“No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
(Luke 13:3 (ESV))
Imagine for a moment that you had a friend, a spouse, a child, who continually hurts you through what they said or done, and, when confronted about their behavior, readily apologizes and promises never to do it again, but only too soon returns to their offending behavior. What would you do? What would you think of their apology? Would you still be able to trust and respect? When someone we truly love and care for causes us pain, it’s one thing to know that they are sorry for what they’ve done, it’s something else entirely to know that they are trying to change their ways and never do it again. We’re grateful for the apology, but what we really need is repentance.
Now at the risk of “meddling,” when given the opportunity for privately confessing your sins during worship on Sunday morning, or in that moment of honest reflection in your daily prayers, what do you confess before God? Is it the same sin each day? Do you find yourself coming back to God day after day, week after week, confessing the same sin? While I encourage your constant struggle against sin and your return to the throne of God for mercy, I have to stop and ask, “How is that any different from the unrepentant apology of the friend, or spouse, or child mentioned above? (Please know, I am writing to myself here more than anyone else.)
Charles Spurgeon once wrote, “the repentance which has no tear in its eye, and no mourning for sin in its heart, is a repentance which needs to be repented of.” Repentance means to change your mind, to change your behavior, to turn yourself around. To repent means that at one point you were headed in one direction, but now you’ve changed course and are going a new way. If you say to God on Sunday morning, “I really am sorry for my behavior last night after the fifth round of drinks,” but next Saturday night you find yourself bellied up to the bar, that is not true repentance. It may be regret, but it certainly is not repentance.
Here’s the thing: Genuine faith will produce heartfelt repentance. If you truly believe that while you were still lost in sin, God, in His love, sent His Son Jesus Christ to die your death, to bear God’s wrath, and to offer you forgiveness and the promise of eternal life, then you will grow more and more aware how little you deserved this love and how nothing you could have done could have earned this love. Faith in such radical grace and undeserved love will naturally produce heartfelt sorrow and even a hatred for those things in our lives (covetousness, pride, anger, sexual sin) which offend the One who loves us so, and will teach us to flee from sin and to live joyfully according to the will of God in all good works (Heidelberg Q & A 88-89). Listen to what the Westminster Confession says about repentance:
By [repentance] a sinner, out of the sight and sense, not only of the danger, but also of the filthiness and odiousness of his sins, as contrary to the holy nature and righteous law of God, and upon the apprehension of his mercy in Christ to such as are penitent, so grieves for, and hates his sins, as to turn from them all unto God, purposing and endeavoring to walk with him in all the ways of his commandments (WCF XV.2).
Unfortunately too many (progressives and conservatives alike) want Scripture to validate their choices and behavior, their opinion and prejudice, rather than submitting to Scripture’s authority as God’s word. We stare deeply into the well only to find our own reflection looking back and, liking what we see, think that the Bible takes our side and supports our position. We tell ourselves, “Now that I’ve confessed my sins, and God says he loves and accepts me just the way I am, why should I ever have to change?”
Let us once again hear the Confession’s call to repent:
They who, upon pretence of Christian liberty, do practice any sin, or cherish any lust, do thereby destroy the end of Christian liberty; which is, that, being delivered out of the hands of our enemies, we might serve the Lord without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him, all the days of our life (WCF XX.3).
Repentance is an ongoing practice, where by the power of the Holy Spirit through the word of God we are continually being convicted of our sin, learning to turn from it unto righteousness, and seeking forgiveness and reconciliation with God and neighbor. Repentance is part of the Sanctifying work of God’s Holy Spirit within us, destroying the body of sin, mortifying the savage lusts that once ruled our hearts, and working growth in grace and holiness before God.
I leave you with one last thought from Spurgeon:
The man who has led the purest life,
when he is brought before God
by the humbling influence of the Holy Spirit,
is the man who almost invariably
considers himself to have been viler than anybody else.
Repentance is to leave
The sin we loved before,
And show that we in earnest grieve
By doing so no more.
Grace and peace,