Scripture calls us to repent of our sins, but what does true repentance look like?
It is commonly taught that repentance is a moral change effected by our own will; that it is a personal decision to change one's mind and life and to stop sinning. This is active repentance, which is rooted in a confusion of Law and Gospel, and a low view of the depth of sin. It might make sense within the framework of Synergism (the teaching that we somehow co-operate with God in our salvation), but that is not what the Bible teaches.
Scripture gives us a very clear image of repentance being passive on the part of man. That is, God grants us repentance, as a gift, in accordance with His grace.
Repentance consists of two parts:
1. Contrition - Hearing God's Law, which is a gift from God.
Contrition does not mean mere grief simulated by our free will, but more accurately mortification through the Law of God. The Law is the knowledge of sin and the letter that kills. It explains how we have all fallen short of the glory of God because of rebellion, and are only worthy of damnation.
2. Faith - Hearing God's Gospel, which is a gift from God.
The Gospel is that, even though we are evil, God in His great mercy gave us Christ Jesus for the forgiveness of sins; that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have life. Saving faith is the acceptance of the benefits of Christ offered through grace, by the knowledge of, reliance on and confidence in the person and works of Christ. In other words, it is a living faith in God brought about by the Holy Spirit.
Biblical illustrations of repentance
In Luke 15, our Lord Jesus Christ offers some beautiful pictures of what repentance looks like.
The Parable of the Lost Sheep
Christ is the Shepherd who goes after the lost sheep - us, sinners - finds us and restores us to Himself. In this parable the lost sheep is passive. The sheep does nothing except walk away from the flock and his Shepherd. Yet, Christ calls it repentance, and heaven rejoices in Christ finding His lost sheep.
The Parable of the Lost Coin
Similar to the lost sheep, neither does the lost coin look for its owner, for indeed, it is unable to. But it is found, and again, Christ calls it repentance and heaven rejoices.
The Parable of the Prodigal Son
A parable loaded with meaning, but let it suffice to mention the following:
The younger son asks for his father's inheritance, basically wishing his father's death and wanting to be his own lord, only to squander it all on reckless living and come to ruin. Only after realising his sin against heaven and his father, he seeks to become his father's servant. However, before he can even make this confession, while he was still a long way off, the father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. His father restored his son, saying: "my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found."
"God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Saviour, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins."
"When they heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life."
2 Timothy 2:24-25
"And the Lord's servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth"
Repent and be baptised
Repentance and Baptism are closely connected in Scripture because they are really part of the same thing. Baptism is the sign of repentance, the regeneration and sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit.
Scripture calls us to repent daily, which is living in God's grace through faith. It is the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit.
The fruit of repentance
"Bear fruit in keeping with repentance", says John the Baptist. When we repent and are born of water and the Holy Spirit, the fruit of the Spirit is:
love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control
Repentance consists properly of these two parts: One is contrition, that is, terrors smiting the conscience through the knowledge of sin; the other is faith, which is born of the Gospel, or of absolution, and believes that for Christ's sake, sins are forgiven, comforts the conscience, and delivers it from terrors. Then good works are bound to follow, which are the fruits of repentance.
Knowing that we should not confuse the fruit of repentance as the cause of repentance, we can find great comfort in God's promise of salvation. God is the one who grants us repentance, by turning us from evil to good. It is not what we produce by our own efforts. Psalm 80 reads: "Restore us (turn us), O Lord God of hosts! Let your face shine, that we may be saved!"
In a word, repentance is simply justification, that God calls us to stop our unbelief, then kills us and raises us up by His own Word. Repentance is God creating us in Christ for good works. It is God's grace.
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