Repent, Then Obey (Jer. 31:31-34; Ps.; 51:1-12; Ps. 119:9-16; Heb. 5:5-10)

by Stanley S. Harakas

Stanley S. Harakas is a former professor of theology at Holy Cross Creek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, Massachusetts. His most recent book is a collection of biblical reflections, Of Life and Salvation (Light & Life Publishing).

This article appeared in the Christian Century, March 5, 1997, p. 241, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Neither repentance nor obedience is very high on the American scale of values. A culture that exalts individualism, self-affirmation, independence and assertiveness has a hard time digesting repentance and obedience.

Two dominant themes weave through these readings. The first is the permanent need for repentance. The second is obedience: Christ’s obedience to his heavenly Father and the Christian’s obedience to Christ.

Neither repentance nor obedience is very high on the American scale of values. A culture that exalts individualism, self-affirmation, independence and assertiveness has a hard time digesting repentance and obedience. Repentance is above all an acknowledgment of personal responsibility for sins. But we don’t like to admit to sin. Our court system,. for example, promotes "not guilty" as the standard plea, even in cases in which the perpetrator acknowledges doing the deed or has been caught in the act.

We don’t even like to talk about sins. We admit to mistakes, failures and misunderstandings, but sins are too hard, too legalistic, too judgmental, too incapable of reinterpretation.

If there is anything Americans don’t like to admit to more than sins, it is anything associated with the word "obedience." Obedience means following rules, accepting authority, submitting to another. Obedience implies something external to ourselves which requires conformity on our part. Our existentialism-permeated culture calls that "inauthentic existence." Authentic existence, we are told, is to accept no authority but one’s chosen values, goals and lifestyle. The American mind-set is epitomized in Frank Sinatra’s rendition of "I Did It My Way"-- not society’s way, not the church’s way and certainly not God’s way.

The author of the Letter to Timothy predicts that "men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, inhuman, implacable, slanderers, profligates, fierce, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding the form of religion but denying the power of it." And he advises, "Avoid such people" (2 Tim. 3:2-5 RSV).

The problem is that in many ways we American Christians have become those people. So the twin message of the readings comes as a slap in our spiritual faces: repent and obey.

"Have mercy upon me a sinner . . ." says Psalm 51, while the Psalmist in Psalm 119 declares, "I have laid up thy word in my heart that I might not sin against thee." Jeremiah tells of God’s promise: "I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more." The passage from John speaks of the "judgment of this world" and says that the "ruler of this world" is about to be cast out.

Sin is the very opposite of obedience. Repentance without a turn to obedience to God is a questionable repentance.

Jesus Christ "learned obedience through what he suffered" (Heb. 5:8). One would have expected the opposite: "because he obeyed, he suffered." Chrysostom, however, identifies Jesus’ "suffering" as beginning with the incarnation. The whole divine-human experience of God’s taking on human nature in one person is an exemplar of suffering that works itself out in multiple dimensions of obedience. As Philippians puts it, Jesus "emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.

The "learning obedience," according to Euthymios Zigabenos, an early 12th-century biblical commentator, was a result of Jesus’ suffering the incarnational existence. "In the days of his flesh having done this and this, he learned the meaning of obedience. His mission as Redeemer and Savior elicited the obedience of his calling in numerous circumstances.

The next verse in Hebrews links Jesus Christ’s obedience to ours: ". . . and being made perfect he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him" (5:9). Theodoret, bishop of Chyrrhus (fifth century), understands this perfection as the resurrection and immortal life -- "this is the conclusion of the divine plan of salvation." Our obedience flows from our relationship to the one who is now and forever our "high priest after the order of Melchizedek" (Heb. 5:10).

The New Testament is filled with references to obedience that flows from the Christian’s relationship with the Savior and High Priest of our salvation. The fourth Gospel reports Jesus’ saying, "If you love me, you will keep my commandments," and "He who believes in the Son has eternal life; he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God rests upon him."

In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, the Fifth Sunday of Lent is dedicated to the story of St. Mary of Egypt, who lived in the fifth century. A prostitute in Alexandria, she was living a life of disobedience. Having heard of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which houses the tomb of Christ, she joined pilgrims on a ship to the Holy Land. But when she came to the door of the sacred place, a hand blocked her entrance. Moved to faith in Christ, she crossed the Jordan into the desert wilderness and lived 40 years there in repentance, prayer and obedience.

This austere story is the last Sunday message to the faithful in preparation for Palm Sunday and Passion Week. It is a story of repentance and the movement from disobedience to obedience. Can its message traverse 1,500 years to speak to American Christians? The cross and the empty tomb loom ahead. Can we approach them with repentance for our sins and a faith that expresses itself in obedience to the crucified and risen Lord