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What Is Repentance?

James R. Davis

How does radical change occur? A person cannot experience true and enduring change of life direction without repentance. Josh Billings says that most people repent of their sins by "thanking God they ain't so wicked as their neighbors."

Just deciding to make a change is seldom sufficient--as anyone who has tried to break a simple habit can testify. We must be willing to accept the truth about ourselves. Once we accept the truth about ourselves, repentance is a doorway to becoming what God is calling us to be. It is the doorway to true change. Repentance almost always involves painful personal insights. The impulse to repent comes from God, but we must determine as an act of the will to see the new reality He reveals to us.

Several years ago a prominent underworld figure became a Christian. The man supposedly accepted the Lord, but as the months passed his lifestyle remained the same. When confronted with this fact, the gangster said that no one had told him that in saying yes to Jesus he would be turning his back on his former life. After all, he reasoned, there were Christian football players, Christian cowboys, Christian politicians--why not a Christian gangster? Only then did they explain the need for repentance. Upon hearing this, the man wanted nothing more to do with Christianity.

John Calvin said, "Let everyone search himself and he will find that he labors under this evil--that he would rather rend his garment than his heart." How true! Calvin was thinking of that time when God brought His people Israel to repentance by sending a vast army of locusts to invade the land. All vegetation was consumed. Fruit trees and gardens were stripped bare. Both man and animals languished under the effects of this widespread devastation. The prophet Joel seized the occasion to call Israel to repentance, to "rend your heart, and not your garments." According to the record, they heeded his warning and turned from their sin (Joel 3:18-19).

Acts 17:30
In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. (NIV)

I. The Importance of Repentance

A. "What should our attitude and posture be as we approach God--repentance or celebration? Jeremiah tells us that those who come into God's presence will do so with tambourines and dancing (31:4), but notice what Jeremiah says next: They shall come up to Zion with weeping and supplication (31:9). The fact is, as we approach God's awesome presence, we need a great capacity to do both: to leap with unspeakable joy, and to weep in agonizing prayers of supplication and repentance." --Gerrit Gustafson (in Worship Today, Sep/Oct 1993)

1. J. W. McGarvey, said that if God were giving special miraculous gifts today, he would not ask for the gift of healing, or prophecy, or tongues. Rather, he said, he would ask for the power, above everything else, to cause men to repent. The difficulty is to induce men to repent. If we had the power to induce men to repent, it would be the greatest power

Matthew 4:17
From that time on Jesus began to preach, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near." (NIV)

2. When Jesus was bidding farewell, or about to bid farewell, to Galilee, where the most of His might works were done, he upbraided the cities whose people had heard Him most, it was not because they did not believe; it was not because they refused to be baptized by John; but it was because they did not repent. With all the tremendous efforts that He had put forth to bring them to repentance, He had failed.

Matthew 11:20-25
Then Jesus began to denounce the cities in which most of his miracles had been performed, because they did not repent. "Woe to you, Korazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted up to the skies? No, you will go down to the depths. If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you." At that time Jesus said, "I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. (NIV)

B. Without repentance there is no salvation. It is important to know all about repentance. We need to know what repentance is so that we may not be mistaken. It is important to know what repentance is so that it might be brought about in our own lives. Repentance is one thing that man does which affects heaven.

Luke 15:10
In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents." (NIV)

1. Repentance should be preached.

Luke 24:46-53
He told them, "This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high." When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God. (NIV)

2. Repentance is a universal command. All must turn from a life of sin to a life of righteousness if they wish to be saved.  Apostles preached repentance.

Acts 2:37-39
When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, "Brothers, what shall we do?" Peter replied, "Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off-- for all whom the Lord our God will call." (NIV)

Acts 3:19-20
Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord, and that he may send the Christ, who has been appointed for you-- even Jesus. (NIV)

Acts 17:30-31 In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead." (NIV)

C. Repentance not only for alien sinners. "The sermon is the thunderbolt hurled from heaven to blast unrepentant sinners but more so righteous saints." --Martin Luther (quoted in Leadership, Wint 1994)

Luke 13:2-9
Jesus answered, "Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them-- do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish." Then he told this parable: "A man had a fig tree, planted in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it, but did not find any. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, 'For three years now I've been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven't found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?' "'Sir,' the man replied, 'leave it alone for one more year, and I'll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.'" (NIV)

Matthew 3:7-12
But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.' I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. "I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire. (NIV)

Acts 8:18-24
When Simon saw that the Spirit was given at the laying on of the apostles' hands, he offered them money and said, "Give me also this ability so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit." Peter answered: "May your money perish with you, because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money! You have no part or share in this ministry, because your heart is not right before God. Repent of this wickedness and pray to the Lord. Perhaps he will forgive you for having such a thought in your heart. For I see that you are full of bitterness and captive to sin." Then Simon answered, "Pray to the Lord for me so that nothing you have said may happen to me." (NIV)

I. What is Repentance.

A. What repentance is not? There is a lot of misunderstanding concerning repentance. Some religious groups require self-privation and torture themselves as they do penance. Some require groanings and tears and outcries -- Mourners bench.

1. Repentance is not just being sorry for sin.

a. Two boys who broke windshield of a fellow's car. They were very arrogant about what they had done. The fellow told them that he was going to call the sheriff. They changed their attitude. They were very sorry. Sorrow of the world involved but there was no repentance.

b. Judas was sorrowful, but he never genuinely repented.

Matthew 27:3
When Judas, who had betrayed him, saw that Jesus was condemned, he was seized with remorse and returned the thirty silver coins to the chief priests and the elders. (NIV)

2. Repentance not merely a conviction of sin.

Luke 15:17
"When he came to his senses, he said, 'How many of my father's hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! (NIV)

Acts 2:37
When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, "Brothers, what shall we do?" (NIV)

Acts 2:38
Peter replied, "Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. (NIV)

3. I have seen people visibly shaken, ashamed of their sinful life, convicted! But they never become a Christian.

a. Saul's conviction.

1 Samuel 15:22-26
Why did you not obey the LORD? Why did you pounce on the plunder and do evil in the eyes of the LORD?" "But I did obey the LORD," Saul said. "I went on the mission the LORD assigned me. I completely destroyed the Amalekites and brought back Agag their king. The soldiers took sheep and cattle from the plunder, the best of what was devoted to God, in order to sacrifice them to the LORD your God at Gilgal." But Samuel replied: "Does the LORD delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the voice of the LORD? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams. For rebellion is like the sin of divination, and arrogance like the evil of idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the LORD, he has rejected you as king." (NIV)

b. David

2 Samuel 12:12-14
You did it in secret, but I will do this thing in broad daylight before all Israel.'" Then David said to Nathan, "I have sinned against the LORD." Nathan replied, "The LORD has taken away your sin. You are not going to die. But because by doing this you have made the enemies of the LORD show utter contempt, the son born to you will die." (NIV)

Psalms 51:1-10
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are proved right when you speak and justified when you judge. Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me. Surely you desire truth in the inner parts; you teach me wisdom in the inmost place. Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones you have crushed rejoice. Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquity. Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. (NIV)

4. Repentance is not just being afraid.

a. Fear is important.

Ecclesiastes 12:13
Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole of man. (NIV)

Romans 3:18
"There is no fear of God before their eyes." (NIV)

b. Felix trembled but never repented.

Acts 24:25
As Paul discoursed on righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come, Felix was afraid and said, "That's enough for now! You may leave. When I find it convenient, I will send for you." (NIV)

5. Repentance is not reformation.

a. Men stop drinking because of a liver disease.  Stop stealing -- law clamping down. Stop immorality - fear of disease.

b. One may stop stealing but keep lying. This is not repentance. Many times we think since we have broken off one sin, then we have repented. It is not a piece meal proposition. It will do no good to cut off a limb on a tree when the whole tree needs to be cut down. We must lay the ax at the root.

Matthew 3:6-10
Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, `We have Abraham as our father.' I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. (NIV)

c. Reformation is not repentance; instead it is a fruit of repentance.

Matthew 3:8
Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. (NIV)

Repentance is not just "turning away from," it is "turning to" that which is right. The word can mean, "to fetch back home." It can be translated "to convert" or "to exchange." Some substitutes for repentance: "Poor me," "whoops," "what about my time on probation?" "learned lots." "Repentance is not something we try for a while to see if it works. In repentance, we voluntarily give up our right to have other options." "Repentance" by Daniel A Brown. Charisma & Christian Life, Nov 1988. Pages 60-65.

6. Repentance is not just the covering up of sin. You might have a house with termites and you may fix the damage but you don't remove the termites. Sin is only covered up when it is forgiven.

Numbers 32:23
"But if you fail to do this, you will be sinning against the LORD; and you may be sure that your sin will find you out. (NIV)

Psalms 32:2
Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. 2 Blessed is the man whose sin the LORD does not count against him and in whose spirit is no deceit. (NIV)

7. Repentance is not merely confession.

B. What is repentance?

1. Behavioral scientists talk about the "theory of dissonance" which says that what one thinks and what one does must agree, otherwise dissonance or disharmony results. For most, that dissonance manifests itself as a feeling of uneasiness, a lack of peace. The human response to dissonance is to get rid of it. One way or another, peace must be restored. That may mean getting our actions to jibe with our thinking, or it may mean revising our thinking to fit our actions. This is how Christians backslide. Thinking slips to agree with action or action slips to agree with an error of mind. For this reason, it is dangerous to rely heavily on inner peace as a guide to right or wrong. There is only one reliable guide for moral decisions, and that is the Word of God. In Rev. 2, the church at Ephesus is praised for its good deeds, hard work, and persistence and recognized for fighting wickedness and apostasy. Somewhere along the line, however, this church lost its "first love." Perhaps it was so busy fighting the bad guys that it neglected loving the good guys. Perhaps it even neglected loving God. The solution offered was to "repent [change your thinking] and do the things you did at first." "For me to know right but to do wrong will result in either repentance or backsliding." One way or another, I will find peace. It may come through compromise and a decision to live with sin. It may come through adjusting either my thinking or behavior to bring it in line with God's Word. Two routes to inner peace; two very different results. "Is inner peace a reliable guide to right and wrong?" by Marlin Howe. Pulpit Helps, May 1994(Vol 19, No 5). Page 10.

2. J. W. McGarvey said: "Repentance is something that stands in between sorrow for sin and the change of life in which sins are abandoned and a better course of conduct begins.... When a man is so thoroughly filled with sorrow and mourning and self-reproach on account of his sins that his will is subdued to the will of God, and he says, I will sin no more, I will hereafter submit to the will of God, this results in a change of life, and it is repentance, a change of will in regard to sin."

3. Repentance is a change of will. We know that repentance has taken place when one begins to act like a Christian.

Matthew 4:17
From that time on Jesus began to preach, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near."

4. Repentance has to do with Godly sorrow.

The kind of remorse that comes only because we get caught doing wrong is only self-pity, the "false half of repentance," says Moishe Rosen. Recognition of our guilt is only a starting place.

At the gateway to the famous Parthenon in ancient Athens stood an altar dedicated to TEARS. No sacrifices were consumed there; no offerings were made. It was simply a place where distressed individuals bowed to weep out their woe. Although this venting of pent-up emotions may have given some psychological relief, it failed to touch their basic need.

We must have godly sorrow. Repentance must be accompanied by the action of changing our direction. It means we see God as He is, and our sins as God sees them.

2 Corinthians 7:10
Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. (NIV)

Matthew 5:1ff

1 Corinthians 15:10
But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them-- yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me. (NIV)

4. Repentance means to forsake your sin. In an interesting article that examined the accomplishments of Dr. Robert Good in the field of cancer research, he was described as a hard-driving individual with an enormous faculty for new, stimulating ideas and the ability to make use of any information that came to him. The most impressive thing, however, was a statement that credited Dr. Good with a willingness to recognize an error and abandon it faster than anyone else in medical research. An associate said, "Dr. Good never gets married to his hypotheses, so he doesn't go through the pangs of divorce when one is proven wrong."

Romans 6:1
What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? (NIV)

James 2:26
As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead. (NIV)

II. Motivation to repent.

How does one come to a point that one says, "Oh, Lord, not my will, but thine be done."?

A. The Lord pointed to the judgement.

Luke 10:10-16
But when you enter a town and are not welcomed, go into its streets and say, 'Even the dust of your town that sticks to our feet we wipe off against you. Yet be sure of this: The kingdom of God is near.' I tell you, it will be more bearable on that day for Sodom than for that town. "Woe to you, Korazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. But it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon at the judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted up to the skies? No, you will go down to the depths. "He who listens to you listens to me; he who rejects you rejects me; but he who rejects me rejects him who sent me." (NIV)

Luke 3:7-9
John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? poduce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.' For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire." (NIV)

Jonah 3:4-10
On the first day, Jonah started into the city. He proclaimed: "Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned." The Ninevites believed God. They declared a fast, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth. When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. Then he issued a proclamation in Nineveh: "By the decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let any man or beast, herd or flock, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish." hen God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened. (NIV)

B. Judge the world in righteousness, therefore all unrighteousness will be condemned. Have you as a sinner ever sat down and thoughtfully considered the consequences of sin.

Acts 17:30-31
In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead." (NIV)

Hebrews 3:13
But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin's deceitfulness. (NIV)

B. The goodness of God. Has anyone who is a sinner ever truly reflected upon the judgment and goodness of God? Many shut their Bible when they begin to read of these verses.

Romans 2:4
Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance and patience, not realizing that God's kindness leads you toward repentance? (NIV)

2 Peter 3:9-10
The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare. (NIV)

Romans 5:8
While we were yet sinners.

D. How is repentance brought about?

Jonah 3:4-10

Jonah preached
They believed (judgment)
They turned from evil. Christ said they repented at the preaching of Jonah. (Mt. 12:41.)
Believed preaching of Jonah -- poor in spirit.
Sorrow for rebellious life -- mourning over sin
Change of will respecting their conduct -- meekness
Reformed their lives -- hunger and thirst after righteousness

E. Godly sorrow.

2 Corinthians 7:10-11
Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done. At every point you have proved yourselves to be innocent in this matter. (NIV)

Repentance is turning from all known sin in order to turn from all sin when it becomes known. A willingness to repent when we are wrong proves our innocence. Sin may deceive, but a willingness to recognize the deception and turn from deception through repentance is the key to forgiveness.

Conclusion:

We need His power to change, but He needs our cooperation. Without God we can't change, but He "can't" change us unless we submit our wills.

The starting place is to honestly admit your failures and weakness to God. It is easier to listen to the humanistic hogwash that "You can do it!" than it is to be broken and humbled before the Almighty. Merely accepting God as your power source while insisting that He change you on your own terms will not work. If you admit your inability to change yourself, God will supply strength and encouragement through His Word, His people, and His Spirit.

Studying the Bible "academically" doesn't help, but allowing the Scriptures to penetrate your shell and break down your defenses will facilitate change. God will bring other Christians into your life to affirm and to challenge you. The Holy Spirit Himself will support you and intercede on your behalf.

It is discouraging to realize that change is so difficult, that self-reliance can't cut it, and that we must be broken, but the balancing truth is that God loves us deeply, wants to forgive us, and makes His power available to change us into what He wants us to be. ("The truth about change" by Chris Thurman. Today's Better Life, Sum 1992. Pages 38-41. )
 
 

 

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