It is easy to acknowledge corporate sins and ask for their forgiveness because such acknowledgment often involves no more than judging our brothers. Acknowledging personal sins is a different matter. Repentance no longer seems a major concern of preaching or of the Church. In fact, repentance, in the biblical sense, is almost a lost word, even though it was central in the message of the early Church.

Repentance is a change of mind that has many aspects.

It is a recognition of self in the light of God’s revelation. Job had this experience and out of it cried: “I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees thee; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:5, 6, RSV). The Bible repeatedly tells us that God hates pride, for it stems from man’s failure to evaluate himself rightfully by God’s standards.

Repentance is an admission of sins in the light of God’s righteousness, a righteousness revealed in the written Word and in the person of God’s sinless Son. Like the lepers of old we should cry, “Unclean, unclean,” as we sense something of the holiness of God.

Repentance is an admission of offense against God’s holy laws. All men stand guilty before the courts of heaven, for none has failed to break the laws of the Kingdom and of the King. Such admission of guilt is the first step to cleansing and forgiveness. Repentance is in truth a recognition of our sinful state.

It is more, though, than an admission of guilt—it is sorrow for having come short of God’s glory and for wallowing in the mire of sin.

Repentance is an acknowledgment of the vast chasm between the holy God and one’s sinful self. Until this difference is recognized and admitted, there can be no ground for reconciliation, for the One who reconciles never forces himself on the unrepentant and self-righteous.

Repentance is that stirring of mind and heart to the point where we admit the need of outside help. It is an attitude of admitted weakness combined with faith in the power of Christ’s redemptive work.

Repentance is the fruit of godly sorrow. The Apostle Paul makes clear the distinction between godly sorrow and that of the world: “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret, but worldly grief produces death” (2 Cor. 7:10). What a difference! One results in salvation, the other in death.

Repentance causes us to throw ourselves on the mercy of God. It is an acknowledgment that without him we are lost and undone, that we deserve the punishment of separation which sin entails. In other words, repentance is an admission that our condition would be hopeless were it not for the love and mercy of the One who has the power to cleanse and forgive. It is the sinner’s plea for pardon.

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Repentance involves man’s eternal destiny. It looks to Jesus, the door through which man passes from darkness to light, from death to life, from sorrow to joy, from separation to fellowship, from guilt to forgiveness.

Repentance is the great leveler. Pointing his finger at the hypocritical chief priests and elders, our Lord said: “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the harlots believed him; and even when you saw it, you did not afterward repent and believe” (Matt. 21:31c, 32). The all-important thing about these social outcasts of whom Jesus spoke was their response to John’s demand for repentance and faith. The same is true for men today. There must be a sense of need because of conviction of sin, a repentance, a turning toward the One against whom we have sinned, and the faith that he can and will cleanse and forgive. The high and the low, the great and the small—all stand on level ground at the foot of the Cross.

Repentance requires humility, one of man’s most difficult experiences. We are born with varying degrees of conceit, self-assurance, and confidence in our ability to overcome problems. It is not easy to admit that we are helpless or that we have been wrong. Nor is it easy to renounce pride in our ability to work things out. “God be merciful to me, a sinner” does not come easily from our lips until in some measure we see ourselves as God sees us.

In repentance there is an element of godly fear, not because God is a tyant but because he is omniscient and holy. Speaking to the church in Thyatira, the risen Lord said: “… all the churches shall know that I am he who searches mind and heart, and I will give to each of you as your works deserve” (Rev. 2:23). The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews says: “Before him no creature is hidden, but all are open and laid bare to the eyes of him with whom we have to do” (Heb. 4:13). Such exposure should cause a godly fear that begets a willingness to admit our offenses against a holy God.

Repentance has its opposite—the unrepentant heart. An unwillingness to repent is an offense against God that insures disaster. Writing to the Christians in Rome, Paul says: “Or do you presume upon the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not know that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed” (Rom. 2:4, 5). The Scriptures are indeed explicit about the fate of unrepentant sinners: “They shall suffer the punishment of eternal destruction and exclusion from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might” (2 Thess. 1:9).

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It is not unreasonable that patients seeking admission to a hospital do so through the admitting office. Nor is it unreasonable that men should enter the state of salvation through the way of repentance. The unrepentant heart is an insuperable barrier to God’s grace and mercy. Two thieves hung on crosses on either side of our Lord. One repented and that very day entered into paradise. The other refused to repent and went out into the darkness of eternal night.

Lack of repentance is more than a state of mind; it is resistance to revealed truth, to the love and mercy of God, and a rejection of the warning so clearly given. In the Book of the Revelation we read: “The rest of mankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands nor give up worshiping demons and idols …, nor did they repent of their murders or their sorceries or their immorality or their thefts” (Rev. 9:20, 21).

At the Cross we see God’s estimate of sin. There we find offered full atonement to all who will repent and believe. Because of the vital importance of repentance as a chain in the link leading men into a new life in Christ, there should be a renewed emphasis on it throughout the Church.

One work of the Holy Spirit that insures man’s acceptance is “repentance to God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.” Therein lies our hope.

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