Bob and Carol had an awful fight. After yelling at each other for almost 2 hours the house settled into a chilling silence. Finally, a full day after the battle Bob came and sat beside his wife. “Carol, look, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said what I did and I was wrong. Please forgive me.” He seemed so sincere that Carol couldn’t help but forgive him.
About a week passed and yes, you guessed it, they were fighting again. Bob had repeated his first mistake almost exactly like he did the first time. As before there was anger, then coldness which was followed by an accepted apology.
Was Bob really sorry? Did he mean it when he asked for forgiveness? Should Carol have forgiven him the first time around?
All of these are good questions but stop short of the fundamental problem: Bob never truly repented of his error.
Repentance is not easy. It’s probably impossible without a health dose of divine assistance. Nevertheless, repentance is taught by Jesus himself.
“…unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3, 5).
Jesus warned his questioners that it was their own sins that were important, not those of their parents. Each of his hearers must repent. Peter echoes the same thinking as he speaks of the end of time.
“The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish but that all should reach repentance” (1 Peter 3:9).
When the people at Pentecost asked what do to be saved they were told to “repent and be baptized” (Acts 2:38).
So repentance is important. But is repentance identical to saying “I’m sorry”? No, it’s not.
John the Baptist hints that biblical repentance involves more than just words. When the curious came to listen to his message he warned them, “bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:8). In John’s teaching, repentance was productive – it brought something more than words.
In Acts 3:19 Peter turns an interesting phrase. He says, “Repent therefore and turn again, that your sins might be blotted out.” He links repentance with the idea of turning. We could say repentance and changing are alike. An understanding of repentance as some kind of change makes perfect sense and fits nicely into the verses above.
Paul’s comment to the people of Athens also makes good use of the idea of repentance-means-change idea. “The times of ignorance God overlooked , but now he commands all people everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30). Paul was speaking to idol worshipers. Surely he did not mean that they could simply say “I’m sorry” and go back to worshiping at the stone idol’s altars!
Biblical repentance means to change course. It suggests a deep regret coupled with a desire to do differently in the future.
Paul addresses the need for true repentance in 2 Corinthians 7:9-11. Here’s the background. Paul earlier wrote a very stern letter to the church in Corinth addressing sin in the church. That letter produced great sadness among the believers. Now, in this letter (2 Corinthians) Paul notes their sadness and reminds them that their grief produced repentance which leads them to salvation. Here’s the portion of the text I’m talking about:
“As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting. For you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no loss through us.
For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death. For see what earnestness this godly grief has produced in you, but also what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what longing, what zeal, what punishment! At every point you have proved yourselves innocent in the matter.”
Make note of verse 10: “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.” Notice the pattern:
Sorrow is important but it does not stand alone. At some point change must occur.
For example, if a man is angry and hostile towards his family, he can and should feel saddened by his actions. No doubt his family will feel relief in those moments when he he professes his sorrow and seeks their forgiveness. But the family doesn’t want a repeat of his conduct. They want the anger to stop. Sorrow isn’t enough is it?
There are some things we cannot change on our own. This especially true in the spiritual arena. More specifically I can never be “good enough” to earn my way to heaven. God doesn’t owe me salvation and I can never put him in my debt. But that does not mean I have nothing to do.
In Luke 15:11-32 Jesus tells about the prodigal son. The young man left his home with his inheritance. He spent everything he had on parties and riotous living. When the money ran out so did his friends. We would say that he hit bottom. It was at this point the son realized how shattered his life had become and he went home. There is father received him with open arms and welcomed him back into the family. It’s the same for people today. We make the turn and God welcomes us home. The prodigal was sorry for what he had done but also took steps to correct his foolishness. He came home.
God constantly calls to us through the power of the Holy Spirit who works in and through his word. Like the father of the prodigal son he is always standing at the road looking for his children.
Christians are sorrowed, even horrified, at their sins and shortcomings. But they do not wallow in their sins. With God’s help they change. As Paul says, we are being transformed (2 Corinthians 3:18). he echoes the same though in Romans 12:2: “Do not be conformed to this world but be ye transformed by the renewal of your mind…”