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Understanding Biblical Repentance

By J. Stephen Lang -- This word has gone out of style, although the word change is certainly popular. Change is part of repentance, of course. In fact, it is the forgotten part. We have the strange idea that repentance simply means saying to God, with tears in our eyes, "I'm sorry." Well, that is Step One.

Step Two, more important than the tears, is change. Martin Luther put it this way: "To do so no more is the truest repentance." In other words, if we are gossiping, cheating, committing some sexual sin, being just plain selfish, the response to God is "I'm truly sorry" followed by "I won't do it again."

The good news is, God accepts this -- joyfully, in fact.

"If my people who are called by my name will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sins and heal their land."

2 Chronicles 7:14

If we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us and to cleanse us from every wrong.

1 John 1:9

The Bible's great "song of repentance" is Psalm 51, written by King David himself. It expresses the desire -- and the expectation -- that God will forgive the believer's sin and restore the broken relationship.

Purify me from my sins, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow. Oh, give me back my joy again; you have broken me -- now let me rejoice. Don't keep looking at my sins. Remove the stain of my guilt. . . Create in me a clean heart, O God. Renew a right spirit within me. Do not banish me from your presence, and don't take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me again the joy of your salvation, and make me willing to obey you. Then I will teach your ways to sinners, and they will return to you.

You would not be pleased with sacrifices, or I would bring them. If I brought you a burnt offering, you would not accept it. The sacrifice you want is a broken spirit. A broken and repentant heart, O God, you will not despise.

Psalm 51:7-13, 16-17

People often like to think of Jesus as a great moral teacher. He was that. But as the opening of Mark's Gospel makes clear, Jesus' main message was repentance:

Jesus went to Galilee to preach God's Good News. "At last the time has come!" he announced. "The Kingdom of God is near! Turn from your sins and believe this Good News!"

Mark 1:15

"Healthy people don't need a doctor -- sick people do. I have come to call sinners to turn from their sins, not to spend my time with those who think they are already good enough."

Luke 5:31-32

The Lord isn't really being slow about his promise to return, as some people think. No, he is being patient for your sake. He does not want anyone to perish, so he is giving more time for everyone to repent.

2 Peter 3:9

Jesus' most famous parable is usually called the parable of the "prodigal son." It would be more accurate to call it the parable of the "repentant son," or, even better, the parable of the forgiving father." Nowhere in the Bible are repentance and the promise of God's forgiveness made more vivid.

Jesus told them this story:

"A man had two sons. The younger son told his father, `I want my share of your estate now, instead of waiting until you die.' So his father agreed to divide his wealth between his sons.

"A few days later this younger son packed all his belongings and took a trip to a distant land, and there he wasted all his money on wild living. About the time his money ran out, a great famine swept over the land, and he began to starve. He persuaded a local farmer to hire him to feed his pigs. The boy became so hungry that even the pods he was feeding the pigs looked good to him. But no one gave him anything.

"When he finally came to his senses, he said to himself, `At home even the hired men have food enough to spare, and here I am, dying of hunger! I will go home to my father and say, "Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, and I am no longer worthy of being called your son. Please take me on as a hired man."'

"So he returned home to his father. And while he was still a long distance away, his father saw him coming. Filled with love and compassion, he ran to his son, embraced him, and kissed him. His son said to him, `Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, and I am no longer worthy of being called your son.'

"But his father said to the servants, `Quick! Bring the finest robe in the house and put it on him. Get a ring for his finger, and sandals for his feet. And kill the calf we have been fattening in the pen. We must celebrate with a feast, for this son of mine was dead and has now returned to life. He was lost, but now he is found.' So the party began."

Luke 15:11-23

The Book of God's Promises -- Copyright, 1999 by J. Stephen Lang. All rights reserved, used with permission.

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