What is Repentance and why you can’t get to heaven without it

It is noteworthy how little teaching is given on the subject of repentance in our churches, considering its importance in the New Testament. How often does one hear a sermon on the subject? However, that’s not surprising. Tolerance is the “in-word” today and anything that implies that we are not all OK just as we are, and that we may have to consider making some serious changes to our lifestyle, is hardly likely to be a popular idea. There are nicer things to talk about than repentance. History records that a certain Jean de Labadie (1610 – 1674), a minister of the Reformed church of southern France, at one time preached 50 sermons in succession on the text “Repent ye.” One of these sermons lasted four and a half hours! Today we have gone to the opposite extreme and don’t talk about it at all. However, don’t be put off by the unpopularity of the subject. What you learn could be a turning point in your life!

The importance of repentance in the New Testament

Before looking at the meaning of repentance, let’s have a look at the importance given to it in the Bible.

“Jesus declared that the purpose of his coming and ministry was to call ‘siners to repentance'”
The words “repent” and “repentance” occur 56 times in the New Testament. It is similar in meaning to the word translated “convert” or “turn”, which is also common. The main theme of the preaching of John the Baptist, who prepared the way for the coming of Jesus, was: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (Matthew 3:2). The first recorded words of the public ministry of Jesus are also “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (Matthew 4:17). Jesus declared that the purpose of his coming and ministry was to call “sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:32). When Jesus sent out his disciples to preach, we read that “they went out and preached that people should repent” (Mark 6:12). After his resurrection from the dead, he declared that “repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations” (Luke 24:47). He declared that unless people repented they would perish, and in order to enforce the message, he repeated it (Luke 13:3,5). In each of Peter’s two recorded sermons after the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit was given, he told people to repent (Acts 2:38; 3:19). In Paul’s recorded sermon to the Athenians he said that God “commands all people everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30). He said that the message he declared to both Jews and Greeks was that “they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus” (Acts 20:21). Peter declares that God is “not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). It is obvious from the above references that if Jesus and those he trained knew what they were talking about, none of us will find a meaningful relationship with God unless we do what the Bible calls “repent”. That being the case, it is important to find out what it means.

Repentance is more than being sorry

“Sorrow may lead to repentance, or it may not, but they are not the same”
This is a point that needs clarification, as it is common to think of repentance as merely being sorry about things one may have done wrong. However, the word implies a lot more than this. The Bible gives us a good example of remorse without repentance. “When Judas, who had betrayed him, saw that Jesus was condemned, he was seized with remorse and returned the thirty silver coins to the chief priests and the elders. ‘I have sinned,’ he said, ‘for I have betrayed innocent blood'” (Matthew 27:3,4). You will note here that Judas admitted his guilt, felt sorry about it, and was even prepared to make restitution, at least to some degree. However, subsequent events and other statements in the Bible make it clear that Judas never truly repented. (The Greek word for “seized with remorse” used here is translated “repented” in the old Authorised Version. However, it is not the usual word for repentance in the New Testament, and “seized with remorse” is a better translation.)

Paul, writing to the church in Corinth, talks about two kinds of sorrow. “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death” (2 Corinthians 7:10). Sorrow may lead to repentance, or it may not, but they are not the same. Sorrow is concerned with feelings, whereas repentance, as we shall see, involves a change of attitude, particularly to God.

What repentance is

To get a proper picture it is important to understand that repentance always takes place in relation to someone – always in relation to God, and sometimes in relation to other people as well. Repentance is never a private affair. God created us to live in relationships – first with himself, and then with others. That is the reason why religions that do not have a personal God of grace with whom we may enjoy a loving relationship, and from whom it is possible to stray, have no proper place for repentance. Hinduism, Buddhism and New Age thinking come into this category.

Essentially, repentance is simply that process by which a person who is away from God recognises that situation and goes back to God. As C. S. Lewis explained, repentance is not something God demands of you before he will take you back, and which he could let you off if he chose; it is simply a description of what going back is like. It is basically a U-turn. Instead of going away from God, or ignoring him, you turn around, go to him and choose to give him his rightful place in your life. Repentance, therefore, has more to do with your will than it has to do with your feelings. You may feel deep sorrow about certain things that you regret, or you may not, but the real issue is whether or not you go back to where you belong. Of course, sorrow may assist that process.

The Greek word translated “repent” in the New Testament has the basic meaning of “changing your mind”. However, in the Bible it goes further than just changing one’s thinking about something; it means changing one’s attitude towards that thing. To truly repent you must make two changes of attitude – towards both God’s truth and God himself.

A change of attitude towards God’s truth

“Repentance is contrition for what we are in our fundamental beings, that we are wrong in our deepest roots because our interior government is by Self and not by God”
In the ten commandments (Exodus 20), the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew chapters 5, 6 and 7) and numerous other passages in the New Testament, God has revealed to us how we ought to live. It must be plain to anyone who bothers to read what God’s requirements are that we all come a long way short. If you are to live in a meaningful relationship with God, which is what being a Christian is all about, then you have to accept that his standards apply, not the ones you choose for yourself. This means being willing to accept the fact of your failures and acknowledge them to God. It also means that there must be a willingness to let go of those things that are inconsistent with living in fellowship with God. You are prepared to let God have his say about how you live rather than making your own rules. Of course, this is impossible in your own strength. However, if the will is there, God will come into your life in the person of the Holy Spirit and begin to change you. It is not something you have to do on your own. More of that later.

Repentance also involves not just a recognition that we have done wrong but a recognition that in a more fundamental sense we are wrong. As African missionary, Florence Allshorn, put it in Notebooks:

Repentance is not a mere feeling of sorrow or contrition for an act of wrongdoing. Repentance is contrition for what we are in our fundamental beings, that we are wrong in our deepest roots because our interior government is by Self and not by God.

C. S. Lewis in Mere Christianity, underlines this same point from a slightly different aspect:

…fallen man is not simply an imperfect creature who needs improvement; he is a rebel who must lay down his arms. Laying down your arms, surrendering, saying you are sorry, realising that you have been on the wrong track and getting ready to start life over again from the ground floor – that is the only way out of our ‘hole’. This process of surrender – this movement full speed astern – is what Christians call repentance. Now repentance is no fun at all. It is something much harder than merely eating humble pie. It means unlearning all the self-conceit and self-will that we have been training ourselves into for thousands of years.

With some, repentance may begin with remorse over individual sins and a desire for forgiveness and release from them. With others, it may simply be a growing awareness of the wrongness of living without Christ and a desire to find a vital relationship with God as he has revealed himself to us in Jesus Christ. Either way, the essence of repentance is turning to God, accepting the forgiveness that is offered to you through the death of Jesus for your sins and submitting to him as Lord of your life. This brings us to the second aspect of repentance: a renewed relationship with God.

A change of attitude towards God himself

In his excellent book Making Sense Out of Suffering, in describing the ministry of John the Baptist and his use of the word “repent”, Peter Kreeft says:

“the hardest thing I have to do every single day is try to decide what is God’s will, rather than what is my will”
In that word John summarises the message of all the prophets, all the preparation for the Messiah. Repent: that is, turn. Turn around, face God instead of running away from him. Face the light, so that when the light comes to you with a face, the face of Jesus, you can meet him face-to-face.

God has revealed himself supremely to us in the life and character of Jesus, the second Person of the divine Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. By taking upon himself the consequences of our sins through his death on the cross, he is able to offer us forgiveness and reconciliation with God. This involves a personal encounter with him, a willingness to invite him into our lives and to submit to him as Lord. Australian evangelist, John Chapman, puts it like this:

The true response of a person to Christ is a genuine repentance which involves recognising Jesus as true King in God’s world and thus seeking to live under his authority.

This means that the greatest evidence that a person has repented is that they genuinely desire to do God’s will and serve him. This is well illustrated from the life of Gordon Liddy. Liddy was sentenced to 21 years in prison for his major role in the Watergate affair. He was a student of Nietzsche, the German philosopher who venerated the “will to power” as the highest of human goals. When asked in prison by a Christian friend if he had “seen the light”, he said, “No, I’m not even looking for the switch.” When asked by David Letterman on his TV show, “What happens after we die?” Liddy replied, “We are food for the worms.”

However, the day came when Liddy repented. He was invited to a Bible study group by some former FBI colleagues he had known for 30 years. They were sharp, compassionate and well-read, and he agreed to go, but only after saying, “Please don’t try to convert me. I don’t want to be bothered.” Many people, says Liddy, experience a “rush of emotion” in conversion. Yet as he began to look into the Bible, for him there came a “rush of reason”. He realised Christ was who he claimed to be. And Gordon Liddy became a Christian.

Liddy shows the genuineness of his repentance in the following words:

Now the hardest thing I have to do every single day is try to decide what is God’s will, rather than what is my will. What does Jesus want, not what does Gordon want. And so the prayer that I say most frequently is, ‘God, first of all, please tell me what you want – continue the communication. And second, give me the strength to do what I know you want, what your will is, rather than my own.’ I have an almost 57-year history of doing what I want, what my will wants, and I have to break out of that habit into trying to do the will of God.

This comes from a man who spent his life affirming the strength of his own will. (He entitled his autobiography Will.) This is the essence of repentance: to submit one’s will to the will of God.

I will sum up this section on what repentance is with a quote and an illustration from the Bible. According to Eugene Peterson, American pastor and writer, repentance is

…deciding that you have been wrong in supposing that you could manage your own life and be your own god; it is deciding that you were wrong in thinking that you had, or could get, the strength, education and training to make it on your own; it is deciding that you have been told a pack of lies about yourself and your neighbours and your world. And it is deciding that God, in Jesus Christ, is telling you the truth. Repentance is a realisation that what God wants from you and what you want from God are not going to be achieved by doing the same old things, thinking the same old thoughts. Repentance is a decision to follow Jesus Christ and become his pilgrim in the path of peace.

” Repentance is not the means whereby we earn God’s forgiveness and love. Repentance is merely the means by which we receive them”
The illustration comes from Luke, chapter 15, in the New Testament. It is the story of the Prodigal Son, one of the best-known stories told by Jesus. The wayward son ends up in the pigpen with nothing to eat but the mush the pigs were fed. He begins to regret the self-will that has led him to this state. No doubt there is a good deal of self-pity mixed with his remorse. However, his repentance is evident in that he decides to eat humble pie and to return home. When he does, his father, who has been waiting for this moment for a long time, throws aside all dignity, runs to meet him and throws a party. There is great rejoicing.

You will notice that the returning prodigal does not earn this father’s love by his repentance. Love had never been absent from his father’s heart, only he could not experience it in a far country. Repentance is not the means whereby we earn God’s forgiveness and love. These are there anyway and are totally undeserved. Repentance is merely the means by which we receive them. It is going home.

You will note the great rejoicing on the prodigal’s return. Jesus said, “…there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Luke 15:10). William Temple, the influential Archbishop of Canterbury, caught this aspect of repentance when he said:

To repent is to adopt God’s viewpoint in place of your own…In itself, far from being sorrowful, it is the most joyful thing in the world, because when you have done it you have adopted the viewpoint of truth itself and you are in fellowship with God.


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