We often think about repentance strictly in terms of saying “I’m sorry God, I won’t do that again.” (If we’re really honest, we might rephrase the latter part of that statement as “I’ll try not to do that again.”) However, that angle seems to squeeze the grace in repentance down to strictly giving another chance. It makes it sound more like tolerance than restoring a relationship.
Our situation is very similar to that which Peter found himself in after the crucifixion. Like him, we have denied Christ, our Lord and Savior. However there is no taking back what is done and we were sorry for what we did, so now we have returned to our normal routine without bringing God into the picture. When we next see Jesus, we are more than happy to go meet Him, but we don’t bring up our sin. Jesus, however, isn’t going to let it go. He loves us too much to do that. But neither does He lecture us or demand an apology. Instead, He addresses us with a question: “do you love me?
The question seems to cut through the air like a sword. At first, it seems like the absolute worst thing Christ can ask us. If He is calling into question whether we love Him or not, then we must be in dire straits. Believe it or not, Christ’s question comes from grace. It doesn’t spring from anger, disappointment, or the intention to make us feel guilty. While having remorse for what we’ve done is a part of repentance, it is not the capstone. According to Luke’s Gospel, Jesus looked right at Peter when he denied Him the third time and would most likely have seen the look in Peter’s eyes as the dreadful realization of what he had done came upon him. Likewise, since God knows our hearts and is always with us, He knows that we’re sorry as soon as we are so. The reason we can say that Christ isn’t trying to make us guilty with His question is because he already knows our regret.
So what does Christ intend to do by asking that question? We mentioned earlier that His question probably cut through the air like a sword; it also cuts to the heart of the matter. There are no hidden meanings to the question, no undertones. He is very simply asking Peter, and ourselves, if we love Him. Where’s the grace in that? God says that He desires mercy and not sacrifice. Christ isn’t asking us to do penance, He’s asking us to attend to the matter at hand. Earlier, Christ makes that statement, “If you love me, you will obey me.” That is to say, our obedience to God comes from our love of God. We are not being called back to obedience. We are being reminded of our true love.
Additionally, Jesus isn’t asking for His own benefit. Peter says to Him, “Lord, you know I love you.” Jesus asks for our benefit; to remind us of one very important thing: repentance isn’t about making up for the past (Christ has personally taken care of that). It is about where our heart is now. Being sorry about what we’ve done is part of repentance because we love God now are upset that we turned away from Him. That sorrow soon passes because we love God now and are no longer bound to our sin. We are no longer bound to our sin because God has always loved us.