Repentance is a very important part of the life of a child of God. Apart from repentance of his sins he has no salvation. The Bible makes this very clear. While Jesus was in Perea some came to Him with a report of murder. Pilate, the Roman governor, had murdered a number of Galileans in the temple and had mingled their blood with the sacrifices they had brought. Jesus anticipates their question and answers it. “Suppose ye that these Galileans were sinners above all the Galileans, because they suffered such things? I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish”. (Luke 13:1-3) We see the importance of repentance also from Peter’s speech on Pentecost. After explaining to the crowds that the wonderful things they had seen and heard were the work of Jesus Christ Whom they had crucified but God had raised, the crowd asks, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?” In response Peter charges them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins.” (Acts 2:37-38) Peter emphasizes this same thing a little later to the crowd in the temple who witnessed the healing of the lame man at the temple gate. Peter points out that this man was made whole by Jesus Whom they had crucified but God had raised up. Peter charges them, “Repent ye therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out.” (Acts 3:19) On the basis of these and other passages we can only conclude that repentance is of extreme importance. Unless we repent, we perish. Without repentance, there is no forgiveness of sins. Do you repent daily of your sins?
Usually when we think of repentance we tend to think of sorrow. You sin and are sorry. Repentance is grief and remorse over sin. Now this is certainly true. However, this is not all. There is more to true repentance than simply sorrow over sin. Besides, not all sorrow experienced in connection with one’s sins is necessarily a part of true repentance. Down through the ages many tears have been shed as a result of sin. But more often than not these tears did not lead to the forgiveness of sin but to greater damnation.
That leads us then to the question: what is true repentance of sin? How must we react to our sin that we may find the forgiveness of God and escape the wrath to come?
There are three elements to true repentance. The first element is an acknowledgment of sin. Jesus once told the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican (cf. Luke 18:9-15). According to this parable both a Pharisee and a publican (tax collector) come to the temple of God at the hour of prayer. The publican has only one thing on his mind — his terrible sin. In deep shame and humility he stands in an obscure corner of the temple yard and not even daring to lift up his head prays, “God be merciful to me a sinner”. The Pharisee however does not acknowledge sin. This does not mean that he has no sin. Every man at best is a terrible sinner. This includes the Pharisee too. This simply means that the Pharisee refuses to acknowledge his sin. He has blinded himself to his sin. He lives in a dream world in which all he does is perfect. And so instead of acknowledging his sin before God he thanks God that he is not a sinner as other men are. The one therefore acknowledges his sin, the other does not. With the one we find repentance, with the other we do not. It is also interesting to note that Jesus concludes this parable by saying, ‘‘I tell you, this man (i.e. the publican) went down to his house justified rather than the other.”
When we speak of acknowledging our sin we mean three things. First, we must acknowledge our sins to ourselves. This is very difficult to do. It hurts our pride to admit even to ourselves that we have failed or done something wrong. Consequently, we tend to justify ourselves. How conveniently we blame circumstances or others for our own sinful behavior. Or perhaps we are inclined to minimize the seriousness of our own sins. What others do may be terrible; but what we do is not quite so bad. Let us call this what it really is — a refusal to repent!
Secondly, we must acknowledge our sins to one another. This is called confession of sin. In James 5:16 we are told, ‘‘Confess your faults one to another.” How often do we not hurt one another by our actions? How thoughtless we often are and selfish in our dealings with one another! When we are made aware of such sinful behavior we must readily acknowledge this to the person against whom we have sinned and seek his forgiveness. This too is difficult. It requires great humility. But if we refuse we have not repented.
Finally, we must acknowledge our sins to God. All sin is sin against God. And He is terribly offended by our sin. Therefore, we must come to God in prayer every day and acknowledge our sins to Him. This confession of sin must in turn be specific, not general. We must not be satisfied with a general admission of sin before God. We have committed specific sins. These sins we must acknowledge before God one by one as we are made aware of them. To fail to do this for whatever reason is to fail to repent of one’s sins.
The second element of true repentance is sorrow over sin. There are many who will readily acknowledge both to themselves and to others the fact of their sin but who feel no sorrow for sin. This becomes evident by their constant boasting of their sins and their delight in telling others of their sins. This is quite obviously not repentance. True repentance involves sorrow and grief over sin. One of the words that the New Testament uses for repentance means to change one’s mind. Repentance is a change of mind about one’s sin. This certainly implies regret and sorrow over our sinful behavior.
In this connection, we must be made aware of the fact that not all sorrow connected to sin is the sorrow of true repentance. The Apostle Paul makes this clear in II Cor. 7:10, ‘‘For godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of: but the sorrow of the world worketh death”. Notice, there is a godly sorrow in connection with sin and the sorrow of the world. The world also sorrows because of sin. But their sorrow is altogether different than the sorrow of the godly. This is quite evident from the fact that the one works repentance to salvation whereas the other works death.
What is the difference between the two? In general, the sorrow of the world is sorrow over the consequences of sin whereas the sorrow of the godly is sorrow over sin itself. There are many men today in the prisons of our land who are very sorry. It’s probably true however that very few are really sorry that they committed their crimes. They are rather sorry that they got caught, that they must suffer the consequences of their crimes. Were they to be released and given the assurance that any further crimes would be without penalty, they would gladly and without a second thought repeat their crimes over and over again. In like manner, there are many who have the same kind of sorrow when it comes to their sins. All sin has consequences. There is not so much as one sin that you can commit without suffering some bad consequences. God is not mocked. Whatever a man sows, that shall he also reap (Galatians 6:7). Now there are many who when they sin are very sorrowful. But all too often they are not sorry about their sin but about the bad consequences of sin. They have sinned and are sorry because they know that God sends sinners to hell. And they are deathly afraid of hell. Or they sin and are sorry because their sin has ruined their reputation or caused them embarrassment or got them into trouble of some kind. This is sorrow over the consequences of sin. It is also the sorrow of the world that works death. It is good to examine every day the sorrow we have when we sin. To the degree that this characterizes our sorrow we have not repented.
True sorrow of the godly is sorrow over sin itself. It is a sorrow one experiences when he knows that he has offended someone whom he loves. Through our sin we offend God. Every sin we commit is very offensive to God. The more spiritually mature a person becomes the more he becomes aware of that. Now, if a person sincerely loves God this will cause him to grieve. Think of all that God has done for us! He has chosen us to be His people. He has sent His only Son to die for us. He has showered us with blessings too numerous to count. And how do we respond? In our weaknesses, we rebel against Him. We ignore His will. We trample under foot His Word. How offensive is our sin to Him. If you love God at all this will cause you to grieve. You will come to hate your sin. You will be driven to God in prayer to confess your sin, to plead on His mercy and to ask forgiveness for Christ’s sake. This is godly sorrow that works repentance to salvation. It is a sorrow that leads us to the cross which is the only ground of our salvation. This is something in which we must grow, for which we must strive.
Finally, true repentance implies a forsaking of one’s sin. This is the third element. This element of turning away from sin is implied in the idea of repentance being a change of mind about sin. If one is truly sorrowful for his sin, truly hates his sin for God’s sake, this will manifest itself in a turning away from sin. No one has yet to commit a sin that he truly hates with all his being. We may say therefore that this last element is really the test of true repentance. Without a turning-away from sin there can be no legitimate claim to repentance.
It is exactly at this point where many of us may experience difficulty. Perhaps there are certain sins into which we very easily fall. They are virtually irresistible. They control us and we are powerless to overcome them. Perhaps it is also the case that every time we fall victim to these sins that we are filled with guilt, grief and sorrow. We resolve never again to walk in them. But before we know it, there we are committing the same sins again and again and again.
What is the problem? The problem is that we have not come really to hate these sins. By nature we love sin. We love all sin. Due to the influence of our sinful nature we may have over the years even cultivated certain sins which we have come especially to love. Repentance means that we have a change of mind about this. We must come to hate these sins with our whole being. Only then can and will we ever be able to overcome them and cleanse our lives of them.
How do we come to this change of mind about sin? How do we learn to hate sin with our whole being so that we are able to turn away from it? We can do this only in the power of God’s grace. In and of ourselves we are powerless to turn against our sins. It is all of grace. Therefore, if we will truly repent we must daily seek the power of grace to repent. We find this grace in the preaching of the Word, in Bible study and devotions, in prayer. The young person who neglects these means of grace will find that he is powerless to repent of his sins. Nor will he be able to find the glad assurance of salvation in Jesus Christ. This sorry situation describes us only too well, doesn’t it? Let us seek God’s grace daily that we may truly repent of all our sins. Then we will find true joy as we find the full assurance of our salvation in Jesus Christ.