Today many people around the world are saying that the church is dying. That may be so in some parts of the world, but in other parts of the world the church is growing rapidly. There may be many reasons for this but perhaps one reason may be this. In the areas where the church is growing the new converts have had to face many difficulties in coming to faith. For them, their new life as Christians would be a radical departure from their previous lives. Their commitment had to be a deep one if they were to embrace the Christian gospel and the Christian faith. Obviously many have made that commitment.
One aspect of this may be the deeper repentance we see in some folk rather than the shallow form of repentance we see in others. There are those who come under a deep conviction of sin by the Holy Spirit and in response want to become as committed to God as is humanly possible. Others allow the distractions of the world to crowd out what the Spirit may be doing in them. They quench the work of the Holy Spirit in them and may become carnal or fleshly believers rather than fulfilling their spiritual potential. Jesus warned about this sort of shallow response to the word of God, Luk 8:11 “This is the meaning of the parable: The seed is the word of God. 12 Those along the path are the ones who hear, and then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved. 13 Those on the rocky ground are the ones who receive the word with joy when they hear it, but they have no root. They believe for a while, but in the time of testing they fall away. 14 The seed that fell among thorns stands for those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by life’s worries, riches and pleasures, and they do not mature.”
By contrast those who allow the Spirit to take the word deep into their hearts are the ones who become fruitful. “But the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop.” Lk 8:15. Where the word takes deep root in a person’s life there will always be a deeper form of repentance. As the words from the hymn “At even ‘ere the sun was set” put it, “And they who fain would serve Thee best, Are conscious most of wrong within.”
We look then at what repentance is not and then it what it really is.
What Repentance Is Not
i). It is not just sorrow or remorse or regret. For example Judas Iscariot didn’t repent. He regretted what he had done in betraying innocent blood but he didn’t turn to God to seek His mercy in forgiveness. He ignored God’s grace. Paul wrote, “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.” 2 Cor 7:10. Judas’ sorrow was worldly and not godly.
ii). It is not rationalisation of our sin. There is no freedom in rationalisation (giving a reason for the sin). Eg., “I did it but this is why I did it.” (That statement doesn’t admit any personal guilt but gives only an explanation of behaviour.) Or “It wasn’t my fault that …” (That statement seeks to divert the blame.)
iii). It is not projection of sin onto others. Projection of sin onto others seeks to avoid personal accountability before God. He is not fooled! Human history is littered with examples of projection of guilt onto others. From Eve and Adam in Genesis onwards. As one godly African bishop said many years ago, whenever we point the finger of accusation at the sins of other people we need to remember that the other three fingers are pointing back at us. What we are trying to do is to point away from ourselves to those people who exhibit more evident examples of the sins we perhaps recognise in ourselves. Our purpose knowingly or unwittingly is to encourage people to look at them rather that at us! God knows our motives in doing so, even when we are blind to them ourselves. We now look at what repentance really is.
What Repentance Really Is. (As seen in the Old Testament)
There are a number of words in the Septuagint Greek version of the Old Testament associated with the concept of repentance. A major one is the word meaning “to turn” [epistréphō ]. It has a number of cognate words but they are used in terms of turning from someone or something to God. Here are some examples.
A very powerful passage which brings out this truth is found in 1 Kings 8:47-50. It is part of the prayer of Solomon at the dedication of the temple. This also has many other phrases, which are underlined, that describe what repentance is all about. The theme is that God is faithful to His promises to His people. However they need to be faithful to Him in that covenant relationship as well. Solomon prays that if God’s people sin, they will need to repent and turn back to God. 8:47, “and if they have a change of heart [epistréphō is the word for change] in the land where they are held captive, and repent [epistréphō ] and plead [déomai] with you in the land of their conquerors and say, ‘We have sinned, we have done wrong, we have acted wickedly.” This contains the main elements of repentance. For example there is the change of heart about their behaviour; the turning back to God; the pleading with Him for mercy; the acknowledgment and confession of their sin.
In the following verse 48, the turning back to God has to be whole hearted, with all one’s being, “and if they turn back [epistréphō ] to you with all their heart and soul [echoes of the same phrase used in the Shema, the Hebrew word for ‘to hear’ in Deut 6:5, “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”] in the land of their enemies who took them captive.” If they were meant to love Him in such a committed relationship, then if they sinned against Him they would need to turn back to Him with every fibre of their being.
Their true repentance would lead to prayer to God in which they would be pleading for His mercy and for His forgiveness for all their sins, “and pray to you toward the land you gave their fathers, toward the city you have chosen and the temple I have built for your Name; 49 then hear in heaven your dwelling place their prayer and their plea, and maintain their cause 50 And forgive your people, who have sinned against you; forgive all the offences they have committed you, and cause their conquerors to show them mercy.”
The turning away from sin is brought out in Ezek 14:6 where 2 similar words are used. “Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord God: Repent [epistréphō] and turn away [apostréphō] from your idols, and turn away [epistréphō] your faces from all your abominations.” Repentance here means turning to God from idols and from the sins they were committing.
In a similar passage in Ezek 18:30 the people are commanded to turn from their transgressions and iniquity. “Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways, declares the Lord God. Repent [epistréphō] and turn from [apostréphō] all your transgressions, lest iniquity be your ruin.”
God’s grace towards His people is seen in the fact that He works within them to motivate them to respond to Him. But if they sin they personally have to turn to Him in a whole hearted response to Him. Jer 24:7 “I will give them a heart to know that I am the LORD, and they shall be my people and I will be their God, for they shall return to [epistréphō] me with their whole heart.”
An example of repentance in the Old Testament. King David
In previous articles I have written about David receiving forgiveness from God for his sins and especially his sin regarding Bathsheba. They are to be found on this site in articles number 014 on Psalm 32 and number 015 on Psalm 51. However we will look briefly here to see how those Psalms are portrayed in the Greek version of the Old Testament.
Psalm 32 and repentance
David began his psalm expressing the blessing of being forgiven by God. He also recalled the emotional and physical distress he experienced while he refused to repent and turn to God. But eventually he did repent and his explanatory words in verse 5 are instructive regarding the meaning of repentance, “I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,” and you forgave the iniquity of my sin.” 32:5. There were 3 aspects to his repentance.
i). Acknowledgement of the sin committed. Psa 32:5 “I acknowledged my sin to you”. The Greek word is [gnōrízō]. It means to make known. David made known his sins to God even though He already knew about them! But it was important for David to be honest before God and not to live in denial. He acknowledges before God that he had sinned.
ii). The uncovering of the sin before God. “and I did not cover my iniquity”. Sin inevitably leads to a “covering up”. Just ask Adam and Eve what they did after they both sinned. They both covered up their nakedness and tried to take cover from the gaze of God. “Cover” is from [kalúptō] meaning to cover up or cover over. David didn’t try to hide his sin from God but opened his life to Him in repentance.
iii). The confession of the sin to God. ‘I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD.”‘ David admitted his guilt to God and was rewarded with the experience of God’s forgiveness, “and you forgave the iniquity of my sin.”
Psalm 51 and repentance
We see David’s repentance in the following phrases, “Have mercy on me, O God.” “Blot out my transgressions.” “Wash me.” “Cleanse me from my sin!” “My sin is ever before me.”
“Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight. ” 7 “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.” 10 “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”
David recognised in his brokenness before God that his sin could separate him from God. He prays for that not to happen. “11 Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me.” He wanted to help others turn back to God as he had done, 13 “Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.” [“Return” is epistréphō the word we looked at above in terms of turning from sin back to God.] David had turned back to God and wanted to help others do so. True repentance!
There are many other truths to examine regarding repentance but we will leave those to a later time. There are enough truths in the above material to encourage us to see whether we ourselves may need to do some repenting or not!
Blog No.223. Jim Holbeck. Posted on Thursday 20th July 2017