The Blessing of Repentance
Growing up, I worked hard to avoid a long list of vegetables that, although my mother worked hard to convince me of their merit, were never able to end up on my ‘most favourite foods list’. When it comes to walking with God, there are many words, concepts, and truths towards which we might gravitate – happiness, joy, blessing, peace, forgiveness. For many of us, the word repentance is not on that list.
And I think the reason repentance is not one of our favourite words is that the need for repentance always implies sin. Lurking underneath the call to repentance is an admission that we are sinful and broken and we need to turn to God to be forgiven and healed. And the truth is, we have a love/hate relationship with our own sin. We love it in that there is a kind of pleasure in sin (Hebrews 11:25), but we know that our sin will find us out (Numbers 32:23). Thus, sin is always producing death (Romans 6.23).
Facing our own sin and sinfulness is painful, and thus, we tend to run from repentance. But like my adult discovery that spinach, broccoli, and asparagus are all quite lovely, I invite you to discover the beauty of this compelling word.
In 1517 Martin Luther posted 95 theses for disputation on the church door in Wittenberg where he was lecturer in theology. The first thesis read, ‘When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ``Repent'' (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance’. When we think of repentance, we often think of how people first come to Christ: we believe the good news, and we turn to follow him. But note what Luther says:
Christ wills the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.
His point is simply that even after turning to follow Christ, our hearts are susceptible to turning away from the light and turning to darkness. Over against the overtures, temptations, and beckonings to slip into darkness, we inhabit a perpetual need to turn towards Jesus – every day.
The Greek word for repentance is metanoia (Gr. Μετάνοια metanoia), and it means a change of mind, a change of heart, a change of direction. This is key to understand what God wants for us: repentance is more than a lane change, repentance is heading a new direction.
Having lived in both the United Kingdom and the United States, I’m an ambidextrous driver. As you may know, in the UK, people drive on the left, with steering wheels on the right hand side of the car; in the USA, people drive on the right, with steering wheels on the left.
There have a been a few times when, returning to the States after a long stay in the UK and driving on a side street that lacks markings, I have a moment of confusion: right or left, right or left, right or left! It only becomes urgent when I look up to see another car coming … and then, somehow, I remember the right side, and slip and into the right lane. But here’s the point:
Repentance is not just an adjustment, but a redirection.
In 2 Corinthians 7:10, Paul distinguishes between godly and worldly repentance. In short, godly repentance is rooted in the revelation that we have offended a holy God; worldly repentance is superficial, reacting to the fact of getting caught. In Scripture we see three kinds of godly repentance: The moment of repentance, the practice of repentance, the pattern of repentance.
- The moment of repentance occurs at conversion when we turn from living life for ourselves and turn to follow Jesus with all of our hearts.
- The practice of repentance, for Christians, involves turning to God after we’ve sinned.
- The pattern of repentance is the idea of maintaining a humble and contrite attitude before God.
In contemplating the role that repentance should play in our spirituality, the short answer is that we should have all three.
To help us understand the beauty and the power of repentance, let’s take a look at Psalm 51, where David describes is own journey from deep sin (murder and adultery) to being clean and a right standing with God.
We get an indication of the Psalm’s importance in the introduction (pre- verse 1), where David indicates ‘This is a Psalm of David, A Psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet went to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba’. The visit to David from Nathan the prophet is described in 2 Samuel 12:1-13. Read this section of scripture; Nathan uses a powerful word picture about an unrighteous rich man to bring David to affirm, ‘the man who has done this deserves to die!’ (2 Samuel 12:6). Nathan responds, ‘You are the man!’ (2 Samuel 12:7).
The result of this confrontation is David’s confession: ‘I have sinned against the Lord’ (2 Samuel 12:13). David always knew that adultery and murder were wrong, but sin is deceitful, and he was living in denial. Not that he ever cognitively disagree that sin was wrong, but repentance is more than cognitive awareness, it is also a matter of the heart. David was drawn in emotionally, and this teaches us something about repentance.
In the wake of this encounter, David wrote Psalm 51. Let’s look at this Psalm and learn something about the beauty of repentance:
Repentance appeals to God’s character, not human goodness.
In Psalm 51:1-2, there are four requests appealing to God’s character.
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy, blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin!
First, notice the three categories of sin - transgression (crossing God’s boundaries), iniquity (flagrant immorality), sin (missing the mark of God’s standards).
Second, notice the requests David makes: 1) Have mercy on me, O God; 2) blot out my transgressions’; 3) Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity; 4) cleanse me from my sin!
Third, notice that the appeal is based on God’s goodness: according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy.
This is the key point: we can repent because God is good; God forgives, not because we deserve it, but because his mercy is abundant.
Repentance begins with honesty
In verses 3 and 6, we read:
For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being, and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart.
David wasn’t doing a Matrix dodge; he wasn’t slipping and sliding away from his guilt. He owned is sin, and was honest with God. Progress with God and the journey out of sin begins with honesty.
Repentance recognises the real offense: GOD
This is what we read in verse 4:
Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.
Now, remember who is speaking: DAVID! And remember what he done – committed adultery and murder. Now, David is not saying that people aren’t hurt when we sin. Just the contrary, human sin always hurts humans. When we are living in sin, when we are violating God’s rules, not only does it hurt us, but because we can’t bring our best to the table, we are hurting others.
In David’s case, the pain caused to the others was direct and significant. But even then, he realised that all sin is ultimately sin against God. All sin violates God’s character, God’s will, and God’s law. Thus, even though he sinned against others, David’s ultimate sin was in rebellion against the one, true God.
Repentance recognises God’s holinesess
... so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment. Psalm 51:4.
One of the contemporary accusations against God is that He is unjust. Now, to unpack this accusation in simple terms, we could say that unjustice in judgment manifests in one of two ways: first, God could give a judgment that is not due; second, he could fail to give a judgment that is due. And the Psalmist is affirming that God never makes a mistake in judgement. Thus, whereas contemporary society wants to get rid of guilty by changing God, David teaches us that the only way out of the human dilemma is through repentance.
Repentance recognises sin’s source: not just behaviour, but identity
In verse 5, David makes another remarkable statement:
Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me (Psalm 51:5).
This does mean that the act of conception with which David’s existence began was sinful, but rather, from the moment of conception, David was sinful. Like his parents, and their parents before them, and their parents before them, ad infinitum, David inherited a sinful nature. And it is this nature – the root of our sinfulness – that is the key problem. That is, our sin – the wrong things we do – comes out of a sinful nature. Our identity, not our behaviour, is the root of the problem.
Repentance recognises God’s power to forgive
The good news of this Psalm is not David’s accurate diagnosis of the problem but his affirmation of the solution. And the solution is the cleansing of forgiveness found only in God. In verse, he writes:
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Psalm 51.7
Hyssop was the plant used to put blood on the door posts and lentil at Passover. By referencing this plant, David is pointing to the Passover sacrifice, and reminding us that Jesus is our Passover lamb (1 Corinthians 5:7). That is, we are not only forgiven, we are cleansed – the stain of our sin is washed away, and we are made whiter than snow.
- Repentance recognises God’s new creation
Look at Psalm 51:10
Create in my a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.
In Psalm 51:10, David continues the theme of cleansing and points to the transforming work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. More than forgiving us, and more than cleansing us, God makes us new. His prayer is to be made new on the inside. And this is exactly what God promises in Christ:
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. 2 Corinthians 5:17
There’s much more we could say about repentance, but like a child’s journey with vegetables growing from observation to toleration to salivation, may we learn to love and practice repentance.
- If you have never turned to follow Christ, entrusting your life to him and submitting to his kingship, repent!
- If there is an area of sin in your life – a sin that is dominating you, a sin you’ve made peace with, a sin you have not confessed – repent.
- If you are following Jesus, practice what Jesus taught us to do daily, saying, Lord, forgive me debts. Practice the pattern of daily repentance.