Repentance – turning around to follow the true God
In 2013 a friend and I walked through Glenbrook Gorge in the Blue Mountains to Lapstone Rail Station. I had a map to follow. Outside the gorge we reached a junction, but I didn’t know where we were on the map. So I didn’t know whether the station was towards the left or the right. We walked right towards the north for about 15 minutes and then repented (turned around) because we realised that the station was probably towards the south! We had to turn around 180 degrees to reach our destination. As we wasted at least half an hour because of this mistake, I decided to get a mobile [cell] phone so I could use a GPS like Google maps to show where I was on the map.
My wife had a similar experience recently. She travelled in Sydney to Norwest on the Metro to meet me and then turned left towards the south-west. After a while she repented (turned around) because she realised that I was towards the north-east. So you can still make mistakes if you don’t use your GPS!
We all make mistakes, and have failures and weaknesses, and go in the wrong direction from time to time. We all go against God’s will for us sometimes. We can all act as though we are more important than God is. The Bible calls this sin, which is anything we think say or do that is against God’s will. The Bible tells us how to deal with these situations to receive God’s eternal forgiveness and how to be restored whenever we fail. It involves turning away from our failures and turning towards God. It’s like doing a U turn. Repentance is when we turn away from our failures and turn towards the true God instead.
In the Bible, repentance is turning away from a previous behavior, attitude, or opinion. It’s a change of mind. In the New Testament it is mainly used for “repentance” from an ungodly behavior, attitude, or opinion (sin), and this change of mind involves both a turning from failure (sin) and a turning to God. As you move towards the right in the diagram, you move further away from the failure (sin) and closer to God.
If you have changed your mind about a product purchased from a Woolworths Supermarket in Australia, they may provide an exchange, but they will not provide a refund. And within 14 days of delivery Samsung will provide an exchange or refund of a mobile product purchased online if the product is unused and in a re-sellable condition. So it can be OK to change your mind about something.
Old Testament examples of repentance
After God created Adam and Eve they rebelled and disobeyed God (they sinned). Because of this, humanity inherited a rebellious nature. They became self-centered and generally saw no need to respect or obey the God that created them and the universe.
Ten generations later mankind was generally evil, wicked and corrupt (Gen. 6:5-2). While Noah was building the boat, he “warned the world of God’s righteous judgment” (2 Pt. 2:5NLT). “By his faith Noah condemned the rest of the world” (Heb. 11:7NLT). God preached through Noah when he was building his boat (1 Pt. 3:19-20). The ungodly people of Noah’s day had a chance to turn around to follow God (to repent). Unfortunately, they rebelled against the truth and refused to enter the boat, and drowned in the flood. This shows that lack of repentance leads to God’s judgment.
About 1,000 BC, king David of Israel had an opportunity to turn around and follow God (repent). Nathan the prophet rebuked David for his adultery with Bathsheba and murder of her husband Uriah (2 Sam. 12:1-19).
Then David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.”
– He was convicted and confessed. The sin was against God and not just against other people.
Nathan replied, “The Lord has taken away your sin.”
– Because of this, God forgave his sins (2 Sam. 12:13NIV).
David’s prayer for God’s forgiveness and cleansing is given in Psalm 51. The pattern is: conviction, confession, repentance, and then forgiveness.
In about 710 BC, Isaiah said that repentance leads to pardon. He told the nation of Judah:
“Seek the Lord while He may be found;
call on Him while He is near.
Let the wicked forsake their ways [behavior]
and the unrighteous their thoughts [mind].
Let them turn to the Lord [repent], and He will have mercy on them [forgiveness],
and [turn] to our God, for He will freely pardon [forgiveness].” (Isa. 55:6-7)
When the wicked turn to the Lord (repent), He will “have mercy on them” and “freely pardon” them. There is forgiveness. It’s repeated in the parallelism of the Hebrew poetry.
About 640 BC, the book of the Old Testament law was found in the Jewish temple (2 Ki. 22:1-20). When king Josiah heard it read “he tore his robes” and wept because he realized the nation had not obeyed God’s law, they had followed idols instead. And their punishment was predicted in the law. Then he renewed their covenant to follow the Lord and to keep His commands (2 Ki. 23:1-24). And all the idols, the altars to idols and the pagan priests in the nation were destroyed. Here we see that repentance was evident in the actions taken by king Josiah. He had turned around from facing God’s judgment to experiencing God’s forgiveness.
Many of the Old Testament prophets issued a call to repentance to the nation of Israel. For example, in about 520 BC Zechariah said to the nation of Judah:
“This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘Return to me,’ declares the Lord Almighty, ‘and I will return to you,’ says the Lord Almighty.
Do not be like your ancestors, to whom the earlier prophets [ like Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel] proclaimed: This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘Turn from your evil ways and your evil practices.’ [repent]
But they would not listen or pay attention to me, declares the Lord.” (Zech. 1:3-4).
After they repented, Zechariah predicted the restoration of Israel (Zech. 1:6, 16-17). So the pattern in the Old Testament for turning around to follow the true God (repentance) is: conviction (that you are heading in the wrong direction), confession (telling God about it), repentance (turning around to follow God), then forgiveness (from God) and then restoration (by God).
New Testament examples of repentance
Jesus told a parable about a son who selfishly demanded his inheritance, which the father gave him (Luke 15:11-24). Then he went to a distant country and wasted it on wild living. Finding himself destitute and in a severe famine, he hired himself out to a pig farmer. As the pigs were eating better than him, he decided to return to his father and beg to be allowed to serve as a hired servant on the estate. His father welcomed him back home. The son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against both heaven [God] and you, and I am no longer worthy of being called your son”. So when we sin it is against God, even though we think it is harmless. But his father said to the servants, ‘Quick! Bring the finest robe in the house and put it on him. Get a ring for his finger and sandals for his feet. And kill the calf we have been fattening. We must celebrate with a feast, for this son of mine was dead and has now returned to life. He was lost, but now he is found.’ So they began to celebrate.
The son turned around from his wild living to return to his father. He was convicted of his need to change the direction of his life. He confessed his failures and mistakes (sins) to his father and turned around to come home (repentance). Then his father forgave him and welcomed him home. He was looking for a good time elsewhere, but he only found it in his father’s house. That’s a great example of repentance.
God is like the father in the parable. We are like the son who chose to go his own way. But where are we now? Are we still distant from God – like in the far country? Are you spiritually dead? Are you lost? If that is your case, consider your situation. If nothing changes things will get worse. You will face God’s judgment. Why not follow the example of the son by confessing your failures and mistakes (sins) to God and turning around to trust Him? Then He will offer you forgiveness and you will be reconciled with God. Earlier in this chapter it says that the angels rejoice when a sinner turns around to follow God (repents) (Lk.15:7, 10).
Zacchaeus was a corrupt chief tax collector. Although he was wealthy, when he met Jesus, Zacchaeus was convicted of his sinfulness and he confessed to God and repented by making restitution to those he had cheated (Lk. 19:1-10). He said, “I will give half my wealth to the poor, Lord, and if I have cheated people on their taxes, I will give them back four times as much!” (v.8). That’s an example of turning around and going in the opposite direction. Before he was taking as much money as possible from people. Greed was replaced with generosity – the law required restitution of up to four times the amount stolen (Ex. 22:1, 4, 7; Lev. 6:5; Num. 5:7; 2 Sam. 12:6). That’s a radical change.
When the Pharisee Saul turned around to follow Jesus at Damascus there was a radical change in his life. Before this he was a zealous Jew (Acts 22:3) who strongly opposed Christianity (1 Cor. 15, Gal. 1, Phil 3, Acts 7-9, 22, 26). He saw this as a threat to the Jewish faith. He was the best Pharisee of his time (Phil. 3:4–6; Gal. 1:13–14). He approved of the stoning to death of Stephen, the first Christian martyr (Acts 8:1). He made murderous threats against believers, persecuted them and imprisoned them (Acts 8:1-3; 9:1-5; 22:4-5). He wanted to stop them spreading the good news about Jesus. He thought it was bad news because Jesus was a liar.
After his conversion Paul spread the good news about Jesus to Jews and Gentiles in countries around the Mediterranean Sea, and established and built up congregations of believers. As an apostle, he received direct revelations from God. He wrote letters which are now in the Bible and he trained leaders for the early church. After Jesus, Paul was the most important person in the history of Christianity. Because of his Christian faith, Paul suffered beatings (1 Cor. 11:24) and imprisonment and was probably martyred by the Roman Emperor Nero. As he turned around 180 degrees to follow Jesus, Paul was in an excellent example of repentance. There was a radical change in his life.
There are two kinds of turning around to follow God (repentance) in the New Testament: positional repentance which leads to eternal positional forgiveness, and relational repentance which leads to temporal relational forgiveness.
Because everyone has inherited a rebellious nature from Adam and Eve, positionally everyone is separate from God. And because of their rebellion (sin), they deserve God’s judgment (Rom. 1:18). But the good news in the Bible is that people can be reconciled with God.
God told Abraham, “all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Gen. 12:3). And the Old Testament prophets predicted that a Messiah would come to deliver and rule over the Jews. Jesus was a descendant of Abraham and partially fulfilled what prophets like Isaiah declared. The rest will be fulfilled when He returns in great power and glory.
Failures (sins) can be forgiven. Jesus paid the penalty for these by dying for His people. It was a vicarious substitutionary payment of the penalty of our failure (sin). He took God’s punishment on the failures (sins) of humanity. Consequently, believers are welcomed into God’s presence, which was illustrated by the curtain in the temple being torn in two (Mt. 27:51; Mk. 15:38; Lk. 23:45).
Paul said, “I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus” (Acts 20:21). Conversion equals repentance plus faith (trust) in Christ’s work. Two responses are required. To repent – a change mind about your failures (sin). And to trust that Christ’s sacrificial death paid the penalty for your failures (sin).
Faith is to trust in Jesus, to believe in Him, to rely on Him alone for salvation. Genuine faith in Jesus implies repentance (Rom. 6:1-6). Those who truly love and trust Jesus as savior will turn away from failures (sin) and keep His commands and follow Him (1 Jn. 5:3).
Repentance is such an important aspect of conversion that it is often stressed rather than saving faith (Lk. 15:7; Acts 11:18).
This is called positional repentance and positional forgiveness because Christ has paid the penalty for all a believer’s failures (sins). It happens once and doesn’t need to be repeated. The process for dealing with our separation from God is summarized in this diagram.
– Failure (sin) separates us from God and puts us under His judgment, and if we do nothing about this separation and judgment, it is final and hell is our ultimate destiny.
– The first step to fix the problem is to be convicted of our failure (sin). It involves recognizing it. We may feel guilty or sorry.
– The next step is to confess our failure (sin) to God. It means admitting that we are wrong.
– The next step is repentance, which is a change of behavior where our change of attitude is shown in our actions. It’s like doing a U-turn in a car to go in the opposite direction.
– Then God promises to forgive all our failures (sins), in the past, the present and the future.
Peter preached, “Repent … and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out” (Acts 3:19). God is a judge of all those who have never trusted in Him. This positional forgiveness removes the barrier to heaven. It is when an unbeliever comes to faith in Christ. If we acknowledge our failures (sinfulness) and believe that Jesus paid the penalty for us, then we are viewed as God’s children. Jesus died for all our failures and weaknesses (sins). Have you experienced this kind of forgiveness? If not, why not start following the Lord by confessing your failures (sins) and trusting Christ as Savior?
– After our failures (sins) have been dealt with, we have peace with God and are reconciled with God. And heaven is our ultimate destiny, where all our failures (sins) are forgotten.
Japan and USA were enemies in World War 2. But in 1951 they signed a security treaty for a “peace of reconciliation”. What a spectacular turn around to make a friend and ally of a former enemy! And in February 2022 Russia invaded the Ukraine and there is now war between the countries. What will it take to turn this around to peace? This illustrates the difficulty of achieving positional forgiveness.
John told believers, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He [God] is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make Him out to be a liar and His word is not in us.” (1 Jn. 1:8-10). And Jesus taught believers to pray, “Forgive us our sins” (Lk. 11:4). So believers are told to continue to confess their failures (sins).
When Jesus washed the disciples feet He said, “Those who have had a bath need only to wash their feet; their whole body is clean” (Jn. 13:10). Here the bath symbolizes positional repentance and forgiveness, and the foot washing, relational repentance and forgiveness. The bath doesn’t need to be repeated during the day, but the foot washing does need to be repeated.
So Christians ought to keep confessing their failures (sins) and repenting in order to restore and maintain their fellowship with God.
The Bible says that Christians cannot grow as followers of Jesus without regular conviction, confession and repentance of their failures (sins). For a Christian, all failure (sin) has been dealt with by the death of our Savior. Paul said, “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). But God allows us to fail from time to time so our faith can be strengthened.
The process for dealing with our ongoing failures (sins) is summarized in this diagram, which is similar to the previous one. Failures (sins) spoil a believer’s relationship with God.
Conviction. The first step is to admit our failures (sins) instead of excusing them.
Confession. The next step is to confess our failure (sin) (1 Jn. 1:9). David said, “I have sinned against the Lord” (2 Sam. 12:13). Christians need to do this regularly. It means admitting our failures (sins) and confessing them so our relationships can be restored with each other and with God. If we examine ourselves and get right with God, we will not come under His discipline. That’s why the Christian life should be full of confession. So our fellowship with the Lord can be restored. The Christian life is full of restarts. Each of these involves conviction, confession, and repentance to put things right, and then putting our failures behind us and moving ahead.
Repentance. The next step is to change direction and turn around to follow God once again. It involves completely changed attitudes and behavior. It is more than confessions or remorse. The Bible says it’s having a new heart and a new spirit (Ezek. 18:30-32). The churches in Revelation were urged to repent (Rev. 2:5, 16; 3:3, 19).
Forgiveness. After we are convicted and confess and repent, God offers forgiveness. He has great mercy. David was told “The Lord has taken away your sin” (2 Sam. 12:13). God is a Father of all those who have trusted in Him. This relational forgiveness restores a believer’s fellowship with God after it has been broken by our failure (sin). The Bible says, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn. 1:9).
Restoration. Once we are forgiven, we are restored to following Christ once again. This should be a time for celebration, like when the wayward son returned home (Lk. 15:22-24).
Meghan Markle and Prince Harry, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, reunited with members of the British Royal Family during the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations in June 2022. They joined the Royal Family in attending the thanksgiving service at St Paul’s Cathedral to honor Her Majesty’s 70-year reign. This was their first official engagement together since they stepped down as working royals two years ago. Will this lead to reconciliation between Prince Harry, Meghan, and various Royal Family members after a lack of shared values seemed to distance them? Unfortunately, estrangement can occur within a family.
A map isn’t helpful if you don’t know where you are on it. Do you know where you are on God’s map, the Bible? And a GPS isn’t helpful unless you use it. Do you read God’s GPS, the Bible?
We have seen that turning around to follow God (repentance) involved a radical change in the life of king David and king Josiah in the Old Testament, and the wayward son, Zacchaeus and Paul in the New Testament.
But people can reject a message of repentance, like those in Noah’s day and in the times of the Old Testament prophets.
Who are you like?
Positional repentance brings reconciliation with God. It’s turning around to follow the true God to join the family of God. Zacchaeus and Paul repented to be reconciled with God. But this is not the end of the matter.
Because Christians still fail (sin), relational repentance maintains good family relationships. King David and king Josiah repented to restore their relationship with God. Paul urged believers, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Rom. 12:2). As we read the Bible let’s be ready to let the Holy Spirit transform our minds and reform our behavior. We need to continually turn around to follow God, like a child follows a father.
Let’s get right with God in both the long term and the short term by repenting – turning away from our failures and turn towards the true God instead. And keep on doing it to maintain our fellowship with the Lord.
Let’s ask God to help us see the things we need to change in our lives.
Written, August 2022
Also see: Dealing with disagreements
How to be a peace maker
Failure isn’t final
If a Christian dies with unconfessed sin, will they go to heaven?
What about unconfessed trespasses?
The dangers of backsliding