The Gift of Repentance
by Burk Parsons
If you travel to Wittenberg, Germany, the birthplace of the Protestant Reformation, you may find yourself scratching your head wondering how Martin Luther managed to nail his 95 theses to the solid-bronze door of the 500 year old castle church. It wouldn’t take you long, however, to realize that the bronze door is a relatively new addition. During the Seven Year’s War (1756–1763), the original, wood door was lost in the great fire that consumed much of the church building in 1760. As a result, King Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia had the door replaced with the present bronze door upon which are inscribed Luther’s 95 theses. And while many Christians are familiar with the history surrounding Luther’s 95 theses, most are unaware of their contents. Largely, they address the abuses of the papacy, especially the grandiose abuses of the papacy’s cohorts, pertaining to the supposed power and efficacy of indulgences. The first thesis of Luther’s is penetrating. It reads: “When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said ‘Repent,’ He called for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” With no qualification or explanation, Luther was calling the church to repent.
The amazing thing about Luther’s statement is that it recognizes repentance not simply as a one-time action, but as that which is to encompass the entirety of a believer’s life. Repentance takes place not only when a sinner is converted to Christ but every day of a believer’s life in Christ. For that is what the Lord’s Prayer teaches us in the fifth petition: “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” We are taught by our Lord to ask forgiveness for all past sins that the Holy Spirit brings to our remembrance, and even the multitude of sins that we fail to remember. John Calvin, in his commentary on 2 Corinthians, writes: “Not only is it fitting to confess those sins which we commit daily, but graver offenses ought to draw us further and recall to our minds those which seem long since buried.”
Even though we have already been forgiven of our sins, we are called upon by Christ to continue in our repentance so that we might become holy and blameless. In his Doctrine of Repentance, Puritan Thomas Watson (ca. 1620–1686) writes: “Repentance is a grace of God’s Spirit whereby a sinner is inwardly humbled and visibly reformed.” In this simple statement, Watson helps to focus our attention on one of the most important aspects of true repentance, namely that repentance is a “grace of God’s spirit.”
In his letter to the Romans, addressing the depravity of man, a doctrine for which the apostle had a very high regard, Paul writes something intriguing, and he writes it in such a way that leads us to believe that his readers should have understood his point already. Paul writes: “Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” (Rom. 2:4). Paul’s point is a simple one, especially considering that he was more than likely addressing his Jewish recipients in chapter 2; the Jews who trusted Jesus as the Messiah should have known that it is God who leads sinners to repentance (Acts 11:18; 2 Tim. 2:25). However, they needed to be reminded of this simple truth, just as we need to be reminded of it today.
First and foremost, repentance is a gift. It is an act that the Holy Spirit works in us resulting in an act that flows out of us. Although it is our act, it does not originate from within us. In fact, in our naturally stubborn, rebellious hearts the whole notion of repentance is foreign. Just as our righteousness is a foreign, or “alien,” righteousness from Christ, so is our repentance. It is granted to us by God Himself. We would not even conceive of such a thing left to ourselves. Instead, we would come up with all sorts of excuses for our sin and would point our depraved fingers at everyone else around. But by His grace, God grants repentance to His adopted children whom He patiently disciplines: “Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent” (Rev. 3:19). For even when our minds grow weary and our hearts doubt the promises of God, He remains faithful to His promises and patient toward His people in the church “not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).
Nevertheless, many people have succumbed to the notion that God does not require repentance in order to become a Christian. With the desire to make conversion to Christ as easy as possible, many pastors have decided not even to mention sin or repentance in their sermons. I recently heard about a pastor of a “seeker-friendly” mega-church in Houston, Texas, who doesn’t preach about sin in his sermons but instead just wants to “give people a boost for the week.” Perhaps someone should remind him that the first word recorded from the lips of our Lord Jesus was “repent” (Matt. 4:17). It is not as if repentance is secondary to the Gospel message, it is at the very heart of understanding the Gospel message. We can’t possibly understand our need for God’s grace unless we understand our need to repent of our sins. In Mark 1:14–15 we read: “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.’” Simply put, pastors and teachers are held to a more strict judgment (James 3:1), and if pastors do not preach repentance, then they themselves should repent.
Perhaps people are just confused about the whole idea of repentance. And if people in the pews are confused, it is precisely because the pastors in the pulpits are confused. Nevertheless, Scripture makes it very clear, repentance is a change of mind resulting in a change of life (Ezek. 14:6; Matt. 3:8; Acts 26:20; Rev. 2:5). When asked about the definition of repentance, John MacArthur said: “The meaning of the word repentance has been twisted in recent years to the point that its biblical meaning is now obscured in the minds of many. The idea that genuine repentance could result in anything but a change of life is completely foreign to Scripture.”
The Word of God teaches us that God requires repentance and faith for salvation. They are two sides of the same coin; we cannot express true faith without genuine repentance and vice versa. On this point, John Calvin writes in his Institutes of the Christian Religion: “Now it ought to be a fact beyond controversy that repentance not only constantly follows faith but is also born of faith” (3.3.1). Our expression of repentance and faith is not simply relegated to that point in our lives when we “got saved,” nor is it simply that which we proclaim to others; rather, the message of repentance and faith is something we proclaim to ourselves each and every day, reminding ourselves of the Gospel and our status before God in Christ. Repentance, to use Calvin’s language, “constantly follows” faith. We who have been justified by God through faith in Christ have been saved, fully and finally, and we have been forgiven completely, just as the apostle Paul writes: “And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses” (Col. 2:13).
Although many world religions have some sort of doctrine of repentance, it is Christianity, the only true faith, that demands repentance. Although many people appear to think otherwise, repentance is neither a suggestion nor an option. It is mandated by the Lord Almighty. Therefore, we should always be ready to repent and quick to do so, for there is nothing holy or pietistic about casually waiting to repent. When we sin against God and man, we should be the first one to cast the stone against ourselves. We should find ourselves apologizing to our spouses, friends, and co-workers before they even have a chance to charge us with an offense. In that sense, we should be the greatest critics of ourselves, repenting of our sins not only to those whom we have offended but to all who knew of the offense. In doing so, we will not give our adversary any advantage to divide the body of Christ, for we are not ignorant of his devices (2 Cor. 2:11). Can we possibly imagine what might happen if we took God’s command to repent seriously? All of our works are seen by the watching world, and even when our light does not shine so brightly before men and when our works do not cause men to glorify God as they should, in our repentance and forgiveness of one another let us demonstrate to the world that we are followers of Christ by our love.