I recently did a search on Amazon.com on the words ‘forgive’ and ‘repent.’ I came up with nineteen books dealing with forgiveness and one dealing with repentance. This did not surprise me since I have seen a lot of books on forgiveness in Christian bookstores, but not a single book on repentance. Yet the Bible seems to give about equal weight to both subjects. It references some form of the word ‘forgive’ 191 times. The word ‘repent’ and its derivatives are mentioned 184 times. John the Baptist and Jesus both called sinners to ‘repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand.’ Repentance is required to gain admission to heaven. Repentance is actually used as a synonym for belief in the New Testament. Why then is it we place so much more emphasis on forgiveness?
Forgiveness deals with our attitude towards the sins of others. Repentance deals with our attitude towards our own sins. It is much easier for us to acknowledge the sins of others than it is to acknowledge our own sins. Dismissing others’ sins can reinforce our own attitude of self righteousness. To extend forgiveness is at the same time to recognize that we are the innocent ones who have been offended. But to repent is to admit that we are the ones who are at fault and it is not necessarily because someone else provoked us.
God, on the other hand, is much more harsh in His assessment of our sin. Obviously, our sins are serious enough in his eyes to have warranted the sacrifice of His own Son on the cross to spare us from His wrath. And He requires us to repent in order to receive forgiveness for those sins (1 Jn 1:9). But because we are not capable of grasping the depth of our own depravity, it is difficult to find the humility to confess our sins. Without genuine remorse for sin, there can be no forgiveness and no salvation. Jesus commended the tax collector who stood afar off beating his chest and saying, “God be merciful to me, a sinner,” saying he went home justified when the Pharisee who proudly proclaimed his own righteousness did not.
To get an idea of how heinous our sins are, consider how severely God deals with sinners in the Bible. He brought death upon not just mankind but the entire created order for the disobedience of Adam and Eve. He destroyed everything that had the breath of life with a global flood because of widespread evil in Noah’s day. He made Egypt a wasteland, ravaging it with ten devastating plagues when Pharaoh refused to set the Israelites free. He threatened to destroy the entire nation of Israel when they rebelled against Him in the wilderness. He ordered the Israelites to kill every living thing when they invaded Palestine because of the wickedness of its inhabitants. He drove the Israelites into exile and scattered them over the face of the earth when they turned away from Him to worship other gods. And He will bring a great tribulation upon the earth in the last days that will be so severe that “if the Lord had not cut short the days, no human being would be saved.” The history of the world is the history of God pouring out His wrath on sinful man.
The Bible describes God’s wrath as ‘fierce,’ ‘unceasing blows,’ ‘unrelenting persecution,’ ‘a cup of fury,’ ‘fiery,’ ‘burning,’ and ‘consuming.’ It says, “Who can stand in the day of God’s wrath,” and that one day men will ask the rocks to fall on them to hide them from the wrath of the Lamb. It also says the heavens will tremble and the earth shake at His wrath and that the earth will be moved out of its place. His wrath will scorch the earth and melt it. It will bring distress, anguish, ruin and devastation. In Isaiah it says that the Lord will tread the wine press of his wrath and that the blood of Israel’s enemies will be spattered on His garments and stain His apparel. The book of Zephaniah says the day of wrath is “a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness,” and that God will pour out mankind’s blood “like dust and their flesh like dung.”
Chapter 24 of the book of Isaiah is devoted to a description of the outpouring of God’s wrath on the whole earth in the last days. It talks about earthquakes so numerous and devastating that they twist the face of the earth, making the land desolate and scattering its inhabitants. The earth becomes utterly empty and plundered. It ‘mourns and withers,’ ‘languishes,’ ‘lies defiled,’ and ‘the inhabitants of the earth are scorched and few men are left.’ It says there will be no more mirth or laughter or joyful music, that the wine will grow scarce, the cities will collapse, all joy will grow dark and gladness will be banished from the earth (Is 24:4-13).
It is this awful, terrifying wrath that was directed at Jesus Christ on the cross. Isaiah 53 says, “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities…He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth…Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief…” It was Christ’s blood that finally satiated God’s fierce anger against our sin so that those who turn from their wicked ways to follow Him won’t have to experience any of His terrible wrath. Our minds cannot comprehend what Christ suffered on our behalf, not just as a human being but as the only Son of God who had never known anything but the most profound intimacy with the Father. We cannot come to Him without acknowledging all the agony our sins cost Him on the cross. This is what repentance is all about.
God simply will not accept anyone who will not admit his own total moral depravity openly and honestly before Him and beg His forgiveness with a contrite spirit, recognizing that he can do nothing to merit God’s favor. Yet this imperative is seldom emphasized in gospel presentations. There are many people who make a decision for Christ who never experience a shred of remorse for their sins. They simply say a prayer of acceptance and think that they have escaped hell and are on their way to heaven. Some of these people may go on to feel the need for repentance later, but many others never do. The person who never experiences a shred of remorse for his sin or a sense of deep gratitude that God has spared him an awful fate, does not have genuine spiritual life.
To get an idea of what genuine repentance looks like, consider the response of King David towards his own guilt. He committed adultery with the wife of Uriah, one of his most valiant and loyal soldiers, when he was defending the kingdom on David’s behalf. David had chosen not to join in the battle, but to stay home and let his army do all the dirty work. Late one afternoon when David was walking on the roof of the palace he looked down on his neighbor’s house to see a beautiful woman taking a bath. He immediately sent a servant to retrieve her and bring him to the palace for a sexual encounter. She became pregnant. In an effort to conceal his sin, he arranged for her husband to be called back from the battle front and tried to get him drunk so he would go have sex with his wife. But Uriah, being a noble man, refused to indulge himself while his countrymen were risking their lives for the king. So David had him moved to the front of the battle lines and told his commander to withdraw the troops and leave Uriah exposed to the arrows of his enemies. Uriah was killed and David moved Bathsheba into the palace.(2 Sam 11)
Psalm 51 describes David’s response when the prophet Nathan confronted him with his sin. In the first two verses, David pleads for mercy. Then he confesses his transgressions and how much he has grieved God, calling his own actions evil. He then acknowledges God’s right to judge him as he pleases. He confesses his own propensity towards sin and God’s complete holiness. Then he begs for cleansing. The following verses describe how his sin has devastated him. He has lost all sense of joy and gladness, he compares his emotional suffering to the pain of broken bones. He feels a deep sense of alienation from God and abandonment by the Holy Spirit. He has lost his will to live. If restored, he promises to teach other sinners how to regain fellowship with God and to praise Him in public. Finally he acknowledges that what God wants from him is not an offering or some form of appeasement but a contrite and broken heart.
In a word, God expects us to show remorse for our sins, to acknowledge our total inability to make up for our offenses and His right to judge us according to His holy standard, and to plead for mercy with a humble and penitent heart. Then out of gratitude for His forgiveness, we should promise to share His mercy with others. That is the path to reconciliation with a holy God.