How have great Christian leaders of the past talked about repentance?

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Martin Luther, John Wesley, and Dwight L. Moody in their respective centuries found ways to communicate the doctrines of sin and repentance to reluctant people. They transformed churches, universities, and nations with their message. No one has ever liked being called a sinner, but the great revivals in history began when people were convicted of their sin. We need a way to help today's listeners to confess and turn from their sins. Their approaches can help us.

Luther's sin detector

Martin Luther put together a teaching device that he called a small catechism. Once widely used, the catechism has been gradually abandoned. But our post-Christian culture is beginning to resemble Luther's culture of biblical illiteracy and confusion over who God is and what constitutes sin.

Luther's catechism included the Ten Commandments, the Apostle's Creed, the Lord's Prayer, and instruction on sacraments. The Ten Commandments in particular were the mirror into which many people looked and realized they had offended God and sinned.

When I was at Bodleian Library in Oxford, England, researching for a biography I was writing of C. S. Lewis's wife, a woman asked why I was studying about her.

"I'm a mid-life convert to Christianity," I said. "Lewis and his wife were also mid-life converts, and his writings had an impact on bringing me to my faith. Are you a believer?"

"Oh, no."

"Have you had any exposure to the faith?"

"I was raised a Methodist, but I have nothing to do with it anymore."

"Since you grew up in the Methodist church, you must be familiar with the Ten Commandments. Have you ever committed adultery?" (I don't know why I picked this commandment.)

She was clearly shaken so I quickly added, "Don't answer that question. But if you have, I can't help but believe you're dealing with some deep guilt. The beautiful thing about my Savior is that he can clean you and bring you back to God."

It's much easier to talk about sin with someone who was taught a catechism earlier. She looked at me stunned. Her eyes began to tear, and she said, "I need to think about that."

Wesley's confessional

When John Wesley looked across Great Britain's Anglican Church in the 1700s, he saw dead formalism. He realized that when people came to Christ, they needed to change and grow, not merely stand on the terms of a contract. In other words, they may have been converted, but their lives were not transformed. They were baptized, confirmed, and churched on Sunday, yet they lived like hellions the rest of the time. Wesley concluded that the people of the church needed to be regularly confronted and challenged to confess their sins and repent.

Wesley realized that the Great Commission is not just to make converts; it's to make disciples. As he preached, people gave their lives to Christ in droves. And then Wesley did something we often do today—he put them into small groups.

The purpose of Wesley's small groups was not simply encouragement and Bible study, but to provide a safe place for confession and accountability, an intimate environment for transformation into Christlikeness.

In 1995, God brought revival to Wheaton College. It broke out in a student-led Sunday night service. Confession and repentance continued Sunday night and every night through Thursday. Eight or nine hundred students repented of their sin.

During one of those evenings, a student confessed that she'd lost her virginity the summer before. She was carrying terrible guilt and wanted to confess her sin. The man sitting next to me elbowed me and said, "Prof, get this thing shut down. This is terrible. She didn't sin publicly. She shouldn't be confessing publicly. If that was my daughter, I'd feel terrible."

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