The Call for Repentance

‘Yet even now,’ declares the LORD, ‘return to me with all your heart, with fasting…weeping, and…mourning; and rend your hearts….’ Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster” (vv. 12–13).

- Joel 2:12–27

Joel opens his book by reflecting on God’s judgment in a plague of locusts in ancient Judah and how it anticipated the final day of the Lord, when He would judge even Jerusalem for its evil (Joel 1:1–2:11). This part of his work offers little hope to the people, but that changes in 2:12. Our Creator’s mercy is emphasized, as the Lord calls His people not to sit idle and wait for His wrath, but to repent. The repentance God demands here is not a superficial rending of clothing but rather a true soul conversion—the heart circumcision that the Lord has always demanded (Deut. 10:12–22). This circumcision is finally the gift of God for His elect people (Ezek. 36:22–38; John 3:1–8).

Those who have been gifted with circumcised hearts repent when the Lord, through His prophets and Apostles, calls them to turn from their sin. But the call must go out, for God ordinarily works through the preaching of His Word; thus, Joel calls for deep and thorough repentance in Joel 2:13–17. He grounds this call to repent in God’s revelation of His mercy and willingness to relent over the disasters He has announced (see Ex. 34:6–7; Jer. 18:5–8). At the same time, Joel’s call to repentance lacks any hint of presumption. Although God’s people can always be confident that He will forgive them when they turn to Him in heartfelt repentance (2 Chron. 7:14; Luke 15:11–32), even the healing that He promises does not always mean that we will escape the earthly consequences that flow from our sin. Joel 2:14 reflects this point, as the prophet leaves it up in the air as to whether God’s forgiveness might include other undeserved blessings.

Nothing less than full national repentance would do when Joel called Judah to repent. War was not important enough to conscript new husbands for battle (Deut. 20:1–7). Likewise, women with young children could apparently delay paying their vows or meeting other worship requirements until their little ones were weaned (1 Sam. 1:21–24). But Joel exempts neither group from repentance. The need to avert the coming judgment was so urgent that even newlyweds and young mothers had to participate in national repentance if there were to be any hope of staving off disaster (Joel 2:15–17).

God responds in Joel 2:18–27 to the call to repentance of verses 12–17, pledging to bless His people lavishly upon true and full repentance. Tomorrow we will look at this lavish blessing in greater detail.

Coram Deo

True repentance is confidently grounded in what God says about Himself in His Word, but it expresses itself in humility toward Him. We come before our Creator with confidence that He is faithful and just to forgive our sins (1 John 1:8–9), but we come humbly, refusing to believe or affirm that He owes us forgiveness. Every act of divine forgiveness is an instance of the Lord keeping His promises to pardon His people, but it is at the same time a forgiveness we never deserve.

Passages for Further Study

Psalms 86:15; 103:8
Daniel 9:9
Luke 1:50
James 2:13

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