Donald Trump has certainly added spice to the politics-as-usual flavor of the presidential primary season. Whether it is his controversial comments about Mexican immigrants, his critique of John McCain’s status as a war hero, his support of Mike Huckabee’s much-criticized Holocaust analogy, his broadcasting of Lindsey Graham’s cell phone number or his labelling of Hillary Clinton as a “criminal,” Trump has mustered more public outrage and interest than most other candidates in an election cycle combined. His demeanor and message seems polarizing for most Americans, who either love his “speak your mind” approach or loathe it. Yet, according to recent polling, he sits atop the list of contenders in the Republican presidential candidate race. And, certainly not to be overlooked, he has received Dennis Rodman’s endorsement.
Recently Trump opened up in an interview with Anderson Cooper concerning his Protestant, Presbyterian faith, which was publicly discussed in a campaign speech in Iowa. When asked at that event if he had ever sought forgiveness from God, Trump replied, “I’m not sure I have. I just go on and try to do a better job from there. I don’t think so.” When pressed by Cooper, Trump continued, “I think repenting is terrific… If I make a mistake, yeah, I think it’s great. But I try not to make mistakes. I mean, why do I have to, you know, repent, why do I have to ask for forgiveness if you’re not making mistakes. I work hard. I’m an honorable person.”
This raises, of course, the question as to whether you can consider yourself a Christian without experiencing repentance or affirming its ongoing place in the Christian life.
The Heidelberg Catechism, a doctrinal statement stemming from the Protestant Reformation, says this about coming to the Lord’s table (which Trump also referenced): “Hypocrites and those who are unrepentant, however, eat and drink judgment on themselves.” Likewise, it states the keys of the kingdom are “preaching of the holy gospel and Christian discipline toward repentance” and that the kingdom is closed “to unbelievers and hypocrites that, as long as they do not repent, the wrath of God and eternal condemnation rest on them.” The catechism defines genuine repentance as “the dying-away of the old self, and the rising-to-life of the new.”
Likewise, the Westminster Confession expects ongoing repentance in the life of the believer in addition to the initial conversional act, in which the believer is regenerated and turns from their sins toward walking in the commandments of God. The confession states that “none may expect pardon without [repentance]” and that “every man is bound to make private confession of his sins to God.”
The Biblical teaching of repentance, of course, long precedes these later Protestant confessions. The prophets frequently called for Israel to turn from their sins, both in mindset and behavior. Likewise, John the Baptist proclaimed the necessity of repentance for participation in the kingdom of God. Jesus affirmed the relationship between repentance and kingdom identity. Paul also proclaimed this message of repentance and understood it to be foundational to salvation.
In summarizing the Gospels and Acts, Guy Nave Jr. recognizes that repentance is a requirement for followers of Jesus; is the proper response to the in-breaking of the kingdom of God; occurs in public and communal contexts; requires ongoing examination of behaviors and allegiances; and requires one to lay down their life, ultimately undermining human power struggles.
Perhaps the biggest struggle for Christianity in the West is its battle with the self. In an individualistic and narcissistic culture, self-help platitudes resonate more deeply than Jesus’ call to die to self. But Jesus’ message - and the orthodox Christian theology that would follow - is at its core about the transformation of individual identity. It is ultimately about losing the self to pursue conformity to the image of Christ. Whether Trump’s faith is sincere is ultimately not for us to determine. We can, however, consider these recent comments and the tenor of his campaign alongside Jesus’ own words in Mark 1:15: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is near; repent and believe in the good news.”