It’s importance in the New Testament. It is more than being sorry. A change of attitude towards God’s truth and God himself. The place of restitution. It is not something we can do unaided. Why we find it difficult.
It sounds almost legalistic, and certainly intolerant, to say you can’t get to heaven unless you do something. What about all that teaching about the love of God, and the finished work of Christ, and salvation not coming from doing good? What about “let go and let God”? And here’s a book to say, in its very title, “Repentance… you can’t get to heaven without it”.
It’s not very fashionable. The whole climate of the western world in the late twentieth century is tinged by the view that my views are as good as your views, and his or her views are not inferior to mine. That’s why we have such strong reactions to racism and sexism, and colonisation.
There’s nothing unchristian in your, my and their views being of equal worth. The Bible says they are too, and they all need to be measured against God’s. Then, they all fall short, and become equal indeed. Three noughts are nought. That’s when, on seeing it, we are called to repent.
This little book tells us what’s involved. Not sorry, but turning. Not explanations, but a shift. “The essence of repentance,” says Dick Tripp on page 11, “is turning to God”. To abandon my views in the face of God’s views, and to live in the light of such a choice, with a wish to lose all the internal battles it will bring – this is repentance.
And I shouldn’t be able to get to heaven without it. Because if I did, I would be an alien in a place of fellowship, and heaven would not then be heaven for me at all, and likely not for anyone else. So, I am called to repent – to take on God’s views, and live in the light of them – so he may make me a citizen of his empire, now and in the heaven to come.
But then – Dick Tripp’s book goes into the detail. May it throw light on the subject for many.
Ken J Edgecombe MA (Hons), Dip Ed Stud, Dip Tchg
National Director, Scripture Union in New Zealand
What is Repentance and why you can’t get to heaven without it
It is noteworthy how little teaching is given on the subject of repentance in our churches, considering its importance in the New Testament. How often does one hear a sermon on the subject? However, that’s not surprising. Tolerance is the “in-word” today and anything that implies that we are not all OK just as we are, and that we may have to consider making some serious changes to our lifestyle, is hardly likely to be a popular idea. There are nicer things to talk about than repentance. History records that a certain Jean de Labadie (1610 – 1674), a minister of the Reformed church of southern France, at one time preached 50 sermons in succession on the text “Repent ye.” One of these sermons lasted four and a half hours! Today we have gone to the opposite extreme and don’t talk about it at all. However, don’t be put off by the unpopularity of the subject. What you learn could be a turning point in your life!
The importance of repentance in the New Testament
Before looking at the meaning of repentance, let’s have a look at the importance given to it in the Bible.
“Jesus declared that the purpose of his coming and ministry was to call ‘siners to repentance'”
The words “repent” and “repentance” occur 56 times in the New Testament. It is similar in meaning to the word translated “convert” or “turn”, which is also common. The main theme of the preaching of John the Baptist, who prepared the way for the coming of Jesus, was: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (Matthew 3:2). The first recorded words of the public ministry of Jesus are also“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (Matthew 4:17). Jesus declared that the purpose of his coming and ministry was to call “sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:32). When Jesus sent out his disciples to preach, we read that “they went out and preached that people should repent” (Mark 6:12). After his resurrection from the dead, he declared that “repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations” (Luke 24:47). He declared that unless people repented they would perish, and in order to enforce the message, he repeated it (Luke 13:3,5). In each of Peter’s two recorded sermons after the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit was given, he told people to repent (Acts 2:38; 3:19). In Paul’s recorded sermon to the Athenians he said that God “commands all people everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30). He said that the message he declared to both Jews and Greeks was that “they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus” (Acts 20:21). Peter declares that God is “not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). It is obvious from the above references that if Jesus and those he trained knew what they were talking about, none of us will find a meaningful relationship with God unless we do what the Bible calls “repent”. That being the case, it is important to find out what it means.
Repentance is more than being sorry
“Sorrow may lead to repentance, or it may not, but they are not the same”
This is a point that needs clarification, as it is common to think of repentance as merely being sorry about things one may have done wrong. However, the word implies a lot more than this. The Bible gives us a good example of remorse without repentance. “When Judas, who had betrayed him, saw that Jesus was condemned, he was seized with remorse and returned the thirty silver coins to the chief priests and the elders. ‘I have sinned,’ he said, ‘for I have betrayed innocent blood'” (Matthew 27:3,4). You will note here that Judas admitted his guilt, felt sorry about it, and was even prepared to make restitution, at least to some degree. However, subsequent events and other statements in the Bible make it clear that Judas never truly repented. (The Greek word for “seized with remorse” used here is translated “repented” in the old Authorised Version. However, it is not the usual word for repentance in the New Testament, and “seized with remorse” is a better translation.)
Paul, writing to the church in Corinth, talks about two kinds of sorrow. “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death” (2 Corinthians 7:10). Sorrow may lead to repentance, or it may not, but they are not the same. Sorrow is concerned with feelings, whereas repentance, as we shall see, involves a change of attitude, particularly to God.
What repentance is
To get a proper picture it is important to understand that repentance always takes place in relation to someone – always in relation to God, and sometimes in relation to other people as well. Repentance is never a private affair. God created us to live in relationships – first with himself, and then with others. That is the reason why religions that do not have a personal God of grace with whom we may enjoy a loving relationship, and from whom it is possible to stray, have no proper place for repentance. Hinduism, Buddhism and New Age thinking come into this category.
Essentially, repentance is simply that process by which a person who is away from God recognises that situation and goes back to God. As C. S. Lewis explained, repentance is not something God demands of you before he will take you back, and which he could let you off if he chose; it is simply a description of what going back is like. It is basically a U-turn. Instead of going away from God, or ignoring him, you turn around, go to him and choose to give him his rightful place in your life. Repentance, therefore, has more to do with your will than it has to do with your feelings. You may feel deep sorrow about certain things that you regret, or you may not, but the real issue is whether or not you go back to where you belong. Of course, sorrow may assist that process.
The Greek word translated “repent” in the New Testament has the basic meaning of “changing your mind”. However, in the Bible it goes further than just changing one’s thinking about something; it means changing one’s attitude towards that thing. To truly repent you must make two changes of attitude – towards both God’s truth and God himself.
A change of attitude towards God’s truth
“Repentance is contrition for what we are in our fundamental beings, that we are wrong in our deepest roots because our interior government is by Self and not by God”
In the ten commandments (Exodus 20), the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew chapters 5, 6 and 7) and numerous other passages in the New Testament, God has revealed to us how we ought to live. It must be plain to anyone who bothers to read what God’s requirements are that we all come a long way short. If you are to live in a meaningful relationship with God, which is what being a Christian is all about, then you have to accept that his standards apply, not the ones you choose for yourself. This means being willing to accept the fact of your failures and acknowledge them to God. It also means that there must be a willingness to let go of those things that are inconsistent with living in fellowship with God. You are prepared to let God have his say about how you live rather than making your own rules. Of course, this is impossible in your own strength. However, if the will is there, God will come into your life in the person of the Holy Spirit and begin to change you. It is not something you have to do on your own. More of that later.
Repentance also involves not just a recognition that we have done wrong but a recognition that in a more fundamental sense we are wrong. As African missionary, Florence Allshorn, put it in Notebooks:
Repentance is not a mere feeling of sorrow or contrition for an act of wrongdoing. Repentance is contrition for what we are in our fundamental beings, that we are wrong in our deepest roots because our interior government is by Self and not by God.
C. S. Lewis in Mere Christianity, underlines this same point from a slightly different aspect:
…fallen man is not simply an imperfect creature who needs improvement; he is a rebel who must lay down his arms. Laying down your arms, surrendering, saying you are sorry, realising that you have been on the wrong track and getting ready to start life over again from the ground floor – that is the only way out of our ‘hole’. This process of surrender – this movement full speed astern – is what Christians call repentance. Now repentance is no fun at all. It is something much harder than merely eating humble pie. It means unlearning all the self-conceit and self-will that we have been training ourselves into for thousands of years.
With some, repentance may begin with remorse over individual sins and a desire for forgiveness and release from them. With others, it may simply be a growing awareness of the wrongness of living without Christ and a desire to find a vital relationship with God as he has revealed himself to us in Jesus Christ. Either way, the essence of repentance is turning to God, accepting the forgiveness that is offered to you through the death of Jesus for your sins and submitting to him as Lord of your life. This brings us to the second aspect of repentance: a renewed relationship with God.
A change of attitude towards God himself
In his excellent book Making Sense Out of Suffering, in describing the ministry of John the Baptist and his use of the word “repent”, Peter Kreeft says:
“the hardest thing I have to do every single day is try to decide what is God’s will, rather than what is my will“
In that word John summarises the message of all the prophets, all the preparation for the Messiah. Repent: that is, turn. Turn around, face God instead of running away from him. Face the light, so that when the light comes to you with a face, the face of Jesus, you can meet him face-to-face.
God has revealed himself supremely to us in the life and character of Jesus, the second Person of the divine Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. By taking upon himself the consequences of our sins through his death on the cross, he is able to offer us forgiveness and reconciliation with God. This involves a personal encounter with him, a willingness to invite him into our lives and to submit to him as Lord. Australian evangelist, John Chapman, puts it like this:
The true response of a person to Christ is a genuine repentance which involves recognising Jesus as true King in God’s world and thus seeking to live under his authority.
This means that the greatest evidence that a person has repented is that they genuinely desire to do God’s will and serve him. This is well illustrated from the life of Gordon Liddy. Liddy was sentenced to 21 years in prison for his major role in the Watergate affair. He was a student of Nietzsche, the German philosopher who venerated the “will to power” as the highest of human goals. When asked in prison by a Christian friend if he had “seen the light”, he said, “No, I’m not even looking for the switch.” When asked by David Letterman on his TV show, “What happens after we die?” Liddy replied, “We are food for the worms.”
However, the day came when Liddy repented. He was invited to a Bible study group by some former FBI colleagues he had known for 30 years. They were sharp, compassionate and well-read, and he agreed to go, but only after saying, “Please don’t try to convert me. I don’t want to be bothered.” Many people, says Liddy, experience a “rush of emotion” in conversion. Yet as he began to look into the Bible, for him there came a “rush of reason”. He realised Christ was who he claimed to be. And Gordon Liddy became a Christian.
Liddy shows the genuineness of his repentance in the following words:
Now the hardest thing I have to do every single day is try to decide what is God’s will, rather than what is my will. What does Jesus want, not what does Gordon want. And so the prayer that I say most frequently is, ‘God, first of all, please tell me what you want – continue the communication. And second, give me the strength to do what I know you want, what your will is, rather than my own.’ I have an almost 57-year history of doing what I want, what my will wants, and I have to break out of that habit into trying to do the will of God.
This comes from a man who spent his life affirming the strength of his own will. (He entitled his autobiography Will.) This is the essence of repentance: to submit one’s will to the will of God.
I will sum up this section on what repentance is with a quote and an illustration from the Bible. According to Eugene Peterson, American pastor and writer, repentance is
…deciding that you have been wrong in supposing that you could manage your own life and be your own god; it is deciding that you were wrong in thinking that you had, or could get, the strength, education and training to make it on your own; it is deciding that you have been told a pack of lies about yourself and your neighbours and your world. And it is deciding that God, in Jesus Christ, is telling you the truth. Repentance is a realisation that what God wants from you and what you want from God are not going to be achieved by doing the same old things, thinking the same old thoughts. Repentance is a decision to follow Jesus Christ and become his pilgrim in the path of peace.
“ Repentance is not the means whereby we earn God’s forgiveness and love. Repentance is merely the means by which we receive them”
The illustration comes from Luke, chapter 15, in the New Testament. It is the story of the Prodigal Son, one of the best-known stories told by Jesus. The wayward son ends up in the pigpen with nothing to eat but the mush the pigs were fed. He begins to regret the self-will that has led him to this state. No doubt there is a good deal of self-pity mixed with his remorse. However, his repentance is evident in that he decides to eat humble pie and to return home. When he does, his father, who has been waiting for this moment for a long time, throws aside all dignity, runs to meet him and throws a party. There is great rejoicing.
You will notice that the returning prodigal does not earn this father’s love by his repentance. Love had never been absent from his father’s heart, only he could not experience it in a far country. Repentance is not the means whereby we earn God’s forgiveness and love. These are there anyway and are totally undeserved. Repentance is merely the means by which we receive them. It is going home.
You will note the great rejoicing on the prodigal’s return. Jesus said, “…there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Luke 15:10). William Temple, the influential Archbishop of Canterbury, caught this aspect of repentance when he said:
To repent is to adopt God’s viewpoint in place of your own…In itself, far from being sorrowful, it is the most joyful thing in the world, because when you have done it you have adopted the viewpoint of truth itself and you are in fellowship with God.
Repentance may involve restitution
Repentance always involves some change in values, and a willingness to leave behind values and attitudes that may be inconsistent with living in a relationship with God. There are also times when restitution may be necessary. Perhaps this could be best illustrated by telling three stories.
The peace of repentance
The first story comes from Africa and was told by Festo Kivengere (former Anglican Archbishop of Kigezi, Uganda, and leader of the African Enterprise evangelistic team) in Decision magazine. He says, “My uncle, the chief, was sitting in court one day with his courtiers around him when a man came and bowed in the African way. He was rich in cattle and was well known as a man who sought God through the spirits of dead relatives. He had come with eight cows which he left some twenty yards away.
‘I have come for a purpose, sir,’ the man said.
‘What are those cows for?’ asked the chief.
‘Sir, they are yours.’
‘What do you mean they are mine?’
‘They are yours. When I was looking after your cattle, I stole four and now they are eight, and I am bringing them.’
‘Who arrested you?’
‘Jesus arrested me, sir, and here are your cows.’
There was no laughter, only a shocked silence. My uncle could see this man was at peace with himself and rejoicing.
‘You can put me in prison or beat me up,’ the man said, ‘but I am liberated. Jesus came my way and I am a free human being.’
‘Well, if God has done that for you, who am I to put you in prison? You go home.’
A few days later, having heard the news, I went to see my uncle. I said to him, ‘Uncle, I hear you got eight free cows!’
‘Yes, it’s true,’ he said.
‘You must be happy.’
‘Forget it! Since that man came, I can’t sleep. If I want the peace he has, I would have to return a hundred cows!'”
Kivengere says that later this chief did come to Jesus Christ!
John Goodfellow’s story
The second story is from Britain and told in Decision magazine by John Goodfellow, a field director for the Christian organisation Youth With A Mission. As a youth he got involved in gangs and supplemented his income with thefts, muggings and insurance frauds. He searched in “bottles, brawls and beds for some meaning in life.” Eventually he ended up in a place run by Christians in Amsterdam. He tells how one night, “I knelt down beside my bunk and prayed for forgiveness. I asked Jesus to come into my life and to give me a fresh start. I confessed every wrong that I could remember. It took a long time.”
After several weeks of learning more about the Bible and what it means to live as a Christian, he knew he had to go back to England. “I had returned to England…where I was on the run from the police, and I admitted my part in a serious fraud…I was taking seriously the Bible’s instruction to put right the past. I made a long list of all the folks whom I had cheated, robbed and hurt, and visited them one by one to admit my guilt, ask their forgiveness and see if I could pay them back…Unexpectedly receiving a suspended prison sentence, I went back to work on construction sites, pouring my money into paying off all my debts.” God honoured his faithfulness and has since given him a very fruitful and busy ministry. He declares, “What a marvellous future we have with God, who can love sinners like me back to wholeness.”
Responding to the finger of God
“if we are to enjoy a relationship with God, we must be open to things he may put his finger on that need attention”
The third story is recorded by William T. Ellis in his book Billy Sunday: The Man and His Message. Billy Sunday was America’s evangelist of the nineteen twenties. He had been a leading athlete before his conversion. In baseball he was the fastest base runner in the United States, able to get around the diamond in 14 seconds from a standing start. He took his athletics onto the speaking platform, where he could hold a crowd of twenty thousand in the days before microphones. He would smash a chair to make a point! Many thousands found Christ through his ministry.
He tells the following story: “When I was about fourteen years old, I made application for the position of janitor in a school. I used to get up at two o’clock, and there were fourteen stoves to which coal had to be carried. I had to keep the fire up and keep up my studies and sweep the floors. I got twenty-five dollars a month salary. One day I got a check for my salary and I went right down to the bank to get it cashed. Right in front of me was another fellow with a check to be cashed, and he shoved his in, and I came along and shoved my check in, and I was handed forty dollars. My check called for twenty-five dollars. I called on a friend of mine who was a lawyer in Kansas City and told him: ‘Frank, what do you think, Jay King handed me forty dollars and my check only called for twenty-five dollars.’ He said, ‘Bill, if I had your luck, I would buy a lottery ticket.’ But I said, ‘The fifteen dollars is not mine.’ He said, ‘Don’t be a chump. If you were shy ten dollars and you went back you would not get it, and if they hand out fifteen dollars, don’t be a fool, keep it.'”
“Well, he had some drag with me and influenced me. I was fool enough to keep it, and I took it and bought a suit of clothes. I can see that suit now; it was a kind of brown with a little green in it and I thought I was the goods. That was the first suit of store clothes I had ever had, and I bought that suit and I had twenty-five dollars left.”
“Years afterward I said: ‘I ought to be a Christian,’ and I got on my knees to pray, and the Lord seemed to touch me on the back and say: ‘Bill, you owe that Farmers’ Bank fifteen dollars with interest.’ I said: ‘Lord, the Bank don’t know that I got that fifteen dollars,’ and the Lord said: ‘I know it.’ So I struggled along for years, probably like some of you, trying to be decent and honest and right some wrong that was in my life, and every time I got down to pray the Lord would say, ‘Fifteen dollars with interest, Nevada County, Iowa; fifteen dollars, Bill.’ So years afterwards I sent that money back, enclosed a check, wrote a letter and acknowledged it. I have the peace of God from that day to this, and I have never swindled anyone out of a dollar.”
We are all imperfect and fallen human beings, even if forgiven, and none of us can completely undo all the wrongs and hurts we have done to others, intentionally or otherwise. However, if we are to enjoy a relationship with God, we must be open to things he may put his finger on that need attention. That is evidence that our repentance is real.
Repentance is not something we can do unaided
C. S. Lewis explains a dilemma we all face:
Only a bad person needs to repent: only a good person can repent perfectly. The worse you are the more you need it and the less you can do it.
” the barrier to repentance for many people is not that we cannot leave our sins; it is that we do not want to”
The only person who could do it perfectly would be a perfect person – and he would not need it. However, God does not expect us to do it on our own. It is interesting that three times in the New Testament we are told that repentance is something God gives (Acts 5:31; 11:18; 2 Timothy 2:25). He made our reconciliation with him possible by giving us his Son to bear our sins. He gives us his Holy Spirit to first give us the desire to repent and be reconciled, and then the strength to do it. The Greek scholar, Richard Trent, archbishop of Dublin, defined repentance as “That mighty change in mind, heart, and life, wrought by the spirit of God, which we call repentance.”
The influential Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, gave a useful illustration:
It is no good giving me a play like Hamlet or King Lear, and telling me to write a play like that. Shakespeare could do it; I can’t, and it is no good showing me a life like the life of Jesus and telling me to live a life like that. Jesus could do it; I can’t. But if the genius of Shakespeare could come and live in me, then I could write plays like that, and if the Spirit of Jesus could come and live in me, I could live a life like that.
If I really want to be reconciled to God then the Holy Spirit will lead me in repentance. As he comes into a person’s life he begins his work of transformation. I can remember explaining the gospel to a young wife and asking her if she wanted to commit her life to Jesus. She said she did, but she had a problem – she hated her husband and did not see how she could change that. Discussing the issue with her, I asked, “Do you want to love him?” Her immediate response was, “Yes, of course.” On that basis, I suggested we bow our heads and that we ask for God’s forgiveness and for Jesus to come into her life and to give her that love, which she did.
Maybe the barrier to repentance for many people is not that we cannot leave our sins; it is that we do not want to. We need to hear the warning of George MacDonald, the Scottish writer, who said that we are condemned not for the wicked things we have done, but for not leaving them.
Probably the greatest barrier of all to repentance is our pride. The story is told of a little boy who went with his sister, Mary, to visit his grandparents at their farm. The grandmother had a pet duck of which she was extremely fond. One day Johnny was playing with his slingshot. He aimed it at the duck and hit it right on the head. The bird toppled over, kicked a few times, and died. Johnny was frightened to death. He looked about and saw no one, so he took the duck and ran into the woods, dug a hole and buried it.
He and Mary always divided the chores, and that evening it was her turn to do the supper dishes. But instead, Mary turned to him after supper and said, “Johnny, you do the dishes tonight.” “You’re crazy,” he said. “This is your night; I am going out to play.” Mary said, “Come here. I saw you kill that duck this afternoon. If you don’t do exactly what I tell you to do, I am going to tell Grandma what you did. You know what that means. It was her prize duck.” “All right,” said Johnny, “I will do the dishes.”
Next time it was Mary’s turn the same thing happened, and this went on for two weeks. Johnny was going around with his tongue hanging out. Every time he would bring up the matter she would always say, “Johnny, remember the duck!” At last he couldn’t stand it any longer. Mary had gone to town, and his grandmother was sewing. Johnny went in and stood around and twisted his ear and bit his nails, and finally he said, “Grandma, there is something I just have to say.” “What is it, son?” she asked. He said, “It is the hardest thing I have ever had to do, Grandma. About two weeks ago I was playing with my slingshot and I shot at your duck and I killed it.”
The grandmother wiped a tear from her cheek, and she reached out and said, “Come here, son.” She put her arms about him. “I was sitting upstairs by an open window, and I saw you kill that duck.” And then she added, “I wondered how long you were going to take this bondage to Mary. I have watched her give you orders for two weeks, and I wondered how long it would be before you came to me.”
Our heavenly Father has seen everything that you and I have done. He himself has taken the consequences of those things by giving his Son to die for us. He is waiting for you to come and confess it, to acknowledge it and say, “Lord, here I am. I want a fresh start. I want a new day in my life. I want a new beginning. I want a new birth. I want to be yours from this moment. I repent. I am coming home.”
This will only be the beginning, but the beginning of a wonderful new relationship. Once we have repented, we will still need to confess our daily failures, but now we are heading in a new direction. We are on God’s side. We are assured of his unending love, assistance and companionship. And it is a relationship that will last forever. Death itself was defeated in Jesus’ resurrection so even that cannot rob us of our Father’s love. The greatest things are yet to come.