My mother used to quiz me, and still does as a matter of fact, whenever I’d moan about the shocking misunderstanding by some believers today about repentance. ‘When,’ she’d always ask me, ‘was the last time you heard a sermon on repentance?’
It’s a rhetorical question because she knows I can’t remember. Neither can she. She thinks that sometime, maybe around half a century ago, she probably heard one. Yes, that long. Even sermons on the Prodigal Son tend to skate over the repentance part and focus on the love of the father.
For thousands of years, the call for repentance has been a prophetic summons to turn—or return—to God. In just the last few years, however, some believers have adopted mutant mindsets about it. These strange ideas are undoubtedly the result of ignorance, however it’s all but impossible to correct them. I know. I’ve tried.
So let me clarify what repentance is NOT in relation to philosophies—I hesitate to say ‘theologies’—that I’ve encountered and confronted.
Repentance is NOT once-for-all.
Repentance is NOT simply an attitude of mind.
Repentance is NOT an agreement with the enemy of our souls.
Some people hold that, at salvation, we repent for all our sins past and future and it’s done. We don’t need to rehash anything again. People who hold this view maintain that Paul did not mention confession or repentance, thereby indicating that, in our post-resurrection living, it is unnecessary. Now this is not strictly accurate, because Paul does call on the Corinthians to repent. (1 Corinthians 12:21) Furthermore, in Revelation, Jesus calls on both the church in Ephesus and in Pergamum to repent.
Some people hold that repentance has nothing to do with behaviour. It’s about the turning of our mind. It’s about thinking differently. Now, certainly this is the sense of the Greek ‘metanoeó’ but it ignores the fact this is a translation of a Hebrew concept. For the Jews, action always accompanied thought. To hear was to listen and obey. To repent was to change mind and conduct.
The third mutant understanding of repentance is prevalent in the ‘Courts of Heaven’ movement. Repentance is NOT a swift and humble agreement to the enemy’s accusations; it’s the breaking of an agreement with hell.
Let me briefly outline what repentance actually is.
Repentance is a change of mind in action.
Repentance is choosing God.
Repentance is an act of will, rather than a feeling.
Repentance is liberation and expansion, not shame and hollowness.
Repentance is the coming of sunshine to bleak, frozen ground.
I once received a message from an artist who asked me about a Facebook post I’d written on repentance. He was curious about some unusual wording I’d used. At least, he thought it was a bit odd. It turned out he had a problem with violent anger and he wanted his outbursts of rage to stop. He’d therefore decided it would take, at most, 490 acts of repentance to solve the issue. Why 490? Because it’s seventy times seven. To keep track of his journey and to encourage himself towards the goal, he decided to paint a leaf every time he repented.
By the time he came across my Facebook post, he’d painted over a thousand leaves! He knew something was wrong but he had no idea what.
The ‘unusual’ wording he’d noticed in my post was that I’d given an example of repentance. It was a bit like this: ‘I repent of my rage. I repent of the anger I’ve just displayed to my wife and children. I ask Jesus of Nazareth to empower the words of repentance I’ve just spoken.’
It was the last sentence he was curious about—asking Jesus to empower the words of repentance.
I didn’t think this was unusual because there’s one other thing I need to explain about repentance. It’s NOT hard, it’s absolutely impossible. Without the help of Jesus, there is no way we can change. No way at all. Our willpower, mighty as it is, is still completely insufficient for most of the dark and sinful habits we indulge in. We have coping mechanisms that run on automatic default mode and turning from these to God is beyond our strength.
We need to reach for the hand of Jesus.
I love the imagery used by the artist who turned his life around when he started to ask for the empowerment of Jesus. He painted leaves. Deep in his heart, I suspect he already sensed that repentance is one of the leaves on the tree for the healing of the nations.
That’s the ineffable beauty and the rich majesty of this divine gift.
This is Grace Drops and I’m Anne Hamilton. May Jesus Christ empower your words of repentance today.
Thank you to Lorna Skinner of www.riversofmusic.co.uk for the background music.