REFLECTING ON REPENTANCE
By Will Graham
I write to you this day from a broken down train in the summer heat of Spain. The engine stopped working a couple of hours ago and the other travellers and I have been waiting patiently—well, some more patiently than others—until the mechanics get things fixed up somewhat. I jumped on board at Castellon about midday and, in theory, I was meant to arrive in Cordoba at seven o’ clock. I guess I’ll be getting home a little later than expected tonight.
Nevertheless, all is not lost. Every cloud has a silver lining. The Spirit of Christ inspires us constantly to look on the bright side of life. This ‘unfortunate’ situation provides me with a wonderful illustration regarding the biblical doctrine of repentance. How come? Allow me to explain.
I’m currently stuck in the small town of Manzanares in the hope that we’ll soon be on track to destination Cordoba. But let’s say that for some strange reason the mechanics send this train back towards Castellon in order to repair it. What would that mean? First of all, it would mean that I’d be a bit worried about where I’d have to spend the night. But God provides! So why fret, oh man of little faith? And secondly, it would mean—in a very real sense—that the train had radically changed direction, it had a new course to take and a different objective to reach. In biblical terms, the train would have repented.
This change of direction is what repentance is essentially about. Once my destination was Cordoba but now it is Castellon. Once my end was Hell but now it is Heaven. Once my route was immersed in the thickest darkness but now it radiates with the splendour of Gospel light. Repentance entails this 180 degree about-turn. It grants new perspectives, new thoughts, new ethics and a wholly new life. Repentance means that I am now moving towards a distinct goal from the one that previously enthralled me.
I would be wrong, however, to get overly enthusiastic about how trains might represent repentance. After all, no analogy is perfect. The problem with the example of a train is that biblical repentance doesn’t direct itself to vehicles, mobile machinery, technology and robots. It pierces itself into the hearts of real life men and women who think, feel and desire. In other words, repentance is a strictly human affair. It makes itself known in people made of flesh and blood like you and me. Repentance touches the core of our being.
The train merely changes direction externally without any inner transformation taking place. Not so, however, with the born again believer! The justified saint of God walks in a new direction due to a fresh heart granted to him (or her) by the grace of the Spirit of God. This means that the Christian changes direction because he (or she) wants to do so. There is holy passion birthed within for the glory of God that ultimately shapes outward existence. Repentance, therefore, is both inward and outward at the same time.
This fuller definition of repentance as outward and inward helps us to distinguish between authentic Holy Ghost wrought repentance and mere selfish emotionalism which gives the appearance of Christian repentance. Paul draws a sharp line between the two concepts in 2 Corinthians 7:10 where he speaks of a godly sorrow that works “repentance to salvation” on the one hand and the “sorrow of the world” which works death on the other. The first one—true repentance—is a gracious gift from on high whereby a believer starts to seek the things that are above whereas the second one is a mere realm of crocodile tears, home to the likes of Mr Esau, Dr Saul and Professor Iscariot.
What did Esau, Saul and Judas all have in common? To begin with, they all messed up. Esau sold his birth right by trying to fill his belly. Saul lost his kingdom by trying to fill his ego. Judas lost his reputation by trying to fill his pockets. But not only did they mess up; they all felt awfully bad about it. Esau wept bitterly; Saul pleaded desperately; and Judas went so far as to hang himself. Nevertheless, in each case, their anguish and grief stemmed from purely self-centred motives. Neither Esau nor Saul nor Judas wept over the glory of God being diminished in their lives. They cried because they didn’t get what they wanted. They felt bad about themselves and that constituted their outward ‘repentance’. Thus the Puritan Thomas Watson condemned those who, “go on in their wickedness, and do not drown their sins in their tears.”
Such repentance is not really worthy of the name. Authentic repentance is always focused on God. The repentant soul hates sin—not because of the personal consequences it may bring upon him (or her)—but first and foremost because God’s name and honour are defiled and blasphemed through each act of disobedience. Please understand: Christians aren’t anti-sin for the sake of being anti-sin. They are anti-sin because they are pro-God, pro-Christ and pro-Spirit. If this fundamental distinction is forgotten, believers turn into a pack of rancid legalists who feed off the misery of others. Only a fervent longing for God’s holiness can make disciples turn their back on iniquity.
Even in today’s world spurious repentance abounds left, right and centre. Just think in this last year alone: how many politicians, businessmen and women, high flying professionals (and even preachers!) have been caught in vicious circles of personal or systemic sin only to break down in public and ask for forgiveness? Now, I hope you’ll forgive me for being a little cynical at this point, but why didn’t they cry over their sin before they were found out? Are their tears genuine Jesus-glorifying tears or are they self-centred tears that can only think of all that they lost in Gomorrah’s destruction? Would they have continued on in the same trash if they hadn’t been caught red-handed? I’ll leave you to answer that one…
So we’ve established two things so far: 1) repentance is both an inward and outward change of direction and 2) it is also a God-glorifying gift (not self-centred). The third and last thing I want to point out on this sunny day is the following: repentance is always on going. It never stops. It’s not a ‘once for all’ kind of thing. Repentance has a dynamic, vibrant flavour about it: kind of like a train journey.
I think Martin Luther sums this up best in his blockbuster ’95 Theses’ which kick started the Protestant Reformation into action way back in 1517. The first three theses go something like this in English: “1) When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said ‘Repent’, He called for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance. 2) The word cannot be properly understood as referring to the sacrament of penance, i.e. confession and satisfaction, as administered by the clergy. 3) Yet its meaning is not restricted in one’s heart; for such repentance is null unless it produces outward signs in various mortifications of the flesh.”
With this short quote it’s not difficult to appreciate that our favourite German preacher studied His Bible thoroughly. He faithfully conveyed the energetic mode of biblical repentance with bright beams of theological insight. Repentance is “for the entire life of believers” and produces “outward signs of various mortifications of the flesh.” In other words, repentance is a process. From the New Birth ‘til Kingdom come, all Christian life is to be characterized by a continual rejection of sin. It is a new life. It is the power to look transgression in the face and declare boldly, “To hell with you! I am dead to you! Be mortified in the name of Christ!”
There is no follower of Jesus so sanctified that he (or she) can ever afford to be off guard. The flesh is real. The devil is real. The tug of temptation is real. So repentance must go full steam ahead in the face of every worldly obstacle that would cross its path. Believers must make sure to have their engines full of force. And where does that come from? Answer: Holy Ghost fullness, Scripture, prayer, the congregation of the saints, constant praise unto God, helping the needy, being a glowing witness of Christ, etc.
So this brief reflection on repentance has shown us that repentance is inward and outward, God-centred and always on going. I can’t finish this article without asking you: have you repented? Is yours a true Spirit-granted repentance or a bogus counterfeit that is wholly self-centred? Are you harbouring vipers of sin in the dregs of your heart or have you exposed them all to the light of Christ?
If you haven’t turned from sin, I plead with you in the name of the Lord this moment with the watchword of the prophets, the apostles and the Lord Jesus Christ: Repent! Repent! Repent! Flee from sin as you would a poisonous bug!
And if you have already repented of sin, then I urge you to continue doing so for the glory of God. I don’t know how far your train has travelled, but I do know that your final destination lies just around the corner. So keep pressing on!
To all of you out there: don’t relent to repent!