We don’t hear much about repentance today. One of the reasons for that has to do with the fact that a whole segment of the evangelical church has purposely de-emphasized its role in salvation and indeed sanctification. Some would say that repentance from sin is not necessary for salvation and to talk of such is to preach works. Of course, Scripture says that repentance is necessary for salvation and is not a human work. In fact, repentance and faith are both gifts from God and two sides of the same coin.
Others affirm the need for repentance but so often seem to be confused as to what it is. There is a failure to recognize the difference between what the Apostle Paul calls worldly sorrow vs. godly sorrow. The upshot of this deficiency of understanding is that persons often fail to repent when they need to before God and others. Not only does such a dynamic hinder sanctification but peace in human relationships. If you want to have a better marriage for example, get hold of the biblical concept of repentance.
When we have wronged someone, most of us are willing to say “I’m sorry.” Too often however, we say it like this: “I’m sorry I did this but you did that.” That kind of apology is not grounded in real repentance or a real desire to be reconciled. Sometimes we are even more subtle. We might say, “I’m sorry I did this when you did that.” That sounds better, but it’s not. Real repentance is grounded in godly sorrow and leads to life (2 Cor. 7:10). It leads to confession of sin to God and to others. Real repentance leads to real restoration and reconciliation.
What is real repentance then? We see it in the lives of some
dear saints in the Corinthian church. Paul wrote, “For observe this very thing,
that you sorrowed in a godly manner: What diligence it produced in you, what
clearing of yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what vehement desire, what
zeal, what vindication! In all things you proved yourselves to be clear in this
matter (2 Cor. 7:11).” Let’s glean some application.
First, real repentance shows itself plainly. Paul expresses his joy at the church’s response to a letter of rebuke he had sent them. When he says “Behold,” or “Observe this,” he is being quite expressive. In today’s terms we might say “Would you look at this!” There is a ring of exultation in his tone because he can plainly see their repentance.
The take away for us is quite simple. If you sin against someone and repent, they don’t have to wonder! If your repentance is real, they will see it. They will see your heartbreak over sin, your genuine confession, your effort at reconciliation, and the fruit of change.
You might wonder, “What if I sin again? What if someone repents and sins again in the same way?” If repentance is genuine, there will be remorse over that sin, an effort to kill it for good, and greater victory over time.
I have a friend who is an evangelist. After he
had preached in a small town church one evening, the pastor’s daughter came
forward with tears in her eyes wanting to be saved. My friend was encouraged
but noticed the pastor was not. When he asked this father about his seeming
indifference toward his daughter’s profession of faith, the wise pastor
commented, “She’s done this before but I’ve never seen any evidence of real
sorrow over sin or the fruit of repentance. When I see a change in her life,
then I’ll get excited.” Real repentance shows itself plainly. When you say
you’ve repented, can those around you tell that you have?
Second, real repentance comes from God. Paul noted that the Corinthians sorrowed in a godly manner. We’ve already indicated that there is a difference between worldly sorrow and godly sorrow. Godly sorrow comes from God and is directed toward God. Repentance is not a human work but a gift from God.
I interviewed Steve McInerny, the author of Confessions of a Christianized Pagan. In
the book he recounts that for thirty years he thought he was saved but came to
realize that he was not. While he served in the church in various ways during
that thirty year period, there was no real turning from sin in his life. As I
interviewed him on the radio and touched on a variety of subjects in his book,
during the breaks he kept telling me he wanted to get to the chapter on repentance.
He desperately wanted to deal with that because it is the missing element in
gospel preaching today and humanly speaking kept Him from Christ for most of
his life. He had never been confronted with his sin nor called to repentance.
He needed God to do a work in his heart! Call upon God to grant you repentance
when you need it!
Third, real repentance produces real change. Paul repeated a little word when he thought about the change that had been wrought in the Corinthians. We might translate his thought thusly: “What diligence it produced in you, what clearing of yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what vehement desire, what zeal, what vindication!” While we cannot know exactly what he was thinking with each of these phrases, the context gives us an idea. He was overjoyed at their diligence to make things right; the evidence in their lives that they were now cleared of the charges against them; the indignation they had over their sin; the fear of God in their hearts; their longing to be reunited with Paul whom they had disbelieved for a time; their renewed zeal for the gospel which had been under attack; and their desire to vindicate themselves.
John Newton wrote “Amazing Grace.” He was overwhelmed that God would save “a wretch like” him. He was blind to his sin and his need for Christ until God opened his eyes by grace. Remember that John Newton was a slave trader. He dealt in the trafficking of human beings. Not only were families ripped apart and freedom was stolen, but the slaves were treated worse than animals. Thousands died on transport ships due to the vile conditions in which they were kept as cargo. Those who died were simply tossed overboard like garbage. Can you imagine the faces John Newton saw in his mind when he was confronted with the reality of his sin?
But, there was a change. Not only did he quit the slave
trade but he worked for years with William Wilberforce to abolish the slave
forever. Real repentance produces real change. Do you change when you say you
Fourth, real repentance makes things right. In all things the Corinthians proved themselves to be clear of the charges against them by making things right. They had sinned in so many ways. They changed and put things back in line with the way they were supposed to be.
Have you ever seen Star Trek Voyager? On one particular episode, the entire crew was killed due to a mistake by Harry Kim who survived. He spent the next fifteen years of his life trying to undo that mistake. He was able, in a sense, to go back in time and undo what he had done. He then receives a message from his future self: “Hello, Harry. I don't have much time, so listen to me. Fifteen years ago, I made a mistake and 150 people died. I've spent every day since then regretting that mistake. But if you're watching this right now, that means all of that has changed.” In other words, he went back and made things right!
We can’t go back in time and take away the wrong or hurtful things we’ve done. But, we can repent and God can restore. In that sense, we can go back. We can go back and make things right.
What’s standing between you and God or someone else? Do you
owe someone a real apology? Have you offended someone? Have you been stubborn?
Do you owe someone anything? Do you want a clear slate? Do you need to go back
and put something right? The solution is simple: repent.
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About Paul Dean
Dr. Paul Dean is a pastor, cultural commentator, and author. He serves as a Regional Mentor with the International Association of Biblical Counselors, speaks at several conferences throughout the year, and provides training for ministers and churches on a regular basis. Paul resides in the Upstate of South Carolina with his wife and three children.
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