Over the ages, mankind’s concepts regarding the nature of repentance, of finding God’s favor and acceptance, has become horribly distorted. In Christianity, repentance has traditionally been used to strike fear into the heart of non-believers and believers, alike. It is typically presented alongside hell-fire and death, as a distorted reason for accepting Jesus.
Take for example, the Hindu festival of Thaipusam, the worship of god, Murugan; suppliants subject themselves to incredible tortures to prove their commitment and to obtain “god’s favor”:
“Iron spears are pierced into their bodies, and large skewers are forced from one side of their faces through to the other. Another skewer is pierced through their tongues and the devotees parade for miles and for hours with this apparatus on them. In fact, trailing each one is a helper who holds reins on the hooks and pulls in the opposite direction, compelling the devotee to strain against the force as he walks the long trek
We may view this as heathen, or barbaric, but Christianity is not above these rites of passage. On the side of orthodoxy, we have penances, flagellations, pilgrimages, indulgences, ad-nausium. And, on the protestant side, we have asceticism, perfectionism, spirit-possession, and/or celebrated-antinomianism. The common denominator with these man-made forms of “sincere-repentance”, is that they are all performed in an effort to obtain or maintain God’s approval.
After recently hearing another a-typical “do X-Y & Z or you’re lost” presentation on repentance, I decided to do some exegesis into the Greek usage of the word “repent”. The text this particular individual presented on was from Acts 3:19:
“Repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord.“
What I found were some fairly marked discoveries. “Repentance” in the Greek was not about the fear of wrath, but about a God who offers mankind healing through a better way of living:
1. To, “repent” (μετανοέω), meant to reconsider your position or to think again.*
2. To, “be converted” (ἐπιστρέφω), meant to turn around, to return.
3. The, “Refreshing” (ἀνάψυξις), also meant, revival, or recovery.
So thus, Acts 3:19 would literally read as:
“Reconsider your destructive life, really think about what you are doing; just return to me, your God, and you’ll be forgiven, and My Spirit will help you recover, I will heal you as we walk together.”
Amazing, a true biblical understanding of “repentance” is nothing less than a call for the prodigal to return home! Rather than the terror of condemnation, repentance is God’s love, pleading with us to return and experience the peace of His wisdom. It is that gleaming hand of light, reaching down into our self made prisons, bidding us, “return from your journey into self-destruction”.
But, too often, we are afraid. Skeptical. Believing that we already knew better, that we deserve separation. Like the devoted Hindu, the conviction that we must earn the right to forgiveness is etched into our history. And thus, we determine that integrity of commitment must exist before we dare approach God:
“Just here is a point on which many may err, and hence they fail of receiving the help that Christ desires to give them. They think that they cannot come to Christ unless they first repent, and that repentance prepares for the forgiveness of their sins. It is true that repentance does precede the forgiveness of sins; for it is only the broken and contrite heart that will feel the need of a Saviour. But must the sinner wait till he has repented before he can come to Jesus? Is repentance to be made an obstacle between the sinner and the Saviour? The Bible does not teach that the sinner must repent before he can heed the invitation of Christ, ‘Come unto Me, all ye that labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.’ Matthew 11:28. (2)
Integrity is not the basis of God’s approval. Rather, it is our acknowledgment of our weaknesses that brings God’s forgiveness. Can we honestly say that our failures are somehow less-forgivable than say, Solomon and his decades of debauchary, or his worship of Molech and Baal? Or what of David, murdering one his most dedicated warriors to cover up an adulterous pregnancy? Yet, despite their weaknesses, these men received the approval of God, not through grit or tenacity, but because they acknowledged their failures.
Jesus bids us “rest” from weary pilgrimages of attempting to be “worthy”. We need simply admit we are limited, and rest in a God that already loves His enemies. His clemency is an unmerited favor, meaning, you don’t deserve His approval, but He is giving it to you anyway, because He cares for you. Hear the wisdom of Luther in regard to those that believe they must, “live up to the truth”, or else they dare not approach God:
“I know well that many are so foolish as to not want to ask God for anything, unless they first be conscious that they are pure, and they believe that God hears no one who is a sinner. All this is the work of those false preachers, who teach men to begin, not with faith and trust in God’s favor, but with their own works…. So blind are we: with our bodily sickness and need we run to God; but with the souls sickness we run from Him, and are unwilling to come back before we are well…. If you wish to be cured of sin, you must not withdraw from God, but run to Him, and pray with much more confidence…. God is not hostile to sinners, but to unbelievers, that is, to such as do not recognize and lament their sin, nor seek help against it from God, but in their own presumption wish first to purify themselves, are unwilling to be in need of His grace, and will not suffer Him to be a God who gives to everyone and takes nothing in return.” (3)
True repentance then, is not about wrath or even about virtue; to repent is about entering into the process of learning through growth, of acknowledging when we’re wrong and gratitude for what we do well. It demands risk and the naked terror of vulnerability. Because, in all honesty, shame is the real reason we avoid approaching God. But in this area of life, our resistance is nothing more than pride and false humility; because believing that, “God won’t hear me; I’m not good enough”, is the same as saying that we have the ability to be good enough.
1. Jesus Among other God’s, pg. 77, Nook-eBook, Ravi Zacharias
2. Steps to Christ, pg. 26, E. White
3. A Treatise on Good Works, pg. 45, Martin Luther
* Albeit, in Hebrew, repentance does mean to turn from sin, as is appropriately taught by tradition, but this should not and does not exclude the Greek meaning of a cognitive retrospective view of what works and does not work in our lives, as reconsidering ones path is similar in concept, only enlarged in application as new covenant is to old.