Matt 3:1-2 Now in those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea, saying, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." (NASB)
John called people to repent because the kingdom of heaven was at hand. So what does it mean to repent? The world’s view of repentance is described in various dictionaries. Repent is defined as follows:
1. To feel remorse or regret, as for something done or undone; be contrite.
2. To change one’s mind concerning past action because of disappointment, failure, etc: with of: He repented of his generosity to the old man.
3. Theol. To feel such sorrow for one’s sins as to reform.
4. To feel remorse or regret for (an action, sin, etc.)
5. To change one’s mind concerning (a past action): He repented of his decision.
Websters Comprehensive Dictionary (J. G. Ferguson Publishing Company, 1984) Volume Two Page 1068
As I look at these various definitions, a couple of things stand out. The first is that these are all based on emotions or feelings. Even the theological is based on a feeling of sorrow. While I would agree that repentance does incorporate a need to be sorry, I need to look to the Bible to tell me what true repentance is. I think that the following verses shed much light on what repentance is all about.
1 Kings 8:46-51 "When they sin against you — for there is no one who does not sin — and you become angry with them and give them over to the enemy, who takes them captive to his own land, far away or near; and if they have a change of heart in the land where they are held captive, and repent and plead with you in the land of their conquerors and say, 'We have sinned, we have done wrong, we have acted wickedly'; and if they turn back to you with all their heart and soul in the land of their enemies who took them captive, and pray to you toward the land you gave their fathers, toward the city you have chosen and the temple I have built for your Name; then from heaven, your dwelling place, hear their prayer and their plea, and uphold their cause. And forgive your people, who have sinned against you; forgive all the offenses they have committed against you, and cause their conquerors to show them mercy; for they are your people and your inheritance, whom you brought out of Egypt, out of that iron-smelting furnace. (NIV)
The very first thing in this passage is a general confession of sin. The sin is against God. While we need to repent of sins committed against each other, the ultimate problem with sin is that it is an affront to God. There are consequences to our sins and the worst is that God becomes angry. When I sin, He will discipline me so that I will learn. Heb 12:9-10 Since we respected our earthly fathers who disciplined us, shouldn't we submit even more to the discipline of the Father of our spirits, and live forever? For our earthly fathers disciplined us for a few years, doing the best they knew how. But God's discipline is always good for us, so that we might share in his holiness. (NLT) God’s anger with His children seemed very harsh when He allowed them to be conquered, killed, and sent into exile. The N.T. puts it in perspective. Part of what happened in the O.T. was to demonstrate the seriousness of sin but the bigger picture is that God wants me to have a better relationship with Him. That can only be done as I live a holy life. His disciple pushes me in that direction.
Back to 1st Kings, I can see that the second thing that repentance requires a change of heart. Most people place a huge emphasis on a change of behavior when they talk about repentance. I usually think the same way; however, a change in behavior without a change of heart is not true repentance. Without a change of heart, a change of behavior is called reformation or turning over a new leaf. It has nothing to do with God but is done out of a person’s own power and strength of will. True repentance can’t occur without God. It is God who gives me the change of heart that is required. Ezek 36:26 I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. (NKJV) This is a mystery. I have to have a change of heart, but it is only God who can give me that change. It is the same with the faith required for salvation. See Eph 2:8-9.
I can see that the third component of repentance in this example is a more detailed confession of sin. While this passage isn’t significantly detailed, the concept is apparent. The context of this example is Solomon praying for the future sins of the Israelites so the exact details are missing. However, the repetition of sinning, doing wrong, and acting wickedly shows that when I repent, I need to understand exactly what I’ve done. I can’t really repent of a sin that I don’t understand is wrong.
I need to admit my guilt to God. In this passage, Solomon says that if they plead with God. Guilt means that I’m legally punishable for my sin. I plead for forgiveness with the full knowledge that I should be punished for my sin. I’m throwing myself on the mercy of the court when I plead with my Lord. One of the reasons that many people reject God is that they don’t like the idea of pleading for anything. That is beneath them and they are too proud to beg for mercy. Pride is probably the worst sin or the root of it because it means I think I’m better than God.
That pride must be broken in order to turn back to God. Of course, if a person has never been with God, then it isn’t turning back to Him, it is turning to Him for the first time. As a Christian, when I sin, I must turn back to Him. Either way, the concept is the same. It is a change of attitude toward God as detailed above.
Matt 3:8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. (NIV) John explained that repentance must result in a change of behavior to prove that it has taken place. Just as my faith must be seen by my actions to prove my salvation (James 2:18), my change of heart when I repent must result in a behavioral change. The cart can’t be put before the horse. My works will not save me and my changed behavior will not change my heart.
Jer 26:13 But if you stop your sinning and begin to obey the Lord your God, he will change his mind about this disaster that he has announced against you. (NLT) Note that God knows the heart of each person. He knows whether or not a person has truly repented. So when He commands me to stop sinning and reform my behavior, He already knows that I can do it.
So where does being sorry fit in? The best explanation comes from 2 Cor 7:8-10 Even if I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it. Though I did regret it — I see that my letter hurt you, but only for a little while—yet now I am happy, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance. For you became sorrowful as God intended and so were not harmed in any way by us. Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. (NIV) The Greek word sorrow is most often translated as distressed or sad in the NIV. This is a strong emotion and strong emotions oftentimes work wonders. When those emotions pull me back to God, it results in a repentance that works in conjunction with God to produce a changed heart that He desires. This is a sorrow for having offended God.
The worldly sorrow that is mentioned is more like the dictionary definitions. It is a feeling of regret. It sometimes comes because I was caught, or even because I may have hurt someone. However, worldly sorrow doesn’t bring about true repentance. At the best, it will bring about reformation but without the change of heart that I need to turn back to God. At the worst, it will not even bring about reformation, but despair and even suicide.
When I am sorry as God wants, I will repent. When I repent, and confess my sin, then God is faithful. He will forgive me and purify me. (1 John 1:9) When He does this, I can depend on Him to remove my guilt. This means that I will not be punished for my sins in hell. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t any consequences in this life, but it means that in eternity, I’ll be able to stand before Him just as if I had never sinned.
The reason that worldly sorrow brings death is because there is no removal of guilt. I may confess my sin to another person and even a person I have offended. That person may even forgive me, however until I have dealt with my sin with God, my guilt is not removed and the end is death.
So John’s message was simple – repent – but with a lot of meaning packed behind it. He was preparing the way for Jesus – telling people what was needed to be saved. When Jesus died on the cross, He took that punishment for my guilt long before I ever existed. However, it wasn’t until I repented and turned to Him in faith that His payment was actually credited to me. So, if I never acknowledge Jesus as my Lord (changing my attitude and obeying Him) I would still be guilty. I repented by first confessing my sin to God and acknowledging my need for Jesus to be my Savior. There is no other way – Jesus said so.