The first message recorded of Jesus in the New Testament is “Repent” (Matthew 4:17). If Jesus said “Repent” at the beginning of his ministry, why would many today cast aside the concept of repentance?
Jesus goes further. In Matthew 11:20, He makes it clear that his mighty works of healing, deliverance and miraculous interventions were for the purpose of challenging people to repent. He admonished those who witnessed his mighty miracles because they did not repent – something that even Sodom would have done had they witnessed the same (Matthew 11:21).
Throughout the gospel of Mark, “repent” is also recorded as Jesus’ first message.
But, you may ask, if justification is by faith alone, wouldn’t repentance be adding works to salvation?
Justification is by faith alone. Let’s not get confused though, justification is the first step of salvation before sanctification. Scripture has the answers.
When the apostles were confronted at Pentecost by earnest souls seeking salvation who implored, “Brothers, what shall we do?”, Peter stepped forward – with fresh empowerment from above – and begins his reply with the word “Repent…” and follows up with “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.”
Now before anyone accuses Peter of legalism, let’s remember this was after Pentecost and he was declaring the Gospel of Grace. Paul too repeats this word before the wise men of Athens, saying that God “commands all people everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30).
If we must repent of our sins, what is repentance? To answer this question, let us consider the starting point of sin.
Sin begins when desire for it materialises. It is written, “But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.” (James 1:14-15)
The first stage of sinful desire is temptation. The second stage of sinful desire is sin, which occurs when sinful desire has produced sin. The third stage is death. But notice how it begins with “desire”.
And 1 John 2:15 describes these further desires as “the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life”. These desires deceive us, as we look to them to satisfy our empty hearts. Hebrews 3:13 makes this clear:
“But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.”
Sin’s deceitfulness is that it might fulfil us, but this is misplaced trust. If believed, it will harden our hearts to faith.
Consider in the great “Faith Chapter” of Hebrews, how it says “By faith Moses… choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward.” (Hebrews 11:24-26)
The two opposite choices Moses was faced with, we are faced with today. We can choose between the “fleeting pleasures of sin” or the “reproach of Christ” that leads to a “reward”.
The “fleeting pleasures of sin” (Hebrews 11:25) and the “deceitfulness of sin” (Hebrews 3:13) is perfectly illustrated in the book of Proverbs, “Bread gained by deceit is sweet to a man, but afterward his mouth will be full of gravel.” (Proverbs 20:17) The misplace trust in sin to satisfy will lead us to “fleeting pleasures” but “afterwards… [a] mouth full of gravel.” We need to abandon any hope in sin to satisfy.
Since we are saved by faith alone yet commanded to repent, repentance must have something to do with faith. We can look deeper at its meaning.
WHAT ARE YOU TRUSTING IN?
In Jeremiah, God declares, “Cursed is the man who trusts in man and makes flesh his strength, whose heart turns away from the LORD.” (Jeremiah 17:5) We shouldn’t trust in our own flesh because “The heart is deceitful above all things…”(Jeremiah 17:9). This is why “whatever does not proceed from faith is sin”(Romans 14:23). If repentance is turning from sin and sin is what does not proceed from faith, then turning to faith is repentance.
Rather we are instructed (with a blessing), “Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD, whose trust is the LORD.” This is why “without faith it is impossible to please him”(Hebrews 11:6). When we turn from unbelief to trust God, we turn from sin to faith.
Two key points arise in Hebrews 6:1, where “the elementary doctrine of Christ” is listed and begins with “repentance from dead works and of faith toward God”. If repentance is a work, how can we repent from “dead works”? Obviously, repentance, cannot be such a work. The second point is that Hebrews lists “repentance” together with “faith toward God”. To me it seems that when we repent of dead works (ie sin, which is failure to obey the law), we turn with “faith towards God”. It’s almost as if our departure from sin is closely related to, even a part of, “faith toward God”.
I think we repent when we lose trust in the deceitfulness of sin, and instead put our trust in the faithfulness of God. That is essential to faith.
The question is simple: Will you trust that lead weight of sin you’ve been clinging to or will you trust the life rope of Salvation to save you from drowning?
Those who trust in Jesus are blessed with the joy of knowing God. This joy transcends our situation. As the Psalmist says, “You have put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound.” (Psalm 4:7) The joy of God is something that does not depend on our circumstances. This joy comes from the presence of God and has “pleasures forevermore”.
“You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” (Psalm 16:11)
But again the question remains will you choose those fleeting pleasures of sin or the eternal reward?
Will your repentance be perfect immediately?