I do not know if it is a fair representation, but I wonder if a fair number of people think simply of a loud and brash preacher pounding on the pulpit and telling the people, “Repent!” Accompanying this command is a sermon focused on trying to make the listeners feel guilty about the sin in their lives.
To be fair, a feeling of contrition is a part of repentance. If we do not have a sense of guilt about the evil in our lives, we will not know what it is to repent. And if we do not know repentance, we cannot receive forgiveness. For unrepentant people, there can be no eternal change in their lives. They will live with evil and they will die with evil. In fact, without repentance, their eternity will be only evil with no remnant of goodness left in them and for them.
This being said however, there is much more involved with repentance. Repentance is, in fact, a very rich word and concept.
The Origins of Repentance
The ancient Jews believed that the provision of repentance was one of the seven things that God established even before he created the earth. I do not know if this is true, since we are told very little about the activities of God before creation. However, I will say that I also believe that God had the plan of redemption fully in place even before he created man and woman.
We sometimes hear that when Adam and Eve rebelled in the Garden of Eden, God had to suddenly come up with a plan to redeem them, along with others of mankind. Some people make it seem like God’s plan of redeeming man was an afterthought or a “fix” to overcome the problem caused by Satan.
But this is not true. Adam and Eve’s sin, and all of our sin did not and does not come as a surprise to God. He knew all would happen in this way and made provision for it long in advance.
You may want to ask, “If God knew, why did he not prevent it from happening?”
Although God knew that man would rebel, he also knew that the gift of endowing us with a free will, with the ability to choose our own way, was well worth the trouble and the effort. Those who serve God out of freedom of choice will love him as well as serve him. This is what God is really seeking. I have said this on several occasions. The highest calling of men and women is not obedience to God, as important as that is. Our highest calling is to love God. We obey because we love, not because it is forced upon us. I spoke of all of this just last week in church.
It is the concept of love more than the concept of obedience that drives the need and the desire to repent. To the Hebrew speaking people of the Old Testament, the concept of repentance was embodied in two words. Both of these Hebrew words are translated as “repent” in our English Bibles.
A Description of Repentance
The first of these words is nacham. Nacham means to lament and to grieve over one’s own wrong doing. It means to be sorry. This of course is part of repentance, but does not give the complete picture.
In addition to this feeling of remorse is a determination to do better. This new determination involves a change in one’s thinking. This change that comes about in one’s mind is what the other Hebrew word also entails. This word is shuv. This word actually is used to define an action that is quite physical. For instance, it describes the actions of a person who is walking determinably in a certain direction, but who then suddenly comes to a stop, turns around, and then goes back in the direction from which he first came. The word means to return.
The Remorse of Repentance
Contrary to repentance is pride. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day, for instance, did not see a great need for repentance in themselves. They instead felt great pride in their reputation in the public eye. They depended upon their reputation to give them a sense of self-affirmation. They thought themselves the examples that others should emulate.
But Jesus thought differently about them. He told the story of two men who went to the temple to pray (Luke 18:10-14)). One of these was a Pharisee, the other a tax-gatherer.
No one likes to pay taxes, so just the fact that the man was a tax gatherer was already two strikes against him. But tax gatherers in that day were also most often dishonest, demanding more money from the people than was required and keeping the excess for themselves.
So it was that these two men went up to the temple to pray.
We first hear about the prayer of the Pharisee. Outwardly, he may have directed his prayer to God, but the text says that he prayed to himself. He said, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers.” Then he took a glance over his shoulder and sneered, “Or even like this tax gatherer.” The Pharisee then went on to list his own good qualities in order to demonstrate his righteousness.
Then we hear about the tax gatherer. This man stood some distance away and did not even consider himself worthy to lift his eyes toward heaven. He instead beat on his own breast and cried, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner!”
Notice that he did not say, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner,” but used the definite article – “the sinner.” In his own eyes, he himself was the epitome of sin. He claimed no goodness within himself, but only his need for mercy.
This is nacham. This is feeling remorse for one’s actions. There is no rationalization or claim to righteousness. There is no pretense. There is no listing of what we see are some good things about us. No comparisons with others that we see as worse than us. There is only a plea for mercy.
Of the two that went to the temple to pray on that day, it was only this man, Jesus said, only the tax-gatherer, who went home justified.
Repentance Calls Us to Return
But as we saw, remorse is only half of repentance. Jesus told another story that illustrates well the other part of a repentant heart. This is another well-known story, often called the story of the Prodigal Son, but I prefer to call it instead the story of The Lost Son, since people often do not know the proper definition of the word prodigal.
In this story, a man had two sons (Luke 15:11-32). The younger of these was tired of living under the direction of his father, and decided to go off on his own. He demanded from his father—and received from him, the share of the inheritance which was to be his entitlement. With this wealth, he left home to go to live in a distant land.
In that land, life was good. At least he thought it was good. But this good life lasted only as long as his money. The son began to be in need. He went to a man of that country for help, and the man gave him a job feeding swine.
But this employer was not a good man. The son was so hungry that the slop that he was feeding the pigs looked pretty good to him. No one in this foreign land was helping him out at all.
Finally, he came to his senses and said to himself, “How many of my father’s hired men have more than enough to eat, but I am dying here with hunger!”
He determined to return to his father. He even rehearsed what he would say to him. “Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me as one of your hired men.”
Of course, you know the story. Instead of making the son a hired hand, the father welcomed him with open arms, rejoicing over the fact that his son had returned.
But do you see that, concerning repentance, the return of the son is a key element to the story? It is the sense of the aspect of repentance that is communicated to us in the Hebrew word shuv. After the son had spent time fleeing from the life of his father, he suddenly stopped in his tracks, turned around, and returned.
True Sorrow Leads to a Return
This is the vital step. I am sure that the son had regrets long before this time. When he ran out of money, he no doubt began to wonder if he had made the right decision. When he put his trust in a man that he probably knew had no motivation to treat him fairly, the son must have regretted having left home. When he became so hungry that he longed to fill his belly with the pods that he was feeding the swine, I am sure that he had great regret and sorrow for his past actions.
Notice that the text says that he longed to fill his belly with the pods. Apparently, he was not actually able to eat them. The owner of the swine valued the lives of the pigs more than he valued the life of this boy. When the son saw the situation away from his father’s house for what it truly was, I am sure that he had great remorse.
However, it was not until he stopped walking on the path that he had placed himself and turned around to return to his father that he had true repentance. He would return to the home of his father. This is shuv, this is the part of repentance that caused him to return.
The New Testament Greek word for repentance is metanoia, which means a change of perception, a new way of thinking. Like the lost son in the foreign land, the repentant person begins to take another look at his life and realizes that he has made some very bad choices in life. Then, with this new change of perspective comes a new way of living.
A Baptism of Repentance
When we are introduced to John the Baptist in the New Testament, we see him preaching repentance. Repentance, in fact, was the very meaning of his baptism. Luke writes that John came “preaching a baptism of repentance and the forgiveness of sins” (Luke 3:3).
“Bring forth fruits in keeping with repentance,” John told the people. “Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father,’ for I say to you that God is able from these stones to raise up children of Abraham” (Luke 3:8).
What John was talking against was the Phariseeic-like ethnic pride of a people who thought that since they had the heritage of Abraham and the patriarchs, they were righteous.
“That means nothing,” John said to them. “If God so desired, he is able to make children of Abraham from these stones!”
That is why, when Jesus spoke to some of the religious leaders of his day, he told them, “I have not come to call the righteous, but the sinners to repentance” (Luke5:32).
The Source of Repentance
There is something else told to us in the New Testament about the repentant heart. This is interesting to me and gives us an appreciation for the sovereignty of God. Interestingly enough, it seems that we do not have the ability within ourselves to simply look at our lives and decide that we must repent, and then to do it. Nor can we convince another person to repent—at least not to truly repent. I cannot stand up here and pound on the pulpit, try to make you feel guilty and tell you to repent. Even the very act of repentance is a gift from God. Repentance is a gift and an ability that can only be given to us by God.
If you look in your Bibles at the fifth chapter of Acts, you will see Peter and the other apostles explaining their actions to the high priest and to the Sanhedrin, or the Jewish ruling body.
Telling them of Jesus, Peter said this: “He is he one whom God exalted to His right hand as a Prince and a Savior, to grant repentance to Israel, and the forgiveness of sins” (Acts 5:31 NAS emphasis added).
Did you notice that? Peter said that one of the things that Jesus came to do was to grant repentance.
Peter lists two things given to us by God, repentance and forgiveness. Certainly, we would see the forgiveness of sins something that must be given to us, or granted us. But according to these words of Peter, even the act of repenting had been granted to the Israelites of his day. Repentance is a gift, given by God.
Some time after this event, Peter again found himself needing to explain his actions. This time however, it was to some of the believers in Jerusalem. Peter had been telling the Gentiles of the area that they also could become followers of Christ. This did not sit well with the Christians who were Jews.
Peter told them of a vision that he had that made clear to him that God wanted the message of the Gospel to be given also to the Gentiles. He also explained that when he did tell them of Jesus Christ, the Gentiles immediately believed and the Holy Spirit came upon them, much as he did on the apostles on the Day of Pentecost.
After listening to the explanation of Peter, the rest of the believers said, “Well then, God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life” (Acts 11:18).
Again, the repentance that they felt had been granted to them by God.
Free to Repent
The very ability to repent is not something that we decide on our own. It is something that is granted to us by God. The Apostle Paul talks about the god of this world (speaking of Satan), having blinded the minds of the unbelievers (2 Corinthians 4:4). People in this situation cannot repent, because they have not been given the ability to do so.
It is only when sight is given to us by God that we can repent. Paul says, “For God who said, ‘Light shall shine out of darkness,’ is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6 NAS).
That is why it would do little good for me to pound on the pulpit, try to make you feel ashamed of your life and tell you to repent. Repentance is not something that I can convince you to do. It must be granted to you by God.
Paul told Timothy to, “Correct those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy 1:25 NAS).
Pride in Opposition to Repentance
As we saw in the stories told by Jesus, nothing fights against repentance as does the feeling of pride. In these present days we are hearing the word “pride” more and more as if it is a good thing. It is used in the sense of a positive self-worth. But this is actually not the true definition of pride. It is a very unfortunate change in the definition of the word.
A healthy self-worth is not the Biblical or even the historical definition of the word pride. Our word for pride come from the Middle English word “prede,” which refers to an “unreasonable self-esteem, especially as one of the deadly sins.”
It is taking pride in one’s sin.
And certainly this is the sense of the word in the Bible. In the New Testament Greek, pride means to see oneself as “being above others.”
Also in the Old Testament, pride is never used in a positive sense: “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18).
This is why the over emphasis of self-pride will always fight against seeing the need for repentance, and it is why the Bible repeatedly warns us against pride.
As always, we can depend upon James of the New Testament to put it plainly without prevarication—without evading the issue and without beating around the bush:
You adulteresses! Do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Therefore, whoever chooses to be a friend of the world renders himself an enemy of God.
Or do you think the Scripture says without reason that the Spirit He caused to dwell in us yearns with envy? But He gives us more grace. This is why it says: “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”
Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn, and weep. Turn your laughter to mourning, and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and He will exalt you. (James 4:4-10 BSB)
This is repentance. This is being granted the ability to repent.
I will never try to convince you to repent of anything in your life. That is what the Holy Spirit does. Instead, my prayer for you is the same as Paul’s was for the Ephesian church, that “the eyes of your heart may be enlightened, so that you may know the hope of His calling, the riches of His glorious inheritance in the saints” (Ephesians 1:18 BSB).
I pray that God will grant you the ability to repent.
As is written by the prophet Isaiah, “Thus says the Lord God…in repentance and rest you shall be saved, in quietness and trust is your strength” (Isaiah 30:15 NAS).
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