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.

Is this world hell?

Life is full of trouble. Disease, poverty, malnutrition, natural disasters, oppressive government, wicked men, slavery and war bring severe suffering on humanity. The world is undeniably filled with searing pain. Some people see the misery endured during life and conclude that hell is experienced in this lifetime. Hell does not await after death. By their choices people create their own living hell. Wicked people bring hell to others.

The troubles of this life are terrible. Some people experience anguish that cuts deep into the soul. The book of Job says, “Man is born unto trouble, as the sparks fly upward.” (Job 5:7) The Word of God never denies nor minimizes the suffering experienced in life. The Bible also never teaches that hell is experienced during this life.

The Bible consistently describes hell as the place of suffering and judgment after this life. Jesus teaches extensively on hell. All of his teachings on hell point to it as a place of future judgment. He gives stern warning to men to fear God who is able to destroy body and soul in hell. He warns His hearers to do whatever is necessary to avoid going into hell. He never suggests that men will suffer hell in this life.

Luke 16 speaks most clearly to this question. In that passage Jesus tells the history of a rich man and a beggar named Lazarus. “The rich man died and was buried; and in his hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments.” (Luke 16:27-28) The rich man lived his life and when his life was over he went to hell. How much more plain can it be? Jesus always described hell as the place of judgment waiting for men after death.

As bad as things are now hell will be much, much worse. The trouble of this world should warn us. For those under the judgment of God this life is as good as it gets. After this life is over the only thing awaiting is judgment, darkness, torment, and suffering beyond description. Jesus describes hell as a place “Where the worm dieth not and the flame is not quenched.”

If there is no hell, there is no logical or Biblical reason why there should be a heaven. The Bible presents a consistent testimony regarding the fate of men after death. The unsaved will suffer eternally in hell. The saved will rejoice eternally in heaven. If this life is all the suffering men will face, the Bible is a fraud. If hell does not exist Jesus wasted his life and died to no purpose.

The troubles of the world should remind us that we all long for something better. We know this world is broken. Right now the creation groans in agony. Suffering reminds us that things are not as they ought to be. God promises a day of redemption and judgment. Sorrow should lift our eyes upward to God who will one day remove all sin and all suffering. Distress should drive us to the feet of the One who punishes all evil and who saves all who seek His mercy.

Why do bad things happen?

The world is filled with scenes of tragedy. The world’s woes show in gory detail that all is not right with the world. The calamities that affect every person and place on this globe have prompted some to wonder about God. If there is a God who is all powerful and rules everything, why does He allow terrible things to happen? If God is good, why does He let so many bad things take place? These questions are sometimes phrased in such a way as to imply that disaster proves God does not really exist.

The Bible provides a coherent explanation for the existence and purpose of misfortune and misery in this world. The history of bad things begins at the very beginning. God created everything and everything He created was perfect. Everything worked as it was intended. Death, tragedy, sorrow and despair were nonexistent until God’s creatures began to rebel against Him. The rebellion began with an angel named Lucifer, who was joined by countless other angels in opposition to God. Lucifer then persuaded Eve to disobey God and eat the fruit He had forbidden them. Adam joined Eve in disobedience and the whole human race was plunged into sin and death.

Following Adam and Eve’s sin, God spoke to them and declared judgment against them for their rebellion. In Genesis 3 God tells Adam, “Cursed is the ground for thy sake.” The sin of man brought down God’s judgment which encompassed all creation. Everything in creation is now cursed because God’s creation rejected Him. The apostle Paul declares in Romans 8, “We know that the whole creation groans and travails in pain together until now.” All of creation groans in intense agony because of sin. Bad things happen because man rebelled against God. God does not delight in the suffering anyone, but He will always be just. Sin will always be punished. Part of that punishment is the present suffering that fills the earth.

To decry the goodness of God because we don’t like the consequences of our sin against Him is foolish. Such outcry is a bit like a guy in prison complaining that the other inmates are mean to him, the guards don’t like him, his bed isn’t comfortable and he doesn’t get to decide in which cell he sleeps. Judgment is not pleasant and has consequences far greater than the mere pronouncement. A sentence of imprisonment always involves many inevitable unpleasantnesses. The sentence of death that came upon the world involves many unpleasant deaths and much suffering along the way. This is not to make light of the severity of suffering. Compassion moves us to aid and comfort those enduring greater agony because of sin. God in His mercy has done much to mitigate the severity of man’s suffering in this life.

God in His wisdom has not removed all the painful, present consequences of sin. The tragedies of this life serve a good purpose. The sorrows of life cause us to turn our eyes upward. What good would it do us to go through life free of pain, free of sorrow, live to a full age and then die peacefully in our sleep? The warnings of the judgment of sin would seem empty and even kind of silly. The suffering of this world remind us that we live in a place broken by sin. The sufferings of this life remind us that the consequences of sin are terrible. These tragedies remind us of sin’s horror and provide opportunity for repentance. The mercy of God gives men a temporary taste of sin’s judgment that they might be motivated to turn from sin to Him for salvation.