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Repentance is a Biblical word. The Old Testament thunders, “Repent, and turn from all your transgressions, so that iniquity will not be your ruin” (Ezekiel 18:30). The New Testament also vigorously exhorts men and women to repent. “Unless you repent you will all likewise perish,” said Jesus (Luke 13:3). “Repent … and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out,” said the Apostle Peter (Acts 3:19). “Now [God] commands all men everywhere to repent,” the Apostle Paul said (Acts 17:30).
The Bible commands it, our wickedness demands it, justice requires it, Christ preached it and God expects it. The divine, unalterable edict is still valid: God commands all people everywhere to repent.
But this theme proclaimed so emphatically in the Bible by prophets and apostles is scarcely mentioned by contemporary preachers. The clear trumpet blast calling men and women to repentance is conspicuous for its absence from the modern pulpit.
We have preached the dignity of humanity instead of our depravity. We have declared our goodness rather than our wickedness. We have vindicated ourselves rather than confessed our guilt. We have made of ourselves, despite all of our inherent sin and evil, little cherubs of perfection with halos on our heads, harps in our hands and wings on our shoulders.
Gone is the mourner’s bench; gone are the tear-stained cheeks of godly sorrow for sin; and gone is the joy in Heaven over wanderers returning to the Father’s house.
None of us wants to accept blame for our sins. But either the Bible is wrong or we are wrong. When we look at the fruits of this unrepentant generation, I am convinced that we need to blow a loud blast on the trumpet of Biblical repentance.
What is repentance? We might do well to notice first what it is not.
First, repentance is not penance. Penance is the voluntary suffering of punishment for sin and does not necessarily involve a change of character or conduct. People who lie on a bed of spikes or throw themselves headlong on the ground are doing penance, but this act does not mean that their guilt has been absolved.
Second, repentance is not remorse. Judas was remorseful over his sin of betrayal of the Son of God, but his shallow regret led to suicide instead of to God, because remorse is not true repentance.
Third, repentance is not self-condemnation. You may hate yourself for your sinfulness, but self-condemnation only opens wider the wounds of guilt and despair. We should hate our sins, not ourselves. Hate your false ways, hate your vain thoughts, hate your evil passions, hate your lying, hate your covetousness, hate your greed, but do not hate yourself. Self-hatred leads to self-destruction, and it is wrong to destroy that which was created in God’s image. Repentance is not self-condemnation.
Then what is repentance? Repentance is not a word of weakness but a word of power and action. It is not a self-effacing emotion, but a word of heroic resolve. It is an act that breaks the chains of captive sinners and sets Heaven to singing.
The Bible says, “There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine just persons who need no repentance” (Luke 15:7).
There are three elements in genuine repentance. First, there is conviction. You must know what is right before you can know what is wrong. If you get on the wrong road, you will never know it until you have some knowledge of the right road. You stray off the highway, and first you miss the familiar markings, the customary scenery, and then suddenly the conviction strikes you that you have lost your way. There can be no turning back unless first there is a conviction that you are going the wrong way.
Spiritual conviction is like that. It is a signpost planted in the heart saying, “Stop. Look. Listen! Danger ahead!” The Spirit of God, your conscience and your better judgment all join to warn, “Detour! Change! You’re on the wrong road!” If you have this conviction, be thankful. God is waving the red flag, directing you to a proper path. Before men and women can come to the cross of Christ and have their sins forgiven, they must be convicted of their sins, and that convicting work is done by the Holy Spirit upon the soul.
The second element of true repentance is contrition. The Bible says, “The Lord is near to those who have a broken heart, and saves such as have a contrite spirit” (Psalm 34:18). Contrition, or “godly sorrow,” as it is called in 2 Corinthians 7:10, is not a shallow sentiment nor empty emotion. It is a sincere regret over past sins and an earnest desire to walk in a new path of righteousness.
Peter, that rugged man who meant so well and erred so often, when he denied his Lord “went out and wept bitterly” (Matthew 26:75). He was never more lovable nor more admirable than when he stood there alone, apart from the crowd, with his frame trembling as the hot tears of contrition ran down his cheeks. In his heart was a noble resolve to live for the One who would die for him. Brokenness, with its godly sorrow for sin, is the second step toward true repentance.
Third, repentance carries with it the idea of changing—changing your mind, changing your attitude, changing your ways. The Bible says, “For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation” (2 Corinthians 7:10). If we are truly repentant, our will is brought into action and we will make a reversal of direction. And God, seeing that we are in earnest, gives us the gift of eternal life.
God has given the Lord Jesus Christ to die on the cross and shed His blood for our sins. God has raised Him from the dead. That provides the grounds for our salvation. The Holy Spirit acts upon our dead souls. That is God’s first step in convicting. God even helps us to repent. We become so contrite over our sins that we decide to change our way of living.
Have you repented? Have you changed? Is your life different from how it used to be? God’s commands to repent are not capricious. It is not that He wants to see people groveling in subjection before Him. In His imperative call for people to repent, He has their welfare and happiness as His motive. “For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation.” Repentance is a necessary step to salvation.
The repentant heart is the one that God can use. Peter repented, and he became a mighty rock in the structure of the church. David repented, and his joy broke forth in the music of the Psalms. Jonah repented, and a great city heard the Gospel and turned to God. Jacob repented, and God made him an ancestor of the Messiah, the Savior. Paul repented, and God used him to take the light of the Gospel to a pagan world.
I have seen hundreds and thousands of lives changed by the power of Christ. And when men and women have come in sincere repentance and trusting faith, their lives, their families, their businesses—everything—changes.
Repentance is your part, with God’s help. The Bible says in Acts 3:19, “Repent … and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out.” When you sincerely repent, God does the converting and He blots out your sins.
If the world ever needed a spiritual awakening, it is now. The destiny of nations and individuals has been changed when men and women daring to repent of their sins have turned to Jesus Christ by faith. Sin has cankered many civilizations, and at this moment it threatens to destroy ours.
There is hope, but it is only in God. There is forgiveness, but it can only be found at the foot of the cross, where Christ died for our sins. “Repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord.” This is God’s promise in Acts 3:19.
Repentance and faith go hand in hand. You cannot have saving repentance unless it is accompanied by saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. We must receive Christ by faith.
Has there been a moment in your life when you repented of sin and then by faith received the Lord Jesus Christ? If not, you can today. Your life can be changed. Your sins can be forgiven. You can live a new life. You can have the assurance that if you died at this moment, you would go to Heaven. Will you repent now? Will you receive Him as your Savior? ©1967, 1996 (revised 1999) BGEA
Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New King James Version.
Photo: Russ Busby/©1969 BGEA
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