The Power of Biblical Repentance


Yes, The 180º Project has been delayed for a few months now. Good news is that it is headed into the final stretches and will be ready for editing by the end of July. To whet your appetite, here is an excerpt from the book — Enjoy.

Riding on a carousel is great fun for thousands of children. Brightly painted horses, enchanting music and shining lights all add to the experience. One can climb on a gaily decorated pony and go up and down while revolving around and around or sit upon a horse transfixed on a pole, forgoing the vertical movement. No matter which one you ride upon, when the carousel stops its spinning you are back where you started. It is a pleasant ride, but one that takes you nowhere.

For many people, a carousel ride is an apt description of their spiritual life. If you have attended the same church regularly for a long time, you have probably observed such people. As a pastor, I have lost track of the number of people caught up on a spiritual carousel, a merry-go-round of misery that they cannot stop.

Week after week, the same individuals are at the altar pouring out the same confessions. “God, I’m sorry I got drunk again Friday night. I won’t do it anymore.” “Lord, I am ashamed of looking at pornography. I promise to never watch it again.” “God, I’m going to clean up my language this week.” “Lord, I’m sorry for…”

There they kneel, pouring out tears Sunday after Sunday, and yet their lifestyle never changes. At the altar they seem so sincere, so broken-hearted but there is no different in their life after they walk out the doors of the church. For many people, coming to the altar only has a placebo effect, the spiritual equivalent to a sugar pill. Their sincerity is short lived because it is emotion based and emotions change mercurially.

They have confessed, but not repented. The difference between the two is enormous, as we shall see in more detail in chapter three, when we break down the elements of biblical repentance. Confession is the first step; it is necessary but it is not biblical repentance.

They are sorry, to an extent. They are sorry that their sin has been exposed, sorry for the repercussions that are following them, the consequences they must now face. They may even want to reform, to stop their destructive habits, but not so much that any real effort is expended. Should God take away their desires for their sinful habits they would be well pleased. For them to exercise self discipline and take responsibility for their actions – well, why should they do that?

If God really cared, they reason, He could heal them, cleanse them, make them strong enough to conquer their demons. God is entreated as a magic genie or cosmic vending machine instead of a holy, righteous, jealous God who expects His followers to grow and mature in faith.

While God can pick you up off the spinning horse and throw you off the carousel the simple reality is that He rarely does. Never in Scripture is complete victory over every temptation instantly granted to anyone. Instead, we are required to submit daily to His Lordship, learning how His grace is sufficient, how His power is more than adequate for any battle we face. One is more likely to hear God say, “Go, and sin no more,” putting the responsibility back on us.

Mankind is called upon to endure as a soldier of the cross, not to ask for wings to fly over the troubles of the world. We are to pick up our cross and follow Jesus daily, not to ask for the cross’ removal.

What we desire is instant sanctification, not on-going reformation. God is at work transforming us day by day into the likeness of His Son. What we want is a short cut devoid of any hard work on our part. Scripture teaches us that God works in us and through us, as well as for us. Until we decide to come aboard the process His way, we will remain frustrated by our lack of spiritual progress.

For far too long, churches have taught a false definition of repentance. As a result, whole generations have grown up without the slightest clue as to what biblical repentance truly is.

 

Richard Blackaby once made this astute observation:

 

The problem with (an altar call for rededication) is that it is not biblical. The crux of the gospel message is not a call to rededication, but a call to repentance. John the Baptist preached repentance (Matt. 3:2). Jesus preached repentance, both in His earthly ministry and as the resurrected Lord (Matt. 4:17; Rev. 3:19). If one’s previous commitment did not keep him walking in obedience, a re-commitment is no more likely to make him faithful. The proper response to disobedience is not a commitment to try harder, but brokenness and repentance for rejecting the will of Almighty God. God looks for surrender to His will, not commitment to carry it out. Rather than asking church members to repeatedly promise to try harder, churches must call their people to repent before Holy God.”

The concept of repentance gets muddled up with sorrow, regret, remorse and penance. While elements of each of these things can be present in biblical repentance, there is much more to this concept.

Saying one is sorry (showing remorse) and promising to never do an action again is commendable, but it falls 90̊ short of biblical repentance. Feeling sorrow or regret over the pain or loss one has caused by their actions is a necessary component of biblical repentance, but by themselves they fall completely short of the biblical idea. Doing penance, or making restitution for a wrong is commendable but it doesn’t necessarily include the elements of sorrow or regret. By the same token, one may be sorry they were caught or sorry for the consequences of an action and yet make no attempt to give restitution to the one injured or stolen from. They may also have no remorse over the action itself.

Biblical repentance is a 180̊ change. Not only is one regretful over causing the grievance and ceased the offensive action, but they will replace that action with doing good in its place. Even beyond that, this good will have at its core the desire to serve God through that action.

For example, Scripture tells us not to have coarse or vulgar language coming out of our lips but to speak those things which are edifying or that build one another up in the Lord.

 

 Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear. Ephesians 4:29 NASB

 

Merely cleaning up one’s language isn’t enough, that is only a 90̊ change. A change for the better, to be sure, but far from the 180̊ change which includes uplifting and encouraging words that the Bible commands us to do.

Another example would be the command to refrain from stealing. Not only are we told not to do this in Ephesians 4:28, but we are told to go to work and provide for others so that others will not be tempted to steal.

 

He who steals must steal no longer; but rather he must labor, performing with his own hands what is good, so that he will have something to share with one who has need. NASB

 

In our two examples, then, biblical repentance looks like this:

Old Habit: Replaced By: For this Purpose:
Vulgar Language Edifying Language Building up others
Stealing Work Helping others

 

Biblical repentance has, at its end goal, a purpose that God uses to witness of His saving power to a watching world. As people see a transformation take place in a life, a metamorphosis of character and lifestyle, God is glorified. The Bible verse, “Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16 NASB) comes to mind as we explore the heart of Biblical repentance. The good works are not done for recognition. They are not done out of pride. They stem from a heart so completely changed a person cannot help but to do them. They flow from gratitude for God’s grace. They flow from love that channels through them from God to their fellow man. Biblical repentance paves the way for the life-changing power of the Holy Spirit to be manifested in the world.

A person is no longer a thief and more than a reformed thief – he is now a philanthropist. Another person is no longer a foul-mouthed shrew, but an encouraging, uplifting motivator of those in distress. A third is no longer an abuser and manipulator of people but a champion for the oppressed, spending their time and energy in providing justice for those with no voice.

All of these things begin with a broken, repentant heart that is open to receiving the transforming power of God’s Spirit. What makes the transformation different is the purpose and motive behind the new behavior that is occurring. Everything is now done so that the recipients of the changed behavior do not just enjoy the benefits, but that they are actively being drawn towards the love of God (if an unbeliever) or deeper into the love of God (if they are already a Christian).

God doesn’t just change a heart so a person becomes better but so that he or she becomes an instrument drawing all mankind to Himself so His power is displayed. One word, above all others, captures this transformation. That word is metamorphosis.

The phenomenal transformations of a caterpillar into a butterfly and a tadpole into a frog may be the best illustrations of the 180̊ shift biblical repentance brings about in a person. This metamorphosis is spoken of several times in Scripture.

 

Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit. 2 Corinthians 3:17-18 NASB

 

He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior.  Titus 3:5-6 NASB

 

And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect. Romans 12:2 NASB

 

Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.       2 Corinthians 5:17 NASB

 

These verses, among others, show us the glorious reality of a life that is now completely different than what it used to be. They show us the delightful possibility of what a life can become, if only one allows the Holy Spirit to rule and reign. The Apostle Paul himself is an excellent example of a transformed life. From a brutal persecutor of the Christian faith, Paul is metamorphosized into a tireless champion and propagator of the Gospel. The very institution he was trying to destroy finds much of its foundational beliefs expounded and clarified by Paul. Such a remarkable transformation is evidence of a changed life.

This type of story is repeated over and over throughout the Scriptures. Jacob transforms from a liar and a cheat into a patriarch of great faith. Manassah goes from being one of the most wicked kings Israel ever knew to instituting religious reform. Peter, who cowardly denies knowing the Lord on the night of His arrest, boldly becomes the leader of the fledgling church and goes to his own martyrdom proclaiming his faith.

At the heart of every Biblical story of a transformed life is a repentant attitude. There is a conviction of wrong-doing, a remorse for causing pain and suffering, a crying out to God for forgiveness and an empowerment by the Holy Spirit to do wonderful works in His name.

Biblical repentance is more than sorrow and more than regret. It is more than remorse and more than penance. It is more than a sincere person crying out of distress over a ruinous lifestyle, powerless to keep from falling back into sinful habits. It is more than a penitent crying out, week after week at the altar over the same mistakes, trapped in a merry-go-round of deceit. Biblical repentance leads to a changed life that is fundamentally different in character than what it used to be. It has been transformed by the power of God. The old has passed away, it is no longer there, haunting a person. The new has come, filled with the joy of the Lord’s salvation.

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