Even though we have put off the old man and have put on the new man (Colossians 3:9-10), you still struggle with sin. One of the most well-known passages in the Bible on sin is David’s adultery with Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11). When Bathsheba became pregnant, David conspired with the commanding general of his army to have Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband, killed in battle. He could have thought that his sin was effectively concealed and that nobody knows what really happened. But he forgot about the God who watches everything. “The eyes of the Lord are everywhere, beholding the evil and the good” (Proverbs 15:3). It is impossible to do anything that God does not know. Nothing can be hidden from him. Moreover, God through Moses said, “If you sinned…, sin will find you out (Numbers 32:23). While David believed his sin was concealed, that no one knew, God informed His prophet Nathan all about it (2 Samuel 12:1). Nathan confronted David concerning his sin and David repented. He said, “I have sinned against the Lord” (2 Samuel 12:13).
The Definition of Repentance
The word “repent” is translated from metanoeo, which literally means “to change one’s mind.” This word also conveys the meaning of “turning away from” something. Christian repentance over sin is a turning away from sin and towards righteousness. This is something a Christian does initially at the moment of salvation. He turns away from his sin and any attempt to save himself and turns towards God by faith for salvation and forgiveness of sin. This is also something a Christian does repeatedly. Believers constantly repent of their sins, not because they need to be saved again, but because they must forsake their sins daily as they take up their cross and follow the Lord Jesus Christ. Repentance is an important part of sanctification. Without repentance, there is no growth in sanctification. Too many Christians experience stunted spiritual growth because they do not repent of their sins as they should. Before we talk about what true repentance is, we need to know what repentance is not. (1) Repentance is not just praying a prayer for forgiveness from God. 1 John 1:9 has been abused by many Christians who believe that God is obligated to forgive their sin if they ask. This flawed interpretation of the verse led so many Christians to substitute a quick verbal confession for true repentance. (2) Sorrow is also not the same as repentance. People might express some remorse after they sin: “I wish I hadn’t done that.” This is demonstrated most clearly in the lives of Esau (Old Testament) and Judas (New Testament). Both men sorrowed over their sin, but they did not repent. (3) Repentance is also not an act of penance. Even though the Roman Catholic Church replaces the word repentance with penance, it is not an act of contrition. It is not doing something in contrition (sadness) in order to gain forgiveness from God. (4) Repentance is also not simply a determination to do better in the future. It is not just reforming one’s behavior by “turning over a new leaf.” Repentance is fundamentally different from human willpower.
When David confessed “I have sinned against the Lord,” he demonstrated the first step for true repentance (2 Samuel 12:13). He verbally admitted his failure before God (and others). Psalm 32 is a longer expression of David’s repenting heart. He wrote: “I acknowledge my sin before you (God) and my iniquity have it not hidden” (v. 5). (1) Repentance is a complete vetting of one’s sinful actions. Our sin nature encourages us to merely repent of the sins that other people have discovered. This half-hearted repentance is not repentance at all. (2) Repentance refers to sin as evil. It does not lessen the impact of one’s wrong-doing. For example, someone who is repenting does not call a lie “a little white lie.” Lying is sinful and someone who repents of lying does not refer to the lie as a mistake, an error in judgment, a slip of the tongue. “Against You and You only have I sinned and done this evil…” (Psalm 51:4). (3) True repentance comes from a heart that is torn by its failure. This is what the prophet Joel meant when he said that God was calling Israel to “return to me with all your heart, and with fasting, and weeping, and mourning; and rend your hearts…” (Joel 2:12-13). (4) True repentance is utter contrition for one’s actions and offers no self-defense. Repentance does not try to hide by pointing to mitigating factors. One is not repentant if he points to other people or circumstances and says, “if that had not happened, I would not have….” Turning away from sin means a full confession of one’s sin before the Lord. (5) True repentance also resolves to avoid sinning in the future. We know that this is practically impossible not to sin at all while we are alive on the earth. Even in repentance, there is a sinful nature lurking about. At the same time, there is a kind of godly sorrow that creates resolution in the heart that sin is something to be hated, not loved; that it is something to be avoided, not cherished. A truly repentant heart will abhor committing the same sin once again. It is angry at self and sin. It fears sinning against God (even one more time). It hopes that there will never be another moment of pleasure in sin.
The apostle Paul gives one of the best pictures of true repentance (2 Corinthians 7:9-11). He had written a letter to the Corinthians after visiting with them. This letter was actually written between 1 Corinthians and 2 Corinthians and is lost in antiquity. Scholars refer to these as the “painful visit” and the “difficult letter.” Apparently, the church had a number of problems that needed to be corrected. There were people who were living in sin in the church. Paul’s “difficult letter” apparently had a profound impact on many in the church, and they responded to the letter by repenting of their sin. He confirmed that there is a worldly kind of repentance that does not result in change. However, the Corinthians’ repentance was not like that. They had the kind of repentance that is “godly” (v. 10). He wrote that they “were made sorry after a godly manner” (v. 9). Then Paul refers to aspects of their repentance. They wanted to be right with God and with Paul. They wanted to be clear of this matter. They were indignant over their own participation in sin. They were fearful about having been taken so low in their sin. They greatly desired never to do it again. They did not want vindication but justice. This is an important part of repentance. Repentance never guarantees the elimination of the consequences of sin. Too many Christians think that if they repent they must be given another chance. That second chance may come, but it is not guaranteed. Moreover, demanding a second chance or even expecting it is not an example of the right kind of heart. God loves genuine repentance and may mercifully limit the consequences of one’s sin. However, we must remember that He may let us face the consequence of our sins like David’s son died after his repentance although he fasted and prayed for his son’s survival (2 Samuel 12:14-23).
It also means a turning towards righteousness. David pleaded with God to “purge away his sin (Psalm 51:7). He prayerfully asked God to “hide” His face from his sin (v. 9). He asked the Lord to “create in [him] a clean heart…and renew a right spirit within [him]” (v. 10). David sought the Lord “in a time when [He} may be found…” (Psalm 32:6). God is always open to the prayer of repentance. Turning to God in righteousness pleases Him. Manasseh, the son of Hezekiah of Judah, was a very wicked king (2 Chronicles 33). He rebuilt idols torn down by his father (v. 3). He built alters to false gods and erected idols in the temple (v. 4, 7). He sacrificed his children to the false god Molech making them “pass through the fire” (v. 6). He was involved with witchcraft and communicated with demons (v. 6). History teaches that Manasseh murdered the prophet Isaiah because he spoke out against the king. When Isaiah hid from Manasseh in a tree, he was sawed in half by Manasseh’s soldiers. Finally, when God attempted to reach out to Manasseh, he refused to listen (v. 10). Because of this, God brought punishment upon the wicked king. He was arrested and imprisoned in Babylon. Apparently while in prison, he repented of his sin. It is an incredible example of God’s grace that He restored Manasseh to his kingship. After his restoration, he removed the false gods from the temple and repaired God’s altar (v. 15-16). He even commanded Israel to serve Jehovah only (v. 16). When he repented, he did not only turn away from his sin, but turn towards God in righteousness.
When Peter betrayed Jesus at the time of His trial before His crucifixion, the Lord exchanged a brief glance with Peter. As a matter of fact, Jesus already told him about his betrayal (Luke 22:61). Peter’s heart was broken and he “went out and wept bitterly” (v. 62). Although the text does not mention the word “repent,” it is obvious that Peter truly repented. After Jesus rose from the dead, Peter was restored fully to the Lord (John 20:22). Within a few weeks, Peter was back to leading the band of the remaining disciples (remember, Judas had killed himself). Peter led them in appointing a new disciple to the twelve (Acts 1:15-23). He was part of the group upon whom the Holy Spirit came (Acts 2:2-4) and preached the sermon at Pentecost that brought thousands to salvation through faith in Jesus (2:14-41).
Practical Tips to Repentance
- When you sin, go to God immediately and repent of your sin to Him. Tell Him that you are sorry that you sinned (mental/emotional/volitional response) and that you need His help not to commit the same kind of sin in the future.
- Use biblical words for sin. Do not be overly careful to use “sanitized” terms for sin. If you have lied, refer to your sin as a lie. If you have stolen something, do not simply admit to “taking something.” Admit that you stole it.
- Consider if your sin had hurt anyone else. If others are involved, you need to go and confess your sin to them, too. Repentance includes asking them for forgiveness.
- If your sin has tangibly hurt someone else, offer to make amends. This can be highly difficult or costly. You should still offer. Restitution is a big part of repentance.
- Analyze the lust in your own heart that led you into the sin. Determine ways you are going to fight against that lust. Look into God’s Word for help.
- You might need to be counseled by the pastor or another church member (discipler). If the sin is something you find yourself doing repeatedly, seek outside help.
- Take this to God daily in your fight against sin. Don’t think that a few days, a week, or even a month of not sinning like this has “cured” you of the problem. Biblical counselors teach that it takes a month to develop a new habit and five years with no “slips” in order to be considered “over” an addiction. Do not give up on the fight because you experience a few days of victory.
The Danger of Half-Repentance
Sin is very dangerous because it lures us to limit the full force of repentance. It tempts us to repent half-way so as to gain the respect of others or to the point where we “feel” repentant. This kind of attitude prevents us from wholly rejecting the sin that brought us to low. This is extremely dangerous for a couple of reasons. (1) Half-repentance encourages a return to sin because it does not recognize the true nature of sin. Even worse, when we do not wholeheartedly repent of a certain sin, it will greatly impact our attitude towards other sins in life. (2) Half-repentance is also dangerous because it encourages other believers to repent “half-way” themselves. When a Christian witnesses another believer “repent,” but knows that the repentance is not fully genuine, his own Christian walk can be hindered.
How God Responds to Repentance
God loves repentance. Humility is a key to fighting against our sin problem. Jesus told His disciples a story about two men who went into the temple to pray (Luke 18:9-14). One of them was a Pharisee (self-righteous) who prayed “God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers….” (v. 11). This so-called prayer was a betrayal of this own self-estimation. He believed that he was better than other people. In his arrogance he was comparing himself to others. The other man was a tax-collector, one of the most despised people groups in Israel. He could not lift his eyes to heaven because of the shame he felt in his heart (v. 13). His prayer was much different. He prayed: “God, be merciful to me a sinner.” He compared himself to God and recognized that he came up short. Jesus commended his prayer adding that “those who humble themselves will be exalted (v. 14). Jesus’ own half-brother, James, wrote about this kind of humility (James 4). He explained that while we have an internal pull towards sin (wars and fightings among us…that war in our members [body parts] in v. 1) we should come to God in humility. While God resists the proud, He always gives grace to the humble (v. 6). Our approach to God in repentance should be mingled with humility. We should draw close to Him (v. 8). When we do, He will draw close to us. We should also cleanse our hands and purify our hearts, a clear reference to repentance (v. 9). Instead of being filled with laughter and joy (in relation to our sin), we should be sorrowing over it (afflicted, mourn, weep). Those who humble themselves in the sight of the Lord will be blessed. He will “lift them up” (v. 10). Those whose self-estimation is like the Pharisee are in danger of being cast down. Those who approach God with the humble attitude of the tax-collector will be blessed by God. David wrote in another place: “The Lord is nigh to them that are of a broken heart, and saves such as be of a contrite spirit” (Psalm 34:18). When you come to God in true repentance, He will pardon.
There is a great example of this in the Old Testament. There was never a wicked king like Ahab. He is described as doing evil in the sight of the Lord (1 Kings 16:30). In fact, the writer notes that Ahab’s wickedness was “more than all that were before him.” That is a terrible testimony. He followed the example of Jeroboam who introduced idol worship in Israel and married Jezebel, the daughter of a priest of Baal from Sidon (v. 31). He built an altar for Baal in Samaria, capital of the Northern Kingdom of Israel (v. 32). He “did more to provoke the Lord God of Israel to anger than all the kings of Israel that were before him” (v. 33). Jezebel was even worse. She was on a personal mission to murder all of the prophets of God (1 Kings 18:4). In the final analysis, Ahab was the worst of all the kings of Israel. “But there was none like unto Ahab, which did sell himself to work wickedness in the sight of the Lord…” (1 Kings 21:25). Yet, when Elijah told him of God’s intent to judge him for his sin, Ahab tore his clothes (a sign of grief), put on sackcloth (a symbol of repentance), and fasted (v. 27). God’s response was incredible. As evil as Ahab was, more than any before him, God said to Elijah: “see how Ahab humbles himself before Me? Because he humbles himself before Me, I will not bring the evil in his days: but in his son’s days will I bring the evil on his house” (v. 29). Even though Ahab was not repenting to salvation and did not have saving faith in God, the Lord still responded to him for the small measure of repentance he had. That is how much God loves humility. Those who cry out for mercy from God, according to His lovingkindness, will find that God receives the humble (Psalm 51:1).
- What relationship should be between “sorrow” and repentance?
- Think of a time when you repented of some sin. How did you feel afterwards? What personal blessings did you receive from that repentance?
- Verbalize the difficulty you have in repenting for a specific sin problem.
- Read Psalm 32:1-11 (the background of the Psalm is David’s sin with Bathsheba)
- How does David consider it a blessing to be forgiven? Look at the language in v. 2 for two specific answers.
- What was the personal result of David’s failure to repent? Look at vv. 3-4.
- What qualities are there in repentance according to v. 5?
- What promises does God give to the repenting Christian in vv. 7-8, 10?
- How should the repenting saint express himself for God’s mercy? Look at v. 11.