- Keith Harris
Who wants to talk about repentance? None of us do. But as we think about the fundamentals of the Faith, there’s a place where we must have this discussion. We understand who God is. He is the existing one who has in fact spoken. We know that there is truth, and God’s word is truth. But in the context of faith, we must address the necessity of repentance. Repentance comes up as we intersect the word of God. The word demands a reaction. The word helps us to see ourselves for who we are in light of who God is. When we reach the point of truly seeing the reality of God’s love, we are forced to examine our response to him. It is often at this point of reflection that we understand more fully our own plight…our deep need for salvation. Before salvation is realized, we must first repent. But who wants to talk about repentance? None of us do…maybe because we are too prideful to risk embarrassment and potential chastisement from others. This may be where our aversity to repentance lies…our pride.
If we are honest with ourselves, we will admit that we really do not like being told we are wrong, or that we have done something wrong. Maybe it has something to do with our being humbled. We do not mind telling others that we are going to humble ourselves…but when we are humbled by someone else, we get fighting mad. Humility is a funny thing. I once heard about a man who was writing a book on humility in his life. His title for the book was My Amazingly Glorious Humility. The truth is, we all make mistakes, we all sin and fall short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23). So should we really be so hung up on others looking down on us when we acknowledge our wrongdoing and seek to turn our lives around?
The primary word used in the New Testament for our English word, repentance, is the Greek word metanoia. It is understood as representing a change of mind with the subtle nuance of remorse. It is a turning away due to an understanding of the need for change. And from the root of this word we also get our English word, penitent. Penitence is itself a humbling. It is offering oneself in humble submission before God, acknowledging our need for his infinite grace and mercy, which leads us back to repentance. Repentance is about submission…it’s about change…it’s about transformation.
Jesus came with a message of repentance. “Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham” (Luke 3:8). It’s as if Jesus is saying, “Don’t swell yourself up with a prideful spirit. Humble yourself.” Jesus also says, “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:32). And again, “I tell you…unless you repent, you will all likewise perish… I tell you…unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3, 5). “Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out…” (Acts 3:19). Repentance is a turning due to an understanding of the need for change. It’s a change of heart that leads to a change of life. Paul says in Acts 17:30, “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.”
Repentance is always a change of will. It’s transforming my will into God’s will. We get so caught up in what we want, what we desire, that it seems we often forget about what it is that God wants to do through us. Repentance is about recognizing God’s will for me…and about me allowing God’s will to reign supreme.
Repentance is not about telling God something he needs to know. Because God is omniscient, we are often silent. We keep it to ourselves. We figure, if God already knows, what’s the point in verbalizing it? The truth is, God does already know. There is nothing we can tell God that will enlighten him. He is all-knowing. So we cannot understand our repenting as telling God something he needs to know.
Repentance is about saying something to God. It’s about turning, or re-turning, to God. It’s an open statement to God that we desire his will for our lives. We no longer want to walk our own path. We submit ourselves to him. It’s a confession of our belief that he, and he alone, is sovereign. When we repent, we say to God, “God, I am throwing myself at your merciful feet.” And the God of mercy hears our cries, responds with open arms, and receives us back as his beloved children.
Repentance is about saying something that I need to hear myself say. Only secrets can’t be helped. My verbal submission to God strengthens me simply by my speaking. We need to hear ourselves acknowledging our need for transformation. We need to hear ourselves acknowledging our deep need for God to rule our lives once again. Repentance is that verbal expression of my desire for God and his will to govern my life…and we desperately need to hear ourselves say that.
Sadly we fail at repentance. Maybe because we are embarrassed. Maybe because we don’t want to come across as a weak follower of Christ. Maybe because we believe we can hide from God. We fail at repentance in a number of ways.
We fail at repentance when we discount our sin instead of admitting it. “So I was angry and said some things I shouldn’t have said…It’s not like I murdered someone…Don’t make such a big deal of it…”
We fail at repentance when we justify our sin rather than account for it. “It’s okay because…” “It must be okay…I mean, surely God wants me to be happy…so it must be okay.”
We fail at repentance when we excuse our sin rather than turn away from it. “It’s not my fault because…it’s just who I am.” “It’s not my fault…I had a really difficult childhood…and this is how it affected me.” “It’s not my fault…just listen to what they did to me…”
Repentance is fundamental to Christianity because submission is fundamental to Christianity, and repentance is all about submission. The goodness of God doesn’t grant permission to sin. The goodness of God should motivate us to repent. Romans 2:4 says, “Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” Paul says, “For even if I made you grieve with my letter, I do not regret it—though I did regret it, for I see that that letter grieved you, though only for a while. As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting. For you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no loss through us. For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death” (2 Corinthians 7:8-10). As we struggle through life, we become keenly aware of the challenges of living according to the will of God. Our will trumps God’s will so often. But our struggle is the same struggle the great Apostle Paul encountered. Paul said he knew the good he should do…but he didn’t do it. He said he knew the evil he should avoid…but he didn’t. In the larger context of Romans 7, Paul encourages us to see the reality of allowing God’s Spirit…God’s will…to reign supreme in our lives. But when we struggle and fail, may we recognize our shortcomings and turn to God with a penitent heart.