There is a way that seems right to a man,
But its end is the way of death.
—Proverbs 14:12; 16:25
Repentance is a tough sell. For one thing, all people need to hear and heed the call to repent, but only a handful actually do. For another, the message of repentance is difficult to deliver. In fact, more than one of God’s spokesmen in the Bible resisted a divine assignment to preach it.
God told Moses to go to Pharaoh and essentially tell him to repent of holding the Hebrew people in bondage. Moses came up with one excuse after another and obeyed God only after trying His patience and running completely out of “reasons” to turn Him down.
Jonah is the classic example of a reluctant preacher. Did he become that example, at least in part, because God called him to preach repentance? Yet, in the end, even the Ninevites, notoriously wicked though they were, received Jonah’s warning and humbled themselves before the Lord. God spared them, but unfortunately, Jonah didn’t even allow himself to rejoice with God over his hearers’ response. As a result, He had some serious repenting to do himself.
It should not surprise us that repentance is highlighted frequently in the Bible, because no one can be made right with God without it. We see it in both the Old and New Testaments, and with varying degrees of receptivity. In addition to Moses’ and Jonah’s preaching, here are a few examples.
- Noah had 120 years to build the ark that sheltered him, his family, and two of every species of animal from God’s judgment in the form of widespread deadly floodwaters. During that time, other people also would have been saved had they acknowledged God and His coming judgment—but no one did. Surely Noah urged them to come to safety, for he was a “preacher of righteousness” (2 Pet. 2:5). Acknowledging God in a way that would have compelled a person to step on the ark also would have compelled that person to repent of his or her sins.
- After King David had committed adultery and murder, Nathan confronted him about his sins. David confessed and repented. God forgave him, but some of the damage could not be reversed, and David reaped bitter fruit in his family relationships thereafter (2 Sam. 12:1-14; Ps. 51).
- In Jeremiah 7:16-27, the Lord warned Jeremiah that his hearers would not listen but would remain stubborn and unrepentant.
- Significantly, the message given to John the Baptist, the one who would prepare the way for the Messiah, was a message of repentance (Matt. 3:1-10; Acts13:24-25). Why did he not first call on people to celebrate or to praise God? Repentance was paramount.
- Jesus declared that repentance is essential to salvation (see Luke 13:1-5) and that few people would be saved (see Matt.7:13-14).
- At Pentecost, Peter preached a bold sermon urging people to repent and continued preaching repentance for the rest of his ministry (Acts 2:38-41; 3:19-21; 5:29-31; 8:18-23; 11:1-18; 2 Pet. 3:9).
- Paul preached repentance during his entire ministry as well (see Acts 17:30 20:21; 26:19-20; Rom. 2:4; 2 Cor. 7:9-10; 12:21; 2 Tim. 2:24-26).
Why is repentance so widely avoided? As Scripture declares, Satan has blinded people to the truth (see 2 Cor. 4:3-4). Perhaps one way he does this is by promoting a short-term perspective.
Imagine you are a grain of sand in the top portion of an hourglass. In this imaginary scenario you are not accompanied by other grains of sand but are by yourself. You enjoy plenty of space and lots of latitude; you call the shots. Traveling downward through the narrow neck of the hourglass is, for the purposes of our illustration, representative of repentance. All you can see as you look down that path is restriction of your freedom, loss of independence, and an end to any and all enjoyment in life. Will you go that way? “Never!” You tell yourself.
Yet in reality, what lies beyond the narrow neck? A new, wide world of opportunity! A world of freedom, though here we clearly are talking about a different kind of freedom than the one you now know. Yes, the new world involves guidelines for holy living, but it also involves a new outlook that chances your desires.
A person certainly can repent and enter the new arena without prior knowledge of the new kind of freedom that will be his on the other side. Indeed, he can’t know a great deal about it (see 1 Cor. 2:14). He must first understand how hopeless his situation is without Christ because of the requirements of God’s law (see Gal. 3:24). Still, in addition to this, if more sinners caught glimpses of the other side, they might more readily turn to God. Only God can convict them and convince them of such truths, so we need to pray He would do so. Here are some declarations and observations that capture aspects of the new arena—and that describe the old one. Let’s look at some Scripture passages first, then some quotations from various Christian leaders.
Scripture Places the Two Arenas in Stark Contrast
Jesus said, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32). He also said, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. Whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it” (Matt. 16:24-25).
Jesus also declared, “Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it” (Matt. 7:13-14).
These statements of Jesus also are especially pertinent to our discussion: “The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly” (John 10:10). “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.
Take my yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and by burden is light” (Matt. 11:28-30).
In Romans 7:15-24, Paul wrote of being enslaved to his fleshly nature (note that this passage climaxes with a cry of desperation from the apostle):
“For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do. If, then, I do what I will not to do, I agree with the law that it is good. But now, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find. For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice. Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. I find then a law, that evil is present with me, the one who wills to do good. For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man. But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”
Then, in 7:25–8:2, Paul wrote with obvious joy:
“I thank God—through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, with the mind I myself serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin. There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death.”
Freedom on the other side of repentance? Yes! Jesus makes this a reality for those who trust Him and rely on Him for strength for daily living!
Christian Leaders Give Insights Regarding the Two Arenas
Ravi Zacharias said, “Jesus Christ did not come into this world to make bad people good. He came to make dead people live” ([Lee Strobel, The Case for Faith, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000], 219). Thus, the top half of the hourglass represents death, and the bottom half (the world after repentance), life.
Josh McDowell has said that many people think of freedom as being able to go out and do whatever they want to do, but that isn’t freedom at all. True freedom is having the power to do what you ought to do. The top portion of the hourglass, then, is a world of restrictions that seem like freedom, and the bottom is an arena of freedom that seems overly restrictive to the many who aren’t there.
In a Christmas sermon, Dr. Francis Schaeffer declared (note especially the statement we have italicized):
“When we perceive the simplicity and yet the grandeur of what is involved, we are overwhelmed. The second person of the Trinity lies in the manger for a reason. Because He loves the world, He has come not just to eliminate the peripheral results of man’s fall (though these will be totally removed at His second coming); He is here to cut the nerve of man’s real dilemma, to solve the problem from which all other problems flow. The ‘condition of man’ is not what modern man thinks it is. Man is a sinner who needs an overwhelming love. Jesus has come to save His people from their sins. This is not to say that He has no interest in…other things now, but we must not get the matters reversed—the central thing is central."
— “What Difference Has Looking Made? (A Christmas Study)” No Little People, in The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer, Vol. 3: A Christian View of Spirituality, [Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1982] 123-124).
While with God’s help, the sinner repents—he or she turns away from sin to God—God brings about a transformation in that person’s life on the basis of Christ’s redemptive work on the cross. This is why Jesus came into the world. Among other things, therefore, repentance involves a recognition of the true condition of the human heart.
Note the words to the second stanza of the hymn “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of Creation” by German theologian Joachim Neander (1650-1680). Especially notice the italicized words.
Praise to the Lord, who o’er all things so wondrously reigneth,
Shelters thee under his wings, yea, so gently sustaineth!
Hast thou not seen
How thy desires e’er have been
Granted in what he ordaineth?
In the days, weeks, and months ahead, repentance will remain important, but I believe it will even take on an unprecedented urgency for our nation. As believers, we affirm that no one can get to the new world of life, freedom, and opportunity without repenting of his or her sins and trusting Christ as Savior.
We affirm as well that America, as a nation, is at a crossroads. She will not survive as a free country if her people do not experience a spiritual awakening that involves repentance. Let us boldly declare the message of repentance in the context of the gospel given to us by our Lord, and let us remain confident concerning its message.
Restrictive though it may seem, genuine repentance leads to authentic freedom.
Originally published at Word Foundations