What is Repentance?

In the early 90’s Leonard Cohen sang, “When they said Repent, Repent, I wonder what they meant.” Repentance is a significant theme in the Bible and a common message from preachers. Protesters, church groups, religious activists and whacko cults regularly call America to repentance. While many have heard the exhortation to repent, how many who hear the call to repent and, like the songwriter, wonder what is meant?

Repentance is not a difficult concept to define. To repent is to turn away from something. Repentance is a U-turn in life.

To give a bit longer definition, repentance is a change of mind that produces a changed life.

In more theological terms repentance os turning from sin to the Lord. Repentance is a decision that produces a changed life. Turning away from something is not a process, it is immediate. Until a person turns from sin, he cannot rightly be said to have repented. Once he has turned to the Lord a person can no longer be described as repenting. The things that move a person to repentance may work in a life for many weeks or months. The results of repentance will be a life long process of obedience. Repentance itself is not a season, nor a process, it is a momentary decision that has lifelong results.

Many things have been misunderstood as repentance. Penance is not repentance. Penance is a self-punishment designed to show true sorrow and achieve absolution. Repentance is a change, not self-punishment.

Sorrow is not repentance. A person may be sorry for many reasons without turning from sin. Sorrow, guilt and shame will help lead a person to repent. Feeling these things is not repentance. Taking steps to avoid the unpleasant emotions caused by sin is not repentance. 2 Corinthians 7 warns against the fleshly sorrow that does not genuinely repent. A criminal may cry how sorry he is after he has been caught, he may promise to never do it again, he may genuinely desire to avoid any trouble because of his crime, but when the fear of consequences dies down he soon returns to his felonious ways.

Genuine repentance, Godly repentance, sorrows over the sinfulness of sin. The repentant person acknowledges the reality of sin. He confesses “I was wrong” without attempting to justify or explain away the sin. Repentance forsakes sin. To repent is to admit guilt and to reject the sinful behavior. Repentance turns from sin to the Lord. Repentance is more than stopping bad behavior. Repentance is a u-turn, not slamming on the brakes in the middle of the road. Repentance turns around to follow the Lord. Repentance replaces the love of sin with the love of God. Repentance seeks forgiveness for sin. A repentant person seeks forgiveness from the Lord and from anyone who has been wronged by his sin. Repentance rejects sin, desires to live for the Lord and seeks help from God to live in obedience to Him.

The story of Zaccheus in Luke 19 gives an excellent example of repentance. Zacchaeus was a traitor and extortionist who got rich off the bondage of his own people. He desired to see Jesus and then with great joy received Jesus into his home. Zacchaeus turned from his evil ways, gave half his possessions to the poor and paid back to those he had robbed four times what he had taken. He turned to the Lord and forsook sin. This is repentance.

What is Lent?

The season of Lent began this week. Lent always starts on Ash Wednesday and continues until the Thursday before Easter. Lent is a season of forty days of self denial intended to be a time of intense spiritual devotion joined with self denial. Many who observe Lent “fast” from specific substances these six weeks. Others severely limit their food intake. Traditionally the Sundays of Lent are not fast days. The Catholic church prescribes that all the Friday’s during Lent be days of fasting from meat. In more recent years people have taken to giving up non-food items. Some will use Lent to “fast” from the internet, television, sports, text messaging, facebook, speeding, complainging and a host of other things. Others see Lent as a time to volunteer at at soup kitchens or attend church services more faithfully. Some churches have special prayer services or community worship services during Lent. In brief, Lent is seen as a season of self denial and spiritual renewal that is kept by Christians of all denominations.

The observance of Lent developed within the Catholic church during the 300’s AD. Because Lent has its root in early Catholicism those Christians who are part of church with a strong emphasis on liturgy and the church calendar tend to observe Lent. The forty days of fasting is based upon Jesus’ forty days of fasting in the wilderness before beginning His public ministry. A specific Biblical foundation for observing Lent is hard to find. The Bible makes no reference to a special, church wide season of fasting and self-denial. The Bible does teach self denial, but the self denial it teaches is a lifelong process of dying to self and living according to the commands of God’s Word. The Bible teaches about fasting, but it does not command Christians to fast. Nor does the Bible teach a required season for fasting, or of fasting from certain foods, whether it be on Friday, during early spring or at any other time of the year. Fasting is assumed in the New Testament, but the only commands associated with it are that fasting be done without drawing attention to the fact you are fasting. The summary of this then is that Lent is not commanded or required for Christians. While there is nothing sinful about forty days of fasting and renewed focus on one’s walk with God, those who would participate need to be careful about what is motivating observance of Lenten traditions.

Penance is the theological motivation for self denial during Lent. Penance is a form of self-punishment to show a person is genuinely repentant for his sins. Catholic teaching regarding fasting during Lent states that one is remembering the suffering of Jesus on the cross and uniting himself with His sacrifice. Some outside the Catholic church see a penitential aspect to their participation in Lent. Penance is a punishment of self to show genuine repentance. While this doctrine seems to have some worthwhile points (who doesn’t want to see real proof that a person is truly sorry for his sins?), penance is contrary to the Biblical doctrines of salvation by grace alone. When Jesus died on the cross, He suffered the full punishment of sin. When one trusts Jesus for salvation all past, present and futures sins are forgiven. Jesus endured the entire punishment of every sin the believer has committed or will commit. Since Jesus paid it all no other punishment is necessary. Not only is self punishment unnecessary, Paul says in Galatians that any who teach works of the flesh as part of salvation are teaching a different gospel. The doctrine of penance has an appearance of being spiritual, but it actually denies the fullness of Jesus’ work and relies instead on human effort.

Setting apart a season of self denial does not by itself draw one closer to God. The Bible does not teach self denial for self denial’s sake. The Bible does not teach self-denial as a shortcut to a closeness with God. One grows in Godliness by use of the regular means which God has given to His people. These means are Bible study, prayer, church attendance, good works, spreading the gospel and participating in the ordinances. Self denial to grow closer to God is a good thing, but the regular, year round means of spiritual growth cannot be bypassed by a special season of intense spiritual activity.