What Is True Repentance?

In the context of a short story or novel we might be reading in a college English class, I often asked the following questions of my students:  

How many of you believe that all people are innately evil? How many believe people are innately good, but may do some evil things occasionally?

Significantly, most students showed by raising their hands their belief that people were innately good.  Class discussion revealed their belief that it was only the influence of such problems as poverty or a lack of education that made people do evil things. Thus, simply relieving people of their deficiencies in food, shelter, or comfort would mean such acts as theft, lying, or even murder would cease in our world.

The consequence of this belief is that our culture today seems focused on convincing everyone, beginning with children, that they need to “accept” themselves for who they are and that their ideas or thoughts are natural and normal for them, even if not for anyone else.  Self-acceptance is seen as the first step towards normality. Being “assertive” is seen as a positive attribute, even though some behaviors may lead to the point of violating the lives of others.

And feeling guilty for any action is perceived as self-destructive, so every effort must be made just to “be who we are,” accept ourselves and others without demanding change. Any criticism of a person’s appearance or behavior is seen as bigoted or hateful, even if they may possibly be hurtful to themselves or others.

To subtly show my students in a secular environment, at least in a preliminary way, how humans are not “noble savages” but selfish and even evil, I shared my experiences as a parent and as an observer of other parents that a child never needs to be taught how to lie, or steal, or disobey, a point on which the students agreed. On the other hand, I argued, a child needs to be taught from the beginning what is selfish or rebellious, and children need to be shown how to be loving and kind.

Just on an experiential level, therefore, this illustration showed that all human beings are sinful by nature.  In spiritual terms, we all are sinful, not just because we all have inherited Adam’s sinfulness, but also because we do not have the presence of God in our lives, the same closeness Adam and Eve once had with God walking with Him in the Garden of Eden.  This relationship was lost due to their disobedience and willingness to listen to the temptations of the serpent, or Satan.

Having A Conscience

Even so, most people at least have a conscience, an “inner voice” that tells them when they are disobedient or rebellious, one that is imparted at least culturally or through peer pressure.

Recent studies have shown, however, that some people (one in twenty-five is the number estimated) have no conscience whatsoever, and they feel no guilt, shame, or remorse for their selfish or rebellious behaviors. They only feel frustration or remorse if they are exposed or caught in their malicious behaviors, rather than feeling any true guilt or sorrow.  They become more intent on hiding their behaviors in the future to avoid the negative social pressures of being uncovered, the only immediate consequences of their actions.

This condition is labeled psychopathic in psychological terms, or more benignly as “antisocial personality disorder.”  

Even psychopaths may be forgiven, redeemed, and changed, however, for the Scriptures teach that even though “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” all may be saved from the deadly consequences of sin.

And He summoned the crowd with His disciples, and said to them, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it. (Mark 8:34-35)

Sin Is Universal

The Apostle John explains the sinful existence of all human beings:

If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar and His word is not in us. (I John 1:8-10).

The Apostle Paul, among many others, also taught in his letters that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Paul uses the term “old man” to described the sinful nature that must die in order for the new creation in Christ my fully live.  This new creation, the “new man,”  is what Jesus referred to as being “born again.”

Paul also says that his “inner man” is constantly waging war against the law of sin in his body:

I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good. For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Romans 7:21-25)

Christ Jesus is the Way, Paul says, and the Apostle continues to provide the solution for this warfare:

Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Romans 8:1-4)

Rather than trying to follow the Law perfectly, as many try to do through “will power,” which only serves to worsen our guilt, the Apostle Paul writes that following the rules of the Law legalistically is impossible.  It is a course that is destined to end in defeat and failure. Instead, we must be set free to walk in the new Law of the Spirit of Life in Christ Jesus, or in Christ’s own words, being “born again.”

Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come. (II Corinthians 5:17)

In order to become like Christ, consequently, two steps need to be taken.  First, we need to repent of our sins, and second we need to be born again, or to receive the new nature that is the Spirit of Christ.

True Repentance

Although being born again is a gift of God by His grace, repentance is not a gift but a necessity, an obligation. Just as Adam’s sin was the result of an act of the will, or free choice, so repentance is determined by one’s own decision by the grace of God.  

Why is true repentance so difficult?  It means we have to make a decision to die to our old lives first in order to be born again.  We have to admit that we were mistaken or wrong, that we have been traveling in the wrong direction and need to turn around. Paul writes,

I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me. (Galatians 2:2o)

Many believe that repentance means just being sorry for the sins in their lives. However, true repentance means that we must turn from the direction we are traveling and go back in the opposite direction.  It’s a complete turnaround, one which says, “I will no longer go in that direction.”

Therefore, unless we are suffering from the evil consequences in our lives, repentance from sin is usually extremely difficult for us, for a number of reasons.  

First, most sins are pleasurable, at least initially before the ultimate consequences are known or discovered.

Second, to completely change one’s habits, lifestyle, or “sexual orientation,” for example, seems to be cruel and contrary to the freedoms we should all be allowed to enjoy.  Anyone who even suggests such a reversal is described at hateful and bigoted, even if the future consequences are certain, if not in this life at least in the next.

Yet how is it hateful to warn someone who is about to walk over the edge of a cliff to certain death or destruction?

Dying to Self

This is why repentance in the Church is symbolized by baptism in water, a symbolic way of dying, as Paul explains our in the following passage from Romans:

How shall we who died to sin still live in it? Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin; for he who has died is freed from sin. (Romans 6:3-7)

When we are baptized, we declare to the world, to Satan, and to ourselves that we have repented of our sins and intend to live a life of freedom from sin.

Clearly, baptism today has been practiced either without true repentance, as in infant baptism, or not at all, for many in the church today have either not been baptized at all, or they continue to live in sinful conditions. Some even have served in church ministry, yet never taken a stand publicly and openly declared both their repentance and their determination no longer to be a slave to sin.



Available Now!

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About this Book:

In these pages I share and explain insights into biblical “mysteries,” a word used by both Jesus Christ and the Apostle Paul in the New Testament. I begin with methods of biblical interpretation, including how to “rightly divide” the Scriptures, then I proceed to reveal insights into a number of perplexing biblical “mysteries.” In doing so, I use both historical fiction and autobiographical approaches to help the ideas come alive.

The Apostle Paul wrote that “a natural man does not accept the things of the spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised (I Corinthians. 2:14). Consequently, I seek to explain how to search the Scriptures wisely, beginning with some simple methods that help uncover the spiritual depths of the Words of God, not just their literal meanings.

With this foundation, I then lead the reader through a number of lessons necessary for seeing in the Spirit, seeking foremost to define what Jesus Christ, the Apostle Paul, and others meant by this term “mystery,” a word often used to describe the secrets that God desires to reveal to us: “But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, a wisdom which is hidden” (I Corinthians 2:7).

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