Repentance: Your First Step

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"In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, and saying, 'Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!'" (Matthew 3:1-2).

After God calls us, repentance is the starting point in our relationship with Him. Without repentance, we are cut off from God: "Behold, the LORD's hand is not shortened, that it cannot save; nor His ear heavy, that it cannot hear. But your iniquities have separated you from your God; and your sins have hidden His face from you, so that He will not hear" (Isaiah 59:1-2).

However, God wants all to repent and become His children (2 Peter 3:9; John 1:12). For this to happen, God in His great mercy begins leading us to repentance (Romans 2:4).

Sincere study of God’s Word, coupled with a strong desire to yield to His will, soon lets us see in ourselves the selfish desires that dominate the behavior and reasoning of most people.

Notice how God used the apostle Peter to instruct those He was calling. In Peter's first recorded sermon on the Day of Pentecost, he said, "Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ." Those listening were "cut to the heart." They implored Peter and the other apostles, "Men and brethren, what shall we do?"

Peter replied, "Repent and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit" (Acts 2:36-38).

But what does it mean to "repent"? Definitions of repentance include: a turning with sorrow from a past course of action; the changing of one's mind for the better; regret or contrition; sorrow for sin with self-condemnation; abhorrence of past sins; complete turning from sin.

The Bible describes repentance as a profound realization of our sins and resulting sorrow that leads us to change our thoughts and actions: "For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death" (2 Corinthians 7:10).

Godly sorrow allows us to see how totally selfish, corrupt and far from God we are and causes us to place our hope in Him. It leads to a deep, life-altering commitment. Worldly sorrow, by contrast, is shallow and superficial, producing no real and permanent change.

At its core, repentance is change. It is turning from our previous self-centered way of life to serve God and center our life around Him.

Peter, in his sermon quoted above, described repentance as a personal expression of deep and heartfelt surrender to God, the result of recognizing and acknowledging what Jesus, as our personal Savior, did to reconcile us to God the Father (Romans 5:8-10; 2 Corinthians 5:18-20). Repentance unites us with God the Father and Jesus Christ in an extraordinary relationship.

The miracle of repentance

Early in our relationship with God, we need to understand that repentance is a miracle. Through the Bible we see the opportunity to repent as a gift from God, possible only when God draws us to Him. As pointed out earlier, Jesus plainly stated, "No one can come to Me, unless the Father who sent Me draws him" (John 6:44).

It is impossible for anyone, acting alone, to completely surrender his or her will to God. Humanly we cannot comprehend the depth of change that God desires to see in our hearts and minds. We need help even to understand what sin is!

That's why God must grant us repentance (Acts 11:18; 2 Timothy 2:25). In addition, we need the will—both the desire and the choice—to repent. This willingness to repent, too, comes from God: "For God is working in you, giving you the desire to obey him and the power to do what pleases him" (Philippians 2:13, New Living Translation).

Although God "desires all men to be saved," He doesn't force anyone to repent (1 Timothy 2:4). His kindness and goodness lead us to repentance as mentioned (Romans 2:4), but He doesn't make the choice for us. The decision is still ours.

Those who choose to genuinely repent soon realize that God is active in their lives—working within them to instill a deep desire to change in whatever way is necessary to please Him. They want to learn God's will—to know what He expects of them. They study God's inspired Word, the Bible, to better understand His will. They desire to submit to God and live according to His instructions.

Sincere study of God's Word, coupled with a strong desire to yield to His will, soon lets us see in ourselves the selfish desires that dominate the behavior and reasoning of most people. We begin to recognize the pervasive influence that the carnal or fleshly mind, as the apostle Paul called it, has on our thinking and behavior (Romans 8:7).

Before we can repent, God must convict us of sin (John 16:8), helping us to realize how far away we are from His ways. We must recognize the sin within us and comprehend our deep-rooted hostility toward Him.

To recognize sin in ourselves is an enormous step. The first step in changing a bad habit or avoiding a wrong act is to recognize the problem and admit that it exists. We must be willing to admit our faults and acknowledge our guilt. "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just 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" (1 John 1:9-10).

What is sin?

In today's world, sin is not a popular subject. As a society we search for ways to absolve ourselves of responsibility for our actions. We hear experts say, "He was abused as a child, therefore we cannot hold him responsible for what he did." We reason that, if everybody is doing something, it must not be all that bad.

But God, through the Bible, goes right to the heart of the matter, clearly defining sin for us in 1 John 3:4: "Whoever commits sin also commits lawlessness, and sin is lawlessness."

To what law was John referring? He made it clear in other verses in this same epistle: "Now by this we know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments. He who says, 'I know Him,' and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him" (1 John 2:3-4). And: "For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome" (1 John 5:3).

Sin, therefore, is defined as breaking God's commandments and laws.

Why should we worry about transgressing God's laws? Because our eternal life is at stake! Paul warned, "The wages of sin is death" (Romans 6:23). We readily consider such acts as murder, theft and adultery to be sin. However, Christ made it clear that we can sin by our very thoughts, not just our actions. He said that hatred and lust violate God's commandments against murder and adultery just as surely as the physical acts themselves (Matthew 5:22-28; 1 John 3:15).

We have all missed the mark. As Paul says in Romans 3:23, "For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God."

In the same chapter he quotes several Old Testament passages in describing our natural, evil, rebellious state apart from God: "There is none righteous, no, not one; there is none who understands; there is none who seeks after God ... There is none who does good, no, not one ... Their feet are swift to shed blood; destruction and misery are in their ways; and the way of peace they have not known. There is no fear of God before their eyes" (Romans 3:10-18; see Psalm 14:2-3; Psalm 53:2-3; Isaiah 59:7-8; Psalm 36:1).

Repentance is change from the inside!

God is not harsh, even though He knows we are sinners. He does, however, require that we surrender our will to Him. He expects us to bring into our lives His way of thinking and living as revealed in His Holy Scriptures. He wants every one of us to rid ourselves of our former way of thinking and living and become a "new man" in thought, attitude and character (Ephesians 4:22-24). To each of us He says, "Be renewed in the spirit of your mind" (Ephesians 4:23).

God reveals His thoughts and mind through His Word. It contains His values, standards and principles. We learn to think like God by reading and studying the Bible.

These admonitions mean a lifetime of growth and change for us, starting with the initial change—the repentance God expects before baptism. He asks us to reorient our hearts, aiming for a new direction in life.

"To be carnally minded is death," said Paul, "but to be spiritually minded is life and peace" (Romans 8:6). We must be willing to let the revealed Word of God, the Bible, change our thinking. That is where real repentance begins. Repentance is our personal choice to let God change us inside and out! James says, "Draw near to God and He will draw near to you" (James 4:8).

God's mercy is so great that He will forgive us, provided that we forsake both our way (our wrong behavior) and our thoughts: "Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, and He will have mercy on him; and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon" (Isaiah 55:7).

We must learn to think like God

If change originates from the inside, with our thoughts, right behavior will follow. Godly behavior is only the fruit of righteous convictions, desires, emotions and attitudes—the result of our thoughts.

But how can we learn to think like God? How can we change our thoughts? God reveals His thoughts and mind through His Word, the Bible. It contains His values, standards and principles. We learn to think like God by reading and studying the Bible.

Proverbs 2:1-5 expresses it clearly: "My son, if you receive my words, and treasure my commands within you, so that you incline your ear to wisdom, and apply your heart to understanding; yes, if you cry out for discernment, and lift up your voice for understanding, if you seek her as silver, and search for her as for hidden treasures; then you will understand the fear of the Lord, and find the knowledge of God."

Jesus confirmed the importance of God's Word as our guide to life. He said, "It is written: 'Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God'" (Matthew 4:4). One with a truly repentant attitude will search God's Word for instruction on how to live.

We must show "fruits worthy of repentance"

Repentance was an integral part of the message of John the Baptist, who "went into all the region around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins" (Luke 3:3). Notice that his message connected baptism, repentance and the remission (forgiveness) of sin. One cannot properly discuss one of these topics without discussing the other two.

John was popular among the people of his day. Crowds followed him, asking for baptism. But not all were welcomed by John. Some simply had no comprehension of repentance. John admonished them: "Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance" (Luke 3:7-8).

John's refusal to baptize everyone astonished them. Just what were these fruits he demanded? What did he expect? They asked him, "What shall we do then?" (Luke 3:10).

John's answer is one of the most penetrating and revealing descriptions of true repentance in the Bible. He showed that real repentance produces fruit—genuine results from a change of heart. John did not provide a dictionary definition of the words repentance and fruits. Instead he gave examples of how people need to change to be truly repentant before God.

"He answered and said to them, 'He who has two tunics, let him give to him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise.' Then the tax collectors also came to be baptized, and said to him, 'Teacher, what shall we do?' And he said to them, 'Collect no more than what is appointed for you.' Likewise the soldiers asked him, saying, 'And what shall we do?' So he said to them, 'Do not intimidate anyone or accuse falsely, and be content with your wages'" (Luke 3:11-14).

It was common for the tax collectors to demand more taxes of people than was legally due, greedily pocketing the difference. Soldiers, charged with the duty of maintaining law and order, often augmented their income by extortion—intimidating and abusing the very people they were supposed to protect.

Because these public servants had difficulty recognizing their own failings, as people often do, John chose examples that hit home to them, asking for evidence of repentance from the heart. He demanded personal sacrifice, given willingly, that showed genuine concern for others. He told them to look inside themselves and examine the motives driving their attitudes and actions.

The specific fruit John called on these people to produce was a change in their behavior. However, he chose examples that typify the self-centered, self-serving nature in all of us.

Jesus makes it clear that the changes needed most come from the heart, from our thoughts. He said, "What comes out of a man, that defiles a man. For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts" (Mark 7:20-21). He then listed ways these inward attitudes show themselves: "Adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lewdness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within and defile a man" (Mark 7:21-23).

To some, the change God wants in us can appear so overwhelming that repentance and conversion to God's way of thinking seem impossible. And that's the point. Without God's help, they are impossible!

When Christ compared entering the Kingdom of God to passing a camel through the eye of a needle, the disciples asked in amazement, "Who then can be saved?" (Mark 10:23-26). Jesus replied, "With men it is impossible, but not with God; for with God all things are possible" (Mark 10:27). To truly repent, we must learn to trust and rely on God more than on ourselves.

In Luke 18:9-14, Jesus contrasted the attitude of an outwardly religious individual who trusted in himself for his righteousness with the attitude of a repentant tax collector who correctly perceived his own spiritual inadequacy and looked to God for help to become righteous. Jesus explained that God's forgiveness (justification or making right) is extended to those who humbly look to God rather than to themselves for the power to repent and change their behavior.

Seek God's help in faith

If you sincerely desire to commit your life to God, ask Him for His gift of repentance. Tell Him your intentions in prayer. Seek His help. Don't rely on your own ability to perceive your sins and change them all by yourself. If you have not yet developed the habit of regular prayer and feel awkward about praying, understand that God will help you. Jesus promised, "Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you" (Matthew 7:7). If you sincerely want to follow His commandments and instruction from the Bible, tell Him.

Of course, all of this requires that we believe in God and learn to trust Him. Indeed, faith in God is a key part of this entire process. Hebrews 11:6 says, "Without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him." Your part is to act on faith, then trust God to answer your prayers. This is one of the most important steps in your entire life. Don't delay! Take the time now—talk to God.

Let's next examine the significance of baptism.

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