August 28, 2021 - Repentance

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Today we’re going to talk about repentance. Is repentance necessary for salvation? That depends on how we define “repentance,” and what we mean by “necessary.” Some would say that repentance means successfully removing every sin from our lives. They would say that if we ever repeat a sin, we have not truly repented of it. They would also say that we need to repent of every sin, not just most of them.

If repentance means getting rid of every sin in our life, none of us can say we have done so. Yet how can we say we have repented, if we have only gotten rid of half of our sin, or even most of it? The old saying has a lot of truth: “If Jesus is not Lord of all, he’s not Lord at all.” What merit is there in a partial repentance job?

Others, however, argue for another approach to repentance. They recognize the huge problem of trying to achieve perfection. So they see repentance as God’s provision until then.

But what good is repentance, if all it does is say “I was wrong,” or cries tears of sorrow, or suffers punishment? What good is such repentance, even if it corrects the sinful behavior, or even if it does a huge amount of good deeds to try to make up for the wrong we did? Correct the behavior? All that does is bring you back to where you should have stayed. Do good deeds? We should have done them anyway. Neither of these types of repentance can erase what we have done and make us perfect, as if we had never sinned. According to a book outside the Bible that these folks claim to believe in, “Fulfilling the commandments bringeth remission of sins.”

And what kind of perfection can we speak of, if it includes a track record of thousands of failures, followed each time by a resolve to turn away from the sin, or even if we do get to where we stop repeating the sin? What kind of “perfection” is that? Maybe it perfects the current behavior, but it hardly qualifies as a perfect life. It hardly qualifies as better than the lives of those who believe we are saved by the undeserved mercy of God and not by our good works.

The Biblical term for repentance is a much broader term than simply turning from sin. The verb metanoeō (used 34 times in the NT), and its companion noun metanoia (used 22 times in the NT), both mean literally a “change of mind,” a 180-degree turn that includes turning away from evil, and turning away from previous thinking, either good or bad. How do we know? Let’s look at how the Bible uses these words.

Going back to the Greek translation of the OT, 1 Samuel 15:29 says, “Also the Strength of Israel will not lie or repent (metanoeō), for he is not a human that he should repent (same verb).” Here “repent” translates the Hebrew verb niḥam, meaning to change either one’s mind or behavior, including even simply to be sorry or sad about an event. (I discuss this elsewhere in my post “Can God Change?” on my 2 websites, and in chapter 9 of my book, The Historical Jesus and the Historical Joseph Smith.)

Biblical faith teaches that God does not sin. God is “holy” in the absolute sense. So the best way to translate the word niḥam where God is involved is “to change one’s mind or course of action.” Here, the Greek OT uses metanoeō, the same verb used in the NT for “repent.”

Here are some more examples. In Jonah 3:10, we are told that God “repented of the evil that he said he would do unto them” [meaning Nineveh]. In Amos 7:3 and 7:6, God shows Amos 2 visions of judgment, but then in both cases it says “The Lord repented.” Joel 2:13 says, “The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and of great kindness, and repents of evil.” Finally, in Joel 2:14 and Jonah 3:9, people wonder whether God will “repent” from bringing disaster that God has decreed. Again, here we are talking about whether God will alter his course of action.

Not only is the word metanoeō used to speak of God changing his mind about “evil,” meaning disaster that God plans to inflict, but in Jeremiah 18:10, God even says that if a nation does evil, “I will repent of the good wherewith I said that I would benefit them.” Likewise, in a verse similar to God’s decree in 1 Samuel 15:28-29, where God declares that he will remove Saul from the throne and will not change his mind, God says in Jeremiah 4:28, “I have spoken… and I will not repent.”

In Proverbs 24:32, when the speaker sees what happens to a field managed by a lazy person, we read, “Then I saw; I repented.” Here the speaker has no sin to repent of, but merely undergoes a “change of mind.” Likewise, in Hebrews 12:17, Esau “found no place for repentance,” even though the issue is not sin, but Esau’s foolish decision to sell his birthright. Esau gets no chance at a retake on his decision.

The NT meaning of repentance contains monumental changes of both mind and of behavior. The first word out of the mouth of Jesus and of John the Baptist in their preaching is the command, “Repent!” This word in its noun and verb forms is found chiefly in Matthew, Luke, Acts, and Revelation (zero times in James or John!). It is found in landmark passages such as Acts 2:38, where Peter commands the crowd at Pentecost, “Repent, and be baptized!” Paul says in Romans 2:4 that God’s kindness is meant to lead us to repentance. And in 2 Peter 3:9, we are told that God desires that none should perish, but that all should reach repentance.

Repentance is not a pre-requisite for salvation, but it is indispensible evidence that one has been saved. When we place our faith in Christ alone to take away all of our sin and put us right with God, that act of faith is guaranteed to be accompanied by a monumental change of heart, mind, and behavior. We will love God in a way we did not and could not love God before, and we will hate sin more than we ever did before. And by the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit, that change of heart cannot help but produce a change of behavior, albeit over a lifetime. If that change doesn’t happen, we have reason to question whether the person who claims to believe has truly been saved.

Sin is like weeds. We’ll never finish pulling them all out of our life. But we are crazy if we ignore them or try to plant more of them. What we want to avoid is “unrepentant” sin, an attitude that shows no sorrow for sin and no desire or effort to rise above sin. We do not ordain sinless leaders; we ordain only repentant sinners. What matters is not so much what you’ve done in the past, but whether or not you are determined to leave that sin in the past.

Let it never be said that the historic Christian Church blows off repentance. We simply put repentance in its proper place. We count it as indispensible evidence that we have been saved by the mercy of Christ, a mercy that can never be earned or deserved. Placing our faith in Christ to take away all of our sin and put us right with God is packaged together with a huge change of mind, heart, and behavior.

Some recognize how difficult (if not impossible) it is to do all that God requires, but they reassure themselves that they have far more time beyond this earthly life to achieve the perfection of which Jesus speaks in Matthew 5:48. They need to reconsider, in light of Hebrews 9:27: “It is appointed for a person once to die, and after this comes judgment.” There is no indication here of any additional time to get right with God, after we run out of time on earth.

All this should drive us to despair of trying to achieve salvation by our works. Instead, we need to accept the undeserved favor of God shown to us in the work of Christ. We need to let the free gift of salvation through the cross of Christ be the inspiration that drives us to love God by doing what God says.

Once we have been saved, repentance becomes what Christian theology has traditionally called sanctification. Christ has made us holy, pure, and spotless in the sight of God; now, we want to become what God says we already are. We want to become completely like Christ (except for his divinity). We want to dismantle the contradiction between what God says we are in Christ, and the realities of our earthly life, which are still full of sin. The closer we get to God, the more sin we find in our lives that we never noticed before. As they say, the closer we get to the Light, the more we can see how much we needed a bath! The blessed reassurance we have as we root out that sin is the knowledge that Christ has already saved us and put us right with God.

Saying No to our stubborn desires is easier said than done. And nobody captures this struggle more convincingly than Saint Paul. Here’s a guy who has walked in our shoes, a guy who is no stranger to the frustration of knowing what is right, but doing the very opposite. When I first read Paul’s words in Romans 7 as a young teenager, I said to myself, “Wow! I can relate to this guy! He knows where I’ve been. He’s been there himself!” What we read in Romans 7 is so true-to-life, some have questioned whether Paul really wrote these words.

Paul confesses that the process of rooting out sin is an exasperating effort. He writes in Romans 7:15, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate… I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good that I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”

How could a guy who sounds so weak, be a real hero of faith? Is Paul talking about what’s going on in his life right now, or is this a flashback to his pre-Christian past? And what is the sin or sins that Paul finds it so hard to resist? Some have speculated that Paul was fighting the same problem he condemns in Romans 1, same-sex desire. It’s possible. It is more likely that Paul is struggling with unfulfilled desire for the opposite sex as a single man. Who knows? All we know is that the struggle Paul describes sounds an awful lot like ours.

Despite what he has said in his last chapter, Paul finds himself powerless to exercise human willpower against the evils he hates. He finds that his spirit desires to do what is right, but his old human nature (which he calls “the flesh”) refuses to cooperate. (Jesus says, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”) In verse 21, Paul says, “I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand.” (You might call this law “Murphy’s Law #13,” a law that says, “Thou shalt do the opposite of what God desires.”)

Paul finds that the desires of his new heart are locked in combat with the desires of his old human nature that still dwells within him. In verse 23, he calls it a “war”, a vicious civil war going on inside his soul, a war he’s finding next to impossible to win by his own willpower.

Practically all of us can relate to Paul’s struggle with the desires of his old sinful nature. Whether it’s food, alcohol, tobacco, pain killers, pornography, or whether it’s gossip, anger, unforgiveness, or other temptations, each of us has been flabbergasted by our inability to do what we know is right, and/or resist what we know is wrong.

Does Paul have any answers for us in our struggle? At first, the answer appears to be No. Paul is so frustrated by the way he is held captive to the power of sin, that in verse 24 he cries, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” Here’s a guy who’s at the end of his rope, a guy who is fresh out of answers.

But then suddenly he cries, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Thanks be to God for what? What’d he find? What is the answer Paul seems to have stumbled across in his search for freedom?

The answer (in a nutshell) is: Paul has discovered that willpower does NOT come from within. It only comes from above. Whenever we try to resist sin on our own power, what we get is exactly what Paul describes in Romans 7: a human nature that refuses to cooperate.

In his book The Purpose-Driven Life, Rick Warren asks us to imagine ourselves in a speedboat with an autopilot set to go east. If you want to turn around and go west, one way would be to grab the steering wheel and physically force the boat to go the other way. “By sheer willpower you could overcome the autopilot, but you would feel constant resistance. Your arms would eventually tire of the stress, you’d let go of the steering wheel, and the boat would instantly head back east,” the way it was programmed.

That’s what happens, says Warren, when we try to change our life with willpower. We say, “I’ll force myself to eat less, exercise more,” or whatever. “Yes, willpower can produce short-term change, but it creates constant internal stress because you haven’t dealt with the root cause… You quickly revert to your old patterns.” A better way to change direction, he says, is to change your autopilot, to change the force that is controlling your life from within.

At the beginning of Romans 8, Paul argues that we are powerless to do God’s will by the power of our old human nature. It’s the same discovery we find written into the classic 12 Steps to Recovery. Step 1 says, “We must admit that we are powerless over our problem.” And Step 2 says, “We must admit that only a Power higher than ourselves can restore us to sanity.” In the Bible, Paul makes it clear: we can’t win the battle on our own strength.

In Romans 8:7, Paul proclaims, “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. And those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” Our natural selves are unable to submit to God’s law. In fact, our natural selves are “hostile” to God. Furthermore, we are told that those who rely on human nature for the power to live their lives “cannot please God.” Gritting our teeth, resolving to do better, and trying harder and harder will only get us nowhere.

So what’s the alternative, then? Paul says in verse 13, “But if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the flesh, you will live.” In Galatians 5:16, Paul writes, “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not fulfill the desires of the flesh.” Paul is saying that the power to live a holy life comes only from the Holy Spirit of God.

Real willpower comes not from within. It only comes from above. People in 12-Step recovery programs find victory over their problems only when they quit relying on their own strength, and call upon that Power that is higher than themselves to give them that strength they cannot find within.

Maybe you know what it’s like when you come to the end of your rope and find that you don’t have what it takes: to love or forgive that person you can’t stand, to conquer your lifetime fear, or to say No to a stubborn desire. That’s the moment you call on God and say, “God, I know I don’t have the power to conquer this problem. I’m asking you to give me power I don’t have, to do what I know you want me to do.”

I have found that God answers that kind of prayer, by giving you power to do what you couldn’t do on your own. That doesn’t mean it happens instantly. It often takes time and patience. It is a process that requires faith; it is far from passive. But over time, we’ll find that the best way to lasting change is when we learn how to “let go and let God,” that process which Paul calls “walking in the Spirit.”

Friends, we are all recovering sinners. The question is whether we’re proud of our sin, or whether we long to be set free from it. Do we say, “That’s just who I am”? Or do we say, “I’m not going to settle for less than God’s best for my life”? Are we resistant, or repentant?

Friends, we have a choice. We can bang our heads against the wall trying to live a better life by our own strength. Or we can call on the Holy Spirit of God to give us that power to obey that we can’t create within ourselves. Take it from a guy like Paul; he knows from experience! Real power to repent comes not from within, but only from above.

We often think of Abraham as a hero of faith. But Abraham also had his rough edges. His faith was sometimes wobbly. We’ll be taking a look at Abraham next time on Biblical Words and World!