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Some Thoughts On Repentance

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While most definitions for repentance involve feeling sorry or have remorse as a consequence for a past action, the Biblical use of the word prompts further consideration. Many have regretted, even with tears, past actions and vowed not to repeat them and then promptly re-engaged with the same intent and outcome. A statement of regret/remorse even with a concomitant correction of action does not seem to fulfill the Biblical requirement for repentance. While the Biblical prompt to repent goes to the change of mind of the individual, we should also be cognizant of the fact that many people change their minds and quite frequently. What the Biblical rejoinder attempts is something more deep seated, a change in the heart felt character of the individual. The Hebrew word (נָחַם, nacham) for repent has the sense of an inward feeling of complete resignation; the deep internal sigh that portrays Isaiah’s, “Woe is me, I am undone.”

While one of the simplest definitions of “repent” has to do with turning (away) from something, it is instructive to consider what that something is and if there is a specific direction for the alternative. Keep in mind that this is a sequential action. Turning “from” must come first. Perhaps it is because of my scientific training and background that I often seek the most basic and all-encompassing definition of terms and then determine which other presumed definitions are really sub-sets of the first. In this regard let me state what is (in my opinion) a terse definition of repent(ance). It is the turning from self-centeredness to (toward) God. While there are no sub-sets for God there are many for self-centeredness not the least of which is pride. This term is inclusive of all the specific sinful actions that are often associated with repentance.

Of course God does not condone actions that are contrary to His moral absolutes and He desires people to turn from those, but what is it that prompts people to do these things in the first place? People’s actions are quite often prompted by the desire to increase their pleasure usually via some physical/material means. Sometimes they act out of anger and simply either want their own way or want to be separated from a contrary opinion. In every case the ultimate motive is a compelling consideration of self. We simply cannot act contrary to our over-powering self-interest. The encounter in the garden between Adam and Eve and the Serpent is the primary case in point. These first people surrendered their primal, perfect spiritual and physical condition in order to satisfy self. Note that there was no subsequent repentance only a statement confirming the inappropriate action. Later in Genesis when God is justifying the world- wide flood, He condemns man for what is in his heart since this is what motivates his actions. (Gen 6:5)

This leads to the difficulty of repentance. If repentance is to mean anything of substance, it means the turning away from self and turning toward God. Job is an excellent example of the type of repentance that pleases God. His (Job’s) statement was that he abhorred himself (himself is not in the original Masoretic Text but is certainly implied) and repented in dust and ashes. Why did he say this? Certainly not because he realized that his friends were ultimately correct and that he had really committed some sin against God that resulted in all his discomforts. It was his realization of the nature and character of God and his position in this regard. It was Job’s understanding of God that resulted in his repentance. He simply turned from self and toward God. The idea that repentance is the turning away from some specific sin that is not accepted by the local church constabulary falls far short of what is needed.

‎Consider, for a moment, the situation during John the Baptist’s ministry; his message was one of repentance and was heard by many of the Pharisees. In the New Testament repent(ance) is the word μετανοε/ω(ια) ‎metanoeo(ia) meaning a change or reversal that is a turning away from a previously held mental position. Now these Pharisees were the epitome of ‘good’ behavior. They were the scrupulous keepers of the laws given to Moses and enhanced by the Midrash. What would constitute their ‘turning away’ and toward what would they turn? John chided them and said that even if they declared their repentance they had nothing to show that it really happened. John must have been looking for a heart-felt turning from self toward a complete dependence on God.

Was it possible for the Pharisees to experience or declare such repentance? It would certainly be possible but not until they abandoned the excessive self-esteem (pride) they possessed (the sequence must be followed). Paul gave a listing of all the attributes the Pharisees cherished and exploited. But Paul turned from these (repented) and sought the satisfaction that can only come from the declaration of God, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” To the multitudes who were present at Pentecost (and referred to as devout) when they asked what they should do in response to Peter’s sermon, he replied, “Repent …”. Even “devout” persons need to repent. Of course there is the other extreme also. In Acts 8:22-23 Simon, hardly a devout one, is told do repent of his wickedness. It is obvious that this wickedness, wanting the healing power of the Holy Spirit, fell into one of the sub-sets of self-centeredness. Repentance, like salvation, is a matter of the heart not the hands.1

To say that one can or does repent of all their sin(s) is a rather presumptuous statement. We do not know all our sin(s), and we certainly cannot enumerate them and to cover them with a blanket statement seems disingenuous. Remember even an improper thought is a violation of God’s moral absolutes, and who can recall all previous thoughts? Of course one can say they repent of this action or that action, but these are only the details which both the petitioner and God already know. Would it not be better to speak of the failure to put self aside and the desire for God to control all thoughts (which ultimately cause the actions)? We can only repent of self-interest and declare our intent to let God not only supply our needs but to henceforth direct our thoughts and actions. This is accomplished by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit who is given to those who truly repent of self and trust in the sacrificial atonement of Jesus Christ. Repentance is a result or consequence of understanding one’s personal relationship with a Holy God. Why else would one repent? Paul always explained the relationship before asking for repentance. To turn to God just because it is fashionable, reasonable, or one is under some type of peer pressure is to not turn at all. Remember this act is not just turning to God, it is first turning from something (self). True repentance is not only sanctioned by God, it is also instigated by Him.

Is repentance only a one-time event? In regard to a salvific experience the answer is yes, yet in the working out of one’s salvation (day by day living) many improper actions and thoughts occur. In this light there needs to be an ongoing attitude of repentance prompted by the understanding that self does and will interfere in our relationship with Jesus Christ. Our prayer life must include a repentant attitude else we will succumb to fleshly desires and be considered poor servants (not ex-servants). This is a key ingredient in our ongoing sanctification. We will have to give an account for poor servitude. Paul gives us a great motto for our lives and ministry.

For we do not preach ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord, and ourselves your bondservants for Jesus' sake. For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. 2 Cor 4:5-6 NKJV

Packer has well stated:

Granted, to the self-seeking eye of the natural man the path of faith, love, and obedience, of repentance, conversion, self-denial and cross-bearing does not look like either glory or felicity, but the way of life is in truth to die to self in order to live to God. One loses to gain; one gives up in order to receive; one repudiates and negates the life of self-serving in order to experience new life with Christ in Christ, his resurrection life lived out in and through our own living (emphasis mine).2

In this day of increased emphasis on “self-esteem” it is not difficult to see why true repentance is a rarity.

1 Yates, K. The Novelty of Free Grace Theology, Part 1, Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society, Vol. 27:52 (Spring 2014), p. 6. This is Yates assessment of repentance in a discussion of the book “The Shepherd of Hermas.”

2 Packer, J. I. From The Scriptures To The Sermon Some Perspectives On Preaching, Ashland Theological Journal Volume 22 (1989, 22:62). Ashland Theological Seminary.

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