True repentance

Shortly before his death, Albert Einstein wrote a letter to a friend saying that he believed that the greatest need for the world was to listen to God. As we look at the state of the world today, this statement could not be truer. And what is it that God is saying to the human race? What remedy does He give for the state we are in? It is one simple but profound word “Repent”.

The key teaching of John the Baptist, the forerunner to Our Lord was “Repent”. After the Baptism and Temptation of Our Lord we are told that His key message was “Repent”, stating in Matthew Ch4v17, “From that time on Jesus began to preach to the people and say ‘Repent’”. When He sent the Disciples out to preach in the towns and villages their main theme was to be “Repent”. (Mark Ch6v12). And on the Day of Pentecost and from then on, the main message of the Apostles and the Early Church was once again “Repent”.

The word “Repent” is used more than 50 times in the New Testament, meaning that God’s main message to the human race is that people should repent of their sins. Indeed, it is so profoundly important, that being a Christian and being right with God is actually dependent upon a person having repented of their sins.

So what does repentance mean? Some time ago a Sunday School teacher asked her class this very question. One lad answered “It means being sorry for your sins.” However, after a few minutes of discussion a girl thoughtfully added, “It means being sorry enough to stop doing them.”  And this indeed is precisely what true repentance really means. A converted soldier put it like this. “The Lord said to me ‘Halt! Attention! Right-about-face! March!’” True repentance is being so sorry for one’s sins that one stops committing them and involves a complete change of attitude, conduct and behaviour. It means letting the Lord into one’s life, rather than keeping Him away at arm’s length.

Repentance isn’t merely a kind of general “sadness” or “regret” at the things one has done wrong, it is much deeper. A surgeon dressing a wound will probe it in all directions so as to cleanse it thoroughly. So likewise it is with true repentance. It involves a thorough exploration of the heart with a searching minute examination to discover what needs to be changed. Along with this will develop a new sense of the Holiness of God and an increasing awareness of the sinfulness of sin.

True repentance is the only key which will unlock the door to forgiveness and getting to know the Lord personally. While an individual remains unrepentant a barrier exists between them as a sinner and an infinitely Holy God. When however, genuine repentance occurs, this barrier is removed, forgiveness is obtained and the door is opened to experiencing a real and personal relationship with the Lord as our very Best Friend. Until an individual is willing to repent and obey the Lord, there will always be a barrier between them and the Almighty.

And the signs of this barrier in a person’s life are easily recognisable. A person will complain, “Oh I pray to God, but I don’t feel He is listening.” “Oh I don’t feel my prayers are getting through.” “Oh I don’t feel God is close to me”. “Oh, He doesn’t seem real to me.” “Oh I have been seeking the Lord but I can’t find Him.” “Oh I have many questions but I never seem to find satisfying answers.” “Oh I want a deeper experience of God but I just feel dry and empty inside.” All these different symptoms are but a manifestation of this self-imposed barrier and the solution to them is always the same; truly repent. Approach God on His terms of true repentance and the barrier will be instantly removed. As the Lord said in Isaiah Ch 59vs1-2 “Behold the Lord’s hand is not shortened that it cannot save; nor His ear heavy that it cannot hear. But your iniquities separate you from God and your sin hides His face from you so that He will not hear.”

In 2nd Peter Ch3v9 it reminds us that “The Lord is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.” Indeed His love and desire for individuals to repent and get to know Him personally is so strong that He sent His Son to die on the Cross for our sins. (John Ch3v16). However, unless an individual is willing to truly repent and submit to the Lord’s will, the barrier between them and God will remain. The following two stories illustrate this truth very clearly.

Sometime ago a man came to his Vicar with a long list of questions about the Bible and about how to live the Christian life. He talked to the man for a while to find out about his character and background. As the conversation unfolded the Minister sensed that the reason for the list of questions wasn’t due to the man being a heartfelt searcher wanting answers, but something very different. In 2nd Timothy Ch3v7 it describes individuals who are “forever learning but never able to come to an acceptance of the truth.” He felt that this was a fitting description of this man. Finally the Vicar said, “I’ll gladly go through all your questions and answer them one by one. I often do this with enquirers, but in your particular case before I do, I want you to do one thing first. I want you to repent of your sins and turn to following Christ, questions and all.” The man went off looking very thoughtful.

Several days later he returned looking quite radiant. “Where are your questions?” asked the Minister. “I don’t really have any major questions now” said the man. “After much soul searching I took your advice and decided that I should indeed first start to follow the Saviour and while following Him deal with my questions along the way. The strange thing is that the moment I committed myself to Him, I found answers to most of them and the others now appear so insignificant that no answer is really necessary.” The Minister had correctly perceived that in this case, the root cause of the man’s lack of faith and list of questions was due to his unwillingness to truly repent and obey the Lord. No amount of answering these questions would have solved this issue because the real problem lay, not in finding answers, but in finding repentance and obedience of heart.

This incident shows how a person may seek after God and may learn this or that about Him, but unless it is done with a genuine heart, approaching God on His terms, a barrier will remain. It is not primarily by having questions answered that will open the door to God; it is not primarily by praying or by reading the Bible; it is not primarily by attending church or by going on retreat. As important as all these things are, unless they are done in a spirit of repentance with a sincere willingness to submit to the will of God, they will be to no avail in removing the barrier.

If an individual wants to make “real contact” with God; if they want to have a close and personal relationship with Him and have Him as their Best Friend, then the first step beginning this relationship is true repentance. And as we shall see from this second story, it is also the vital ingredient which maintains and preserves this relationship.

Many years ago a backslidden member of Dr Philips Brooks’ church called at his house in order to get his name removed from the church membership roll. The man explained that he didn’t feel God close to him anymore and that he felt dry and empty inside. He felt disappointed that neither God nor the church satisfied him in the way that they once did. Dr Brooks pleaded with the man to reconsider but he was insistent. What happened next was remarkable and can only have been the result of God’s timing.

Just as Dr Brooks finished pleading with the man, a poorly dressed boy came to the door with a note. It was an urgent request for the Minister to visit a sick and needy woman in a poor part of town. Dr Brooks was just leaving to conduct a funeral and so he couldn’t respond to the request. Suddenly however, he had an idea. He knew that the man wanting his name removed from the membership roll had drifted from God by allowing sin back into his life and he also knew that the sick woman was a devout Christian. He wondered if her influence might make this man acknowledge the real truth as to why God was distant from him.

Dr Brooks explained to the man that he was leaving for a funeral and wondered if he would be so kind as to go on his behalf, to supply whatever the poor woman needed. The man readily agreed, assuming that he would have to provide her with some food or medicine. He followed the lad down narrow streets and then down a dark alley. Finally he came to a shack whose half-open door was held by one hinge. He was led into a darkened room. As he entered, the sick and partially sighted woman greeted him with great thanks, “Oh Dr Brooks, I knew you would come. You are God’s man. You always come to the call of trouble. I am sick and hungry, but first I want you to pray for me. Please pray!” Her plight was so desperate and her pleading so sincere, the man didn’t have it in his heart to say he wasn’t Dr Brooks. As he hesitated she pleaded with him again to pray.

He got down on his knees beside her bed. The whole situation seemed so surreal. In an instant, her devotion and love for God deeply struck his conscience. Confronted and challenged by her faithfulness he was forced to see that the real reason for God’s distance from him was his own fault by allowing sin back into his life. As he started to pray, he began by asking the Lord’s forgiveness and then went on to pray for the woman and her condition.

After he finished praying he explained that he had come on behalf of Dr Brooks and that he had been deeply challenged and convicted by her love for the Lord. They talked for some time and later he got her some much needed food, fuel and medicine. As they parted he thanked her for how her faithfulness to God had influenced and helped him. The man later contacted Dr Brooks and asked for his name to be kept on the church roll. He said to the Minister “I am all right now sir. I am all right.”

A repentant spirit begins our relationship with the Lord, but it also sustains and maintains it. Every time an individual feels that they are no longer in close fellowship with the Lord, the reason is always the same. They have allowed sin back into their hearts. Numerous times I have encountered people who were once close to the Lord but who then began to feel empty and dry inside. The inner joy that once was theirs had gone. “What has happened?” they ask and “What is the solution?” The reason is always the same; they have drifted away from the Lord by allowing sin back into their hearts and lives. Instead of growing in spiritual maturity by actively working at their faith, they have gone backwards. (Some will also have begun to neglect the three mainstays of the Christian life namely prayer, Bible reading and church attendance. It is impossible to have a growing and developing spiritual life if these three are no longer given a priority). The only solution is heartfelt, sincere and genuine repentance, fully submitting once again to the Lord’s will for their lives.

In Acts Ch17v31 it states God “has appointed a Day when He will judge this world in righteousness and He has given assurance of this by raising Christ from the dead.” A Day will come when individuals will be judged for their every thought, word and action. At great Personal Cost, due to God’s deep love, the penalty for our sins has been paid in full on the Cross, but this forgiveness is conditional upon true repentance. Today we live in a world which has lost its fear of God. We live in a world which has lost its awareness of God’s infinite Holiness. Many people see no reason or need to repent and live a God fearing life. How profoundly wrong they are! As it warns in Hebrews Ch2v3 “How shall we escape if we neglect so wonderful a salvation?”

At the moment wickedness abounds on the face of the earth exactly as Scripture predicted (Matthew Ch24v12, 2nd Peter Ch3vs 3-4), however, this situation will not last indefinitely. Just as Scripture warned about these troubled times so likewise it predicts that they will end in Judgment; “Behold I Am coming as a thief in the night. Blessed is he who watches and keeps his garments lest he should be naked. My reward is with Me to give to everyone according to his work. Blessed are those who obey My commandments…” (Revelation Ch 16v15 and Ch22vs12-14). As the hymn says “Repent and obey for there is no other way.”