Like the Edsel or the pay phone, repentance seems to be a relic from our not-too-distant past. Repentance was once a part of the call to conversion. Preachers called for repentance with tears in their eyes. The stakes were high: heaven or hell, eternal life or eternal damnation. Everything hung in the balance of a single word: Repent. We saw the graffiti painted on the rock high above the highway: Jesus Saves! Repent! We saw the funny looking man in the downtown square with a huge poster: REPENT OR PERISH, REPENT AND BE SAVED, or simply REPENT! But, again, repentance seems to be gone with the wind of a more marketable gospel. Repentance offends us or embarrasses us. We’re more into passion and positive thoughts, the pursuit of justice and the purity of the environment.
Given a choice we’ll take Joel Osteen over the prophet Joel. The latter tells us to put on sackcloth and lament. He tells us to fast and weep and mourn over our sins. The other Joel tells us to be optimistic: Choosing to be positive… is going to determine how you’re going to live your life. That message goes down more easily than Turn or burn…
So let me offer a few pertinent thoughts on repentance.
First, repentance is essential. Repentance is necessary for those who want to know God. To put it starkly, without repentance we will not be saved (1 Corinthians 6:9). I talked with a man some time ago who was living with his girlfriend without the benefit of marriage. The man spoke Christianesewith the best of us. He knew and used the vocabulary. He claimed to love Jesus. He had been well-churched over a lifetime. When I asked about his lifestyle, he played the role of the adulteress in Proverbs 30:20. He looked at me, incredulously, and said, I have done no wrong. But to come to God is to leave our sins. To be saved we must repent. To be converted means that we have left behind the vain things of our lives and turned to the living God (Acts 4:15). As the Westminster Confession of Faith has it,Repentance is an evangelical grace. By it we see the filthiness and odiousnessof our sins. The grace of God causes us to grieve over our sins and to turn from them toward him!
Second, repentance is unnatural. It is a gift from God. By myself I would never repent. I would never even see my need to repent. I am blinded by pride to my shortfalls and deaf to my need of a Savior. I am actually doing quite well, thank you. No, repentance is not natural. That’s why the apostle Paul spoke of God granting repentance unto life to those who are opposed to the gospel (2 Timothy 2:24). God enables us to repent. As Ulrich Zwingli, the champion of the Protestant Reformation in Switzerland, observed, repentance comes when we blush and are ashamedof those things we formerly delighted in doing. And this conviction of sin is entirely the result of God’s touch on our hearts.
Third, repentance is ongoing. We Christians are called to a life of repentance. A slogan that came out of the Reformation—ecclesia semper reformans, semper reformanda— is fancy talk for The church, reformed and always reforming. In other words, it is not that the church gets reformed and then has it all right. No, the church is always in need of reformation, refinement, retooling. Similarly, you and I are always in need of repentance. We don’t repent, get baptized, and then walk down the road of the Christian life without encountering potholes and experiencing setbacks. Instead, we fall on our faces as we slip on the black ice of our sinful nature. But then we repent. We get up, and we keep on walking. We keep finding that our sins and our sinfulness went deeper than we ever thought and that our need for grace is greater than we ever imagined.
Fourth, repentance is comprehensive. It is not so much that we repent of our individual sins; it’s that we repent of our sinfulness. No one puts this better than the nineteenth-century English preacher Charles Spurgeon:
We repent of the sin of our nature as well as the sin of our practice. We bemoan sin within us and without us. We repent of sin itself as being an insult to God. Anything short of this is a mere surface repentance, and not a repentance which reaches to the bottom of the mischief. Repentance of the evil act, and not of the evil heart, is like men pumping water out of a leaky vessel, but forgetting to stop the leak. Some would dam up the stream, but leave the fountain still flowing; they would remove the eruption from the skin, but leave the disease in the flesh.
Biblical repentance leads us to beat our breasts and say, Lord, be merciful to me… a sinner.
Fifth, repentance leads to a changed life. The danger of repentance is that if you find yourself doing it too often, you actually haven’t done it at all—and if you repent only once, you have missed it by a country mile. We can and should be making progress in personal holiness even as we keep making new discoveries about our sinfulness and our sin. William Plumer said this:
A true penitent also reforms. A holy life is the invariable fruit of genuine repentance.… He does not really confess sin who does not forsake it. He who hates sin turns from it. It was not the habit of David’s life to commit murder and adultery, though he once did both; nor of Peter to deny his Lord, and curse and swear, though he was once guilty of both these. A true penitent is not willing to be always sinning and repenting.
Søren Kierkegaard, the famous Danish philosopher of the early nineteenth century, did much of his musing in parables. One time Kierkegaard asked his readers to imagine a certain laxative: a full dose would produce the desired effect, but a half-dose would produce constipation. Imagine, Kierkegaard wrote, someone who for some reason—perhaps because there is not enough for a full dose or because it is feared that a full dose will be too strong—imagine someone takes a half dose of this medicine. After all, the person surmises, At least it’s something…
Kierkegaard lamented, What a tragedy! The half-dose of medicine makes the condition worse! Then he made his point: The greatest danger to Christianity is, I contend, not heresies, heterodoxies, not atheists, not profane secularism—no, but the kind of orthodoxy which is cordial drivel, mediocrity served up sweet. There is nothing that so insidiously displaces the majestic as cordiality.
Religion without repentance is cordial drivel. Christian faith without repentance is the half-dose that destroys us. As the prophet Isaiah said, Seek the Lord while he may be found; call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the Lord, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon (Isaiah 55:6-7). So let us be people who are sorry for our sins, repenting of our sinfulness as well as those sins, and being restored by the grace of God that leads us in a life in him that is truly worth living.