We teach our children to say that they are sorry when they have wronged someone else and, when pressed to do it, they sometimes offer a reluctant, muffled, barely audible, “I’m sorry.” In children, it is relatively easy to see that although the words are the right ones, the affections of the heart are not at all in line with what is spoken. But in adults, it is not as easy to distinguish between the words of some confession to God (“I’m sorry, Lord”) and genuine repentance. ‘Repentance’ is not a word we hear very often anymore, even in churches. But is a very important notion in the Scriptures. We must all admit that, at times, what we have accepted within ourselves as repentance has been nothing more than a sheepish “I’m, sorry,” offered without a hint of heartfelt shame or sincere willingness to change. Ambrose (AD 340-397), the great pastor in Milan who helped Augustine come to Christ, said, “True repentance is to cease from sin.” Ambrose was declaring that there is more to repentance than saying, “I was wrong” or “I’m sorry” or “I made a mistake.” The Westminster Shorter Catechism (1647) defined repentance as follows:
“What is repentance unto life?” Answer: Repentance unto life is a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, doth, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavour after, new obedience.”
The Biblical words for ‘repent’ mean to change one’s mind and turn around. First, there is an intellectual aspect to repentance. We must be convinced, mentally, that we are sinful and that sin is offensive to God.
“. . . through the law comes the knowledge of sin” (Rom 3:20). One of the purposes for the law of God is to show people that they are deeply and undeniably sinful. “I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me” (Psa 51:3). There can be no repentance without an understanding of the rebellious nature of the heart and life.
Second, there is an emotional aspect to repentance. Genuine repentance involves shame and brokenness over sin. In 2 Corinthians 7:9,10, Paul speaks about the Corinthians being “sorrowful to the point of repentance.” He also says, “Godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation.” Ezra’s prayer began in the following way: “O my God, I am ashamed and blush to lift my face to you, my God, for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has mounted up to the heavens” (Ezra 9:6). Third, repentance involves a willingness to turn from sin and to turn to God for cleansing. God commanded the Israelites of old to “repent and turn away from your idols” (Ezek 14:6). In Acts, Paul declared to the Gentiles that “they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds appropriate to repentance” (Acts 26:20). John the Baptist cautioned his onlookers, “Bring forth fruit in keeping with repentance” (Lk 3:8). The Bible presents both a genuine repentance, which is followed by acts of obedience, and a fraudulent response to God that, outwardly, may look like repentance. Cain cried out to God that his punishment was too great for him to bear, but this regret and remorse was not repentance. Judas felt remorse over betraying Christ and even declared, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood” (Mt 27:3,4), but in his anguish he did not turn to God for cleansing. Repentance includes emotions like remorse, but remorse, alone, is not repentance. Finally, in addition to a repentance that leads to conversion, there is also a repentance which Christians should experience all the days of their lives. In the opening chapters of Revelation, John repeatedly calls on the people in the church to repent (Rev 2:5; 3:3,19). For Christians, repentance is a daily confession of ongoing sinfulness … a daily turning from the darkness in order to flee to God for refuge from the deadly poison of sin. Looking at his sinfulness, Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) exclaimed, “Infinite upon infinite . . . infinite upon infinite! When I look into my heart and take a view of my wickedness, it looks like an abyss infinitely deeper then hell. . . . It is affecting to think how ignorant I was, when a young Christian, of the bottomless, infinite depths of wickedness, pride, hypocrisy, and deceit left in my heart.” Repentance is not just saying the words, “O Lord, I am sorry.” It is an anguished cry for holiness and a hoping in God for the power to be more like Jesus.