The following is an excerpt (unedited) from the second chapter of our work in progress, The 180° Project. Please be in prayer as work continues and the final chapters are being written:
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:
||For this Purpose:
||Building up others