J. Michael Feazell served for many years as Vice-President of Grace Communion International, Executive Editor of Christian Odyssey magazine, and host of the You're Included video series. He earned his Doctor of Ministry degree from Azusa Pacific University and has written Liberation of the Worldwide Church of God.
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I once counseled a young man who was deeply afraid that God had rejected him because of his repeated sins.
“I thought I had repented,” he told me, “but I did it again.” “I don’t even know if I really have faith,” he said, “because I’m afraid God might not forgive me again. No matter how sincere I think my repentance is, it never seems to be enough,” he said.
What does the gospel mean when it speaks of “repentance toward God”?
Many Christians think of repentance as ceasing to sin. You’ve probably been told, or told yourself, “If you had really repented, you wouldn’t have done it again.”
We’re told that repentance is to “turn around and go the other way,” and it’s often explained in the context of turning away from sin and turning toward a life of obedience to God’s law.
With that idea firmly in mind, Christians set out with the best of intentions to change their ways. Some ways change, but some ways seem to stick like super-glue. And even what does change often has a nasty way of coming back to plague us again.
Just when we are feeling frustrated and depressed about our failure to measure up to the high standards of God, we hear another sermon or read another article about “real repentance” and “deep repentance” and how such repentance results in a complete turning away from sin.
So, we cinch up our commitment belt and go at it again, with the same, miserable, predictable results. Our frustration and despair deepen, because we realize that our turning away from sin is anything but “complete.”
So we can only assume we have not “really repented.” Our repentance was not “deep” enough, or “heartfelt” enough or “true” enough. And if we have not really repented, then we must not really have faith. Which means we must not really have the Holy Spirit. Which means we must not really be saved.
Well, there’s good news. The good news is that repentance toward God is simply not about a new and improved you.
In Mark 1:15, Jesus declared, “Repent and believe the gospel.” Repentance and faith mark the beginning of our new life in the kingdom of God. But they don’t mark it because we did the right thing. They mark it because that is when the scales fall off our darkened eyes and we at last see in light of truth in Jesus Christ.
Everything that ever needed to be done for human forgiveness and salvation has already been done by Jesus Christ. There was a time when we were in the dark about that. We couldn’t enjoy it or rest in it because we were blind to it.
We thought we had to make our own way in this world, and we spent all our effort and time plowing as straight a furrow in our little corner of life as we could manage.
We devoted all our attention to keeping our life and our future safe and secure. We worked hard to be respected and appreciated. We stood up for our rights and tried not to let anybody or anything take unfair advantage of us. We fought to protect and preserve our reputation, our family, our belongings. We did everything in our power to make something worthwhile of our lives, to be winners and not losers.
But like for everybody who ever lived, it was a losing battle. Despite all our best efforts and plans and hard work, we simply cannot control our lives. We cannot keep disasters and tragedies and failures and pains from coming out of nowhere and shattering what little scraps of hope and joy we have managed to piece together.
Then one day, for no other reason than that he wanted to, God let us in on the way things really are. The world is his, and we are his. In other words, God gave us good news! The good news is that he paid the heavy price for all our wrong living. He saved us, washed us, purified us, dressed us in righteousness and set a place for us at his eternal banquet table.
When, by the grace of God, you come to see that and believe it, you have repented. To repent is to say: “Yes! I believe it! I trust your word! I’m leaving behind this rat-race life of mine. I’m ready for your rest. Help my unbelief!”
Repentance is a change of how you think. It is a change of perspective, from seeing yourself as the center of the universe to seeing God as the center of the universe, and trusting your life to his mercy. It is believing what he says and giving him your allegiance.
It’s not about promises to be good. It is not about clenching your teeth and straining to “put sin out of your life.” It is trusting God to have mercy on you and to fix your evil heart. It is trusting God to be who he says he is for you—Savior, Teacher, and Sanctifier.
We are talking about a love relationship—not that you loved God, but that he loved you. 1 John 4:10 says: “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.”
God is the very fountainhead of all that is, including you, and it has dawned on you that he loves you for who you are—his beloved child in Christ—certainly not for what you have, or what you have done, or what your reputation is, or how you look, or any other characteristic you have. He loves you simply because you are his beloved child in Christ.
Believing that changes your whole perspective and attitude about life. Suddenly nothing is the same. The whole world has brightened. All your failures are redeemed and made right in Christ’s death and resurrection. Your eternal future is assured, and nothing can take your joy away from you, because you now know that you belong to God and that he loves you for Christ’s sake.
Paul wrote in Romans 8:1,
Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering.
Repentance is turning to God to be for you what you could never be for yourself. To do for you what you could never do for yourself. It’s about trusting God to be your righteousness, not about doing better yourself.
It’s not just another hollow commitment to be a good boy or girl. It is dying to all your big images of yourself and putting your hand in the hand of the Man who calmed the sea. Galatians 6:3 says, “If anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself.”
When we repent, we are not gearing up for massive assault on sin, we are coming to Christ for rest. “Come to me,” Jesus says in Matthew 11:28. “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
We can rest in Christ because he has forgiven our sins and he is our righteousness. We can rest in him because we are trusting him to be our all in all instead of having to rely on our own good deeds.
Let’s be very clear about this: God forgives our sins—all of them—past, present and future. God did not wait until we were behaving better before he removed our sins through Jesus Christ. Look what Paul wrote in Romans 5:8: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
Repentance, you see, is not a first step to getting God to forgive us. He did that, Paul says, while we were still sinners. In other words, our good deeds have no bearing on whether God forgives us. He has already forgiven us before we ever think about repenting.
Repentance is coming to believe he has done it. It is believing the truth that he has saved your life and given you a priceless eternal inheritance. And believing that automatically blossoms into loving him for it.
When it dawns on us that God has, for his own reasons, simply written off our lifetime of sin – all our lies, all our cruelty, all our pride, lust, betrayals, meanness, all of our evil thoughts, and deeds and plans – when we see that, we have a choice to make.
We can praise him and thank him forever for his indescribable sacrifice of love, or we can go right on living as we always have. We can believe God, we can ignore him, or we can run scared of him.
If we believe him, we can walk in friendship with him, and since he is a friend of sinners, that makes everybody, even bad people, our friends too. If we don’t trust him, then we can’t walk in friendship with him, or with anybody else, for that matter, except maybe for people who behave like we want them to.
Faith and repentance go hand in hand. They are like two sides of the same coin. You can’t have one without the other. When you put your trust in God, two things happen at the same time:
1) You realize you are a sinner who needs God’s mercy, and 2) You decide to trust God to save you and redeem your life.
In other words, when you put your trust in God, you have also repented. Turning to God is a turning away from yourself. But it doesn’t mean you will now be morally perfect. It means you have turned away from your personal ambitions of making yourself worth something to Christ, and instead put your trust and hopes in his word, his good news, his declaration of your redemption and eternal inheritance.
When you trust in God for forgiveness and salvation, you have repented. Repentance toward God is a change in the way you think, and it affects everything in your life. The new way of thinking is the way of trusting God to do what you could never do for yourself in a million lifetimes.
Repentance is not a change from moral imperfection to moral perfection—you are incapable of that. You are incapable of moral perfection because, the fact is, you are dead. Sin has made you dead, as Paul says in Ephesians 2:4-5: “But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.”
Being dead is what we have contributed to this process of forgiveness and redemption. But even though we were dead in our sins, Christ made us alive. He did everything; we did nothing. The only thing dead people can do is nothing. They can’t be alive to righteousness or to anything else, because they are dead, dead in sin. But it is precisely dead people, and only dead people, who get raised from the dead.
Raising the dead is what Christ does. He doesn’t pour perfume on corpses. He does not prop them up and dress them in party clothes and wait for them to do something righteous. They are dead. They can’t do anything. Jesus isn’t the least bit interested in new and improved corpses. What Jesus does is resurrect them. In other words, the only way to enter into Jesus’ resurrection, his life, is to be dead. It doesn’t take much effort to be dead. In fact, it doesn’t take any effort at all.
The lost sheep in Luke 15 didn’t find itself before the shepherd went looking for it and found it. Let’s read it in Luke 15:1-7:
Now the tax collectors and “sinners” were all gathering around to hear him. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
Then Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.
Jesus is being facetious here: There is no such thing as 99 who don’t need to repent. But notice that the repentance involves being found. The only thing the sheep did was get lost; it didn’t find itself. Let’s continue the passage in verse 8:
Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Does she not light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, “Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.” In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.
The lost coin did not find itself before the woman went looking for it and found it. The only thing the coins contributed to the whole process of their being sought, found and rejoiced over was being lost. Their utter, hopeless, lostness was the only thing they had that allowed them to be found.
Even the prodigal son in the next parable in Luke 15 finds himself already having been forgiven, redeemed and fully accepted purely on the basis of his father’s lavish and gracious love, not on the basis of his ideas about working his way back into his father’s good graces. His father had compassion on him without ever hearing the first word of his “I’m so sorry” speech.
When the son finally accepted, in the stench of the pigpen, his deadness and lostness, he was on his way to discovering something amazing that had been true all along: his father, the one he had rejected and disgraced, had never stopped loving him passionately and unconditionally.
Likewise, our utter, hopeless, deadness is the only thing that allows us to be resurrected. In the three parables of Luke 15, the initiative, the work and the success of the whole operation is entirely that of the God figure in each story: The shepherd, the woman, and the father. The only thing we contribute to the process of our resurrection is being dead. That is as true for us spiritually as it is for us physically.
Repentance, therefore, is not bringing forth some good and noble work or mouthing some emotion-laden speech designed to motivate God to forgive you. There is absolutely nothing we are capable of doing that could possibly add anything at all to our being made alive. It is a simple matter of believing God’s good news of forgiveness and redemption in Christ through which he resurrects the dead.
Paul talks about the mystery of our death and resurrection in Christ in Colossians 3:3: “For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.” The mystery is that we have died, yet we are, at the same time, alive, but that life, which is glorious, is not apparent: it is hidden with Christ in God, and it will not appear as it actually is until Christ himself appears, as verse 4 says: “When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” Our life is Christ. When he appears, we will appear with him, because he is, after all, our life.
Again, dead people can’t do anything for themselves. They can’t change. They can’t “do better.” They can’t improve. The only thing they can do is be dead. God, however, who is the very Source of life itself, loves to raise the dead, and in Christ, does just that. Let’s look at Romans 6:4: “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.”
The corpses bring nothing to the process except their deadness. God does it all. It is his work, his alone, from beginning to end. Which means there are two kinds of raised corpses: those who receive their redemption with joy and those who close their eyes, clasp their hands over their ears and devote all their energies to pretending they are still dead.
Repentance, then, is saying “Yes!” to the gift of forgiveness and redemption that God says we have in Christ. It is not doing penance. It is not making promises or drowning in guilt. It isn’t a never-ending string of “I’m deeply sorry” or “I promise I won’t do it again.” Let’s be brutally honest. Chances are we will do it again, if not in actual deed, at least in thought, desire and emotion.
Yes, we are sorry, maybe even deeply sometimes, and we truly don’t want to be the kind of person who will do it again, but remorse and regret are not the heart and core of repentance toward God. Remember, we are dead, and dead people act like dead people. But even though we are dead in sin, we are also, at the same time, alive in Christ.
Notice Romans 6:11: “In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.” But your life in Christ is hidden with Christ in the Father, and it doesn’t show itself in the here and now very consistently or very often—yet. It’s not going to be revealed for what it really is until Christ himself appears.
Meanwhile, even though we are now alive in Christ, we are also, for the time being, still dead in sin, and our deadness does show itself just about all the time. And it is precisely that dead you and me that Christ has resurrected and made alive with him in God—to be revealed when he is revealed.
That’s where faith comes in. Repent and believe the gospel. The two go hand in glove. You can’t have one without the other. To believe the good news, that God has washed you clean in the blood of Christ, that he has healed your deadness and made you alive forevermore in his Son, is to repent.
Likewise, to turn to God in your utter helplessness, receiving his freely given redemption and salvation, is to have faith, to believe the gospel. Repentance and faith are two sides of the same coin, and it is a coin God gives us for no other reason, no other reason at all, than that he loves us and is righteous and gracious toward us.
Now someone will say, repentance toward God will result in good morals and good behavior. Of course it does. But the problem is, we love to measure repentance by the absence or presence of good behavior, and that is to tragically misunderstand repentance.
The honest truth is that we believers do not have perfect morals or perfect behavior, and anything short of perfection is simply not good enough for the kingdom of God. So let’s dispense with any nonsense about how “if your repentance is sincere then you will not commit the sin again.”
The point of repentance is a change of heart, from ourselves being Number One in our lives to God being Number One in our lives.
God has declared an almighty, thundering, eternal “Yes!” to us through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Repentance is our saying “Yes!” to God’s “Yes!” It is turning to God to accept his blessed gift, his righteous declaration of our innocence and salvation in Christ.
To accept his gift is to acknowledge our deadness and our need of life in him. It is to trust him, to believe him and to put ourselves, our being, our existence, all that we are, in his hands. It is to rest in him and to give him our burdens.
We need to get rid of the crippling notion that repentance is a promise not ever to sin again. First of all, such a promise is pure hot air. Second, it is spiritually meaningless.
Let’s rejoice in the overwhelming grace of our Lord and Savior and take our rest in him. He redeems the lost. He saves the sinner. He raises the dead. He’s on our side, and because he is, nothing can come between him and us—no, not even our wretched sins, or our neighbor’s.
Trust him. It’s his good news for all of us. He is the Word, and he knows what he is talking about.
I’m Mike Feazell, with A Word from our Sponsor.