Revelation 9:20-21 “The rest of mankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands nor give up worshiping demons and idols of gold and silver and bronze and stone and wood, which cannot see or hear or walk, nor did they repent of their murders or their sorceries or their sexual immorality or their thefts.”
God’s word to the peoples of the world is not only an offer of grace, nor even less simply a call to live rightly, nor even less still a promise to make all our dreams come true if we just have faith. We have not heard all that God wants to say to us unless we have heard his command to repent.
Ezekiel said “Repent and turn from your transgressions” (Ezek. 18:30). John the Baptist said “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 3:2). Jesus said “Repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). Peter said “Repent and be baptized” (Acts 2:38). And Paul said God “commands all people everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30).
Repentance has never been easy. No one likes to be told “Die to yourself. Kill that in you. Admit you are wrong and change.” That’s never been an easy sell. It’s much easier to get a crowd by leaving out the repentance part of faith, but it’s not faithful. It’s not even Christianity. Of course, there is a whole lot more to following Jesus than repentance, but it’s certainly not less. “Repent,” Jesus said, or “you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:5).
Repentance has always been hard, always will be hard.
Regret, now that’s easy. Suppose you walk into work one day, furious for no good reason. You get paid well and treated nicely, but you feel like supervisor is unfair. You should have got the promotion, even though you were less qualified and less experienced. Nevertheless, you march into the office and let your supervisor have it. You tell him where to stick this job. You tell him exactly what you think about him and his wife and mother and his grandmother and his dog. Next thing you know, you’re fired. Later that night, you feel just sick about the whole thing. How could you have been so stupid to say all that. Now you’re out of work. That’s regret. You don’t have to see your sin or admit wrong and be humbled to feel regret. You just have to feel bad about the consequences of your actions. It’s easy to have regret, but that’s not repentance.
Embarrassment is easy too. Suppose you’re out in the lobby after church and a group of you are chatting about “her.” No one has talked to “her,” but you all talking about her–what’s wrong in her marriage, what’s wrong with her kids, what’s wrong with her house. You aren’t strategizing how to help her. You’re just talking about her. And then you realize she’s been looking for her coat right behind you the whole time. She’s heard the whole thing. And as she bolts out of church crying, you feel just terrible. You are so embarrassed. Now, it may be that you are really struck in your conscience and you are moved to ask for forgiveness. But it could be that you are just embarrassed at being caught. You feel terrible, not so much with having gossiped, but that she heard you gossiping. You wonder what she thinks of you now and if she will tell others about this incident. Sure, you feel terrible, but it’s out of love for your reputation, not out of hatred for sin. You’re simply embarrassed, and that’s not repentance.
Apology is not repentance either. To be sure, repentance often involves an apology. But just because you’ve issued an apology doesn’t mean you’ve repented. We’ve all heard and given pseudo-apologies. “I’m sorry if you were offended.” “I’m sorry if you took things the wrong way.” “I’m sorry I said that about your kids. It’s not that I think their bad kids, their just wild, unruly, and undisciplined. I’m sorry you’re so sensitive.” Or even when the apology is sincere, it may not be a sincere statement of repentance. It may just be a sincere statement of feeling remorse or shame.
So regret is easy, embarrassment is easy, and apology is easy. Repentance, on the other hand, is very hard and, therefore, much rarer. Repentance involves two things: a change of mind and a change of behavior.
Repentance means you change your mind. That’s what the Greek word metanoia means– a changed (meta) mind (noia).
You change your mind about yourself: “I am not fundamentally a good person deep down. I am not the center of the universe. I am not the king of the world or even my life.”
You change your mind about sin: “I am responsible for my actions. My past hurts do not excuse my present failings. My offenses against God and against others are not trivial. I do not live or think or feel as I should.”
And you change your mind about God: “He is trustworthy. His word is sure. He is able to forgive and to save. I believe in his Son, Jesus Christ. I owe him my life and my allegiance. He is my King and my Sovereign, and he wants what is best for me. I believe it!”
Repentance is hard because changing someone’s mind is hard. In fact, when we’re dealing with spiritual matters of the heart, God’s the only one who can really change your mind. People are simply not predisposed to say “I was wrong! I was wrong about God and about myself. My whole way of looking at the world has been in error. I want to change.” That’s repentance. And it’s amazing when it happens.
In the classic book detailing his conversion to Christianity, Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton compares his journey to an English yachtsman who slightly miscalculated his course and discovered England, while under the impression he was in the South Seas. That’s how Chesterton came to Christ. He rejected Christianity and set out to find what was really true. And when he found the truth, he discovered he was back home again. What he found had been there all along.
Here’s how he describes his metanoia, his change of mind:
For if this book is a joke it is a joke against me. I am the man who with the utmost daring discovered what had been discovered before…No one can think my case more ludicrous than I think it myself; no reader can accuse me here of trying to make a fool of him: I am the fool of this story, and no rebel shall hurl me from my throne.
I freely confess all the idiotic ambitions of the end of the nineteenth century. I did, like all other solemn little boys, try to be in advance of the age. Like them I tried to be some ten minutes in advance of the truth. And I found that I was eighteen hundred years behind it. I did strain my voice with a painfully juvenile exaggeration in uttering my truths. And I was punished in the fittest and funniest way, for I have kept my truths: but I have discovered, not that they were not truths, but simply that they were not mine.
When I fancied that I stood alone I was really in the ridiculous position of being backed up by all Christendom…The man from the yacht thought he was the first to find England; I thought I was the first to find Europe. I did try to found a heresy of my own; and when I had put the last touches to it, I discovered that it was orthodoxy.
Chesterton changed his mind. He admitted he was a fool and a joke. He had professed all the latest ideas. But the one thing he was sure was most wrong, ended up being right.
Repentance also involves a change of behavior. It’s like a train conductor driving his train down the tracks straight for the side of a mountain. It’s one thing for him to realize and admit that his train his going in the wrong direction. It’s another thing to stop the train and it get it going in the opposite direction.
As you probably know, prior to becoming a Christian, John Newton was a drunken sailor and a slave trader. He was converted in a storm at sea. His life whole did not change at once. But because his repentance was genuine, he did change.
I stood in need of an Almighty Savior; and such a one I found described in the New Testament. Thus far, the Lord had wrought a marvelous thing: I was no longer an infidel: I heartily renounced my former profaneness, and had taken up some right notions…I was sorry for my past misspent life, and purposed an immediate reformation. I was quite freed from the habit of swearing, which seemed to have been as deeply rooted in me as a second nature. Thus, to all appearance, I was a new man.
From there he had a long road of being transformed from one degree of glory to the next. He changed his mind and his behavior slowly began to follow suit. It took time, but he bore fruit in keeping with repentance (Luke 3:8). He did not change in order to become new, but that he was a new man had to be proved by his change.
If we preach a “gospel” with no call to repentance we are preaching something other than the apostolic gospel.
If we knowing allow unconcerned, impenitent sinners into the membership and ministry of the church, we are deceiving their souls and putting ours at risk as well.
If we think people can find a Savior without forsaking their sin, we do not know what sort of Savior Jesus Christ is.
There are few things more important in life than repentance. So important, that Revelation, and the gospels, and the epistles, and the Old Testament make clear that you don’t go to heaven without it.