In Luke 13, Jesus said, “There were present at that season some who told Him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And Jesus answered and said to them, “Do you suppose that these Galileans were worse sinners than all other Galileans, because they suffered such things? I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse sinners than all other men who dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish.”
I once heard the speaker at a local attractional megachurch reference this passage. He noted that the world is imperfect, and we should stop asking why and recognize that in this imperfect world, mistakes happen. Builders make mistakes; the tower fell; and bad things continue to happen in a broken world. He explained that to repent means to stop and rethink the way you think about God and suffering. We should align our life toward God, recognize that suffering is not God’s will, and He is not just waiting for you to screw up so He can punish you. God’s desire is to leverage our suffering, and so we should rethink our thinking about God. A well-know hypercharismatic personality has said that repentance means to go back to God’s perspective on reality, since “re” means to go back, and “pent” is like the penthouse, the top floor of a building, and so repent means to go back to God’s perspective on reality.
While change of mind toward God is certainly involved in repentance, it strikes me that these are inadequate expressions of the idea of repentance we find presented in Scripture, and further it strikes me that failure to understand true repentance undermines the doctrine of salvation and the very nature of the gospel. Repentance is an essential part of salvation. It is essential for a sinner who has offended God to turn from that sin. The repeated message of the Old Testament prophets centered on the need for repentance. The first recorded words Jesus preached, in Matthew 4:17, were “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” True repentance comes from the awareness that by nature we are fallen and we have done wrong, and repentance produces a desire and commitment to turn from our sin. The requirement for entrance into the kingdom of God is to repent and believe in the atoning work of Christ; repentance accompanies regeneration.
The Puritan writer Thomas Brooks wrote, “One of the devices of Satan is to persuade the soul that repentance is an easy work. . . . But repentance is a mighty work, a difficult work, a work beyond our power. . . . Repentance is a turning from darkness to light. It affects the sinner’s whole heart and life. It changes the heart from the power of sin unto God. Every sin strikes at the honor of God, the being of God, the glory of God, the heart of Christ, the joy of the Spirit, and the peace of a man’s conscience. A truly penitent soul strikes at all sin, hates all, and will labor to crucify all.” Second Corinthians 5:17 says, “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” Another Puritan, John Owen, reflecting on this passage, wrote that “Regeneration does not consist in a mere moral reformation of life. It requires the infusion of a new, real, spiritual principle into the soul and its faculties. It brings spiritual life, light, holiness, righteousness, and the expulsion of the contrary, inbred, habitual principle of sin and enmity against God. This alone enables true acts of holy obedience. The principle of true regeneration always, certainly, and infallibly produces the reformation of the life intended. . . . Regeneration and reformation are inseparable.”
In Luke 18:13, a repentant tax-gatherer pleaded, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner.” Pastor and author John MacArthur (“The Gospel According to Jesus,” page 32) reflecting on this passage wrote that “Repentance as Jesus characterized it in this incident involves a recognition of one’s utter sinfulness and a turning from self and sin to God (cf. 1 Thessalonians 1:9). Far from being a human work, it is the inevitable result of God’s work in a human heart. And it always represents the end of any human attempt to earn God’s favor. It is much more than a mere change of mind – it involves a complete change of heart, attitude, interest, and direction. It is a conversion in every sense of the word.” Further, “The Bible does not recognize faith that lacks this active element of active repentance. True faith is never seen as passive – it is always obedient.” In a sermon in 2000, MacArthur noted “What the sinner needs to do is not accept Jesus Christ or make a decision for Christ, but to repent and cry out and ask Jesus Christ to accept him in spite of his sin.
Failure to understand the necessity of repentance and the nature of the gospel of repentant faith has brought all sorts of problems. Many have been deceived into thinking they have been saved when really they have not. In recent decades, emotional manipulation was often used to invoke a response from people who really did not understand the gospel but responded to maudlin invitation hymns after being warned of the danger of Hell. It is relatively easy to “make a decision” to walk an aisle, sign a card, or repeat a repeat-after-me prayer after being handed a tract; it is another thing to acknowledge one’s sin and inability and call out to a Holy God in repentant faith. While some who responded to such appeals fell away, thankfully many did indeed understand and believe, and many later came to acknowledge the truth of the gospel and were truly born again.
But perhaps of much more danger is the total disregard of the idea of repentance we see today. Part of the issue is doctrinal; doctrine is seldom taught. Belief in original sin and the sin nature of humans is not an often-considered topic in the American church today and seems to be doubted by an increasing number of evangelicals. The holiness and just wrath of God is as likely to be downplayed or ridiculed as it is to be taught from the Bible. Positive thinking preachers are not likely to call people to repent and believe; they are more inclined to remind people of how much God loves them just as they are and try to motivate them to reach their full potential and be happy and not worry about much beyond that. Prosperity theology also centers more on human worthiness than on human sinfulness. The seeker-friendly and attractional church movement are loath to mention sin and judgement; that might offend and won’t help attract a target audience. People need to be attracted and have fun and be comfortably entertained so they keep coming. Maybe they’ll be inspired to make a decision and live a better life.
But Jesus came to seek us and save us from our sin. He did not come merely to save us from the consequences of the bad actions of others. He did not die on the cross just to aid us in overcoming our problems or circumstances. He did not die on the cross to make us happy, successful, or wealthy. He came as the One True Saving Plan of God. He came to die on the cross to atone for the sin, and the sins, of any and all who would repent and believe. He came to call us to stop loving sin and start loving God. He came to call us to both a changed mind and a changed life.
Thus, a repentant sinner should manifest brokenness and remorse over sin, and not just the consequences of sin. Repentance and renunciation of every sin should become an attitude and a way of life. Repentance calls us to turn from sin and embrace God. And when we do that, we will know the life of purpose, joy, and fulfillment God intends for us, both eternally and in the present.