What does it mean to repent? How can a person repent of past wrongs? Why does he repent? Can you commit a sin which goes beyond repentance? What happens within you when you repent? With God? Does repentance blot out the pain and damage of the error? Such piercing questions make us a little uncomfortable, don't they? Our lower nature likes to make us think that we are perfect, that we need no change in our attitudes or conduct. We react with nervous insecurity at the thought of being wrong and needing to repent, to change. Once we admit our wrong, we question God's reaction, as if our personal acknowledgment of wrong revealed it to God for the first time. Will he forgive? Will he cast us off forever? Will he hold the weight of sin against us for the remainder of our life?
"I have sinned," the confession of the repentant prodigal son who contemplated his return home, may well be the three most difficult words we ever uttered. Oh, its easy enough to confess to generic sin. "We are all sinners." "We all inherited a sinful nature from Adam." Or perhaps we offer the lamest confession of all, "I feel like a great sinner." All of these thoughts come easy enough into words, but to examine a particular action in our life and stand up before God with that confession, "I have sinned," chokes in our fearful minds.
By this reaction to personal sin in our lives, we reveal a low esteem for God and his tender mercy. We also cut ourselves off from the most healing process we could possibly experience. The prodigal son's sincere honest confession that he had sinned, accompanied by an equally sincere prayer for forgiveness, marked the beginning of the father's celebration, the happiest moment in that poor prodigal's life. "But the father said to his servants, Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet," Lu 15:22. Likewise, repentance and the accompanying honest confession of sin before God represents the most healing action a penitent sinner ever imagined. I dedicate this work to all of those suffering sinners who live with sin in their lives, but who also live with a burning conviction to improve their conduct and live closer to God. As a festering boil can only heal by being lanced, permitting the poison to drain out of the wound, so legitimate biblical repentance leads the way to inner healing. It heals the hurting soul wounded by sin. It heals the relationship with God and with those who were hurt by the sin.
I have no question that abortion is one of the worst sins of the Twentieth Century, most vividly attested by many who practiced it in desperation. But how do you help a woman who gave way to an abortion in her earlier years, but now realizes the sinfulness of that deed? Without a doubt, homosexuality is not an acceptable "Alternate lifestyle," but an abominable sin before God. How do you deal with someone who accepts this fact, but struggles with those mental tendencies? Often, religious leaders fight against divorce and remarriage, emphasizing mostly the sin of remarriage. Perhaps we wait too long by opposing remarriage. According to Mal 2:16, God hates "Putting away," divorce. Regardless of our hair-splitting wranglings over remarriage, we should agree on the issue of divorce and its painful violation of God's marriage law. But how do you deal with a man or woman whose spouse recklessly walked away from the marriage? What do you tell someone who thoughtlessly married before they understood the meaning of marriage and its lifetime commitment, especially when they have lived a God-honoring life since that time? Will I answer all of these questions to your satisfaction in this series? I doubt it, but I hope our brief stroll together through the Bible's teaching on repentance will stimulate our minds toward a better understanding of God and his mercy toward us. Perhaps a better understanding of his tender mercy will help us more deeply respect the value of repentance and its cleansing power in our lives.
We conveniently push repentance off to the side of our theology by making it a once in a lifetime action at the beginning of our public profession of faith. We need to repent before we are baptized. True as that need is, we also need to repent every day we live. Only by continual repentance can we progress in godliness, in an ever-growing life which makes God and his righteousness our top priority. Another convenient ploy in modern religion is to make repentance necessary for salvation, but to dismiss it for effective discipleship. This attitude robs the Christian of the dynamic power which should accompany our personal witness to God in daily conduct. Thus, many churches mention repentance only in context of a one-time action or an early step in their notion of salvation by human works. Without repentance, discipleship dies. It regresses into a stifled, ritual of arrogance and self-justification.
Many sincere Christians fear to discuss repentance freely for fear that they will appear too easy on sin, too tolerant of error. I urge that all of us confront that tendency in ourselves by a study of our Lord and his attitude toward repentant sinners. He never turned a cold, legalistic shoulder against them. Neither did he tolerate or condone their sins. He warmly and lovingly forgave them, turned them around, and sent them on their way, his way, rejoicing. The repentant soul who has experienced God's forgiveness of his sin will hate that sin more deeply than anyone else. He will work harder to avoid that sin and live a godly life than most of those who have not experienced such a blessing. The reformed smoker or alcoholic understands the danger of those past habits and typically opposes them more vigorously than the person who never had a problem with them. Likewise, the repentant, forgiven sinner understands by experience the despicable nature of his sins and will stand tall for godliness.
May God bless us to respect the legitimate need for repentance as a permanent attribute of our Christian profession. May we use it often to purge and improve the fruitfulness of our discipleship. And may we never reach the stagnant mental state in which we deceive ourselves into thinking that we have no need to repent.
Joseph R. Holder
17262 Cold Spring Circle
Riverside, California 92503
Chapter 1 - God Commands Men to Repent
Chapter 2 - A Profession of Faith Requires Repentance
Chapter 3 - God Gives a Repentant Disposition
Chapter 4 - Repentance Deals With Spiritual Conduct
Chapter 5 - The Baptism of Repentance
Chapter 6 - Repentance Does Not Stand Alone