A topic not often mentioned within the church today is that of repentance. I once heard a preacher claim that repentance and true saving faith are the same so there is no need to really emphasize repentance much in evangelism efforts. If this is true, why did Jesus spend time preaching on repentance and calling people to turn from sin unto Him in a humble spirit? Why does the author of James focus on the root problem of sin as selfishness and pride only to call us to repent of our sin, be humble, and turn to God? Then the other question must be asked, what exactly is repentance and what does it mean for us as Christians? Is it something we should do each day or just when we confess our sins? I hope to provide answers to these questions based off of Scripture and help us focus our mind on the importance of repentance in the life of a Christian as well as in presenting the Gospel to the lost.
First of all it is important to define what repentance actually is. The best way to define it is to look in the Bible for passages which clearly illustrate it, and in Matthew 21:28-32 the Bible says “A certain man had two sons; and he came to the first, and said, Son, go work to day in my vineyard. He answered and said, I will not: but afterward he repented, and went. And he came to the second, and said likewise. And he answered and said, I go, sir: and went not. Whether of them twain did the will of his father? They say unto him, The first Jesus saith unto them, Verily I say unto you, That the publicans and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you. For John came unto you in the way of righteousness, and ye believed him not: but the publicans and the harlots believed him: and ye, when ye had seen it, repented not afterward, that ye might believe him.”
Notice the rebellion of the son, he said “I will not” when commanded to do something by the father. At the heart of sin is rebellion against God; failure to obey the commands of God and rebellion against the revealed will of God. For the unbeliever this would be seen as the rejection of the grace of God, disobedience to Him, and living a life of worldliness and separation from God. For the Christian, repentance is needed daily when we reject God’s Word and live according to our flesh. The worldly standards may permeate into the daily walk of a Christian thus producing a casual view towards sin. James 4 is one passage clearly indicating the dangers of pride in living more like the world while rejecting the lordship of Christ in one’s life. The call to repent in James 4 is not only a recognition of the sin (verses 4-5) or a sorrow for sin (verse 9) but a change of conduct. To merely recognize sin and be sorrowful is not true repentance. In Matthew 21 Jesus illustrated this difference. One son recognized the will of his father and even said he would obey, yet he did not. The other son initially rejected his father’s command but later came back and obeyed. The son who changed his conduct obeyed and went. Martyn Lloyd-Jones had this to say regarding Matthew 21 and illustrating the change produced in a truly repenting heart:
“The action was a part of the repentance. If the son had merely changed his point of view and had felt sorry that he had spoken to his father in the way he did, but then had just sat down, or had gone to spend the afternoon at the seaside with his friends, he would not really have repented. That would have been remorse. It is a vital part of the process of repentance that we do the thing that we formerly were refusing to do. There, then, are the essential elements of this condition, this attitude, this new something that comes into being when people hear the call of the gospel effectually and respond to it.”
Unfortunately in the evangelism promoted today the call to repent is often neglected or either left out. Why has the church left out repentance? Mark 1:4 tells us John the Baptist as the forerunner of Christ preached “a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins” while Mark 1:15 shows the first thing Jesus preached on was repentance. In Acts 2:37-38 Peter preached the same message of repentance as did Jesus throughout His ministry. I believe Martyn Lloyd-Jones accurately states how churches today have begun to leave repentance out of evangelism and the catastrophic results which are false conversions. Look at what he says below.
“Repentance is of necessity the first message, and it surely must be. It is scriptural, yes, but Scripture also enables us to reason. Let me put it to you like this: Why should men and women believe on the Lord Jesus Christ? It is no use just asking them to believe in Christ. They are entitled to ask, ‘Why should I believe in Him?’ That is a perfectly fair question. And people do not see any need or necessity for believing in the Lord Jesus Christ if they do not know what repentance is. Of course you may be inviting them to Christ as a helper, or as a friend, or as a healer of the body, but that is not Christian conversion. No, no, people must know why they must believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. The law is our schoolmaster (Gal. 3:24) to bring us there and the law works repentance.”
The bold part is what the church has done today in leaving out repentance from both evangelism efforts as well as the messages which have been preached across pulpits in many evangelical churches in America today. God is seen as loving, merciful, and full of grace towards us, yet the emphasis is on MAN and not God’s glory. Most messages center around this theme, “God loves you, He sent His Son to die for you, give Him your heart and life and He will make you happy. He will fix the problems of your life and make you better and change you.” The question should be asked then, in what way is this message preached in churches biblical? The center of Christianity and evangelism is placed on man. God loves ME, sent His Son to die for ME, wants to make ME happy. Doesn’t this sound prideful, man-centered, and far from the truth of the Gospel? David Platt, author of the book Radical, makes this claim about the true gospel.
“In the gospel God reveals the depth of our need for him. He shows us that there is absolutely nothing we can do to come to him. We can’t manufacture salvation. We can’t program it. We can’t produce it. We can’t even initiate it. God has to open our eyes, set us free, overcome our evil, and appease his wrath. He has to come to us… The message of biblical Christianity is ‘God loves me so that I might make him–his ways, his salvation, his glory, and his greatness–known among all nations. Now God is the object of our faith, and Christianity centers around him. We are not the end of the gospel; God is.”
The gospel is far more about God’s great power than it is about man’s own ability! Soon I will answer some more questions about what repentance is, but here are a few concluding statements regarding the evidence seen in a person’s life when they are truly repenting of a sin.
Genuine repentance begins with a clear understanding of the wrong committed. David notes his sin as well as the person who was harmed by it and the justice of judgment against him (Ps 51:3–5); his words convey a sense of ready, willing confession backed by true knowledge. Job understands that true understanding of evil is necessary for real repentance (Job 34:31–33). Job himself ends not only by ceasing to accuse God (Job 40:4–5) but also by actively confessing that he spoke untruthfully regarding God and repenting of it (Job 42:3, 6). Several groups of people admit their wrongdoing readily, as David did: the Israelites when Ezra reads the law after returning from exile (Neh 9:11), the Ninevites after Jonah delivers God’s words (Jon 3:5–6, 8) and the crowd whose hearts are “cut to the quick” when they hear Peter on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:38). The repentance of the prodigal son in Jesus’ story started when he “came to his senses” (Lk 15:17 NIV). Recognition of sin is central to biblical repentance.
Awareness of sin leads to an earnest pursuit of cleansing. Prominent in David’s prayer are urgent appeals to the character of God and requests for cleansing (Ps 51:1–2, 7–8). In addition to earnest prayer, tears, sackcloth, ashes and fasting are common expressions of this eager desire. Expressions of earnest grief are actions that can be chosen before judgment or certain consequences once judgment has been passed; several biblical stories record instances when grieving signals repentance. A soft face and soft heart are related facets of the repentance image; Scripture commends both of these as good measures of the verity of repentance. David observes that broken contrition is a quality God desires in true repentance (Ps 51:17). The prophet Jeremiah disappointedly reports unrepentant faces that are “harder than stone” (Jer 5:3); corrupt people are likened to bronze and iron, and God to a tester of metals (Jer 6:27–28). Soft faces reflect soft, repentant hearts that desire God’s presence, and so the prophet infers unrepentance from the faces he witnesses. David’s tone confirms the necessity of this pliant quality as he is ready to be cleansed by God (Ps 51:2, 7).
The prophets and NT writers confirm David’s hope that repentance is marked by a renewed awareness of God’s closeness. Isaiah promises that “the Redeemer will come … to those … who repent of their sins” (Is 59:20 NIV), and Jeremiah reminds his audience that their forgiveness includes renewed audience with God, for they have been restored to serve God (Jer 15:19). Luke explains that the angels rejoice over a truly repentant person (Lk 15:7) and recommends repentance so “that times of refreshing my come from the Lord” (Acts 3:19 NIV). Repentance is signaled by a new desire for and experience of the presence of God. Ultimately, the unrepentant will endure the undesired eternal separation from God that most thoroughly defines death (Ezek 18:32; Hos 11:6).
Human repentance is frequent and imperfect. NT images of human repentance underscore the action of changing one’s mind or feeling deep sorrow over one’s actions. While the writers of Acts and the Epistles call for and describe genuine repentance (e.g., Acts 3:19; Rom 2:4–5; 2 Cor 7:11), the Gospels record compelling images of repentant persons, particularly in the parable of the prodigal son (Lk 15:11–24) and the story of Zacchaeus (Lk 19:8). In each narrative the penitent undergoes dramatic and immediate change, with the result that personal circumstances also change profoundly. In each case the audience, which regards the repentant person as an unlikely or impossible candidate for change, is surprised, even offended. Each of these images of repentance emphasizes the shocking nature of grace; each demonstrates that authentic repentance occurs in unlikely places and is always associated with a lavish measure of grace.
Changed action is the most tangible demonstration of repentance. While, like a stony face, unwillingness to glorify God signals a lack of repentance (Rev 16:9), large strides in a new direction are the most sure sign that repentance has occurred. Having requested the presence of God, David immediately describes his plan of action: to “teach transgressors your ways,” leading to their repentance, and “to declare your praise” (Ps 51:13–15). He lends backbone to his earnest tone by envisioning outward change to demonstrate his inward contrition. The prophets hold changed action to be the norm for true repentance; repeated pleas to “turn from idols” dot their messages (e.g., Ezek 14:6; 18:30). NT writers Luke and John uphold this standard of changed action. In the story of the prodigal son, Luke emphasizes the new plans the son makes after his recognition of his sin (Lk 15:11–24); there is also the stunning action of Zacchaeus, who demonstrates his repentance by returning four times the amount stolen from those he had cheated as a tax collector (Lk 19:8). Simon the magician is told that his attitude toward the Spirit’s power should turn around and change completely (Acts 8:22); Luke notes Paul’s praise of others who proved repentance “by their deeds” (Acts 26:20). In his messages to the seven churches of Revelation, John describes repentance as a turning back to “do the things you did at first” (Rev 2:5 NIV). Building on the steps of understanding sin, grieving separation and desiring the presence of God, changed action is the standard proof of true repentance.
~Leland Ryken, Jim Wilhoit, Tremper Longman et al., Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, electronic ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 704-705.~