Today I was really struck by a passage in my Bible reading, Jeremiah 3:21-4:4 (I encourage you to read the whole thing in context). I believe it is a great picture of true repentance. I’m going to outline the characteristics of repentance that it shows, but first I would say:
Sometimes we can see lists of things like “what true repentance looks like” and think we have to “do” those things in a legalistic manner. But true repentance comes from the heart, and ultimately, although we’re commanded to repent, it’s a gift of God. I would say it’s more like a mirror to check ourselves. We need to evaluate if we’re really serious about dealing with our sin and if we have truly humbled ourselves and come before God for his grace.
That said, here are some of the elements of true repentance that I see in this passage:
1. Weeping and pleading
A voice on the bare heights is heard,
the weeping and pleading of Israel's sons
because they have perverted their way;
they have forgotten the Lord their God.
A true recognition of our sin and its seriousness brings sorrow and grief. We can’t remain hard-hearted or unmoved. When we see our sin for what it is, the realization of the harm we have done to others and ourselves, and the offence to God often leads to literal weeping.
This is not self-pitying weeping over the consequences of our sin. That’s what 2 Corinthians 7:10 calls “worldly grief.” That demonstrates a heart which is still not in submission to God, which is only sorry because it got caught, or is suffering in some way for the sin. True repentance is not self-centred, sorry over the pain our sin has caused us. It is other-centred, grieved over the pain it has caused God and others.
Repentance also leads to pleading. Instead of an arrogant assumption that we are OK with God, we plead with him to forgive us, to change us, to restore us. We know that we don’t need to manipulate God or convince him to forgive us. His forgiveness of us is based on the finished work of Jesus, and is ours when we confess and repent. Nevertheless, if we are truly sorry for our sin and see it for what it is, we are desperate for him to do whatever it takes to deliver us from it.
This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:5-9)
2. A recognition that God is truth, and that sin is a lie
“Behold, we come to you,
for you are the Lord our God.
Truly the hills are a delusion,
the orgies on the mountains.
Truly in the Lord our God
is the salvation of Israel.”
Behind every act of sin and rebellion is the belief that God is not enough, that he does not tell us the truth when he tells us he is our Father, our Saviour, all that we need. Every act of sin is a step of disbelief that he and he alone will meet our needs. Every act of sin is an act of faith that we can find life, truth, satisfaction or fulfilment in something outside of him. We think that God lies when he calls himself the Fountain of Living Waters (Jeremiah 2:13).
But eventually, if we pursue sin long enough, we will see it for the empty delusion that it is. It can’t provide us with life, happiness, or fulfilment. We realize that God is telling us the truth when he says we find those things in him. We turn away in empty-handed disgust from our pursuit of the wind, and begin to seek life in the only place it is truly found, Jesus Christ.
3. Recognition of the destructive effects that sin has had in our lives
“But from our youth the shameful thing has devoured all for which our fathers labored, their flocks and their herds, their sons and their daughters.”
Sin doesn’t bring the promised blessing. Instead, it brings devastation into our lives, and the lives of others. We lose time, health, relationships, peace of mind, joy, peace with God. A part of true repentance is recognizing and owning up to this destruction, instead of blaming it on our circumstances, God, or other people.
4. An acceptance of the deserved shame that our sin brings
Let us lie down in our shame, and let our dishonor cover us.
When we see our sin for what it is, we are no longer defensive. A strong and universal impulse of human beings is to avoid shame. We go to great lengths to cover up our faults, to think of ourselves as better than we are, and to avoid at all costs the terrible feeling of shame and guilt. Even people who have committed awful crimes do this. We are infinitely capable of justifying ourselves and putting up defences against recognizing our sin and admitting our wrong.
But when we are truly repentant, we accept this shame instead of deflecting it. We acknowledge that we are guilty of violating God’s laws.
The prodigal son of Jesus’ parable demonstrated this attitude:
I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.” (Luke 15:18-19)
Fortunately, God doesn’t leave us in our shame! The son was joyfully received and celebrated and restored to his place as son and heir. This is the way God treats us when we repent. He doesn’t leave us wallowing in our guilt, but forgives, restores, and heals us. He treats us as though the sin never happened (although we may still deal with earthly consequences of it).
5. A willingness to be totally honest about our sin and to name it for what it is
“For we have sinned against the Lord our God, we and our fathers, from our youth even to this day, and we have not obeyed the voice of the Lord our God.”
When we are truly repentant, we come clean. We don’t hide or equivocate or make excuses or minimize or ignore or shift blame. True repentance manifests itself in a willingness to completely, thoroughly, honestly confess our sin for what it is, to God, and to other people.
That means if we struggle with pornography, we say, “I have the sin of lust.” If we struggle with getting irritated and snapping at people, we say, “I have the sin of anger.” If we struggle with buying stuff that we don’t need to try to fill the emptiness in our heart, we say, “I have the sin of covetousness.”
We can’t find forgiveness for something we won’t name. We don’t need forgiveness for things that are just the result of our abusive upbringing, or just a weakness, or because someone else did something first, or a disorder. We find forgiveness, healing, and change when we humble ourselves and call our sin what it is.
6. Returning to God
“If you return, O Israel,
declares the Lord,
to me you should return.
It might seem obvious, but true repentance involves a turning away from sin, to God. It’s not just a resolution to do better, or a moral reform carried out in our own strength. Those are empty and dead works of the flesh. True repentance involves a whole-hearted turning to God, to cleanse our sin, change our hearts, and give us the power and grace that we need to walk in obedience. We replace the lies of sin with the truth of God’s word. We begin to believe him instead of the world, the flesh, and the devil. We begin living for him instead of the things we were living for.
7. A willingness to do whatever it takes to deal with sin
If you remove your detestable things from my presence,
and do not waver
and if you swear, ‘As the Lord lives,’
in truth, in justice, and in righteousness,
then nations shall bless themselves in him,
and in him shall they glory.”
True repentance is not saying, “Oh, I’m sorry” and then carrying on doing the exact same things. True repentance means we begin to see things from God’s perspective. We hate and are repelled by the things we now see to be spiritual destruction and death. We want God and his presence more than we want anything else in life. We are willing to do whatever it takes, no matter what the cost, to get rid of the sin that separates us from him.
That means we take concrete steps to get rid of sin. We don’t hide or cherish or nurture it. We don’t hold anything back. We don’t cling to small parts of it in order to continue gratifying our flesh.
When a surgeon operates to remove a cancerous tumour, he tries to get every single bit. Why? He knows that if he leaves even a few cells, they will grow back and become a raging cancer that destroys the person’s body. Sin is just as destructive spiritually, and the consequences are eternal. We must be as ruthless in getting rid of it as we would be with a tumour, knowing that it will destroy us.
Don’t fool yourself into thinking you’re strong enough. Romans 13:14 says: “But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.”
The Apostle Paul writes to the Corinthians, and paints a picture of godly repentance:
For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death. For see what earnestness this godly grief has produced in you, but also what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what longing, what zeal, what punishment! At every point you have proved yourselves innocent in the matter. (2 Corinthians 7:10-11)
8. Recognition that continuing in our sin will mean facing God’s judgement
For thus says the Lord to the men of Judah and Jerusalem:
“Break up your fallow ground,
and sow not among thorns.
Circumcise yourselves to the Lord;
remove the foreskin of your hearts,
O men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem;
lest my wrath go forth like fire,
and burn with none to quench it,
because of the evil of your deeds.”
God is incredibly gracious in offering us repentance and the chance to come back to him. But we shouldn’t put it off. We shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that it will be OK, or that we will have time to repent in the future.
God’s wrath and judgement are real, and serious. We are used to hearing about God’s love and grace, and those are also real. But God’s love and grace mean nothing if we are not in real danger. We cannot and must not presume on his grace.
Do you suppose, O man—you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself—that you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God's kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God's righteous judgment will be revealed. (Romans 2:1-5)
The danger of putting off repentance is that as we harden our hearts against God’s conviction, and refuse to obey him, we are deadening our consciences and distancing ourselves from God to the point where we are no longer able to hear his voice. We become inured to our sin, and no longer able to repent. That’s a very dangerous place to be.
The writer to the Hebrews says:
Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end. As it is said,
“Today, if you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.” (Hebrews 3:12-15)