Repent! The Forgotten Doctrine of Salvation
August 9, 1998
Listen to this Sermon
In 1937 the American Tract Society sponsored a contest in which they offered a prize of $1,000 for the best new book written on one of the “essential evangelical doctrines of the Christian faith.” Sixty-one years ago, $1,000 was a lot of money and a great many well-known Christian authors entered the contest hoping to win the prize. A committee representing six denominations judged the entries. The judges unanimously chose a book written by a man whose name I have mentioned before—Dr. Harry Ironside, who for many years served as pastor of the famous Moody Memorial Church in downtown Chicago. The book he wrote is entitled Except Ye Repent. The title is taken from the King James Version of Luke 13:3 where Jesus said to the men of his day, “Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.”
Let me quote the first sentence from Dr. Ironside’s introduction: “Fully convinced in my own mind that the doctrine of repentance is the missing note in many otherwise orthodox and fundamentally sound circles today, I have penned this volume out of a full heart.” Repentance, he says, is the missing note in many otherwise sound churches. If it was so in 1937, how much more it must be true in 1998.
In our day, and in our circles, the doctrine of repentance is not preached very often. There are several reasons for this. First, we live in a superficial age and any preaching of repentance is bound to cut through the superficiality. This is one point on which both liberals and conservatives share unspoken agreement—no one wants to go to church and hear hard truth from the pulpit, and repentance is the ultimate hard truth. Second, some evangelicals fear the preaching of repentance because they think it somehow opposes the gospel of grace. Their fears are justified if repentance is made to equal penance, the act whereby a man atones for his own sin. But that is not true biblical repentance. Where true repentance is preached, it actually promotes the grace of God.
A Major Biblical Topic
Even a casual reader of the Bible soon discovers that repentance is a major biblical topic. All the prophets mention it in one way or another. Isaiah called Israel to repent, as did Jeremiah and Ezekiel and Hosea and Micah and Malachi. A survey of the New Testament shows that the words “repent” and “repentance” are used in various forms 55 times. John the Baptist cried out, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (Matthew 3:2). The entire message of Jesus is summed up in these words: “Repent and believe the good news” (Mark 1:15). When Jesus sent the 12 apostles out, they preached “that people should repent.” (Mark 6:12). Our Lord also declared, “I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:32). When Luke recorded his version of the Great Commission, he tells us that Jesus ordered that “repentance and forgiveness of sins be preached in his name to all nations, beginning in Jerusalem” (Luke 24:47). Evidently Peter took those words seriously because on the Day of Pentecost he concluded his powerful sermon by calling on his hearers to “Repent and be baptized … for the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2:38).
Before we move on, consider these two verses: 1) “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promises, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9), and 2) “In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30).
1. He wants you to repent!!!
2. He commands you to repent!!!
That last statement would have bothered the men of Athens. Up until this point, they would have been quite happy with Paul’s message on Mars Hill. Even if they didn’t agree with everything, the Stoic and Epicurean philosophers would have found much food for thought. But with the mention of repentance, they would have become very uncomfortable. It is a simple fact that intellectuals love to discuss but hate to decide. The men of Athens would have welcomed Paul’s theological presentation but they could not accept his demand for repentance. That came too close for comfort.
But our text is perfectly clear. If you want to go to heaven, you must repent of your sins. This is not only God’s desire; it is also God’s command. As all good soldiers know, when a command is given, you don’t discuss it or debate it. You have but one choice—to obey. If you don’t, you are guilty of insubordination.
No one likes to be commanded to do anything. But here is a command from Almighty God that applies to every man, woman, boy and girl born on this planet. God says you must repent. No excuses will be accepted. If you do not obey God’s command, you will someday face a divine court-martial.
I. The Definition of Repentance
Before going further, it’s important that we clearly understand what repentance really means. In the Old Testament, two Hebrew words help us understand repentance. The first is the word nacham, which means to turn around or to change the mind. The second is the word sub. It is used over 600 times in the Old Testament and is translated by such words as “turn,” “return,” “seek,” “restore.” You see it very often in phrases like “to turn to the Lord with all your heart.”
When you come to the New Testament there is one word you need to know—the Greek word metanoia, which literally means “to change the mind.” Repentance fundamentally means to change your mind about something. It has to do with the way you think about something. You’ve been thinking one way, but now you think the opposite way. That’s repentance—the changing of the mind.
Let’s suppose a man wants to learn how to parachute. So he goes to a parachute school and they show him how to rig up his gear, how to pull the rip cord, and how to land safely. Finally the day comes when they take him up in an airplane. He’s scared to death but he’s afraid to back out. The moment comes when he is to jump. He goes to the door of the airplane and sees the ground 7,000 feet below. His legs grow weak, he’s about to throw up, and somebody behind him is trying to push him out of the airplane. At the last second he says, “No. I’m not going to do it.” “Go ahead, you can do it,” his instructor shouts. “I’ve changed my mind,” he replies. “I’m not going to jump.” And he doesn’t. That man has repented. He’s changed his mind in a decisive way.
That story illustrates how repentance works. Repentance is a change in the way I think that leads to change in the way I live. When you really change your mind about something, it’s going to change the way you think about it, talk about it, feel about it, and act about it. I’m suggesting that true repentance is more than just a mental game. Repentance is a decisive change in direction. It’s a change of mind that leads to a change of thinking that leads to a change of attitude that leads to a change of feeling that leads to a change of values that leads to a change in the way you live.
I can remember over 30 years ago going to a small Baptist church in northwest Alabama to hear Ed McCollum—my father in the ministry—preach in a revival meeting. I’ve never forgotten how he explained the doctrine of repentance. He went to one end of the platform and started walking. About the time he got to the other end, he turned around and started going in the other direction. “That’s what repentance is,” he declared. “You were going one way in your life and now you are going in another.” That’s why the typical Old Testament word for repentance is “turn.” Turning is always involved in repentance. It’s a change of mind that leads to a change of direction.
Someone may object—rightly—that to leave the matter there may make it seem as if repentance is an outward work I do, a kind of self-reformation where I try to clean up my life. That would indeed be opposed to the gospel of grace. But that’s not what I mean. What I am trying to show is that true repentance affects the way I live and if it doesn’t affect the way I live, it’s not true repentance. It’s not just mental arithmetic; it’s a true change in the values by which I live my life. There are dangers on both sides. I think by far our greater danger is that we will minimize repentance to the point where it doesn’t mean anything at all.
Only God Can Grant Repentance
It’s also crucial to point out that repentance is a gift from God. We are all born with a sin nature that leads us constantly away from God (Ephesians 2:1-2). Left to ourselves, we will always walk in the wrong direction. No one will ever have the slightest desire to change directions—and no one will have the power to make the change—unless and until God touches that person with the power of the Holy Spirit. That’s why both Acts 11:18 and 2 Timothy 2:25 speak of God granting the gift of repentance. Without that gift, no sinner could ever turn from his sin and find the Lord Jesus Christ.
In passing, let me say that there are two things that repentance is not. First, repentance is not mere sorrow for sin. Repentance is not measured by the number of tears you shed. Judas, we are told, regretted having betrayed Christ. He was genuinely sorry but he did not repent. There is a place for weeping and agony of soul, and we would all be better off if we took our sin more seriously, but sorrow in and of itself is not repentance. Second, repentance is not merely a promise to do better. I’ve already said that repentance is not self-reformation. It’s not a spiritual New Year’s Eve resolution.
Yet repentance includes both ideas. When I truly change my mind about the way I have been living, there will be sorrow for sin because I will see my sin the way God sees it. It will grieve me the way it grieves God. And repentance implies a decision to make a break with the past and to live a life pleasing to God. So those two things aren’t wrong; they just don’t go far enough.
Let me speak for a moment about Reggie White, the all-pro defensive end for the Green Bay Packers. In recent months Reggie has taken many hits in the media for his outspoken defense of biblical morality and his forthright declaration that homosexuality is always wrong. Recently full-page ads have appeared in leading newspapers—including the Chicago Tribune—featuring a picture of Reggie White along with testimonies from former homosexuals who have been delivered from their sin by the power of Jesus Christ.
Naturally these ads provoked a firestorm of controversy. The radical leaders of the homosexual community are upset because their whole lifestyle depends on convincing others that homosexuals are born that way—and therefore can’t be condemned for their moral choices. Earlier this week USA Today ran a major feature on the controversy, including an interview with a happily married couple who were both once homosexuals. One article quoted Joe Dallis, an evangelical Christian who works with Christians struggling to break free from homosexuality. He noted that it’s possible for real change to happen but it isn’t easy, it doesn’t happen overnight, and the person involved must truly want to change.
That last point is hugely important for us to consider. The first step in changing the direction of your life must come from within. You’ve got to want to change. If you don’t want to change, no one can make you change.
And you must be willing to do the hard work of repentance. Most of us change slowly and often only under great pressure from within or without. That explains why Christians often continue in sinful patterns of conduct even when we know we are hurting ourselves and others. It’s easier to keep on doing what we’ve been doing. Real change is hard work.
But if there is no real change, there is no real repentance. Until you can say, “I was wrong,” you will never be able to repent. If you never admit your faults, you can never be healed. Until you admit that you are traveling down the wrong road, you can never change the direction of your life.
(I pause at this point to say that when I preached this sermon, I asked the congregation to say, “I was wrong” out loud with me. With more than a few sheepish grins, we all said it together. Why not stop reading and say it out loud wherever you are? As you grow spiritually, it ought to become easier and easier to say those words.)
II. Repentance Illustrated
It’s not hard to find many examples of true and false repentance in the Bible. On the positive side we have the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32) who took his share of his father’s inheritance, left home, went to the “far country,” and wasted it all on riotous living and sexual immorality. When the famine came (as it always does sooner or later), he found himself broke, hungry, friendless and penniless, far from home. He ended up hiring himself out to a farmer where he fed the pigs and dreamed of eating the husks himself. Finally he came to his senses, he realized what a fool he had been, and resolved to return to his father’s house. He mentally rehearsed what he would say: “I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.” Then he got up and began the long journey home. But when his father saw him coming, he ran to him, embraced him with tears, and welcomed him back with joy. The son repeated the words he had rehearsed and his father responded by putting a robe on his shoulders, a ring on his finger, and sandals on his feet. He called for a great celebration because his son who had been lost at last was found—as if he had come back from the dead.
On the other hand consider Judas who betrayed the Lord for the price of a slave. When he realized his error, he returned the money to the high priests and tried to cancel the deal, but it was too late (Matthew 27:1-10). The older versions say Judas repented, but the newer versions more accurately record that he was filled with remorse. Later he ended up committing suicide.
What made the difference between these two men? Both knew they had done wrong, both felt deep remorse. Yet one was forgiven and the other was not. Why? Surely the crucial point must be that the prodigal son cried out to his father for forgiveness while Judas did not. He confessed his sin—but not to God—and that made the difference between heaven and hell.
III. Repentance Applied
Repentance is the doorway to heaven and there is no other entrance. That’s a bold statement to make—yet I believe it is entirely biblical. If we fail to preach repentance, we are leaving out a vital part of the gospel message. Our failure in this regard has produced an anemic gospel, stripped of its power to change human lives.
But there is more to repentance than the initial act of coming to Christ for salvation. Repentance is to be part of our daily walk with God. It is foundational to a growing Christian life. When Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the church in 1517, he began with this crucial statement: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” (Matthew 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” In a sense the entire Protestant Reformation hangs on those simple words. If you are a Christian, repentance ought to be part of your daily life.
When Paul said that by the Spirit we should “put to death the deeds of the flesh” (Romans 8:13), he was talking about repentance. When he said, “If we would judge ourselves, we would not be judged” (I Corinthians 11:31), he was talking about repentance. When Peter said to his readers, “Rid yourselves of all malice and deceit” (I Peter 2:1), he was talking about repentance. When James said, “Wash your hands, you sinners” (James 4:8), he was talking about repentance. When John said, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (I John 1:9), he was talking about repentance. The words are different but the meaning is the same.
One reason revival does not come is that we take our sins too lightly. Repentance is hard work. It demands we stop excusing ourselves. It means looking at life from God’s point of view. The reason we don’t want to repent is because we know our lives would have to change, and that makes us uncomfortable.
The doctrine of repentance is not given to heap more guilt upon us. It is given to free us from guilt. We drift and slide away from Christ precisely because we don’t want to repent. Repentance means a genuine change of mind about ourselves and the way we’ve been living. It’s costly. It’s not easy. Things are going to change if we repent. But if we dare to obey God when it isn’t easy, if we break up the hard soil of our hearts, God will plant within the seeds of joy and peace. Repentance is not opposed to grace; true repentance leads us on to grace where we are forgiven and restored to fellowship with God.
(When I preached this, a friend commented that anyone who thinks repentance is opposed to grace doesn’t understand either one. I think he’s right.)
What Repentance Looks Like
What does repentance look like in practical terms? Here are five statements that help us answer that question: I know I have repented when …
A. I admit I did wrong.
B. I feel sorrow over my sin.
C. I confess my sin to God and to others.
D. I resolve to make restitution where possible.
E. I walk in the path of new obedience.
Our greatest need is for a holy dissatisfaction. Not a morbid introspection. Not a self-conscious recital of every sin we have committed. But a holy hunger for God to reveal himself in a new way.
Where do we go from here? We need to have a time of prayer and personal commitment. I think many of us are somewhere on a downward slide spiritually. Many of us are conscious of being so busy that we hardly have time for the Lord anymore. That’s the first step in a bad direction. Now is the time to turn away from our sin and find forgiveness and cleansing.
One final word. The Gospel invitation begins with repentance. The first step in becoming a Christian is changing your mind about Jesus Christ. Jesus said, “Unless you repent, you too will perish.” It would be terrible to go to hell because you never repented of your sins. Terrible because Jesus died for you and paid the penalty for all your sins. God has already done everything necessary for you to go to heaven. He sent his own son to die on the cross, bearing your sins, taking your place, paying your penalty. One of our old hymns says it well:
Let not conscience make you linger
Nor of fitness fondly dream.
All the fitness he requireth
Is to feel your need of Him.
If you go to hell, don’t blame anyone but yourself. The way to heaven has been open now for 2,000 years. Jesus died that you might enter God’s presence forever. No one else could have done what he did. No one else would have done it. Do you feel your need of him? If you do, I urge you to come to Christ and put your trust in him. Do it today and enter into the salvation God has prepared for you.