There is a growing trend today among the denominational world that has to do with what is sometimes the most overlooked step in the plan of salvation. It is unappreciated, not always followed, and is being attacked by unbelievers passionately. What I’m talking about is repentance, a word mentioned about 140 times in the Bible, and whose synonyms are mentioned several hundred more times. A word that is powerful in its true meaning. A word which evokes the truest feelings and passions of the Christian ideal. A word that means to improve oneself, to go beyond the muck that encumbers our souls. A word that flushes out sin.
While repentance has not entirely been forgotten, there are those who would like to see its place as an essential part of God’s Great Gospel taken away. What this allows is for a man to retain those sins from his former, unbelieving life after baptism.
The church is not immune to this sort of pervasive attitude, and we have seen the effects of this for years already. It has given way to the “Soft Gospel” which requires little or no effort from church members. It also allows for unbelievers to continue in a life of sin after believing and being baptized.
The point is that some believe that all we have to do is dunk a person under water and everything is fine. Baptism is all we have to do, with no thought about all the sins that we are still committing, or that we will do. But if we look at the Bible, we will find that God expects much more from us when it comes to repentance. He expects not only a change of heart, but a change of action as well! It is one thing to feel sorry about your sins, it is an entirely different thing to do something about it, no matter how hard it may be.
So let us spend some time in the scriptures in an attempt, one you will find successful I hope, at examining what repentance really requires.
The Biblical Definition of Repentance
In any study of a word like this, we must first look at what the word actually means, that is, what the original text says about this word. In Greek, which is the primary language of the New Testament and the translated Old Testament, the word for repentance is metanoew, which literally means to perceive something after it has been done, or to change one’s mind. The common usage of the word, however, suggests a change in action. And, every single time that it is used in the New Testament, it is referring to a change of action for the better.
We know that repentance is an essential part of the plan of salvation because we see it exemplified and mentioned right alongside other actions leading to salvation. We see it with baptism in Acts 2:38. The Apostle is asked by the crowd, “What must we do?” He responds, “Repent, and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.” We see that repentance leads the soul to forgiveness in Acts 5:31. Peter says, “[Christ] is the One whom God exalted to His right hand as a Prince and a Savior, to grant repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins.” We see that repentance also leads to knowledge in 2 Timothy 2:25.
All of these verses and many more should lead the Bible reader to believe that there is something important about this whole repentance thing. But there are some very common misconceptions about the subject that need to be cleared up right now before we move on.
Repentance Falsehood #1
First, there is the thought that repentance is limited only to those who know the Law already. That is, ignorance provides exemption from accountability. We often here the complaint from atheists, “Hey man, what about the guys on those islands in Indonesia? They don’t about Jesus!” Well, the Bible defines it differently.
Take, for example, the story of King Josiah in 2 Kings 22:8-13, 19, 23:25. For years, the people of the kingdom were unaware of the Law given to them by Moses at Mt. Horeb. They were in complete ignorance of the oracles of God! Yet, as we see in v. 11, when Josiah discovered the scrolls and read from the Book of Law that he tore his clothes. Even in his ignorance, Josiah was guilty of sin!
Not only, then, does he repair the sin in his life, but he also travels the country tearing down high places and idols. We read of his good deeds in 2 Kings 23. Nearly the whole chapter details how he taught the people the Law and returned their hearts to Him, how he reinstated the Passover, how he slaughtered all of the priests of the idols. And, as is stated in 2 Kings 23:25, “There was no king like him who turned to the Lord with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his might, according to all the Law of Moses. . .” If ignorance is a valuable excuse for sin, then Josiah and his people had nothing about which to worry. They were ignorant of all the sins they had committed, yet they still repented of them and obeyed the Lord.
Take note of 2 Thessalonians 1:7-8. We see from this text that the punishment of God comes not only to those who disobey Him, but also “to those who do not know [Him].” To an unbeliever, this may sound like a cruel thing. But to the Christian, this should sound like a call to service. This world desperately needs the Gospel and its “power unto salvation” (Romans 1:16). And if we are to be the ones bringing that Gospel, as is our commission in the Bible, than we cannot delay. We cannot wait to spread the Truth, because we know that those who never heard the Gospel will die in their ignorance.
It reminds me of the story in Ezekiel 33:1-9. We read there that if a city is pillaged and burned and its occupants slaughtered because the watchman was lazy, neither the inhabitants of the city nor the watchman will be spared. Just because those unsuspecting citizens did not know about an imminent attack does not mean they were exempt from the slaughter. And it is the same way with us today. We know the Truth, we have the Gospel right here in our hands. But if we go on living every day and never tell anybody about it – if we never tell our neighbors, friends, co-workers – then both of our souls will be required on the day of judgment.
Repentance Falsehood #2
Another common misconception is that only certain people are required to repent of their sins and become accountable to the Almighty Lord. Essentially, the argument is that I can believe in my God and you can believe in your god and we will all have one, big, happy barbecue.
We often listen to the phrase, “Well, I don’t believe in a vengeful God” or “My God would never condemn anybody like that.” The answer to that is I simply believe in the God found in the Holy Bible.
God is the Mighty One, the only God of this existence. He is a God full of wrath. He is “a consuming fire” according to Hebrews 12:29. It is, indeed, a “terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31). At the same time, and in complete agreement with His vengeful side, God is also loving, powerful, wonderful, merciful, and gentle to those who obey Him and follow His will.
When it all boils down, we have the true God, the One and Only, on our side, and no other manmade god can claim such radiant majesty. Turn to Isaiah 46:1-9. Here, in comparison with the gods of man, our Lord Yahweh is indescribably more wonderful! The same can be said of today’s manmade religions; is there anything that Buddha could do that God cannot? How can Muhammad be more precious than Jesus Christ when Muhammad was a bloodthirsty fanatic? Can the mystical religions of the East compare with a Gospel like ours? Can worship of the trees and animals and beasts and all the creation compare with worshipping the Creator Himself?
Repentance Falsehood #3
A third misconception is possibly the most common of them all. One may say that he has felt guilt for a sin, and that he has mentally devoted himself to God, but that is all that is required of him. Proponents of this theory want to make Christianity a warm/fuzzy religion with little or no requirements for daily life. We would hear, “Well, as long as you feel bad about it” or “if you believe you’re okay, then you are.” What results is a generation of half-hearted Christians – with one half going to God, and the other still stuck in the world. This is the “Britney Spears” kind of Christianity, where she can be seen one day at church as a sweet little “Christian” and the next day half-naked on the cover of Vogue magazine.
We meet Christians like this all the time. People who claim to be Christian, yet use foul language when the preacher is not around, or people who attend services with one attitude and treat their wives with another attitude. They are the kind of Christians who gossip, who enjoy the social alcohol, the immodest dress, the coarse language of their peers, the sex-filled television – while all the time putting up a good front for fellow Christians.
But the Bible sees repentance differently. In fact, Christians are expected to be the most righteous, the most honest, the most holy people in the world. We are expected to do the hard thing when nobody else will. We are expected to reject sin in our lives to such an extreme degree that we make an impression on our peers. We don’t simply avoid alcohol abuse, we avoid alcohol altogether. We don’t simply abstain from sex before marriage, we abstain from pornography and lust.
Christians must have an honest, sincere willingness to do the right thing, no matter the cost! We see an example of this in Ezra 10:1-5. The people were in sin and the only way they could repair the situation was to do something very difficult; reject their worldly wives and follow the commands of the Lord.
Christ makes the same point in Matthew 10:37-38. If we are not willing to sacrifice our own families if it were required of us, then we would not be worthy of Him! The situation which arises often is when an unbelieving couple, who are in an adulterous relationship because of divorce (marriage according to the world), decide to become Christians and they read these verses on repentance. They are in sin. The sin of adultery. That condition does not change simply because of baptism, and there is absolutely no scriptural precedent for believing such a thing. If these two people are really interested in pleasing God and living a life that is completely for Christ, then the choice becomes clear; end the sin. End the relationship.
Sometimes repentance is difficult. Some sins follow us all the rest of our lives, tempting us, enticing us, deceiving us. Alcoholics who become Christians will want alcohol for the rest of their lives. Smokers will want cigarettes for years. Former homosexuals may always have a strong desire to sin. But the true Christian will reject those sins and repair the damage in his/her life. The true Christian will do the difficult task of following the Lord wherever that path may lead. After all, just as it says 1 Corinthians 10:13, “No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, that you may be able to endure it.”
Examples of Repentance
To prove my point in this subject, I want to look at a number of examples from the Bible of people who humbled themselves enough to obey the call of God. While many of these examples do not take place under the Law of Christ, the mercy and firmness of God has never changed from generation to generation. The lessons we can learn from the men and women throughout history can effectively be applied to our lives today.
Ahab – 1 Kings 21:27-29
We read in the account of the Kings that Ahab had been a ruthless dictator and an “abomination to the Lord.” In fact, we read in 1 Kings 21:25 that “surely there was no one like Ahab who sold himself to do evil in the sight of the Lord.” He followed after such idolatry and abomination that no other king had been so despicable to God than Ahab.
But notice what happens to him through the course of the text. When he hears the words of Elijah the Prophet, he proceeds to tear his clothes and fast. He completely, utterly, genuinely humbles himself to the point of submission. He ceased doing the things in life that separated him from God and buried his sins in tears.
So we have to ask ourselves how despondent we are when we sin. Do we kind of shrug it off and take lightly the sacrifice of Christ Jesus? Do we forget about the sacrifice altogether and commit the same sins day after day? When we learn of the truth from a brother or sister, do we become angry and reject the admonition?
It would have been so easy for Ahab to listen to Elijah and become angry with him. He had been angry at him before – he calls Elijah his enemy in 1 Kings 21:20 – but this time was different. He accepted the rebuke of God and finally humbled himself. And as we read in the next chapter in the first verse, “And three years passed without war between Aram and Israel.” It just goes to show that when we repent of our sins, the action does not go unrewarded. God listens to those who humbly obey Him. The point is illustrated well in Joel 2:12-14. My friends, it is never too late to repent of a sin!
Zaccheus – Luke 19:1-10
The story of Zaccheus is one of my personal favorites. It shows the Christian what it means to have a truly thorough measure of repentance. It also shows us just how quickly we are expected to change the course of our lives.
There are a few things I want to notice from this story. First, be amazed at how quickly Zaccheus obeys the Lord. He meets Christ and in a matter of a day, perhaps only the time of a single meal, he has completely changed his life and become a new man. In v. 6 the text says the he hurried toward Jesus and received Him gladly. Although the man’s life was probably mired in sin, corruption, money, and greed, he manages to do a complete turnaround in a single day.
Second, notice the degree to which Zaccheus obeys the Lord and repairs the sin in his life. We can assume that Zaccheus would have to search endless records to find all of his sins as a tax-collector, but he does not hesitate. And not only does he pay back every single person he has ever defrauded, but he pays back four times that! By the time he has finished, he will have repaid four times what he ever owed any person in his entire life! That is repentance!
There are too many people in the church today who do not see the necessity of repenting of sins committed before baptism. That is, that it is only the sins that we may commit as Christians that need repentance. But the story of Zaccheus gives us an entirely different picture of true repentance!
The Corinthians – 1 Corinthians 6:9-11
A third and final example of repentance is that of the Corinthians, a church of mostly Gentiles. We fid out from the text that many of them were fornicators, and drunkards, and adulterers, and all manner of despicable characters.
But baptism and faith in Christ Jesus saved them. It washed them. It cleansed them and made them whole.
There are some valuable lessons that we can learn from the Corinthians. Primarily, we find that Gentiles are most certainly under the specific, outlined Law of Christ, not protected by ignorance or their own moral code. The sins described in the text are very specific sins, some of which would not be considered unlawful to Gentiles (i.e., alcoholism is not an illegal thing for most people, neither is homosexuality, and neither is adultery in our society). But these ignorant, unbelieving, lawless Gentiles were still being judged by the Lord through Jesus Christ. And they were still criminals held accountable to the Gospel. Take a look at Acts 20:21.
Another lesson that is valuable is that nobody is stuck in any certain sin, no matter how strong the temptation may be. These Corinthians were homosexuals, yet changed and became productive heterosexual Christians. These people were drunkards and alcoholics, yet overcame that as well. These people were living in adulterous and incestuous relationships, yet they rejected worldly “love” to live a better, more righteous life.
I want to look at Acts 17:30-31. I am declaring to you now that if there is sin in your life, then you must repent. God now overlooks those times of ignorance and is warning us that He is coming. There will be a great and glorious day of judgment someday and only those who have lived a life that is as sinless as possible can enter into that rest.
Repentance is a choice, and it is an action. We must choose to live for Christ, or choose judgment. It says in Galatians 5:24, “Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” If you have not already done so, then crucify the sin in your life right now. If you have crucified it, yet you are returning to it, then confess it today and be done with that sin for the rest of your life!