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Repentance and Evangelicalism

The concept of repentance seems to be in full-fledged retreat in today’s church. Evangelical Christians love to stress decisions, worship, faith and growth, but seem to leave out one rather critical aspect of the Christian faith. We need not look far to find people who confess Christ, yet continue to live in ways that would call their confession into question. More than simply committing sins, so many are living truly sinful lifestyles. One has legitimate grounds to wonder if they have show genuine repentance before God.

Repentance is a concept that causes our human natures to rebel, for we hate to think that we are really sinful enough that we need to repent before God. We also hate to give up our autonomy and admit that God’s ways our superior to ours. The idea of expressing faith seems wonderful and so does the idea of being followers of Jesus, but admitting our sinful natures and confessing our unworthiness before God flies in the face of what our society teaches us. We are taught that right and wrong are subjective and that what is good for me may be bad for you – and frankly that’s just fine as long as you don’t force your views on me. Repentance is an admission that our ways our wrong and God’s are right. Repentance is admitting that we are willing to suppress our desires in favor of God’s.

Because our society so hates the idea of repentance, many churches, out of a so-called “seeker-sensitivity,” have stopped speaking about it, choosing instead to teach about sorrow and brokenness. Instead of portraying Jesus as the one who died to remove the stench of our sin from before God, Jesus is portrayed as one who died to meet our needs and to help us live a better life. Jesus died to give us purpose and to give us the power to change our minds. There need not be true, biblical repentance in this watered-down gospel. The true gospel, the gospel which has the power to transform lives, cannot be preached without repentance. An example of an incomplete understanding of repentance was forwarded to me last week by a reader of this site. He provided an excerpt from an interview with Rick Warren. Here is Warren’s definition of repentance:

“The sixth principle is that the biblical word for changing your mind is repentance, metanoia. Now when most people think of the word of repentance, they think of sandwich signs, turn or burn, or they think repentance means stopping all my bad actions.

That is not what repentance is. There is not a lexicon in the world that will tell you that repentance means stop your bad action.

Repentance, metanoia, simply means changing your mind. And we are in the mind-changing business. Preaching is about mind changing. Society’s word for repentance, by the way, is “paradigm shift.”

Repentance is the ultimate paradigm shift, where I go from darkness to light, from guilt to forgiveness, from no hope to hope, from no purpose to purpose, from living for myself to living for Christ. It’s the ultimate paradigm shift.

And repentance is changing your mind at the deepest level of beliefs and values.”

The Bible is not a dictionary, so we will not find a clear-cut, dictionary-like definition of “repent” within its pages. Yet by examining Scripture and historical Christianity we can arrive at a satisfactory definition that captures the biblical essence of the term.

Defining Repentance

Repentance follows the Spirit’s regeneration of a person. Once the Spirit has regenerated us, we are able to do two things. First, we can express faith in God. Second, and inseparable from this expression of faith, we are able to repent before God. These are really two sides of a coin, for as we turn towards God in faith we must necessarily turn away from something at the same time. As we turn towards God we turn away from the way we used to live. This is repentance.

Repentance comes from the Latin word meaning “think” so in reality repentance is “re-thinking.” Repentance is changing one’s mind, but there is more to it than that. The change of mind is so deep and so important that it influences all areas of life – values, goals, affections, actions, plans, motives and lifestyle. More than a change of mind it is a complete reversal of the way a person lives.

The Westminster Confession says the following about repenting:

A sinner, out of the sight and sense, not only of the danger, but also the filthiness and odiousness of his sins, as contrary to the holy nature and righteous law of God, and upon the apprehension of His mercy in Christ to such as are penitent, so grieves for and hates his sins as to turn from them all unto God, purposing and endeavoring to walk with Him in all the ways of His commandments. (15.2)

The Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms, as we might expect, provides a similar definition, defining repentance as “The act of expressing contrition and penitence for sin. Its linguistic roots point to its theological meaning of a change of mind and life direction as a beginning step of expressing Christian faith (Acts 26:20).”

Repentance, then, is born of a comprehension of how odious our sins are in the sight of God. When we begin to understand just how terrible our sins are and how deeply and completely they have offended God, we are able also to begin to comprehend how deep God’s mercy is that He would choose to save us. Understanding our sin and His mercy, we are driven to repent, turning our backs on our sinful ways and choosing to follow God’s ways.

It is important to note that repentance is much more than simply feelings of sorrow or self-hatred. Though these may be part of our reactions to repenting, they are not enough. True repentance expresses itself in action and in a changed life. In Psalm 51 David pours out his heart to God in a beautiful prayer of repentance – one we would all do well to make our own. We see him acknowledging his sinfulness before God (“my sin is always before me. Again You, You only have I sinned”), asking God for forgiveness (“wash me and I shall be whiter than snow”) and expressing a changed life (“deliver me from the guilt…and my tongue shall sing aloud of Your righteousness…my mouth shall show forth Your praise.”). More than simply feeling guilt or sorrow, David showed that he was willing to change. Just as faith without works is dead, so repentance without change is dead.

Warren goes on to tell how he feels that preaching for repentance is the deepest kind of preaching. While I agree on the importance of preaching repentance, I wonder how much the repentance he preaches is mere change of mind and how much is an apprehension of our terrible sinfulness. What we see in Warren’s understanding of repentance (which typifies a modern, evangelical definition) is that many definitions of repentance show a startling absence of any type of mention of sin. Gone are the terms or concepts so integral to Scripture and historic Christianity, terms like “filthiness” and “odiousness.” Gone is a sense of absolute undeservedness. In its place is a changed mind, a decision to turn from bad action to good.

With God’s help we begin to express our repentance with a turning away from our sinful natures. No definition of repentance can be complete without an understanding of my great offense towards God which leads us to turn away from sin. Our wills become subject to His. Our desires become His desires and our goals His goals. Though we continue to express sorrow when we sin, we also express joy when we see how God has helped us change our lives, allowing us to become more and more conformed to the image of His Son.