Repentance That Works

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Repentance That Works

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I’ve come to the conclusion that if you ever want to know exactly what God thinks about us as His children, have children of your own.

When my children were little, I remember times when they had done something wrong, and got themselves into trouble. We had to sit them down and explain the situation, explain why it wasn’t okay, or why it wasn’t safe. We suggested some alternatives, and then in the cutest little voice ever, they would say, “I’m sowwy Daddy. I’m sowwy Mommy.”

You can’t help but melt.

God promises to never leave us, and to never forsake us. But we must genuinely desire to return to Him and be willing to take steps to humble ourselves and yield to Him.

… and then—perhaps your kids are nothing like mine—but in more than a couple of situations, a few weeks later they forget and you catch them doing it again. You go through the process again to remind them of the expectations, to which they respond, “I’m sowwy Daddy… I’m sowwy Mommy,” only to eventually do it again when they weren’t thinking.

I’m convinced that this little interaction is designed to help us see ourselves and our relationship with God.

How many times have you found yourself in a similar place? Telling God you’re sorry? Recognizing you’ve done something wrong, perhaps even going through the process of repentance and asking for forgiveness of God, and then you find yourself right back where you started.

Why didn’t it work?

For many people—trying to overcome sin in their lives has led to frustration, discouragement and an attitude of defeat. They begin to think that they’ll never be able to overcome the sins that they struggle with. They get discouraged and wonder if it’s even worth fighting anymore.

Some give up altogether.

How can I stop the cycle of sin?

Ultimately, sin is overcome through the ongoing process of repentance and yielding to God’s Holy Spirit in our life.

The English word “repent” in the New Testament is translated from the Greek word metanoia, which means to change one’s mind . Repentance means that we change inwardly from sinful thoughts and the resulting actions to belief in and obedience to God. Repentance then involves a change in our thoughts and attitudes, which become our actions.

How do we get there? How do we practice repentance that works?

Repentance that works requires three specific steps.

1. Genuine sorrow toward God because of our sin

Working with young people for a number of years in the field of education, I can’t tell you how many times that I’ve heard the words, “ I’m sorry… ” It’s automatic, instantaneous—a response thrown out without a second thought because they feel it is what you want to hear.

While there are certainly some who are remorseful of their actions and truly sorry, a vast number of them are simply sorry they got caught.

When we are young, we learn early on to be sorry for the consequences that we will experience for our unwise choices or disobedience. We may not regret the wrong action that brought us to this place, but we regret the consequences that we are going to experience as a result.

It takes a degree of maturity to reach the point of feeling genuinely sorry because we understand how we’ve hurt the other person.

When David sinned with Bathsheba, and was made aware of it, he wrote Psalm 51, a very heartfelt prayer of repentance to God. In verses 1-4 of Psalm 51, David cried out to God to be made clean. He wished to be cleansed, he wished to be restored, and he fully understood who he had sinned against. As a result of David knowing and acknowledging his sin before God, he showed genuine sorrow. He wasn’t sorrowful because of the consequences he would reap as a result of what he sowed; instead he realized that he sinned against God (Psalms 51:1-4 Psalms 51:1-4 1 Have mercy on me, O God, according to your loving kindness: according to the multitude of your tender mercies blot out my transgressions. 2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. 3 For I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me. 4 Against you, you only, have I sinned, and done this evil in your sight: that you might be justified when you speak, and be clear when you judge.
American King James Version×
).

Our sins can have a number of ramifications and consequences. They might affect us directly, our job, our family, our relationships with friends and family, or financially. But if we don’t recognize primarily that our sin affected our relationship with our Creator, and that ultimately we sinned against Him, we will struggle to practice repentance that works.

Paul made this point to the church in Corinth. Following the rebuke that he gave the congregation in his first epistle, he follows up on the rebuke in his second epistle, stating that he rejoiced not that they had become sorry, but that their godly sorrow had led to repentance (2 Corinthians 7:9-10 2 Corinthians 7:9-10 9 Now I rejoice, not that you were made sorry, but that you sorrowed to repentance: for you were made sorry after a godly manner, that you might receive damage by us in nothing. 10 For godly sorrow works repentance to salvation not to be repented of: but the sorrow of the world works death.
American King James Version×
). Verse 10 makes the point that godly sorrow leads to repentance and salvation. Simply being sorry—having worldly sorrow—leads to death.

Today, many people confuse these concepts of sorrow and repentance, assuming that because they feel bad about something, they have repented. Feeling bad about our transgression against God isn’t the same thing as repentance. Sorrow and repentance are closely related, as true change cannot come without first being convicted of our sins, but they are not the same thing.

It’s this appropriate godly sorrow that leads us to change our mind and overcome our sins. This godly sorrow grows inside us and stirs up excitement, diligence and zeal for the truth of God. As a result, we grow in faith and begin to change how we think and operate.

2. Genuine repentance requires a repulsion to sin and a willingness to forsake it

We must see sin as God sees sin.

The example of Job stands out when we consider this point. In the final chapter of the book, we see Job show God that he understood what he was not aware of when God first began to test him (Job 42:1-6 Job 42:1-6 1 Then Job answered the LORD, and said, 2 I know that you can do every thing, and that no thought can be withheld from you. 3 Who is he that hides counsel without knowledge? therefore have I uttered that I understood not; things too wonderful for me, which I knew not. 4 Hear, I beseech you, and I will speak: I will demand of you, and declare you to me. 5 I have heard of you by the hearing of the ear: but now my eye sees you. 6 Why I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes.
American King James Version×
). Job had come to an understanding of his own sins and says in verse 6, “I abhor myself.” Job recognized his sin against God, and was repulsed by it. This repulsion made him more determined than ever to change what needed to be changed so that he would not continue to sin.

We must be repulsed by the sin that we commit as well because we recognize the impact it has on our relationship with God, but also because we must see sin as God sees sin. God detests sin. in Psalms 5:4 Psalms 5:4For you are not a God that has pleasure in wickedness: neither shall evil dwell with you.
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, the psalmist writes, “You are a God that does not take pleasure in wickedness, and neither shall evil dwell with thee” (King James Version). Sin within us is repulsive to God, and it must be removed from us. We must be willing to forsake it.

It’s important to realize, however, that this should not cross over from healthy repulsion and motivation to eradicate the sin in our lives to self-loathing and depression, or a defeatist attitude. This struggle within is documented in the lives of many of God’s people through history.

The apostle Paul records the struggle with human nature in Romans 7:14-15 Romans 7:14-15 14 For we know that the law is spiritual: but I am carnal, sold under sin. 15 For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I.
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. He goes on to explain the things he desires to do, those are things he doesn’t do, but the things he doesn’t want to do—that he does. It’s the perfect description of the battle that we have with human nature and sin in our lives. We know the way we’re supposed to live, we desire to live that way—yet find ourselves living opposite that way at times.

We can all relate to this concept. Any of us who are professing Christians interested in pleasing God don’t set out to sin, but there is a huge difference between wanting to change and being willing to change.

Every six weeks my students receive a grade, and sometimes they come up short of where they should be. At the start of every new 6-week period, I have them reflect on the past six weeks, looking back at what could improve on. More often than not, the response that I receive from my kids is, “I’m going to do better,” which I always hand back to them and tell them to get more specific.

What will you do differently? What steps will you take to ensure that six weeks later we aren’t sitting in this same exact place again?

They all want to change, but they’re not willing to take the actions necessary to achieve that change—not willing to put away the video games, not willing to do the extra work, not willing to put down the phone.

John T. Childs, an author and motivational speaker once said, There’s a huge difference between wanting to change and being willing to change. Almost everyone wants to change for the better. Very few are willing to take the steps necessary to create that change.”

What about us in our spiritual lives? Do we want to change? Do our actions reflect those steps toward change?

In Acts 26:20 Acts 26:20But showed first to them of Damascus, and at Jerusalem, and throughout all the coasts of Judaea, and then to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, and do works meet for repentance.
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, Paul states that if we truly repent, that our works will show it. They will be “works that are befitting repentance.” Are we showing through our daily lives a repentant spirit? Are we changing in the ways that we need to? A Christian is intended to bear fruits worthy of repentance (Matthew 3:8 Matthew 3:8Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance:
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). This means the actions of our life are tempered by the change of our mind.

It’s much more than wanting to, it’s being willing to.

3. Repentance includes humble self-surrender to the will of God and service

So first comes the recognition that we have sinned against God. Then we identify our sin, seeing it as God sees it and forsaking it. Then, lastly comes the humble self-surrender to the will of God and service to that will.

God expects us as His children to be changing from attitudes of selfishness to attitudes of self less ness. We are supposed to become a new creation (Ephesians 4:17-24 Ephesians 4:17-24 17 This I say therefore, and testify in the Lord, that you from now on walk not as other Gentiles walk, in the vanity of their mind, 18 Having the understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart: 19 Who being past feeling have given themselves over to lasciviousness, to work all uncleanness with greediness. 20 But you have not so learned Christ; 21 If so be that you have heard him, and have been taught by him, as the truth is in Jesus: 22 That you put off concerning the former conversation the old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts; 23 And be renewed in the spirit of your mind; 24 And that you put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness.
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) through the transformative power of God’s Spirit.

Saul of Tarsis, who later became the apostle Paul, had at one point in his life been an incredible persecutor of the brethren, breathing threats of murder and purposefully going after and arresting followers of Jesus Christ. After an incredible conversion on the road to Damascus, in Acts 9:6 Acts 9:6And he trembling and astonished said, Lord, what will you have me to do? And the Lord said to him, Arise, and go into the city, and it shall be told you what you must do.
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, we see an incredible change in his attitude. He asks the question, “Lord, what will you have me do?” This heart and attitude is what God desires of us. He desires us to be willing to bend ourselves to His will in our life and to serve Him

This question, “What will you have me do?” is a beautiful question—it is the question of a true servant seeking the will of God. It tells Him that we are listening and want to obey and serve Him.

The men gathered on the Day of Pentecost asked this very question after they discovered that Jesus Christ, the one so many of them were pleased to see put to death, was the Messiah. They were cut to the heart, and in Acts 2:37 Acts 2:37Now when they heard this, they were pricked in their heart, and said to Peter and to the rest of the apostles, Men and brothers, what shall we do?
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asked, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?”

This line of questioning illustrates a teachable frame of mind, one that is willing to not only learn, but to do whatever it takes to be right with God. At its core, this is humility—the heart of a servant. This attitude also reflects a spirit of repentance, a change of mind from where we once were. Where we were once concerned with our own selfish desires, now we are more focused on what God desires for us instead.

If we are struggling to overcome certain sins which crop up again and again in our lives, why must we ask ourselves: Do I really understand repentance that works? Am I really willing to practice it? Am I truly willing to change?

There may be times where we feel that it’s just too far gone, the relationship is past repair. God promises to never leave us, and to never forsake us. But we must genuinely desire to return to Him and be willing to take steps to humble ourselves and yield to Him.

2 Chronicles 15:3-4 2 Chronicles 15:3-4 3 Now for a long season Israel has been without the true God, and without a teaching priest, and without law. 4 But when they in their trouble did turn to the LORD God of Israel, and sought him, he was found of them.
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is an incredibly encouraging passage when we feel that all is lost:

For a long time Israel has been without the true God, without a teaching priest, and without law; but when in their trouble they turned to the LORD God of Israel, and sought Him, He was found by them.”

We must never forget that if and when we truly turn to God in repentance, no matter what the situation, He is there.

This is a promise that we can rely on. When we show genuine sorrow toward God because we recognize that we have sinned against Him directly, and when we are repulsed by the sin that we commit and forsake it, and when we humble ourselves and surrender our will to God and serve Him, He will be found by us, and will grant us repentance that leads to true and lasting change.