When I returned to faith in Christ from atheism in 1994, it didn’t involve strong feelings of regret and contrition about my past sins. I didn’t get convicted of my sins at an evangelistic meeting and cry out for forgiveness, or experience protracted anguish of soul that was then relieved by finally hearing and accepting the gospel. I recall saying to someone (who I may possibly have ended up marrying, if I remember the conversation correctly!) that I assumed that at some point I would have to go through a “reckoning process” of detailed, itemised repentance over my past, but that never really happened.
In Luke’s account of Zacchaeus’s conversion there is no mention of contrition in the sense of “feelings of penitence” that so many homilies and pious writings have tried so fervently to foster. Zacchaeus does not agonise: when he talks about giving half of his property to the poor and compensating those he cheated fourfold, it is due to the euphoria he feels at the presence of Jesus in his home. He acts more like the man in Jesus’s parable who found a treasure hidden in a field and in his elation sold everything in order to buy the field and thus acquire his rare find. (p.183)
Halík argues that repentance is not to be identified with regret:
The Indian Jesuit Anthony de Mello has pointed out that nowhere in the Gospels does Jesus ask sinners to express regret – He has no place for regret in the process of conversion. This process is a thoroughly joyous event.
Distress about sin “has always already been mixed with joy and gratitude at the gift of forgiveness and generous acceptance”. This is because a truthful acknowledgement of sin is itself a gift of divine mercy:
People can only realise their sinfulness if they are already standing outside the dark cell of sin; they can see sin only in the light of mercy.
Incidentally, this is one reason why I still think it a shame that the Lutheran Service Book omits the second stanza of John Newton’s “Amazing Grace”, presumably out of “law and gospel” concerns:
‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear,
The hour I first believed!
It may be the law that exposes our sin, but it is grace and the gospel that open our eyes to a truthful recognition of the law’s work.
Halík continues by citing de Mello again:
De Mello believes that instead of stressing regret as the major component in the process of repentance and conversion, our catechisms should emphasise trust in the power of God’s forgiveness and a willingness to forgive our own enemies.
I’m sure that’s right, and that emphasis on rejecting self-torturing introspection in favour of the outward-looking response of faith (in believing God’s promises and acting in love towards one’s neighbour as a consequence) is another very “Lutheran” theme.