What is Repentance?

I used to believe that repentance was asking God’s forgiveness for the sins you had committed since the last time you asked God’s forgiveness.  I had the view that God only forgave me of the sins I asked Him to forgive, and that if I happened to die before I asked for forgiveness for whatever sins I still had on my account, that they would remain unforgiven and that I would go to hell.  Where I got this idea, I can’t say…It’s definitely not Biblical!  It’s probably just one of those misconceptions that come about from only hearing part of the truth, and filling in the details with your own imagination. As a middle school science teacher, I saw misconceptions like this all the time (like the misconception that our solar system contained millions of stars…when in reality it only contains one – the sun).

The truth is, once we accept God’s gift of forgiveness, all our sins are forgiven – past, present, and future. True faith understands this, and living in constant fear that you will die in your sins, even after your salvation, is not faith at all.  So if repentance has nothing to do with this constant asking of forgiveness, what is true repentance?  My Bible study today answer this question, and I’d like to share it with you.

The last few lessons in my study have been discussing the power of the Gospel. Most people understand the first part of the Gospel, that God forgives us of our sin and provides eternal security for us in Heaven. But the Gospel is actually much more than just this. Sure, this is the most important part, because it the part that deals with salvation.  But the Gospel also deals with more than just our sin.

In 2 Corinthians 5:17, Paul writes:

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!

These are the 2 major divisions of the Gospel – the old and the new. The first half reveals how your past – the old self – has been wiped clean and you are given a new start with God.  The second half describes the new life in Christ – living through the power of the Holy Spirit on a daily basis.  Of the first half, dealing with the old self, there are 2 divisions as well: the first part deals with our sin – Christ died for me, taking my sin and offering me forgiveness and eternal life, and the second part deals with our self – Christ has taken away the power of sin in our lives.

One of the key factors to understand in all of this is that it is God who does it all. Our own efforts could not save us from our sin – “all our righteous acts are like filthy rags” before God (Isaiah 64:6).  The same is true when it comes to overcoming the power of sin in our lives. No matter how entrenched in sin you are, it takes God working in your life to overcome it.  How does He do this?  My study pointed out that, throughout Scripture, people’s lives are changed by following a 3-step process:

  1. Revelation
  2. Repentance
  3. Reality

The first step – Revelation – is the opening of God’s Word in our hearts and minds by the Holy Spirit. God shows us things in the Bible, and it is He who opens our eyes to His truths. The next step – Repentance – is the aligning of your thinking and your behavior with God’s Word. The final step – Reality – is the empowering by the Holy Spirit to live in line with what God has shown you, and what your life has now been aligned toward.

The pivot point of this process is the middle step – Repentance.  Repentance is based on a revelation of two things – that the power of sin has been broken at the Cross, and that God requires you to switch allegiance from sin to Him. My study put it this way:

Unless we understand that the power of sin was broken at the Cross, we will be caught up in an endless cycle of self-effort – trying to break the power of sin ourselves. Self-effort is not repentance. And unless we understand taht God requires you to switch allegiance from sin to himself, we will never see the need for repentance in the first place.

So from this, we can define true repentance as turning the orientation of your life toward God. What does that look like, you ask?  Take Paul’s hymn of praise at the end of Romans 11:

Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor? Who has ever given to God, that God should repay them? For from him and through him and for him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen. (v. 33-36, emphasis added)

This is a true God-orientation – understanding that all things are from Him, through Him, and for Him.  Most of us live life in a self-orientation – we look out for number one. Repentance is a turning from this self-oriented lifestyle toward God.  My study gave the example of our tithes and offerings (and hit a little close to home, if you ask me). We know we are supposed to give to God, and we know that God blesses us when we do. But if we inspect our motives, often times we give out of expectation of those blessings, and not as a response of being God-oriented. We often don’t give because what we have is from Him, through Him, and for Him.

True repentance, then, requires that we orient our lives toward God. It also requires that we offer ourselves to Him.  Paul wrote in Romans 6:11-13:

In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer any part of yourself to sin as an instrument of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer every part of yourself to him as an instrument of righteousness. (emphasis added)

Today I asked myself, as I did some of my menial little tasks – what is my motivation for doing them?  As I drove to work, I asked myself – what is my motivation for driving courteously (or the opposite thereof, sometimes…)?  What is my motivation for how I treat others? What is my motivation for thinking those bad thoughts about my co-workers? Is my motivation to live from Him, through Him, and for Him?  And on top of that, am I offering myself as an instrument of righteousness to God?  Sadly, the answer to these questions is not always what you would expect from someone who claims to follow Christ. But that is what repentance is – a turning back to that orientation on a regular basis. God reveals the need through His Word, and we react by re-orienting ourselves to Him.

**The study I am currently working through is the Power of the Gospel course from Online Bible College.

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