The message of repentance is as old as Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the temple. On that day Solomon prayed for the nation of Israel that when they sinned against God and became prisoners of war in a foreign land, they would have a change of heart causing them to repent and say, “We have sinned, we have done wrong and acted wickedly”; and that God would hear from Heaven and forgive the people of their sins (2 Chronicles 6:36-39). True repentance must include a genuine change of heart, a full and frank admission of sin, and an immediate return to the God of holiness. Staying with the temple theme, Charles Spurgeon said, “Repentance must dig the foundations, but holiness shall erect the structure, and bring forth the top-stone. Repentance is the clearing away of the rubbish of the past temple of sin; holiness builds the new temple which the Lord our God shall inherit.”
Repentance. Who doesn’t need to repent? The constant theme of the Old Testament prophets was repentance, yet the nation of Israel seldom repented. Isaiah declared, “In repentance and rest is your salvation . . . but you would have none of it” (30:15). Jeremiah testified, “They made their faces harder than stone and refused to repent” (5:3). Corrie ten Boom observed, “An unrepented sin is a continued sin.” Surely this was true of ancient Israel and no doubt it is true of America and all nations today. Sin separates us from God; repentance reunites us with him. Thomas Carlyle said, “Of all acts of man, repentance is the most divine. The greatest of faults is to be conscious of none.”
Is it possible that in our eagerness to bring people to Christ we have glossed over the seriousness of sin and the urgent need for repentance? Are we doing anyone a favor by leaving out the necessity of repentance in sharing God’s plan of salvation? Does the congregation where you attend courageously and compassionately proclaim the message of repentance that was preached by the prophets, apostles, and Christ himself? Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline.” Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-215) wrote, “Those who fall into sin after baptism are those who are subjected to discipline; for the deeds done before are remitted, [in baptism], and those done after are purged [through discipline].” Repentance is not a one-time experience, but a constant necessity. A. W. Tozer said, “God will take nine steps toward us, but he will not take the tenth. He will incline us to repent, but he cannot do our repenting for us.”
The Desperate Need for Repentance
Repentance was literally the first word in New Testament preaching. “In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, ‘Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near” (Matthew 3:1, 2). Following his baptism and temptation, the Bible says of Jesus, “From that time on Jesus began to preach, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near’” (4:17). On the Day of Pentecost, when the audience asked what they must do, Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).
When persecution scattered the early Christians throughout Judea and Samaria, they “preached the word” wherever they went (Acts 8:1-4). We know that their message included repentance because Christ’s commission to his disciples was crystal clear: “Repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem” (Luke 24:47). Robert T. Matthews observed, “When Jesus said that repentance should be preached in his name, he meant it. His name is the only reason and power that can cause one to repent radically and thoroughly.” The need for repentance is huge because it is connected with the forgiveness of sins. One person who repented radically was Saul of Tarsus. He later testified, “First to those in Damascus, then to those in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and then to the Gentiles, I preached that they should repent and turn to God and demonstrate their repentance by their deeds” (Acts 26:20).
Why isn’t repentance the first word in preaching today as it was in the New Testament? Richard Owen Roberts offers seven reasons why the doctrine of repentance is largely neglected. One, there is a general disregard for biblical doctrine in the church. Two, portions of the church that still believe in doctrinal preaching have allowed themselves to become grievously negligent about preaching repentance. Three, there is an increasingly common failure by the church in understanding the mandatory nature of repentance. Four, others have developed the preceding error into a pernicious doctrine which is being widely taught and practiced [i.e., that repentance is a “work.”]. Five, repentance has been neglected because of a grievously distorted focus upon the positive. Six, repentance has suffered at the hands of the church’s large-scale commitment to success. Seven, there exists a tragic lack of moral earnestness among church leaders. “Even in cases where repentance is taught, it is done with such a lack of moral energy and vital spiritual concern that few indeed catch the urgency of biblically mandated repentance and respond accordingly” (“Repentance, the First Word of the Gospel” One Body, Winter 2016).
The Happy Results of Repentance
“Repentance is not so much to endear us to Christ as to endear Christ to us. Until sin be bitter, Christ will not be sweet” (Thomas Watson). Those whom Jesus loves he rebukes, chastens, and urges to repent (Revelation 3:19). There are many happy results when a sinner repents of his or her sins. For the lukewarm church in Laodicea, those who took Jesus at his word and repented received a wonderful promise: “If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me” (v. 20).
C. S. Lewis said,
We have a strange illusion that mere time cancels sin. I have heard others, and I have heard myself, recounting cruelties and falsehoods committed in boyhood as if they were no concern of the present speaker’s, and even with laughter. But mere time does nothing either to the fact or to the guilt of a sin. The guilt is washed out not by time but by repentance and the blood of Christ; if we have repented of these early sins we should remember the price of our forgiveness and be humble.
Forgiveness of sin and the gift of the Holy Spirit are promised to all who will repent and be baptized (Acts 2:38).
God’s grace and mercy are for all who repent and renounce their sins. Proverbs 28:13 says, “Whoever conceals their sins does not prosper, but the one who confesses and renounces them finds mercy.” One Sunday morning a beautiful and dignified lady came forward at the invitation. In hushed tones she told me that she was ready to confess before the congregation every sin she had ever committed! What an amazing attitude of a willingness to repent!
Times of refreshing will come when we repent of our sins. In a sermon preached at Solomon’s Colonnade, Peter declared, “Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord” (Acts 3:19). The Ethiopian official went on his way rejoicing following his baptism (8:39). Jesus taught that there would be great rejoicing in Heaven over just one sinner who repents (Luke 15:7, 10). Paul wrote, “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret” (2 Corinthians 7:10). Thomas Fuller said, “You cannot repent too soon because you do not know how soon it may be too late.” You’ll never be sorry when you repent of your sins.
Victor Knowles is founder and president of POEM (Peace on Earth Ministries), Joplin, MO. He is also editor of One Body magazine and the author of Stand and Deliver and 23 other books.