Back in 1996 I was at Mardi Gras in New Orleans and I remember being amidst a crowded street, packed with people. And there above the crowd, a man’s sign was held high for all to see. It was a black sign with bright fire and flames painted on the bottom half, and above the flames was written in big letters the word “REPENT!” (The word repent literally means to turn around.) I think he was trying to tell the crowd of people to stop their drunken revelry and turn to Christ. Probably not the most effective method, but that’s another discussion. I share that image because it seems that in Christian circles the word “repent” has been relegated to only being for non-Christians. “You need to repent of your sin.” It’s a word we use when we describe how we became a Christian, “I repented of my sin and became a Christian.” But is repentance only for non-Christians to become Christians? Or is repentance for the Christian too? Could repentance be the key to our daily walk with Jesus?
In Revelation 2:16 Jesus says to the Christians “Therefore repent.” In fact, in Revelation chapters 2 & 3 Jesus sends letters to 7 different churches, and in 5 of those letters he tells the church to repent. (See Revelation 2:5, 2:16, 2:21, 3:3 and 3:19) When Jesus is using the word “repent,” in Revelation, He is using it for the Christians. Jesus knows that repentance is not just a one time event for becoming a Christian, but it is an ongoing experience in the life of a Christian. The church reformer Martin Luther once said “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said ‘repent’…He willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” Yes we are forgiven of our sin, and yet we still sin. Yes we are “new creations” and yet as the Apostle Paul said in Romans 7, there is “sin that dwells within me.” And it’s that indwelling presence of sin in all of us that manifests in acts of sin that requires us to walk in repentance.
In the study “The Gospel-Centered Life,” the authors write, “The Roman Catholic idea of penance often bleeds into our thinking about repentance: when we sin, we should feel really sorry about it, beat ourselves up over it, and do something to make up for it. In other words, repentance often becomes more about us than about God or the people we’ve sinned against. We want to feel better. We want things to be ‘back to normal.’ We want to know that we’ve done our part, so that our guilt is assuaged and we can move on with life.” They go on to say how we fall into patterns of remorse, “I can’t believe I did that!” and resolution, “I promise to do better next time.” Notice who the focus is on in those two statements, I. Remorse and Resolution are self-focused ways of living whereby we are more concerned with our own performance and morality than we are with being loved by God and loving Him and others in response. Ironically, that false form of repentance must be repented of if we are to truly walk with Jesus.
In Psalm 51, after David was confronted about his sin of adultery, He did not respond with remorse, “I can’t believe I did that. I’m such an idiot.” He did not respond with resolution, “I promise to do better next time I’m tempted to commit adultery.” Rather, David repented with a broken heart to the God who loves him by saying, “against you, you only have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.” It’s in this repentance that God is glorified and His grace is poured into our hearts, changing us to love Him and love others.
In Part 2 of our series on repentance we will look at the ways we all tend to avoid repentance.