Repentance is essential to Christianity. However, if we're honest, it's a word that can be uncomfortable to talk about. We read about it in Scripture and we've heard the preacher mention it. But if you’re a "Type A" personality like myself then you may have experienced some frustration with the lack of clarity around this word.
I opened this article up by saying repentance was essential. But is that a bit too strong? I don't think so, and hopefully my reasoning is clear.
Jesus said in Luke 13:3 that “…unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” And when asked how they should respond to the gospel in Acts 2, Peter told the Jews to “Repent and be baptized…” (Acts 2:37-38). Repentance is the positive response to the gospel. It could be said that repentance is the watermark of a genuine follower of Jesus (Luke 3:8; Matthew 3:8).
I'm convinced repentance is essential because Scripture appears to present it as the difference between spiritual lifeand spiritual death (Luke 15:1-10).
So with that in mind, let's attempt at clarifying what exactly it is.
What is repentance?
I'm a big fan of The Baker Compact Dictionary of Theological Terms written by Gregg Allison, and according to him, repentance can partially be defined like this:
One aspect of conversion (the other being faith), which is the human response to the gospel. Repentance is changing one's mind and life. It involves an acknowledgment that one's thoughts, words, and actions are sinful and thus grievous to God; a sorrow for one's sin; and a decision to break with sin. Though a fully human response, repentance is not merely human because it is prompted by grace.
That definition may be long, but it's solid. It seems to be describing a spiritual U-turn in a person's life.
The direction they were heading before their conversion could have been described as a settled peace with their sin. But now, any idea of rebelling against God seems terrible. They not only want to submit to the God who loves them and died for them, but they also begin to hate that which grieves him--sin.
However, every Christian knows that even after their conversion they still struggle with sin. So how should we think about that?
Perfection vs. Progress
When the Bible says to "bear fruit in keeping with repentance" (Matthew 3:8; Luke 3:8), it seems to insinuate that repentance will be an ongoing act in the life of the Christian.
The difference between the Christian and the non-believer is not the presence or absence of sin. We all wrestle with sin (1 John 1:8) and we're aware that God's work in us will not be completed until he returns (Philippians 1:6).
I would submit to you that the difference between the disciple of Jesus and the non-believer is their attitude towards sin. Where the non-Christian may not think twice about their sin, the Christian will find themselves increasingly sensitive to their sin.
The Christian will not be perfect, but if they were to zoom out and look at their life from a 30,000 foot view, they would recognize that they are increasing in godliness. They aren't perfect, but they are progressing in their sanctification.
Godly grief vs. Worldly grief
Although Peter failed countless times during Jesus' ministry, his response was twofold:
His sin grieved him.
His grief led him back to Jesus.
Our sin should do the same thing to us. Our attitude towards sin should be hatred not apathy. We hate the thing that caused our Lord to suffer. But when we do sin, we respond by confessing it to God and asking for his help in overcoming it (1 John 1:9).
Paul said to the Corinthians that "godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation, whereas worldly grief produces death" (2 Corinthians 7:10).
We must ask ourselves why we feel grieved over our sin. Is it because we were embarrassed or humbled by being found out? Or is it because we know that our sin grieves and dishonors our Lord?
The difference between godly grief and worldly grief is who we place at the center of that grief. Is it ourself or is it God?
The Christian will not be perfect. But they will progressively become more and more like Jesus. This is what the Bible calls “sanctification.” When the Christian sins, their grief leads them to confess that sin to Jesus and plead with him for help in defeating sin. Not because they want to make themselves look good, but because they want to honor Christ with their lives.
The fight against sin is a slow and gruesome battle. It will not go quietly into that good night, which means that repentance will be a frequent rhythm in the life of the Christian. Every time we return to the Lord in repentance we are reminded that we do not fight this battle alone, but rather our Father fights alongside us and picks us up when we fall.
But the hope of God's people is that Jesus has overcome sin, and his reward has been imputed to us through faith. One day we will experience the fullness of that promise and will forevermore be freed from sin, but until then we trust that God is changing us one degree at a time.
And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.
-2 Corinthians 3:18