Repentance is the fruit, not the cause, of our salvation. Today, Barry Cooper describes the lifelong discipline of repentance to which every Christian is called.
Jesus called people to “repent and believe” in Him. What is repentance?
Well, consider Zacchaeus in Luke chapter 19. He was a short man, and usually, people in crowds don’t mind short people standing in front of them. But Zacchaeus, we’re told, has to climb a tree to get a glimpse of Jesus. Why? Because people hated him. They wouldn’t let him through. And that’s because he was a tax collector.
I know, you probably didn’t tune in to hear about taxation. Bear with me. When the Romans took over a city two thousand years ago, they wanted to tax it—and tax it heavily. So they would hire a native; someone who lived there, who knew the place inside out; someone who could make sure that no one was hiding any of their earnings from the occupying Roman forces. The Romans would say to them, “Here’s how much we want, and you can keep anything you want beyond that.” They’d even provide soldiers to enforce whatever the tax collector demanded. So someone like Zacchaeus was hated. He was seen as a thief and a traitor to his friends, his family, his people.
But then he meets Jesus. And he joyfully responds to Jesus’ request to come to his home. And Zacchaeus says to Him: “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.”
That’s what repentance looks like. It’s a realization of the seriousness of our sin. It’s a joyful realization of God’s mercy in Christ. It’s a turning from our sin in disgust and a turning towards obedience, whatever that obedience costs. It’s a visible sign that we are truly saved. As Jesus says to Zacchaeus when He hears what Zacchaeus plans to do, “Today salvation has come to this house.”
The Greek word for “repentance” is metanoia, which literally means to “change one’s mind.” But it’s not a fickle thing, the way we might change our mind on something, then change it back again. It’s a transformation of outlook, an entirely new way of seeing.
Biblically speaking, true repentance can only come about as a result of the inner work of the Holy Spirit.
And it’s crucial to see: repentance isn’t the cause of salvation, it’s the fruit of it. When the Spirit brings us to faith in Christ, He convicts us of our sin, and the fruit of that conviction is repentance.
Repentance, then, shows that our faith in Christ is genuine. We turn around. We go in the opposite direction, like Zaccheus. Not just because we hate our sin, but also because we love our Lord. At the same time, as we turn away from our sin in disgust, we’re turning toward Him in worship and love.
And just to be clear, repentance isn’t a one-shot deal. It’s not something we do once at the beginning of our Christian lives and then move on from. It’s a daily discipline; a way of life. As Martin Luther said, “Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, when he said ‘Repent,’ willed that the whole life of believers should be repentance.” We’re never so free of sin that we can be free of repentance.
But repentance isn’t meant to keep us in a place of shame or hopelessness. Consider the Lord’s words in Mark chapter 1, where He calls people to “repent and believe the good news.” He holds the two tightly together. Our repentance is a channel through which we get to experience once again the wonder of the good news of Christ’s irrevocable love for us. John Calvin, in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, wrote: “Those who are truly religious experience what sort of punishments are shame, confusion, groaning, displeasure with self, and other emotions that arise out of a lively recognition of sin. Yet we must remember to exercise restraint, lest sorrow engulf us. For nothing more readily happens to fearful consciences than falling into despair. And whomever Satan sees overwhelmed by the fear of God he more and more submerges in that deeper whirlpool of sorrow that they may never rise again. In this way we flee from God, who calls us to Himself through repentance.”
So repentance is a gateway, on the other side of which is our loving Father. Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son shows what this is like. The Prodigal, when he realizes how he has sinned against his father, turns back from the far country in which he’s been living, and heads home. That’s repentance. A turning back to God.
And just like the father of the Prodigal Son, God runs to meet us joyfully in that moment. Embracing us, kissing us, celebrating with us.
What if we ourselves have become aware that we need to repent of something? Let’s waste no time, and turn back from the far country. If we’ve sinned against someone else in some way, with our words or actions, we should express our remorse to that person and ask for forgiveness. As well as honoring Christ, and restoring a deeper intimacy with the Father, that act of repentance has the power to bring deep healing to the person we’ve sinned against, and also deep healing to us.