“Yet even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.” Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster. (Joel 2:12–13)
Last week I shared from the prophet Hosea what is often considered the Gospel of the Old Testament – Hosea chapter three. It is the story of Hosea redeeming his wife, Gomer, from a life of infidelity and adultery, as an illustration of the way in which God has redeemed His people from their sins and idolatry through His love in Jesus Christ.
Turning this week to the prophet Joel, we hear again the heart of God calling us to repentance for our sins. The word of the Lord comes to Joel as a message of judgment and destruction in the Day of the Lord. The punishment is extreme, as locusts destroying the harvest, or deep famine reaching across the land. The Day of he Lord is a day of wrath for the sins of the nations.
Yet in the midst of the destruction there is a call from the Lord, “Return to me with all your heart…” This is a call to repentance, given to the elders down to the nursing infants. All are called to repent, that they may escape the coming judgment.
In the two verses given above (2:12-13), I see three keys to genuine repentance:
- Repentance is always a response to the call of the Lord. Notice in Joel that it is the Lord who calls the people to repentance, to return to the Lord. This isn’t Joel’s pleading with the people, but the Lord Himself calling His people back home.
This is essential. No one may come to Christ unless the Father calls them (John 6:44), no one seeks the Lord unless He first draws them unto Him. Apart from God’s gracious call, no one would return to Him. Our repentance always follows the gracious call of the Lord, the effectual call of His Holy Spirit.
- Repentance must be genuine. In the Scriptures tearing your clothes was a universal sign of anguish and repentance, mourning over calamity and distress. But it was simply that, a sign. It signified something happening within, a sign of the heartfelt sorrow and grief over sin or trouble. The sign of torn cloths meant little, what was essential was the contrition of the heart.
How many times is our “repenting” merely a sign, never really reaching to our hearts? We confess sins, generally, but never bring ourselves to utter those sins that have their hooks in our hearts. We’re comfortable keeping our repentance on the surface, “God I am a sinner,” but rarely will we get real in rending our hearts, “God, I am an idolator, I am a fraud, I murder with my thoughts and words.”
God calls His people to repent, and that repentance must be genuine and sincere.
- Repentance turns us to the grace and mercy of God. We must never forget that our repentance is a turning from sin and a turning to God. A repentance that dwells in the valley of the shadow of death, mourning sin but never getting past it, is only a partial repentance. God calls His people to return to Him, for “He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” Too often we miss out on the joy of salvation repentance brings because we don’t really believe that God will be gracious. We allow our repentance to make us dour, sour Christians, which is no Christian at all.
The promise of Joel 3:1 is for all who are in Christ, all who, having heard His call to repent, having turned from their sins, look to the grace and mercy of our heavenly Father. The promise is that God will restore their fortunes, He will establish them. As Psalm 126 says, “He who goes out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him.”