Repentance – The Obligation and Gift

Repentance is a dense word that carries theological significance, obligatory action, and requires grace from God.  Living in the twenty-first century where words like tolerance, multiculturalism, pluralism, relativism, and unity are used as trigger words to silence anyone with an opposing opinion, or fact, or truth claim.  Thus, there is an obligation placed on us as the children of Light to interpret and proclaim the Word of God anew in each generation.  In fact, almost 2,000 years ago a man named Paul said that times would come when people “will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers, and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables” (2 Timothy 4:3-4).  Additionally, a Jewish leader writing in the 1800s stated, “With the passage of time, the hearts of men degenerated even further, until the point where the “dwarves” of our time—who are too delicate to accept reproof—no longer have the willpower to force themselves to do anything.”[1]  Today in 2018 we are living in such a time when correction and reproof is seen as an attack on one’s identity, and where spoken words are interpreted as physical attacks of violence, and where the elite of our nation become the social engineers proclaiming to the people—“speak your own personal truth.”[2]  However, “personal truth” is simply a fancy way of saying, “speak you own personal opinions.”  Thus, when personal opinions and alternative facts are given elevated status because someone “feels” that it is true, we have then come to a point in our culture where we must define anew the words we speak in order to bring clarity and reveal the truth.  To be clear, truth with a capital T is: (a) absolute and objective, (b) verifiable and corresponds with reality, (c) necessarily restrictive which differentiates itself from error or non-truth, (d) discovered—not created, and (e) truth is descriptive and substantial which makes it inescapable.  Truth does not require belief in order for it to function and exist.

Yet, let all the world open their ears to hear and know, “One who turns away his ear from hearing the law, even his prayer is an abomination” (Proverbs 28:9), and because of this, repentance is to be witnessed and experienced as a way of life, whereby the heart that has been regenerated by God’s Spirit continues to pursue and please His Maker by continuously turning one’s heart, mind, and affections towards the God of Glory wherein one’s treasure is truly secure (cf. Hosea 6:1-6; Romans 5:1-5; 8:5-13; Matthew 6:19-21).

From a theological standpoint there are two particular aspects of repentance (metanoia); namely, turning from sin, and turning to God (Mark 1:14-15; Matthew 3:2, 8).  The NIDNTT notes these two distinctions by saying that two different words are used to describe the act of turning, and these are found in Acts 3:19 and 26:20: metanoeō (“to repent”) describes the turning from evil (i.e. sin), and epistrephō (“to turn”) the turning to God.[3]  Both of these two Greek words have their counterparts as niam (“to feel sorrow”) and shub (“to return”) in the Hebrew Old Testament.[4]  These two actions of turning are witnessed by Paul within the context of our required response, “Likewise you also, reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:11).  It is the work of Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit who enables us to have a steady contemplation of our newness of life by a careful consideration so we may determine that we are indeed (1) dead to sin, and (2) alive to God in Christ Jesus.

Both the Old and New Testaments clearly nuance the inner change of the heart, the mind, and the will that is associated with repentance and returning to Yahweh (Isaiah 29:13; Jeremiah 4:1-4; Joel 2:12-13; Micah 6:6-8; Acts 2:33-39; 3:26; 5:31-32; 10:43; 13:38-39).  Let us think and reason clearly, because the call to repent implies that a violation has occurred.  If you violate someone’s person or property it is natural to admit one’s guilt and to seek restitution by restoring that person’s property, as well as to seek reconciliation in order to restore the broken relationship—thus property and relationship are restored.  When the law has been broken and we stand before a judge, if we simply confess and say we are sorry it does not provide the justice required.  If the judge is upright the law must be upheld despite one’s confession of guilt.  Seriously, think this through…if you break the law and stand before a judge and confess that you are sorry, your confession is not sufficient enough to render you innocent.  Yet, the Most High Living God renders us innocent through the finished work of Jesus Christ, because “God made Him (Jesus) who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

Therefore, every human being is under the violation of God’s law (Romans 3:9-26), and this necessitates a guilty verdict because God is Just and Holy, and the law has been broken and violated.  However, the satisfaction for sin is not given by repentance, but it is given by the sacrifice of Christ’s shed blood on the cross who paid our debt-price through the grace of God at Calvary, and it is this which atones for sin (Hebrews 7:27; 9:12, 26, 28; 10:1-4, 10, 12, 14).  This is an important distinction because we do not have six Solas (Sola Repentus) as part of the Reformation essentials, we only have five Solas.[5]  Additionally, the Westminster Confession of Faith states, “Although repentance be not to be rested in, as any satisfaction for sin, or any cause of the pardon thereof, which is the act of God’s free grace in Christ; yet it is of such necessity to all sinners, that none may expect pardon without it” (WCF 15.3).[6]  This necessity for all sinners to repent is why the prophets became teachers and messengers of repentance.  The call to repent is a call to examine ourselves in light of the character of God, and to use God’s Law as the standard and measure of all measures.  Since no one is righteous in and of themselves (Psalms 14:1-3; Ecclesiastes 7:20; 9:3; Romans 3:10), the obligatory command to repent is given to all, but the forgiveness of sin rests upon those whom the Father chooses to draws near to Christ Jesus (John 6:37, 39, 44, 65).

Therefore, repentance must be seen as a biblical command given as a means of grace, which involves a heart change through confession of sin as well as the forsaking of sin (Proverbs 28:13; e.g. Isaiah 29:13; Jeremiah 12:2; Matthew 23:1-3).  The call to repent is a command given by God to all peoples (Acts 17:30) that we should humble ourselves, confess and forsake our iniquity, pray and acknowledge our utter need for the Living God to deliver us out of our transgressions by granting us forgiveness of sin and reconciliation as we cry out with all of our heart and soul to God for salvation and deliverance.  Yet, God who gives life and breath to all things is the One who circumcises the heart (Deuteronomy 30:6), writes the law of God on the heart and inner parts (Jeremiah 31:33-34; Hebrews 8:7-13; 10:16), gives a new heart and a new spirit (Jeremiah 32:37-41; Ezekiel 11:19-20; 36:26-28), is the one who grants repentance and the knowledge of the truth (Acts 11:18; 2 Timothy 2:25b-26), and is the one who reconciles us back to Himself through Christ Jesus (2 Corinthians 5:17-21; John 6:37, 39, 44, 65; Acts 2:39, 47; 13:48; 16:14).

Repentance before Conversion

Individuals who are the image-bearers of God have natural inclinations of the moral law that is structured within their conscience, and the social fabric they find themselves in, and therefore may have feelings of sorrow and guilt in offending or violating the rights of others.  This natural guilt and sorrow which may lead to repentance, does not mean that the repentance offered is acceptable to God, namely, that the repentance offered does not lead to salvation (2 Corinthians 7:10; Hebrews 12:14-17).  Although repentance is obligatory upon all, it is also a gift of God that must be granted through the Spirit of Christ for repentance to be efficacious.  On a personal note, there were many times that I confessed my sin and asked God for forgiveness and sought to reform my life before I was regenerated by the Holy Spirit.  During this repentance, I was sorry for a time and a season, but I did not understand the severity of sin as being a rebel against God, nor did I have the awareness of how our impure thoughts separate us from God (Isaiah 26:3-4; Psalm 10:3; Micah 4:12; Romans 8:5-8).  Not growing up in a Christian home, but always believing that God was real, there were many times that I had conviction about some of the bad or dumb things I had done.  Therefore, people may have sorrow and remorse, and seek to reform their lives, but unless there is saving faith (which is a gift of God) and trust in the finished work of Jesus Christ, who provides the satisfaction for sin, that repentance and remorse has not led to salvation.  William Ames writing in the 1600s says, “Repentance is not true and sound when it does not turn a man from all known sin to all known good, or when it does not continue in strength and actually renew itself continually from the time of conversion to the end of life.”[7]

You who have a belief in God, you who desire to know spiritual truths, or you who want to be involved in what God is doing in this world should continue to press within and press into God until you can stand before God and know with blessed assurance that you belong to the Family of Heaven—the Household of God and that your name is inscribed in the Lamb’s Book of Life for good.  However, what should be noted is that although this repentance did not lead to salvation it can be part of the drawing process of leading us to God by breaking up the fallow ground of the heart (Hosea 10:12; Jeremiah 4:3) and the preparing of the good ground to receive the Word of God (Luke 8:4-15; James 1:21).  Although it is true that we were chosen before the foundation of the world by God’s grace, yet until we are regenerated by the Holy Spirit we are strangers and enemies to the household of God.  Although saving faith is a free gift of God, we should not lose heart if we lack the full assurance of our salvation, because we are commanded to “be even more diligent, to make our calling and election sure” by “giving all diligence to add to our faith virtue, to virtue knowledge, to knowledge self-control, to self-control perseverance, to perseverance godliness, to godliness brotherly kindness, to brotherly kindness love (2 Peter 1:1-11).  And if we lack wisdom or any of these things let us ask of God who gives to those who ask, seek, and knock (James 1:5-8; Matthew 7:7-12).  Let me repeat this again, if you lack the full assurance of your salvation—you are required to continuously pursue God and lay hold of Him which all of our strength (Isaiah 27:5; 64:4-7; Acts 17:26-28; Hebrews 6:18), and when our strength fails us we are required to continually call out for God’s grace, mercy, forgiveness and to be filled with faith in Jesus Christ – until it is received (Luke 11:5-13), and when it is received you will know that you know—for the Spirit will bear witness with your spirit that you are a child of God (Romans 8:16).

What this means is that acknowledging, confessing, and forsaking our sin is part of our responsibility to God, yet it is also not enough because saving faith in Christ, which is a free gift of God (Ephesians 2:1-10), is a prerequisite for the forgiveness of sins by repentance because it is only God who can truly pardon our sin by Jesus Christ His Son.  Thus, regeneration and genuine faith are bestowed and freely given as Sola Gratia (only by grace), Sola Fide (only by faith), and Solus Christus (Christ alone) in order for repentance to be efficacious, namely, for repentance to be effectively granted through the legal act of justification.  Herman Bavinck states, “The new life implanted in regeneration yields, in relation to the intellect, faith and knowledge and wisdom; in relation to the will, conversion and repentance.”[8]  Reformed thinkers have noted that, “there is no repentance without regeneration.  Neither is there regeneration that does not manifest itself in repentance.”[9]  Therefore, “faith and repentance are fruits of regeneration.”[10]  Louis Berkhof notes that the scriptural view of repentance “conceives of real repentance as always accompanied with true faith.  The two go hand in hand, and are but different aspects of the same change in man.”[11]

To be clear, regeneration is the sovereign act of God through the Word of God by changing the inner and governing disposition of one’s heart, mind, and soul.  To be clear, regeneration is also called being born-again, or being born of God (John 1:12-13; 3:3-8; 1 Peter 1:22-25; 1 John 2:29; 3:9; 4:7; 5:1, 4, 18) and is “according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Himself” (Ephesians 1:3-14) which enables us to have saving faith and godly sorrow which produces repentance leading to salvation as part of our conversion.

Repentance in and after Conversion

John Calvin in his magnum opus, The Institutes of the Christian Religion is clear to point out that true repentance is the fruit of true faith when he says, “Those who think that repentance precedes faith instead of flowing from, or being produced by it, as the fruit by the tree, have never understood its nature, and are moved to adopt that view on very insufficient grounds” (3.3.1).[12]  Calvin adds, “Since Christ confers upon us, and we obtain by faith, both free reconciliation and newness of life, reason and order require that…for repentance being properly understood, it will better appear how a man is justified freely by faith alone, and yet that holiness of life, real holiness, as it is called, is inseparable from the free imputation of righteousness.  That repentance not only always follows faith, but is produced by it, ought to be without controversy” (3.3.1).[13]  Although faith and repentance should be linked together as seen in various passages (Mark 1:14-15; Acts 19:4; 20:21) they are distinct.  You cannot have true repentance without true faith, but you can have true faith that leads to true repentance. To describe this, one cannot truly repent of their sin without first believing and trusting that God is both able to pardon and receive such a confession and turning away from sin.  However, when true faith exists (through regeneration) then the character of God’s holiness and holy law is revealed, and this leads to a clear recognition of our sin and of our insufficient ability to be reconciled to God by our own strength.

In seeking to describe the work of repentance it is important to note the inner personality aspects that are involved; namely, the intellect, the emotions, and the will which all constitute the processes of movement and action within the being of each person.  Louis Berkhof describes the intellectual, emotional, and volitional aspects of our being as various elements of repentance.  The intellectual element of repentance refers to a change of view of our personal guilt, defilement, and helplessness exemplified as the knowledge of sin (Romans 3:20).[14]  The emotional element of repentance refers to a change of feeling manifesting as sorrow for sin (2 Corinthians 7:9-10).[15]  Lastly, the volitional element of repentance manifests as the actual change of purpose, or an inward turning away from sin and a disposition moving toward God for pardon and cleansing (Psalm 51:5-10).[16]  These various elements simply provide language to the inner workings of what takes place in the whole person as they turn away from sin, and turn to God.

The foundational doctrine of salvation by grace through faith (Ephesians 1:3-14; 2:1-10) is central for understanding the role and work of repentance.  Additionally, when rightly understanding that saving faith is a gift from God (Ephesians 2:8) because of spiritual regeneration (e.g. born-again, born from above) it naturally leads that “godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death” (2 Corinthians 7:10).  Therefore, we cannot receive saving faith apart from God supernaturally giving us a new heart and a new spirit (Jeremiah 32:37-41; Ezekiel 11:19-20; 36:26-32) in order for us to bring forth the fruit of obedience, or what John the Baptist calls “bearing fruits worthy of repentance” (Matthew 3:8).  In fact, in these sections from Jeremiah and Ezekiel—it is only when God gives a new heart and a new spirit that the people of God are able to walk in His laws and statutes (c.f. Deuteronomy 30:6).

The Christian reformed doctrine of total depravity suggests that all facets of the human personality (e.g. cognition, reasoning, language, behavior, emotions, volition or will, etc.) have been corrupted to such a degree that no human being is able by their own effort and volition to autonomously choose God in order to generate salvation for themselves.  Therefore, other religions which purpose that repentance is the only necessary means (Islam and Judaism in particular) of satisfying a Holy and Just God place the work of salvation or deliverance into the hands of the individual.  God does not receive the glory if we simply save ourselves, would we not rather rejoice over ourselves if that were the case?  “Judaism emphasizes the redeeming power of teshubah (repentance), which is nothing else than man’s self-redemption from the thraldom of sin.”[17]  This is not to say that Judaism does not recognize the sovereignty and grace of God, but with 2,000 years of not having a sacrificial system as part of the religious institution, repentance has morphed into a status that has removed the sacrificial atonement and blood-sacrifice that is needed for sin (cf. Hebrews 7:27; 9:12, 26-28; 10:1-4; 10, 12, 14).  However, total depravity does not mean that humanity is so depraved that they are unrestrained in their depravity, thus everyone is not a Hitler, Stalin, Lenin, Mussolini or a Mao, but that the totality of one’s being has been affected, corrupted, and held captive to the power and effects of sin[18] (c.f. Genesis 4:7) brought about by Adam’s rebellion against God in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3).

In linking the concepts of original sin and total depravity with the need to be reconciled to God through regeneration we are led to consider the nature of repentance and its place in the Christian life.  The biblical call to repentance is given afresh in each generation, because the command to repent is given to all people (Acts 17:30-31) at all times (Matthew 4:17).  The first preaching of Jesus was a call to repent (Matthew 4:17; Mark 1:14-15), and in each of these cases the call to repent that is given by Jesus Christ in the Greek text is found in the present tense, active voice, imperative mood, and in the plural which signifies that all people at all times are to actively repent continuously; namely, those who hear the call to repent are to mandatorily live a life of repentance which means to continuously turn from sin through the intellect, emotions, and volition and turn towards God.  This call to repentance is not portrayed in such a way that it might be a good idea to repent, or perhaps that it would help you in some form, but the call to repent that Jesus makes is a command declaration that all people at all times must repent.  Martin Luther who in 1517 posted his 95 Theses at Wittenberg begins in his first Thesis when he said, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent,” he intended that the entire life of believers should be repentance.”[19]  Martin Luther is absolutely correct in stating this, because of the present tense and active voice in the Greek text (Matthew 4:17; Mark 1:14-15), because the child of God that has been set-apart by God (John 1:12-13) does not practice sin as a lifestyle (1 John 3:4-9), but is commanded to pursue communion and abiding with God through denial of self and submission to God’s will (1 John 3:24; 4:4, 7, 12-16; 5:1-3, 20; John 15:1-17; Matthew 11:28-30; Luke 9:23-27; James 4:6-10) by living a life that continuously turns away from sin (1 Corinthians 10:13), and in turning away from sin turns to God as his refuge, rock, shield, and great deliverer (Psalm 18:1-2; 27:5; 91:1-16; Romans 6:13).  Therefore, it is crucial that every child of God immerse themselves in the Word of God, because it is Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone) which provides us with the necessary knowledge for that which is well-pleasing to God as well as that which is abhorrent to the Most High.

When we think of repentance in this way it is not that repentance provides satisfaction for sin, but that repentance is the natural response of saving faith that is involved in a change of heart and mind towards one’s sin against the Holy and Just God of all creation.  In the work of salvation with the conversion of the rebellious sinner God receives all the glory.  Soli Deo Gloria!  God rescues us from the tyranny of Satan and translates us from death to life (John 5:24; 1 John 3:14), from the power of darkness to the kingdom of His Son through the washing of regeneration by His Holy Word and Holy Spirit.  The state of regeneration—of being born of God, produces saving faith in God which leads to godly sorrow that produces repentance leading to salvation.  True repentance is just as much a gift of grace from God as faith is (Acts 11:18; 2 Timothy 2:25b-26; Ephesians 2:1-10).  Nevertheless, you O man, and you O woman are called to “strengthen the hands which hang down, and the feeble knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be dislocated, but rather healed.  Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord…Therefore by Him let us continually offer the sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to His name.  But do not forget to do good and to share, for with such sacrifices God is well pleased. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is Faithful and Just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him (God) a liar, and His Word is not in us” (Hebrews 12:12-14; 13:15-16; 1 John 1:7b-10).

[1] Menachem Mendel Levin. Cheshbon Ha-Nefesh. Translated by Shraga Silverstein. New York: Feldheim Publishers, 1995, p.45.

[2] This was uttered by Oprah Winfrey at the 2017-2018 Golden Globe awards.

[3] Verbrugge, Verlyn ed. New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (NIDNTT): Abridged Edition. Michigan: Zondervan, 2000, p.367. Bavinck, Herman. Reformed Dogmatics. Abridged in One Volume. Edited by John Bolt. Michigan: Baker Academic, 2011, p.538.

[4] Kohler, Kaufmann; & Schlesinger, Max. Repentance (Hebr. “Teshubah”). Retrieved from http://jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/12680-repentance on December 27, 2017.

[5] Sola Repentus is a fictitious creation that is not part of the five traditional Solas of the Reformation: Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone), Sola Gratia (Grace Alone), Sola Fide (Faith Alone), Solus Christus (Christ Alone), Soli Deo Gloria (Glory of God Alone).

[6] Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms with Proof Texts. Georgia: Christian Education & Publications, 2007, p.65.

[7] Ames, William. The Marrow of Theology. Edited by John D. Eusden. Michigan: Baker Books, 1997, p.160.

[8] Bavinck. Reformed Dogmatics. Baker Academic, 2011, p.536.

[9] Genderen, J. van, & Velema, W. H. Concise Reformed Dogmatics. Translated by Gerrit Bilkes, & Ed M. van der Maas. New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 2008, p.600.

[10] Ibid. p.600.

[11] Berkhof, Louis. Manual of Christian Doctrine. Michigan: Eerdmans, 1999, p.245.

[12] Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Translated by Henry Beveridge. Massachusetts: Hendrickson, 2007, p.386.

[13] Ibid. p.386.

[14] Berkhof, Louis. Systematic Theology. Pennsylvania: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2012, p.486.

[15] Ibid. p.486.

[16] Ibid. p.486.

[17] Kohler. & Schlesinger. Repentance (Hebr. “Teshubah”).

[18] Billings, J. Todd. Union with Christ: Reframing Theology and Ministry for the Church. Michigan: Baker Academic, 2011.

[19] Nichols, Stephen ed. Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses. New Jersey: P&R Publishing Company, 2002, p.23.

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