A Picture of Repentance

“ ‘Yet even now,’ declares the Lord,‘return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments’ ” (vv. 12–13a).

- Joel 2:12–14

Religious scholars often use the term cult to refer to the organized aspects of worship. The cult of Israel, for instance, was made up of the temple and the priestly sacrifices, the outward, systematic practices involved in worshiping Yahweh. When we were speaking about the outward display of repentance yesterday, we were referring to what many would call cultic repentance because of its association with the externally observable worship of the Lord.

Cultic repentance is useless if prophetic repentance is absent. The prophets of ancient Israel had the responsibility to remind the people of their covenant obligations and the oaths they swore at the foot of Mount Sinai to obey God (Ex. 24:1–11). When the people broke covenant, the prophet was to call them to repentance — to change their mind about their waywardness and to love the Lord and His law again, seeking His forgiveness with humility.

Joel 2:12–14 reveals that conversion is the central element of prophetic repentance. When authentic repentance takes place, the erring person ceases to run as fast as he can away from God and turns back to the Lord, running toward Him as he flees his sin. Conversion is a vital work that happens first and foremost within our souls, as verses 12–13 make clear. The prophet exhorts the people not to rend their garments but to rend or tear their hearts. In other words, he calls the people to feel sorrow for their sin and shame for their disobedience — to experience the emotional pain that creatures should feel for turning their backs on our most holy and gracious Creator. Joel is not saying that outward signs of repentance like torn clothes are inappropriate, he is only putting the emphasis on the attitude of the heart, which is where it should be. He also encourages the people to show their repentance publicly through fasting and weeping (v. 12), but these signs are useless without an accompanying change of heart.

We are accustomed to thinking of conversion only as a one-time event that initiates our walk with Christ. Yet while there is a decisive moment of rebirth, the entire Christian life is one of conversion from beginning to end. Christians must turn from sin and to Jesus every day of their lives (1 John 1:8–9).

Coram Deo

How do you understand Christian repentance? Do you view it as only something that happens at the beginning of your walk with the Lord or are you seeking His face daily, asking for His forgiveness when you are convicted? There are many ways to make repentance a part of our lives. Aside from including it in personal devotions we can also think of the events of the day before we go to sleep and consider whether we need to repent of something before we shut our eyes.

Passages for Further Study

Isaiah 44:21–22
Jeremiah 24:4–7
Zechariah 1:1–6
2 Corinthians 7:10

First published in Tabletalk Magazine, an outreach of Ligonier. For permissions, view our Copyright Policy.