Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and He said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:45-47).
Every failure in repentance robs heaven of one of the joys that rightfully belongs there. There is neither need nor room for speculation about repentance; God’s Word is clear. The following principles are evident as we open the Scriptures on this critical topic.
1. Repentance is a gift from God.
Repentance is not a natural trait that lies dormant, just waiting to be aroused and utilized. Peter recognized this when he saw the kingdom expanding: “Well then, God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life” (Acts 11:17-18).
Paul encouraged church leaders faithfully teaching the truth to those who believe falsehood, “… if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will” (2 Timothy 2:24-26).
2. Repentance is not a single act but an ongoing and continual attitude.
It is common to hear someone describing repentance as a past accomplishment, saying things like, “I repented when I was eighteen years old,” or, “You don’t need to worry about me, I’m all right with God. I repented twelve years ago.”
If someone comes to me with a report about repentance sometime in their past, I want to cry out, “So what? Who cares what happened years ago?” It is never enough to say, “I repented.” You must be able to say, “I am repentant. Day in and day out, month after month, year after year, unceasingly, I live as a repentant person. I live in the spirit and attitude of repentance.”
Tragically, our churches seem full of people who can testify to the occasion on which they repented, yet sin has the upper hand in their lives. Every time another false convert of this sort is added to the church, the church’s usefulness in the world withers a little more. Multitudes cannot believe in Christ because they cannot see past the hypocrisy of the many who profess Christ but live for Satan!
The call of Scripture is not Pharaoh-like, to make some temporary concession to Christ in hopes of heading off impending calamity; or Shimei-like, to acknowledge sin in hopes of securing the future. The Bible demands a permanent turnaround. Repentance must last as long as breath. Oh, the pity of those who can tell you the day and the hour they accepted Christ, yet have no ongoing repentance and faith.
3. Repentance is turning not merely from what you have done but from what you are.
Our great problem is not merely that we have sinned but that we are sinners. We are not sinners because we sin; we sin because we are sinners. David’s declaration in Psalm 51:5 is immediately relevant: “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me.”
He was certainly not blaming his mother for his problems. Nor was he suggesting that the sex act between his parents that resulted in his conception was sin. Rather, he was declaring what all wise men know: we are born sinners. We begin life under sin’s curse. Every evil deed of our lives is immediately tied to the sin nature with which we were born.
Sin has a vise-like grip on our lives. It has contaminated everything we are and do. You might have repented a thousand times of specific sins you have committed, but it is not until you repent of what you are that true repentance begins.
4. Repentance is not what you do for yourself but what you do for God.
Have you learned the distinction between the repentance that is for yourself and the repentance that is for God? Eternity hangs in the balance. Here is a test:
Suppose you were to hear God say, “I want you to realize that I am holding your life on the end of a very thin thread that is dangling over the pit of hell. Look down and you will see! In a few moments I am going to release My hold, and you will go to your sinner’s reward. But just before I drop you, I want to ask if you have any last words you wish to speak to Me?”
What would you say? “You can’t do this to me! It isn’t fair! I deserve heaven. You can’t send me to hell.”
Or would you say, “Before You release me, I want to tell You how much I love You and how grateful I am that You have kept me from my just deserts all these years. I know that I deserve hell, but I want to tell You how truly sorry I am to have been such a terrible sinner. If there is any way a person in hell can love and serve God, I am going to love and serve You, for You alone are God and worthy of all my praise and devotion.”
5. Repentance deals not merely with the fruits of sin but with the very roots.
If one repents merely of the fruits of sin, the roots will continue to produce more fruits. Take as an illustration sexual sins. God Himself created sex. He holds in His own reserve the unalienable right of determining its acceptable and unacceptable usage. He has spelled these matters out very clearly in the Bible. Why would anyone violate God’s rights?
Why? Pride! A married woman abandons her wedding vows and commits adultery, and justifies herself by saying, “Not even God Himself would expect me to be faithful to that dumb brute to whom I am married. I have my rights. I deserve better than him.” A high school student fornicates with a casual friend and justifies it by saying, “Everybody’s doing it.” Pride is a root sin, giving rise to countless others.
I was once asked to speak with a choir director. To my consternation, we had hardly been seated before she began to shred the character of the organist and to advise me of all the troubles of the church. I tried to stop her, but without success. When she had thoroughly riddled this other woman’s character, she went on to make mincemeat of the man who led the congregational singing. Again I tried to stop her, but without success.
Finally she slowed down enough for me to say, “You are a marvelous choir director, aren’t you?” She looked at me in amazement and said, “I thought you were a gentleman. I can hardly believe that you would mock me.”
“If you knew me,” I replied, “you would know that I am not mocking you. You are a marvelous choir director. I was sitting on the front row when you marched the choir in. Even Napoleon had no better command of his troops than you had of that choir. When they sang, I could scarcely believe the excellent quality of the music. You are a very fine choir director.”
“Well, thank you, Mr. Roberts,” she said, “that is very kind of you to say. I know that I am a good choir director.”
“Yes, indeed you are. But I wonder if you realize that little tiny you, all by yourself, with absolutely no help from anybody else, has all that it takes to completely destroy your church.”
She gasped, “How can you say such a thing?”
“I say it because you serve God with your gifts but without the graces of Jesus Christ. There is never ever a more dangerous person in any church than the immensely gifted person who uses his or her gifts but knows nothing consequential of grace. God doesn’t need your gifts, but He is willing to accept them and use them if they are saturated with His grace. Without His grace, your gifts are a curse to the church. You need to repent of the very roots of sin in your life.”
Many people who think they have repented of obvious sins still need to repent of the root sins. As an illustration, a careful perusal of the subject of pride throughout the Bible will bring to light the fact that pride is the father of all kinds of sins, such as lies, exaggerations, divisiveness, prejudice, and so forth.
We know that one can confess having told a lie without ever repenting of being a liar. One can acknowledge guilt in exaggerating and yet never repent of the pride that made them do it.
Unbelief is behind the murmuring and complaining that is so much a part of many lives. No amount of confession of the evil of these outward sins is going to make any difference until the root of unbelief is eliminated.
Rebellion is often manifested in overt misconduct, such as the abuse of alcohol and drugs. But until this root is eliminated, fruit will keep appearing, even though it changes variety, shape, and size.
I ask you again, have you ever really repented of the roots of sin in your life? Remember, it is His glory even more than your eternal welfare that is at stake.
6. Repentance is not secret but open.
Throughout my life I have encountered people who have insisted that repentance is a very personal matter and that they are unwilling to talk to anyone about it. But in order to properly conclude that repentance is purely personal, it must first be demonstrated that sin is purely personal.
Evil thoughts may not always lead to overtly evil deeds, but they always lessen the sinner’s ability to fulfill God’s purpose for his life, and thus his sinful thoughts work to the harm of others. You have never sinned a single sin in your entire life that was not committed against someone. So if sin is never purely personal, then neither is repentance.
While repentance must be first and foremost toward God, it cannot stop there. The range of repentance must be as broad as the impact of your sin. Because you have sinned against others as well as against God, you must be repentant toward them as well.
Pastors who have allowed some secret sin in their lives have sinned against their congregations in doing so. Deacons and elders who sin privately are sinning against the congregation that put them in office. Maybe you are a Sunday school teacher. Any sin that you tolerate in your life is not merely against God but against your students, because they deserve to have a teacher who lives what he or she teaches.
When a statesman sins, he sins against those who elected him. When an employee lives in sin, he lessens his usefulness to his employer.
Whenever there is sin in our lives, someone is damaged by that sin. Thus, it is foolish to say that repentance is merely a personal matter.
7. Repentance is both negative and positive.
Repentance does involve turning from all sin and dead works, but it must be more than that. It requires turning to the living and true God by faith in Jesus Christ, and filling the life with appropriate deeds of righteousness.
Consider the clear words the prophet Daniel spoke to King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon: “Therefore, O king, may my advice be pleasing to you: break away now from your sins by doing righteousness, and from your iniquities by showing mercy to the poor, in case there may be a prolonging of your prosperity” (Daniel 4:27).
Tragically, Nebuchadnezzar, although he had grown to greatly respect Daniel, gave inadequate consideration to his godly counsel. He did not turn from his sins by doing righteousness, and he did not show mercy to the poor.
Twelve months later he was walking on the roof of the royal palace of Babylon. The king reflected and said, “Is this not Babylon the great, which I myself have built as a royal residence by the might of my power and for the glory of my majesty?”
While the word was in the king’s mouth, a voice came from heaven, saying, “King Nebuchadnezzar, to you it is declared: sovereignty has been removed from you, and you will be driven away from mankind, and your dwelling place will be with the beasts of the field. You will be given grass to eat like cattle, and seven periods of time will pass over you until you recognize that the Most High is ruler over the realm of mankind and bestows it on whomever He wishes.”
Immediately the word concerning Nebuchadnezzar was fulfilled; and he was driven away from mankind and began eating grass like the cattle, and his body was drenched with the dew of heaven until his hair had grown like eagles’ feathers and his nails like birds’ claws (Daniel 4:29-33).
There are many who suppose themselves Christians because they think they cannot be charged with any specific violations of known laws. The scriptural focus, however, is not merely on the sinfulness of doing wrong but on the grievous wickedness of failing to do right.
God insists that we both cease to do evil and learn to do good. This is the concept that lies behind John the Baptist’s words, “Therefore bring forth fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:8). This is what Paul had in mind when he insisted that we “should repent and turn to God, performing deeds appropriate to repentance” (Acts 26:20).
Adapted from chapter 5 of Repentance: The First Word of the Gospel, copyright © 2002 by Richard Owen Roberts. Published by Crossway Books, a division of Good News Publishers. All rights reserved.