When scientists tell you something that involves cells that you cannot see with the naked eye, unless you have sufficient scientific knowledge and a microscope powerful enough you cannot verify their claims. The same is true in spiritual matters. ‘Except a man is born again, He cannot see [understand] the kingdom of God’ (John 3:3).
Sadly, many teach that repentance is something which man is capable of doing on his own, and God then blesses him for doing it. However, a careful study of the nature of an unregenerate sinner clearly shows that apart from God giving repentance no one would repent. Repentance is the gift of God! This is clearly taught in Acts 11:18, where we read: ‘When they heard these things, they held their peace, and glorified God, saying, “Then hath God also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life.”‘
When our Lord said, ‘Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish’ (Luke 13:1-5), he is merely stating a fact. That truth stands sure, even though we are faced with the deep mystery of the sinner being himself incapable of repentance yet commanded to repent and responsible for repenting. In answer to Nicodemus’ question, ‘How can these things be?’ the Lord did not give him some steps to follow to attain the new birth – first repent, then believe…He simply said, ‘The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit’ (John 3:8).
The necessity for repentance
A popular evangelist once wrote a tract on ‘How to be born again’. In the development of the subject he said, ‘First, you must repent of your sins and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, then you will be born again.’ Nothing is farther from the truth. If a person can repent and believe the gospel without being born again, then he does not need the new birth. In Scripture, faith and repentance are the fruit of the new birth, not the condition for it.
So what is true biblical repentance? Without an understanding of Scripture and the work of the Holy Spirit, naturally religious people will wrongly presume they have repented. In Luke 13:1-5, the Jews assumed they were better than those that Pilate had killed and upon whom the tower of Siloam had fallen. For them, they were killed because they had done some evil and God had punished them for it. Christ’s response to them shows that all are sinners and worthy of death: ‘Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.’
The heart of the gospel
Repentance is at the very heart of the gospel message. Christ and his apostles preached it. Christ said in Matthew 9:13 that he came to call sinners to repentance. In Acts 11:18 we read that the church in Jerusalem ‘glorified God, saying, Then hath God also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life.’
Repentance is the evidence that God has done a work of grace in the heart. Without it, any who profess salvation do so falsely. The message of John the Baptist to the religious Jews of his day was, ‘Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance’ (Matthew 3:8).
Without the light of Scripture and the enlightening of the Holy Spirit, multitudes of people deceive themselves into thinking they have repented. But there are many kinds of false repentance.
1. Trembling beneath the preaching of God’s Word is not repentance. Felix reacted in this way to the preaching of Paul (Acts 24:25). You may have a similar experience, but this is not true repentance.
2. Almost believing is not repentance. Agrippa said to Paul in Acts 26:28, ‘Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian.’ A person may give full assent to Scripture, even the doctrines of sovereign grace, and still remain lost. Pharaoh saw the hand of the sovereign God and cried out, ‘I have sinned against the Lord God’ (Exodus 10:16). Yet, he was a reprobate and God judged him.
3. Humbling yourself is not repentance. There are some who recognize their pride and determine to reform their lives. A solemn example is Ahab who coveted Naboth’s vineyard. He later confessed his error to the Lord’s prophet (I Kings 21:27-29), yet in the next chapter we find him continuing on in his rebellion. This underlines the scriptural teaching that unless God gives repentance, the best man can provide is temporal resolutions.
4. Confessing sins is not repentance. Confession of sin will be part of real repentance, but the point is that the mere confessing is not in itself repentance. Confession may not necessarily involve spiritual conviction of or godly sorrow for sin. Thousands have ‘gone forward’ or ‘confessed’ and told God how wretched they were, yet there has been no evidence of change in their lives. In the old days, sailors used to throw goods overboard in a storm in the hope of recovering them again when calm returned.
5. Remorse and restitution do not constitute true repentance. There are many who become convinced of the evil of their ways, turn from them, and go so far as to make restitution for the harm which they have done, yet they still perish. One of the clearest examples of this in Scripture is Judas’ confession to the priests. He returned their money in remorse. Was he saved? No! He went out and hanged himself (Matthew 27:3-5).
True repentance is a willing and glad change of heart and mind. This is more than a change of opinions, although that is involved. There is a definitive change of attitude towards oneself, God, Christ, sin and salvation. The sinner begins to see these from God’s perspective. Since repentance is the gift of God, the Spirit of God brings the sinner to see God in truth (in all his holiness), the sinner himself in truth (in all his vileness), salvation in truth (in all its grace) and Christ in truth (in all his glory).
There is much evidence of this in Scripture. Recall the experience of David: ‘I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me. Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight’ (Psalm 51:3-4); the words of God through his prophet Ezekiel: ‘You shall loathe yourselves in your own sight for your iniquities and your abominations’ (Ezekiel 36:31); the testimony of the prodigal son: ‘I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son’ (Luke 15:21); or the cry of the tax collector in the temple, who ‘would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner’ (Luke 18:13).
The truly repenting sinner takes sides with God against himself. He repents ‘toward God’ (Acts 20:21), and, as that same verse goes on to say, he exercises ‘faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ’. Once you see God as he is and yourself as you are, the Holy Spirit brings you to acknowledge that your only hope for mercy is in the one whom God has provided as the sinner’s Substitute and Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, his own beloved Son.
Repentance is a deep-felt change of heart brought on by the Holy Spirit. It does not leave the sinner emotionless. When we repent, we do not see ourselves merely as on trial, but already condemned.
Yet, repentance does not stop there. The Scripture speaks of repentance towardsGod. Once you see God as he is and yourself as a worthless condemned sinner, then the Spirit brings you to acknowledge that your only hope for mercy is in another, a substitute, God’s Son. You see Jesus Christ as clearly as the children of Israel saw the mercy seat. The publican who dared not lift his eyes towards heaven, but beat upon his breast, said, ‘God be merciful to me a sinner’ (Luke 18:13). He was literally asking God to be ‘propitious’, the word used of the mercy seat. ‘Show me mercy in your mercy in the blood sacrifice of the mercy seat.’ His only hope was Christ!
If we have truly repented, it is not a one-time act. Repentance is a lifelong business. There is never a day that comes and goes without our need for fresh repentance. There is a continual, deep, spiritual longing for Christ and a sincere determination to forsake whatever is displeasing to God. If any live in sin, secret or open, and do not renounce it, they have not experienced true repentance; they are still lost souls. This continuing spirit of repentance is one of the leading evidences that God has done a work of grace in the heart. It is itself part of what is involved in bringing forth ‘fruits meet for repentance’ (Matthew 3:8). Without true repentance, any who profess salvation do so falsely. Can anyone truly seek God’s pardon, while continuing to defy him and not part with what he forbids?