I have noticed something today that has greatly concerned me. A neglect of a crucial command that the Lord has given us which serves as a necessity towards both our reception of the gospel message as well as our ongoing growth in grace. A few years ago, my wife and I went to the Westmoreland County Fair. At first I was excited to come across a church handing out tracts and sharing the gospel. That is until I got to the end of the tract and saw that they had blacked out the word “repent” which preceded “believe in Christ for your salvation.” It appears that both in preaching and practice today, the doctrine of repentance has been “blacked out” so to speak. It is not much emphasized and in some cases not mentioned at all.
However, repentance cannot be ignored. After all, our Lord Jesus Himself did not exclude it in His preaching and teaching. We see this in the summary of His message in the opening of Mark’s Gospel, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15, emphasis added). He chastised the cities which refused to repent in light of the display of His miraculous power (Matthew 11:20-24; Luke 10:13-15). Jesus stated that He did not call the righteous but sinners to repentance (Luke 5:32). In light of tragedy and calamity, He reminded those who gathered round Him that “unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3, 5). There is joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than those who think that they do not need repentance (Luke 15:7, 10). Jesus’ call for repentance was continued through the preaching and teaching of His apostles, seen first when He sends them out for an early evangelistic trip (Mark 6:12) and then in their ongoing ministry after the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:38; 3:19; 17:30; 20:21; 26:27). God’s stated desire is not for any to perish but for “all to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). To “black out” repentance is to “black out” the very teaching of our Lord Himself.
The Greek word for repent literally means to change one’s mind. And it is a change of mind that affects the will and direction of one’s life. If no change of course has occurred, then no real change of mind has actually happened. You will notice the continual call in Scripture to “bear fruits in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:8; Luke 3:8; Acts 26:20). The call to repentance is a call for a change of direction. From looking to yourself and bowing down to someone or something other than God to looking to the Lord Jesus Christ alone and bowing your knee to Him. It is a turning from walking towards sin to walking towards God as a result of the working of the Holy Spirit in one’s heart. Kind of like an “about face” in the military. When soldiers are heading one direction and their commanding officer yells that phrase, they halt and turn around to face the opposite direction.
A key characteristic of repentance is a genuine sorrow over one’s sin. Not simply that the person is sorry that they got caught for what they have done or a grieving over the consequences of it but a recognition of and grieving over the fact that they have sinned against God Himself. Think about when you were little and may have had someone you looked up to. Maybe it was an uncle or a grandparent but your greatest desire was to please them. And then there was that time you did something that you shouldn’t and it was told to them. You could see the disappointment in their face. That pained you more than anything else. It was not because you were caught for what you had done that bothered you but that you could not bear the thought of having disappointed them. That’s a picture of the sorrow associated with genuine repentance. A grieving over having displeased God with the sin, no matter what it might have been.
Here are a few examples which might help illustrate what repentance practically looks like. Repentance is the prodigal son, after being brought to his senses, regretting his wayward living and seeing himself as unworthy of being called his father’s son. And leaving such a life to go back to his father. A sorrow over his sin moves him to turn from it. Repentance is the tax collector in Jesus’ parable who cannot even look to heaven on account of the grief of his sins but can only beat his breast and say to God, “Lord, have mercy upon me, a sinner.” Contrast that with the Pharisee who doesn’t even recognize that he is a sinner and certainly doesn’t turn from such pride. Repentance is Zachaeus, that wee little man, giving half of his riches to the poor and paying back four times as much to those he cheated. Clearly an abandonment of his former sinful way of living, evidence of a certain change brought about in his life. And repentance is King David responding to his sin of adultery with Bathsheba with “I have sinned against the Lord,” grieving over such sin, and desiring to be cleansed from it. Just read through Psalm 51 to see what his repentant heart looked like.
And repentance serves as a compliment to faith. You really cannot have one without the other. They are two sides of the same coin. In order to come to Christ, one must first leave their sin. To turn from heading in that direction since Jesus stands at the opposite direction. As Thomas Watson put it, “Till sin be bitter, Christ will not be sweet.” Perhaps this is why the command is worded to repent first and then believe.
Now does this mean that one is saved by their repentance? Absolutely not! The Bible is clear that we are saved by faith alone and not by any works at all (Ephesians 2:8-9). Repentance, along with faith, is described as being a gift of grace produced in us by the work of the Holy Spirit. Notice the wording in Acts 11:18 and 2 Timothy 2:25 of, in both cases, repentance being “granted” by God. Faith serves as the sole instrument in our justification but as previously mentioned, it is impossible to come to Christ in faith without first turning from the sins they are embracing and the idols they are trusting instead of Christ.
We need to remember as well that repentance is not a one-time deal. An “I did it and it’s done” type of thing. It is not just necessary for unbelievers. No, for the true believer who has been born again, repentance is not a one-time action but an ongoing attitude. As the Spirit of God continues to convict us of our sin, we should continually be repenting over those sins. I like how Martin Luther said it, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said ‘Repent,’ he intended that the entire life of believers should be repentance.” Or Charles Spurgeon, “A Christian must never leave off repenting, for I fear he never leaves off sinning.”
So let’s be careful not to “black out” the practice of repentance in our lives but to make it a daily habit for us, continuing to grieve over our sins and turn from them, all the while resting in the joy of what Christ has done for us on the cross to forgive us of our sins. And when we share the glorious good news of the gospel with our unsaved loved ones and call for their response to it, let’s not “black out” to call for repentance either as those part of that church at the fairgrounds did but follow our Savior’s lead and call all men to “repent and believe the gospel.”
Love in Christ,