All Should Come to Repentance (Part One)
The word “repentance” is not commonly used in our everyday vocabulary. You don’t hear anyone telling their neighbor that they’ve repented from playing loud music into the night. You don’t hear politicians say they’ve repented from making a particular statement, or taking an unpopular position. Repentance is a “church word”, and so many in the world today are unfamiliar with its true meaning. What is repentance? What role does this word and its implications bear on our lives?
The Lord Jesus often discussed the need for repentance. In keeping with His forerunner John the Baptizer, Jesus declared early in His ministry, “repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17 NKJV). While addressing some natural disasters and their spiritual implications, Jesus twice said, “unless you repent you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3,5). These, as well as other passages, affirm the great need and importance of repentance. But again we ask, what is repentance?
To answer this let us examine what repentance is not. There are grave misconceptions about repentance in the religious and non-religious worlds. These ideas have crept into the Lord’s Church, resulting in a diminished understanding of repentance among God’s people.
First, repentance is not guilt. Some think that if they feel a sense of guilt or shame for personal wrongdoing, then they have repented. They recognize their sin, and feel terrible for what they’ve done, so surely they have repented, right?
In Acts 26 we read of the apostle Paul standing before King Agrippa. Paul gives a stirring speech recounting his conversion to Christ and declaring the risen Jesus to the King and his court. The climax of the sermon comes when Paul simply states, “King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know that you do believe” (Acts 26:27).
Agrippa was a man who knew the prophets. He knew that the Christ would come, die and then rise from the tomb. He surely felt a sense of guilt and shame when Paul preached this powerful sermon, yet because of his personal desires he responded to Paul by saying, “You almost persuade me to become a Christian” (Acts 26:28). Sadly, there was no repentance for Agrippa that day, and no salvation in Christ.
Secondly, repentance is not fear. Many equate repentance with the fear of being caught, fear of God, or fear of punishment. They think that if they are sufficiently afraid, then they have repented.
In Acts 24 we read another account of Paul standing before a powerful man, a governor named Felix. On this occasion Paul preached a targeted three point sermon on righteousness, self-control, and judgment to come. No doubt these were three areas in which Felix needed to pay special attention. What was Felix’s response? “Felix was afraid and answered, ‘Go away for now; when I have a convenient time I will call for you’” (Acts 24:25). Fear was present, but repentance was not found.
Thirdly, repentance is not sorrow. This may be the most common misconception of repentance among religious people today. If I sin, and I’m really sorry for what I’ve done, isn’t that repentance?
When writing his second letter to the church at Corinth, Paul addresses the idea of sorrow. He wrote, “godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death” (2 Corinthians 7:10). The context of this passage will be addressed a little later, but what fundamental truth do we glean from that simple sentence?
Sorrow, by itself, is not repentance. Paul wrote that godly sorrow PRODUCES repentance and that worldly sorrow PRODUCES death. So sorrow, alone, can do nothing for us. Sorrow is simply a gateway that leads us in one of two directions: repentance or death.
Though these emotions (guilt, fear, and sorrow) can be beneficial at times in helping us to fully understand and appreciate the gravity of our sins, they alone do not constitute repentance in the eyes of God Almighty.
We then ask again, what is repentance? The Greek word used in the New Testament for our English word repentance is “metanoia” and its most basic definition is a “change of mind” (Vines).
In Acts 9:35 metanoia is translated as turned. In Acts 2:38, 3:19, and 8:22 it is repent. But of all the uses of metanoia in the Bible, we see a perfect definition given in the pages of the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) when the word metanoia appears in 1 Samuel.
“Then Samuel spoke to all the house of Israel, saying, ‘If you return (metanoia) to the LORD with all your hearts, then put away the foreign gods and the Ashtoreths from among you, and prepare your hearts for the LORD, and serve Him only; and He will deliver you from the hand of the Philistines’” (1 Samuel 7:3).
The prophet Samuel is pleading with the people to repent. What does he describe as being necessary for repentance here? First, the heart’s affection must return to God. One must reposition the true and living God of Heaven and Earth to the primary place of importance and standing in his/her heart and mind. One must seek after Him and His ways above everything else in life.
Second, one must rid their being of all spiritual impediments, which in this passage primarily deals with putting away foreign gods. Those idols that had dethroned God must be cast aside and forever forgotten. Nothing can stand in the way of their devotion to God.
Finally, service, dedication, and obedience are given to God and God alone. Once one’s mind is fixed on God, and the impediments are removed, this becomes a simple task of following through. Everything they do must reflect their devotion to God.
And what would be the result of one’s repentance? Blessings. In this case, God would deliver His people from their physical adversaries, the Philistines. So, repentance is a changing, a turning, a returning and a conversion of mind and life away from sin and directed toward God.