A Forgotten Doctrine

When the Lord Jesus began His public ministry, the Bible tells us that He proclaimed throughout Galilee, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). Before He ascended to heaven at the close of His earthly ministry, he told the apostles, “Thus it is written, and thus it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day, and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem” (Luke 24:46-47). From His throne in glory He spoke to the church in Ephesus in the book of Revelation, “Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the first works, or else I will come to you quickly and remove your lampstand from its place—unless you repent” (Revelation 2:5; see also 2:16; 3:3; 3:19). Repentance is a vitally important part of the gospel of Jesus Christ. That is why Peter called upon his hearers to repent when he preached in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost: “Then Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit’” (Acts 2:38).

We seem to live in a day, however, in which repentance is a forgotten word and a forgotten doctrine. Would a survey of the best-selling Christian books over the past decade reveal even one on the subject of repentance? Do today’s Christian magazines regularly address this important topic? Do the sermons from our pulpits give repentance the prominent place the apostles and our Lord gave it? Why not? What is wrong? Could it be that the church needs to repent and preach the first things—the things that the Lord Himself preached?

A ‘Seeker-Insensitive’ Doctrine

A ‘Seeker-Insensitive’ Doctrine Why is repentance such a forgotten and neglected part of Christian teaching and preaching in our day? Why is it so unpopular? There are undoubtedly several reasons. For one thing, we live in a day in which people like to “accentuate the positive.” Even in the Christian church, there is a great desire to not be perceived as “negative”—even if that means distorting the message of God’s word. Repentance, of course, is viewed as a “negative” thing. Repentance calls to mind other “negative” concepts such as sin and guilt. People don’t want to hear about such things! The people of Isaiah’s day did not like it that the prophet confronted them with the holiness of God, because that meant that they were confronted with their own sinfulness and were faced with their need to repent. So we read these words of the Lord through Isaiah about such people:

This is a rebellious people, lying children, children who will not hear the law of the LORD; who say to the seers, ‘Do not see,’ and to the prophets, ‘Do not prophesy to us right things; speak to us smooth things, prophesy deceits. Get out of the way, turn aside from the path, cause the Holy One of Israel to cease from before us’ (Isaiah 30:9-11).

Should we expect that unconverted people today are by nature any more willing to hear the “hard parts” of God’s truth than they were in the days of Isaiah? Of course not! May the church of Christ repent of her pitiful willingness to let those who are in darkness dictate how the gospel message should sound. May the Lord turn her from her worship at the shrine of “seeker-sensitivity” and enable her “prophets” to preach the truth—even if it is unwelcome! May we, like the Apostle Paul, keep back nothing that is profitable, but declare the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:20, 27).

A Vital Part of the Biblical Gospel

Repentance is a vitally important part of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, it has become a forgotten and neglected part of Christian teaching and preaching in our day. Why is this the case? Certainly one of the reasons the doctrine of repentance has fallen on hard times is that, if repentance is preached the way Christ and His apostles preached it, it will be a hindrance to the ‘success’ of evangelism. It will not be a hindrance to true success in evangelism, of course. The more our evangelism imitates the pattern set by Jesus and the apostles, the more successful it will be. But if the note of repentance is clearly sounded in our preaching, there will likely be fewer “decisions” for Christ. Consider the way Jesus once dealt with some people who had approached Him. He told them, “Unless you repent you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3, 5). Anyone knows that that is not the easiest way to win converts! The best way to get a decision is to say, “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life, and He wants to have a relationship with you.” But by telling people they needed to repent, Jesus was saying that they needed to turn away from their life of sin in repentance if they did not want to die in their sins. He was not saying, “The road of life and salvation is simple.”

Furthermore, if repentance is preached the way Christ and His apostles preached it, it will strike a death blow to one of the most popular views of the Christian life—the “Carnal Christian” theory. That is the view that someone can be a true Christian and still live a basically ungodly, worldly, carnal life; that he can have Christ as his Savior yet not as his Lord; that his profession of faith in Christ is in effect a fire insurance policy that enables him to live like a worldling yet escape the fire of hell in the end. The problem with this view, of course, is that the Bible nowhere teaches it. Jesus’ words quoted above, “Unless you repent you will perish”, show that it is impossible to reconcile the ‘Carnal Christian’ theory with the teaching of the New Testament. But false teaching dies hard, especially when it is rooted in a love for sin and ease. Let us pray that we will see a return to a full-orbed biblical gospel—one that includes a clarion call for repentance.

A Gift of God

What is repentance? We may be right to say that people need to repent, but just what is repentance? We should begin at the beginning, that is, at the ultimate source of repentance—God. While we may rightly blame men for the lack of preaching and teaching on the subject of repentance, it must not be thought that we are able to produce repentance in the hearts of others. In fact, ultimately, we cannot manufacture it in our own hearts. Repentance is a gift from God. Only He can produce repentance in the heart of a sinner. Listen to Paul’s words to Timothy:

And a servant of the Lord must not quarrel but be gentle to all, able to teach, patient, in humility correcting those who are in opposition, if God perhaps will grant them repentance, so that they may know the truth, and that they may come to their senses and escape the snare of the devil, having been taken captive by him to do his will (2 Timothy 2:24-26).

We are called to faithfully preach the Word of God to sinners. That means we must expose their sin and fearlessly call upon them to forsake their sins and turn to God. That is their only hope for salvation, as Jesus said: “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3, 5). Yet we must constantly remember that repentance is God’s gift. Jesus said, “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him” (John 6:44). Luke wrote concerning Lydia that, “The Lord opened her heart to heed the things spoken by Paul” (Acts 16:14). Maintaining the biblical perspective that God alone can create repentance in the heart will encourage us to preach God’s truth to sinners without worrying about displeasing them, and it will convince us of our need to cry out to Him in prayer that He will grant the gift of repentance by pouring out His Spirit.

Repentance Begins with Conviction of Sin

If repentance were compared to a flower, then the bud of the flower would be conviction of sin. Conviction of sin is the dawning of repentance in the soul. It is not the full flower of repentance, but it is the beginning of it. No one will repent unless he is convicted that he is a sinner. If he has no conviction of sin, he has no reason to repent. If a man is to repent of his sins, he must sense that his sin puts him in a place of genuine danger. The Lord warned Israel through the prophet Ezekiel, “Repent, and turn from all your transgressions, so that iniquity will not be your ruin” (Ezekiel 18:30). God is saying that their sins will lead to their destruction unless they repent. The apostle Paul echoes the same truth in Romans 6:23 when he says that, “The wages of sin is death.” Sinners are in great danger according to the Bible. They face eternal separation from God and endless punishment in hell if they do not repent of their sins.

One who is truly convicted of his sin will not only sense his danger, but he will also realize that his sins are wicked and unclean. Listen to how God says his people will view their conduct and even themselves when He has mercy on them: “Then you will remember your evil ways and your deeds that were not good; and you will loathe yourselves in your own sight, for your iniquities and your abominations” (Ezekiel 36: 31). This is not the way that people in our self-esteem crazed generation like to think of themselves, but it is the way a sinner under conviction sees himself through God’s eyes. Paul says the same thing about himself, even as a believer, when he contemplates his ongoing battle against sin: “O wretched man that I am!” (Romans 7:24; see verses 14-25).

It is little wonder that genuine repentance is so rare in a day in which Biblical words such as sin, wickedness, iniquity, evil, transgression and uncleanness have been replaced with talk of poor choices, unwise choices, or not doing the right thing. May God cause His church to both live and preach in such a way that sinners will be brought under genuine conviction of sin.

Repentance Lays Hold of the Mercy of God in Christ

Someone who is truly repentant, in the Christian sense of the word, is not only convicted of sin—he is also “convicted” of something else. He is convinced that God will be merciful to him in Jesus Christ. The Bible says, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). A repentant sinner believes this, and therefore he confesses his sins to God—however shameful and painful that may be—and he asks for forgiveness for them. God freely and graciously forgives the repentant sinner. As we read in the prophecy of Joel,

“Now, therefore,” says the Lord, “Turn to Me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning.” So rend your heart, and not your garments; return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness; and He relents from doing harm” (Joel 2:12-13).

It is not gospel repentance that simply sees the ugliness of sin and regrets it. True Christian repentance not only sees how terrible sin against God is, but it also perceives the grace of God in Christ and lays hold of His mercy. There is a “happy ending.”

The difference between repentance and mere regret can be illustrated in the apostles Judas and Peter. Judas betrayed the Lord Jesus. Shortly afterward, Judas saw what a wicked thing he had done. He was grieved about it, and he even returned the money he received for handing Jesus over. But though he saw the ugliness of his sin, he never saw the beauty of the mercy of God, who forgives sins. In his bitterness he went out and hanged himself (Matthew 27:3-5). Peter also sinned grievously when he denied the Lord. He was also terribly grieved over his sin. However, Peter not only saw displeasure in the face of Jesus; he also saw compassion. He truly repented of his sin and found forgiveness (Luke 22:60-62; John 21:15-17). Are you guilty of sin, which you are ashamed to confess? Repent today, and Jesus Christ will receive you!

Repentance Means Change

The word “repent” in the New Testament means “change.” Repentance is essentially a change of mind that results in a change of life. To begin, the sinner must have a change of mind and attitude regarding sin and regarding God. Listen to the confession of Ephraim in the book of Jeremiah:

You have chastised me, and I was chastised, like an untrained bull; restore me, and I will return, for You are the LORD my God. Surely, after my turning, I repented; and after I was instructed, I struck myself on the thigh; I was a shamed, yes, even humiliated, because I bore the reproach of my youth (Jeremiah 31:18-19).

Whereas the sinner used to love his sin and was generally unconcerned about his unrighteous way of life, now he hates his sin and is truly grieved over it (see also 2 Corinthians 7:10-11). Like a man who never wants to eat again the food that made him sick to his stomach, the repentant man loathes the sin which has made his soul sick. Ezekiel 36:31 presents a vivid picture of a repentant sinner: “Then you will remember your evil ways and your deeds that were not good; and you will loathe yourselves in your own sight, for your iniquities and your abominations.”

At the same time, repentance means a change in mind and heart toward God. When a sinner repents, he ceases to be God’s enemy (Colossians 1:21) and becomes His friend. He used to despise God, but now he loves Him (1 John 4:19). He desires to please Him and to walk in fellowship with Him. Just as love for sin and hatred of God are found together in the ungodly, so hatred for sin and love for God are always found together in the true Christian. As one Puritan writer said, “Christ is never loved till sin be loathed.” Professing Christian reader, have you truly repented? In your heart of hearts do you love God? Are you truly grieved over your sins? Do you hate them? Are you ashamed of them? If not, may God grant you repentance today!

Repentance involves not only a change of mind but also a change of life. A repentant sinner not only takes on a new attitude of heart and mind toward sin and toward God, but he also changes his behavior with respect to them. This is, of course, entirely in keeping with the Bible’s teaching regarding genuine Christianity. True godly thinking and godly emotions will express themselves in godly actions. As Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven (Matthew 7:21).” The psalmist wrote, “I thought about my ways, and turned my feet to Your testimonies” (Psalm 119:59). His repentance went beyond simply admitting his sin and feeling bad about it.

Consider the example of a man involved in an adulterous affair. If he is overcome with guilt because of his sin and then confesses his sin to God and to his wife, his repentance is not yet complete. If his repentance is genuine, then it will be thorough. He must determine that he will leave his illicit lover and not go back to her. He must cut off contact with her and stay away from her, and he must remain faithful to his wife. He does not cut off the sinful relationship and replace it with another one—or with another sinful practice, such as use of pornography. True repentance is well described in the Westminster Larger Catechism, which says that the repentant sinner “so grieves for and hates his sins, as that he turns from them all to God, purposing and endeavouring constantly to walk with Him in all the ways of new obedience.”

Are you involved in some sin that really makes your profession of faith in Christ nothing more than a hypocrite’s mask? If you are, Christ directs you in His word to “Repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord” (Acts 3:19).

Repentance is a Way of Life for the Christian

Philip Henry, father of Bible commentator Matthew Henry, often said, “If I were to die in the pulpit, I would desire to die preaching repentance; and if I die out of the pulpit, I would desire to die practicing repentance.” This godly preacher well understood the Bible’s teaching about repentance. He understood that repentance is not simply the duty of the sinner who has never come to God through Jesus Christ. He also understood that repentance is not an exercise to be reserved only for unusual occasions of serious sin committed by believers. It is rather the daily practice of a healthy Christian.

Repentance is to be a continuous act for the Christian. What element of gospel repentance should a child of God be willing to go without? Sorrow for sin? Confession of sin? Shame for sin? Hatred of sin? Turning from sin and becoming more and more like Christ? Certainly every sincere Christian recognizes, along with Philip Henry, his constant need for this grace of repentance. And this is simply the note sounded in the Word of God itself. James wrote to believers in the first century, “Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Lament and mourn and weep! Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord” (James 4:8-10).

“But what do I have to repent of?” someone might ask. How about sinful anger and bitterness, vain talking, lustful thoughts, love of this world and conformity to it, leaving our first love, not making the most of the gifts and opportunities God has given us, ingratitude, party spirit, pride, selfishness and self-centeredness? In short, we all have plenty of fuel to keep the fires of our repentance constantly burning. No wonder Jesus instructed us to pray daily—that is, as often as we pray for our daily bread—“Forgive us our sins” (Luke 11:3-4). May God give us the grace and humility to do so!