In the beginning, God had said to Adam that if he had transgressed the commandment, he would “surely die” (Gen 3). How then do we think that if we want to be saved, all we need to do is repent and reform our lives? As St. Athanasius tells us, God cannot go back on the sentence of His word, and if God were to reverse the course of death, of which He said was certain for the transgressor, He would prove to be a liar (Chapter 7, On the Incarnation)
Thus, repentance, says St. Athanasius, will not suffice to meet the requirement for man’s salvation, because the process of corruption, which was the sure penalty of death which Adam had earned by his sin, cannot be “cleaned up” by our moral reformation. He writes:
“But repentance would, firstly, fail to guard the just claim of God. For He would still be none the more true, if men did not remain in the grasp of death; nor, secondly, does repentance call men back from what is their nature— it merely stays them from acts of sin. Now, if there were merely a misdemeanour in question, and not a consequent corruption, repentance were well enough.” (Chapter 7)
So you see that something more ontological is at stake here which personal moral reform does not resolve. The sentence of death is irreversible because of the unchangeableness of God. No, Repentance will not save us….
Only by sharing in His death and resurrection, then, can man be saved. Repentance is no match for this awe inspiring intervention of God on our behalf. Maintaining the truth of God, He also fulfills the will of God to offer redemption from the curse which man incurred through sin, out of His eternal love. This is why in Catholic theology, so much emphasis is put on the concept of “partaking of Christ” or being “conformed to Christ”. It is because our release from death can only come by linking up with Him who destroys death in Himself and re-created humanity in the perfect glory of God. Indeed, as St. Paul says, circumcision nor un-circumcision, and we can add, nor repentance or impenitence, avails anything – only a new creation. St. Paul calls it the “washing of regeneration” (Tit 3:4-7), and it is the effect of baptism.
Now , to be clear, we must repent. In fact, without repenting, we cannot enjoy the life which is supplied in Christ’s resurrection, for by returning to a sinful lifestyle, we can withdrawal ourselves from the Divine. But let us not mistake what really grounds our redemption – some thing which only God can do. The plight our race has entered “in Adam” (Rom 5:12-19) is far too deep a problem for mere moral reformation to fix. Our personal repentance, holiness, and interior purity, as beautiful and pleasing to God as it is, is still no match for what St. Ignatius said was the medicine of immortality, the Body of our Eternal Lord and Savior, crucified and alive again, and always whose eternal living is the source of our life.