love be used as a license to sin.
To bolster her argument, she quotes from Episcopal priest Fleming Rutledge. Here is what the latter says about repentance: “The temptation is to say that repentance is necessary before God can forgive us.” Yet, “The truth is the other way around. Repentance is something that God works in us as a consequence of his prevenient grace.”
And so we have come full circle to our introduction. In fact, the current debate on same-sex unions depends squarely on our understanding of some of the basic things of the gospel. In this case, repentance.
Now there are some significant problems in Hatmaker/Beaty’s statements about the relationship of God’s love to repentance.
First, Beaty approvingly quotes the view of repentance from Rutledge, “The temptation is to say that repentance is necessary before God can forgive us.” The problem with this is that it contradicts the Bible. Consider the following passages:
And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. (Luke 13:2-3)
And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. (Acts 2:38)
Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus (Acts 3:19-20; emphasis added)
So, in fact, without repentance there is no salvation. This leads us to a second point.
Second, the problem with Beaty is that she understands repentance as a human work, as self- amendment. She views it as our contribution to salvation. Consider the following:
And oh, do we so often confuse the order of love and repentance. Driven by mere human logic, we want to make ourselves right with God before he can declare it. We still want to do something to earn his love, and we want others to do the same—to repent first and really mean it, lest love be used as a license to sin.
Is this really what repentance is? Repentance is actually a gift of God, as much a gift as faith and justification. Consider the following passages:
The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. (Acts 5:30-31; emphasis added)
God, having raised up his servant, sent him to you first, to bless you by turning every one of you from your wickedness. (Acts 3:26)
This is repentance. It is a gift of God by which he grants us a contrite and broken spirit (Psalm 51), which desperately wants to turn toward a new life. It is not amending our lives; it is a God- given desire to live according to God’s commands. Consider also the following quotation from Beaty:
Prevenient grace is the kind of grace that runs out toward us when we have barely managed to walk down the path toward our father’s house. It’s a kind of grace that wipes off the slop, enables us to stand up straighter…
The Scriptural view is that you couldn’t even walk without God-given repentance, not even barely; you couldn’t even stand up at all (let alone straighter) without repentance. The irony here is that Beaty inadvertently has shown what she believes about grace—that it is a cooperative endeavor in which God meets us “when we have barely managed to walk down the path.” Grace for her is helping us “stand up straighter.” In reality without grace we cannot get off the ground in the first place! But if you understand repentance in the way that she does, of course you are going to make statements like the ones above.
To end where we began: how we view homosexuality—not in the abstract but the very specific issue of same-sex marriage—is not something that can be separated from core doctrines of the Christian faith. It is tied to doctrines such as grace, repentance, and the love of God. If “God is love” (1 John 4:8), and yet you do not understand the love of God, then you don’t know God. And so the relationship of repentance to the love of God goes all the way down to the very being of God. For your view of repentance, consciously or unconsciously, says what you believe about the love of God.
Can you know the love of God in the abstract without knowing God relationally? And can you relationally know God without repentance? If the answer is no to this second question, then you cannot know the love of God (God is love) without repentance.
Let us be clear, we are not suggesting that a person has to repent in order for God to love them. That would be silly. God loves us no matter what our state is. But we are asking how can you enter into a relationship of love with God without repentance. Is that possible?
1 In Romania, for example, evangelicals are called “the repentant ones.” And in Latin America, repentance is used as a shorthand for the whole experience of salvation.
Osvaldo’s father lives with us. He is not a Christian. We have literally opened our home, hearts, and arms in love for him. We share the gospel of Jesus Christ with him and tell him ad nauseam about God’s love. He also comes to church with us. But he has yet to experience the love of God; he has also yet to repent. If you cannot know God or God’s love behind the back of Jesus, and if Jesus’ greatest act of love was what he did on the cross so that our sins might be forgiven, he will not know for himself God’s love until he turns (repents) and recognizes Jesus as Lord. All rationale and stubbornness has him not repenting; that is why we are always praying that the gift of repentance might be granted to him so that he will experience God’s love. His behavior won’t change right away, but we know that in Christ the Holy Spirit works to transform us according to his will.
Please note that we are not suggesting that Beaty is in agreement of same-sex unions. For Hatmaker we are not sure where she stands. The problem we have is the way repentance as it relates to the love of God is articulated. Scripture teaches us that we are to always correct and reprove and be corrected and reproved so that another gospel, different than the gospel Paul preached, isn’t preached. And in this case we felt strongly that what was being articulated regarding repentance needed to be corrected.
Lastly, this entire post highlights what I (Kristen) have been saying in this blog. Women (and men!) without theological education should be especially careful before making statements about doctrines about which the best Christian thinkers have been reflecting on for centuries. Both Hatmaker and Beaty betray the least amount of acquaintance with robust theological discussion on the nature of repentance and the love of God. Shall we let people who have no formal theological training tell the rest of the church what repentance is and what the love of God is?
Osvaldo Padilla is associate professor of New Testament at Beeson Divinity School, where he teaches Greek and the Gospels and Acts.