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What Is Repentance?

22nd June 2016

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This is post is the second in a series entitled “Pitfalls of Christianity”. In this series various authors explain common misunderstandings that people who are Christians or want to be Christians often meet with in their experience. These “pitfalls” are all found in statements in the book Steps to Christ in which the author explains struggles that “many” face. The quote for the current article is: “Many . . . think that they cannot come to Christ unless they first repent, and that repentance prepares for the forgiveness of sins.” SC 26.—Editor.

‘My definition of something will determine my experience in relation to it.’

It’s a simple lesson that I’ve learnt, yet surprisingly broad in its application.

We experience this all the time. When you ask someone to pass you your phone, you don’t expect to receive your tablet. Why? It’s simple. You expect that you and the person you asked have the same definition for the word “phone”. Of course, that’s a simple object, and everyone (probably) knows that a phone is “a phone”. However, what about more complicated words? Let me try and sum up what I’m trying to get to with a question:

What is repentance?

A simple question, but, if you are like me, a youth born and raised in a Christian home, you probably don’t have a good Biblical answer. That’s a bold statement, and I hope you are not offended by that, but I’m starting to realize that, for youth, this is the sad reality. God tells us to “repent”, but because His definition of “repent” is often different from ours, we miss out on the experience which God wishes for us. This was the reality I saw for myself and with a sense of dissatisfaction of my current state, I took up a challenge: “Adam, find out what God means when He says ‘repent’”. Now, I can’t say I have discovered everything but here is what I have found so far. By the way, I encourage you to only accept it as truth as you see it to be in harmony with the truth of the Bible.

The “Turn” Called Repentance

So I started to search. “Where in the Bible do we see a clear explanation of what it means to repent?” was the question I felt compelled to ask. To my surprise, a clear definition was harder to find than I thought, but then this text struck me:

“The men of Nineveh shall rise in judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: because they repented at the preaching of Jonas; and, behold, a greater than Jonas is here.” Matt 12:41.

Did you see a clear definition? If not, neither did I. However, what did strike me was that Jesus seemed to be pointing to where we could find a clear definition: “The men of Nineveh . . . repented at the preaching of Jonas.” So where should I go next? It was clear for me. Go to the Bible text that Jesus is talking about, and there I would find the actions of the men of Nineveh which Jesus called ‘repentance’. So I flipped back the pages of my Bible to Jonah 3:10, and there it was, a simple and clear example of ‘repentance’.

“And God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way.”

The men of Nineveh “turned” from their evil way, and Jesus called that ‘repentance’. It’s quite simple, and I don’t want to complicate it with more words than necessary, but here is a simple picture: Imagine you are walking towards a house, and then you turn away from the house, and continue walking. Would you go closer to or further away from it? Of course you would go further away! I think that is like repentance: It is a determined purpose to put a distance between you and ‘that’ sin.

Why You Turn…

I discovered another point about repentance that amazed me, and also challenged me. It was right there in one of the parables of the Bible. Let’s take a look at Luke 15:3-6. It’s the parable about the shepherd with 100 sheep. To summarize, a shepherd has 100 sheep, one sheep gets lost, and the shepherd leaves the other 99 to find this one lost sheep. He ends up finding the sheep, and comes back rejoicing with the sheep on his shoulders. He then calls his friends and neighbours to rejoice with him “for I have found my sheep which was lost.” I knew this parable from before, but something now grabbed my attention. Notice what Jesus says in Luke 15:7:

“I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance.”

“Likewise” is an important word. Jesus is saying that in the same way the parable story went, there is joy in heaven when a sinner repents. Think about it. Did the lost sheep bring itself back? No. Who did then? The shepherd. So, Jesus is actually saying a profound truth about repentance. Repentance, turning away from sin, is actually the result of His work, as He is the “great shepherd of the sheep” (Hebrews 13:20). He is the One that searches for us, and because of that search, because of His efforts to bring us back, we turn away from sin. Peter mentions this truth in Acts 5:31:

“Him hath God exalted with his right hand to be a Prince and a Saviour, for to give repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins.”

Ellen White makes it clear: “We can no more repent without the Spirit of Christ to awaken the conscience than we can be pardoned without Christ. Christ is the source of every right impulse.” Steps to Christ, 26. When God says “repent”, He is calling us to turn away from sin, but also, when God says “repent”, He already has started His search for you. He is working by His Spirit to give you knowledge of His goodness, and through this, bring you to repentance (Rom 2:4). That for me was a paradigm shift.

With all that in mind, here was my challenge. Why should I then stay away from Christ before I repent? I was actually staying away from the only One who could bring me to repentance. Quite frankly, that doesn’t make sense. Are you staying away from Him also? Stop now. He can, and will, bring you to the point where you can turn away from sin. He’s already trying.

Adam Hazel is the director of Matteson Mission School.

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