Delmar’s baptism and Phil Robertson’s repentance

One of my favorite scenes in O Brother, Where Art Thou? is Delmar’s baptism:

Delmar comes up out of the water and declares his sins washed away to the point that neither God nor man has any claim on him any longer.

I thought of the scene while reading one of the less newsworthy parts of the GQ interview with Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson.

During Phil’s darkest days, in the early 1970s, he had to flee the state of Arkansas after he badly beat up a bar owner and the guy’s wife. Kay Robertson persuaded the bar owner not to press charges in exchange for most of the Robertsons’ life savings. (“A hefty price,” he notes in his memoir.) I ask Phil if he ever repented for that, as he wants America to repent—if he ever tracked down the bar owner and his wife to apologize for the assault. He shakes his head.

“I didn’t dredge anything back up. I just put it behind me.”

As far as Phil is concerned, he was literally born again. Old Phil—the guy with the booze and the pills—died a long time ago, and New Phil sees no need to apologize for him: “We never, ever judge someone on who’s going to heaven, hell. That’s the Almighty’s job.

Robertson may not follow in the church of Delmar, but it sounds quite similar to me.

And that got me thinking. Is this correct? Doesn’t repentance require an effort to make right the damage we have caused others?

For some folks that could be an impossible task, of course. We cause so many hurts and wounds that we cannot even count them all, much less repair each injury. But there is still something here that sounds wrong to me. Even if we hold to a strong reading of Paul’s words that we die to the old self and rise as a new self, it seems to me that repentance toward God does not mean we have truly repented of the harm we have caused other humans. It feels to me, rather, that using our baptism as a way to absolve ourselves of wrongs we have done to other people is trading on God’s grace in ways God did not intend.

This is a complicated, pastoral question that probably does not lend itself to absolute rules. But I wonder how others understand it. To what extent does repentance require seeking to undo or heal the damage we have done to other people?


18 thoughts on “Delmar’s baptism and Phil Robertson’s repentance

  1. How can there be repentance without humility? And if one truly surrenders, how can the new life not be marked with humility? I’m to the point where the lack of humility is evidence of the lack of TRUE repentance. That Mr. Robertson so candidly lords his righteousness over others suggests a lack of true repentance.

    As for making right that which you did wrong…YES, so long as doing so doesn’t revictimize the one you originally harmed. It seems like making an effort to rectify that relationship is part of repentance.

    1. Thanks for the comment. I think I have a vague idea what you mean, but could you help me better understand what you mean by revictimizing someone?

    2. “How can there be repentance without humility?” …..Really? That is the question you pose? Well…here is the answer….Repentance is a gift from God. The question you should be asking is how can there be humility without repentance.

      Repentance means: the changing of ones mind….the way one once thought about something. It is a gift from God and the unfolding of repentance is in the hands of the Holy Spirit. I think your comment reveals a log in your own eye. You want to define, out of your personal ideas, what “True Repentance” must look like, even to the point that you elevate yourself to a position of judgement on whether or not someone has that “True Repentance”. How can anyone define the conclusion of what repentance looks like in another when the conclusion of repentance in our own lives has yet to be fully worked out.

      By the true definition of what the word “Repentance” means… do you squeeze in your personal demand that one rectifies a relationship? Repentance is an on going “gift” from God worked in our lives through the Holy Spirit. The first working of this gift is the changing of our minds from rejecting Christ Jesus as our Lord and Savior to instead now believing… John 3:16 and many other verses reveal this truth.

      When you put a conclusion to repentance in one’s life you are saying that one has attained absolute perfection in their thoughts and understanding of the things of God.

      My prayer is that you would reignite, so to speak, the gift of repentance in your own life.


  2. First, John, welcome back to the blogosphere. I’ve missed your thoughts.

    Second, the matter at hand… Jesus (Mt. 5:23-24) is pretty clear about the link between worship and reconcilliation with our fellow humans. The question in this case is whether or not Kay’s actions fulfilled Jesus’ command on behalf of her husband. The bar owner and his wife accepted the money, so does that make it a done deal for them? Without hearing the story from their perspective it’s hard to know. Obviously, for Phil, the financial remuteration did make for a closing of the issue on the human level and then he was able to talk to God about putting it behind him on a Divine level. From his perspective he experienced human justice and Divine forgiveness.

    My initial reaction to reading this was obviously Phil still has work to do. However, upon reflection and without knowing all sides of the story, I’m not sure I can hold on to that perspective. If I were Phil’s pastor, I hope that we could talk about this and come to a conclusion, if that pastor hasn’t done so already. My though as an outsider though is grace must be shown.

    1. Thanks for the welcome back. I agree that we are not in position to judge the particulars of this case. I am mindful, though, that how we talk about such issues may send signals to people that have unintended effects.

  3. John, to “confess our sins one to another” is to find healing in the body of Christ. In fact, these are the eighth and ninth steps of the 12 Steps of AA: “8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
    9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.”. Remember, the 12 steps are based upon Christian discipleship. Matthew’s Gospel goes as far as to say that if you are at the altar, in the act of worship, and remember an “offense” you have with a brother or sister, then leave worship immediately and go to make amends before offering your sacrifice or act of worship. John, let me be so bold as to say that without confession, and if possible reconciliation with others, the body of Christ will remain having only the “form of religion and lacking the substance”. Yes, for John Wesley it was that important as well. God’s peace.

  4. Robertson’s theology is wrong on one point “Neither God NOR MAN has any claim..” Although he may be spiritually a new man, He must still atone for the sins of the old man.

    1. Atonement does not just mean giving up some money or making physical repairs. Atonement includes repairing a human relationship.

    2. What evidence to you have for such a bold demand? Was the prostitute in the NT commanded that though she was forgiven she still had to atone for the sins she previously did? How about the woman at the well? Give clear examples of how ANY of the disciples made atonement for their past sins. How about Paul….give me examples of how he somehow made atonement for the horrific sins he participated in during the extermination of believers in Christ. Give me Scripture that plainly and clearly supports your demand…”Although he may be spiritually a new man, he must still atone for the sins of the old man.

  5. “And that got me thinking. Is this correct? Doesn’t repentance require an effort to make right the damage we have caused others?”

    Where in Scripture is there any “requirement” needed on our behalf prior to receiving the gift of repentance? Who defines how much “effort to make right the damage we have caused others” is enough effort? I thank our Almighty God that repentance is not something we must achieve by any works, but that it is indeed a gift from God through His unending grace.

    1. Duane, I am not saying such works must come prior to repentance, although John the Baptist did talk about doing works fitting to repentance, right? To my mind, though, the issue is that once we have repented that would cause us to seek to make right what we have done wrong in the past.

      I hear in the commands to love our neighbor as ourselves an obligation to address the harm we have caused. Perhaps the issue is not so much repairing harm — how can we do that after all? — but seeking forgiveness and reconciliation with those who have been damaged by our actions.

      Your question above about what Paul did or did not do is an interesting one. I’m not sure the silence about what Paul did is conclusive either way.

      1. Beyond the confession of sins and baptism…..what were the other “works” John the Baptist talked about as being fitting to repentance?

        I understand what you are saying in your reference to loving our neighbor as our selves…..but where are the teachings and examples of “obligations” that you use to underpin your understanding of loving your neighbor as yourself? Would it not make sense that the “seeking forgiveness and reconciliation with those damaged by our actions” would be within the body of Christ? Are we to seek reconciliation with sinners as believers? If you believe that….please share your Biblical instructions that we are to do so. When Peter cut off the ear of the soldier….was he instructed to seek that soldiers forgiveness or to make every effort to reconcile himself to that man?

        What is your determined definition of the word “love” ….what do you think was the very thought and definition Jesus had in mind when He said to “love your neighbor as yourself”?

        1. Looking back at the text, I don’t think “works” is the correct word. John refers to producing fruit worthy of or in keeping with repentance. Understanding that would probably require we understand what Jesus meant by trees bearing good fruit and things like the fruits of the spirit in Paul. In either case, it seems to me that it means more than confession of sins.

          The question about believers vs. non-believers is a good one. Jesus clearly does direct some of his teaching toward life within the kingdom. Paul does, too. But does Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount to pray for and love our enemies expand the boundary of our concern beyond insiders?

          Lots more to talk about, but time is limited.

        2. I believe it would be impossible to fulfill the commission we have been given by Christ to share the Gospel without having a concern….or even more accurately a love for those beyond the “insiders. Loving and praying for our enemies does something very profound. What makes someone our enemy is the result of something they did against us…..wronged us or hurt us in some way. In other words….if we have an enemy it is because we are, or have been made, a victim in some fashion as a result of their actions. When we pray for them and love them we shift our position from that of a victim to now that of the one in control. What ever the wrong was that once was in control thus making us a victim….has lost that position of control. And….as a result….as John Leek shared below…re-establishes the potential for reconciliation…..NOT reconciliation towards ourselves…but towards God.

  6. I would think that the new heart would make greater repentance and (potentially) reconciliation possible.

    I wouldn’t be offended if someone disagreed. 🙂

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