When Jesus began to preach, he told his hearers to ‘repent’ (Matthew 4:17). He stated in Luke 13 that unless we repented we would perish- every one of us, without exception.
Regardless of how ‘religious’ we may be, according to Jesus we are not on our way to heaven unless we have repented of our sins. What does it mean to repent of our sins? What does the Bible teach on this subject?
The meaning of repentance
The word ‘repentance’ itself means ‘to change’, to turn away from something towards something else. To repent of our sins means to turn away from our sins to God. The first stage of repentance is to realize what sin really is. It is to become convicted of the gravity and reality of the evilness of our sin-not simply an error of judgement, a failure, or a mistake, but much more serious than that. It is something obnoxious in itself, as well as abominable to God. There is also the conviction that sin should, indeed must, be punished. The person who sees his sin in its proper light believes that God is not unfair in condemning him to hell forever. Further, there is the persuasion that God, in all justice, must do so if he is holy. The man convicted of sin believes he really deserves eternal punishment.
It is one thing, however, to have a technical knowledge of sin-it is another thing to be conscious and aware that we are personally guilty of sin! It is one thing to know ‘about’ guilt, quite another thing to experience it in reality. It may be one thing to theorize over it, but another thing to be burdened with it; one thing to know the philosophy of sin, but another thing to feel its weight.
Conviction of sin
There should be a reaction following the proper understanding of what sin really is – distress and sorrow. How can anyone discover the ugliness and seriousness of sin and not be upset about it? Surely this is what Jesus meant when he said, ‘Blessed are they that mourn’ (Matthew 5:4). Christ was not referring, on that occasion, to those who were bereaved or had suffered some great disappointment; he was speaking about those who were mourning over their sins. Our reaction to our own sins, if we have seen them in their true light, ought to be grief and anguish. We should turn away from them as we would turn away from a leaking gas main in the street when it gives off its foul stench.
Repentance in practice
To repent of our sins, of course, must also mean that our behaviour is changed. It is more than an ideology- it must be a way of life. We must turn away from our past life and live a new life to God. Nevertheless, to stop living as we used to live is extremely difficult, and can only be done by the grace of God. To turn from our sin is really equivalent to turning from ourselves.
Look up Isaiah 53:6 and you will see that men have gone astray by turning to themselves! We sin by ‘doing our own thing’ es we say today. We do not need to turn to a life of crime or gross immorality to live a life of sin-we just need to keep God out of our lives and please ourselves. As we are by nature, we choose to please ourselves instead of pleasing our Creator who made us for the specific purpose of honouring him. So repentance is really reversing this process and giving up our own will to serve God fully. To repent, we must give up our sinful ways.
Alas, it is possible, however, to give up bad habits and adopt new ones! It is possible to turn from one sin to another sin! True repentance is to turn from sin to God. Examine Isaiah 55:7. Some people may give up drinking and gambling but it is not to serve God! They may see their lifestyle to be wrong, but it is not true repentance.
Almost all religions have their ‘converts’ from lives of depravity and violence, but the repentance that comes from Jesus brings us back to God. It requires faith because it is a returning to the very Person we have offended. Many run away from God when they sin- but how foolish that is, as we can never get away from God anyway. We must return to God, because only he can forgive us and deliver us from sin’s power.
Confession of sin
Further, this turning to God is something we must do out of love to God. The confession of sin to God is not like the statement made by a ‘self-confessed’ criminal, who has issued his confession simply to get out of a tricky situation.
Self-confessed criminals often make their confession because there is so much evidence against them that they see no hope of acquittal. They are encouraged to make a confession as this may reduce their sentence. In such cases, there is no sense of wickedness or evil done, and certainly no love for law-keeping and justice.
It is different with the repenting sinner. Such a one desires holiness of life, longs for mercy rather than justice to be administered, and has a deep love for God who is willing, as a consequence of Christ’s substitutionary atonement, to pardon him.
Assurance of forgiveness
There must also be confidence in God. Hebrews 1 1:6 underlines the necessity of this. There is no point in just going through the motions with God. To turn to God and confess your sins to him yet wonder if he will really forgive you is to insult God. To despair that God will forgive you is sin. Some people think that to despair of receiving mercy is a sign of grace, but this is not so. Despair is unbelief and unbelief is sin.
The only true conviction of sin is that which God the Holy Spirit gives, and his purpose in doing so is to lead that person to Jesus Christ. The only way we can tell if our conviction of sin is the work of God is if it leads us to trust Jesus Christ as our Saviour. There may be great conviction for a long time, but if it does not bring us to the Lord Jesus, it is not the work of God. There must be faith in God’s way of forgiveness through Jesus.
No amount of sorrow and mourning for sin is true repentance unless there is also the presence of faith in God. If we believe the threatening of God, we must also believe the promises of God