How To Repent
The following is edited from a message given at the Heart-Cry for Revival Conference in April 2008 at The Cove, Asheville, North Carolina U.S.A.
At one point in my life, I had a dream that God used in my life. At the time I was having a dry place spiritually. I started praying for something and I got to where it became begging God. Beware of begging God for things, of sending the message to God that there is something you need more than Him, of sending the message to God that, "You are not enough for me, Lord; I have to have this." I know about the promises of Scripture, and about "Öwhatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours" (Mark 11:24). I was claiming it, and when it didnít happen I was disappointed. I started preaching at church a series called, "God at work even when Iím not seeing it" because that was all I could think of to preach on. I started fasting and praying, saying, "Lord, I canít go on like this. I canít go on ministering out of this dry place."
And then came the dream that God used. In the dream I saw God working in our country in a powerful way that we only dream about. I saw God moving like a river washing across the land. I stood there watching it and was filled with so much joy, real joy, soul satisfaction. It eclipsed everything that I might have previously called joy. When I got out of bed, I had an outline in my mind. It was the following five points:
The first one is "God on the throne: a picture of holiness." We have to come back to that. We have lost the high and exalted view of God. God is ineffable glory. He dwells in unapproachable light. No one can see God and live. Our God is a consuming fire (Heb. 12:29). It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Heb. 10:31). We have to come back to God on the throne: a picture of holiness.
The second thing is "Sin in the mirror: a picture of brokenness." In the evangelical church we see sin in the newspaper or sin in the neighborhood, and we spot sin everywhere but in the mirror where we look at ourselves. Most Christians are poor at seeing their own sin. You ask the average Christian, "Whatís next on Godís agenda for sanctification in your life? What is God working on in you right now?" They answer: "I donít know." Sin in the mirror: a picture of brokenness.
The third point is "Self in the dirt: a picture of repentance." We want to go higher, but we donít want to go lower. All of our surface celebration never gets to the heart of the matter. Isaiah called those, "vain oblations" (1:13). Self in the dirt is getting really low. How about your own self? Self in the dirt: a picture of repentance.
Number four is "Christ on the cross: a picture of grace." Grace is only awesome as the remedy for a problem that we see and acknowledge. Grace without sin is nonsense. It is a remedy for a disease I donít recognize. But when you see sin in the mirror and self in the dirt, grace is unbelievable.
The final point is "Spirit in control: a picture of power." The Lord gave Hosea 6:1-3 as a theme for those teachings: "Come, let us return to the Lord; for He has torn us, that He may heal us; He has struck us down, and He will bind us up. After two days He will revive us; on the third day He will raise us up, that we may live before Him. Let us know; let us press on to know the Lord;" and I love this promise: "His going out is sure as the dawn." Did the sun come up this morning? God is going forth to work in the world everyday, isnít He?
First Step in Revival
The topic I want to talk about by Godís grace and help is the central thing listed above: "Self in the dirt: a picture of repentance." Repentance is the funnel through which all revival flows. You want your heart stirred? You want to get to a better place with God? Start with repentance. The word revival is not in the Bible in the noun form. The verb revive, though, is in the Bible. "Revive us, and we will call upon Your name" (Psalm 80:18). "Turn away my eyes from looking at vanity, and revive me in Your ways" (Psalm 119:37). "I am exceedingly afflicted; revive me, O Lord, according to Your word" (Psalm 119:107, a prayer during a time of trial).
Repentance is the first step in revival. Second Corinthians 7 is a classic New Testament passage on repentance. A main thought here is: repentance is a good thing. The Corinthian church was a problem church in the New Testament. They were worldly; they were divisive; they were carnal. Paul wrote letters to the Corinthians, two of which we have, and he made multiple visits to them. The things that they were dealing with were breaking his heart. Here in 2 Corinthians 7:8 Paul is talking about a letter that he had written: "For even if I made you grieve with my letter, I do not regret it Ė though I did regret it, for I see that that letter grieved you, though only for a while."
In the strong letter he had written he said in other words, "Youíre doing this and this and this. Stop it! Cut it out!" He loved them and he knew it was hard for them to hear that. Apparently he had some moments of doubt. "Did I say too much? Was I too hard on them? I love them. I donít want to push them away." If you have ever been in that place it breaks your heart. You donít want to say too much. If you canít pick the fruit, donít bruise it.
But they needed to hear this and someone had to speak to them. Paul said that they were wounded by the truth "only for a while." Why? The Holy Spirit penetrated their hearts and they received conviction over sin and repented. Paul said, "I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting" (v. 9). In other words, Paul said, "I am so glad now I said what I said. It was hard for a while. I didnít want to lose you, but now I can see that the Holy Spirit used my words to bring conviction and it broke your heart. Now you have repented and I love the fact that God did that." That is the key: repentance.
Repentance throughout the Bible
That was the message in the mouth of every biblical messenger. You canít miss that in the Old Testament. Every prophet was preaching the same message: "Repent!" Ezekiel, Isaiah and Hosea preached it: "Repent!" The same message was preached over and over and over. Why? Because this is the funnel through which all grace flows! If God can get us to a place of repentance, everything after that will be blessed. Until He gets us to that place, our service for Him is ineffective.
Some object that "revival people" always preach from the Old Testament. Go to the New Testament. How about John the Baptist? On what was he preaching? "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Matt. 3:2). What about the disciples? Mark 6:12 tells us "they went out and proclaimed that people should repent." Luke 15:7 says that there will be "more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance."
How about the early church? On the day of Pentecost, over 3,000 people were converted. What was the subject then? "Repent!" That was the subject in Acts chapter 2. And in Acts 3:19-20: "Repent therefore, and turn again, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord." You want times of refreshing, do you? Repent, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come! Acts 17:30 tells us: "The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now He commands all people everywhere to repent."
You say, "A lot of what you are saying is the message of the apostles. Thatís not the heart of Jesus for me." Read Revelation 2:16: "Therefore repent," Jesus said. "If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of My mouth." In Revelation 3:19 Jesus said: "Those whom I love..." Ė what would we say in todayís Church? "Those I love, I bless? I pamper? Those I love, I favor with all sorts of wonderful things?" Thatís not Jesus. "Those whom I love, I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore, and repent." That is the Lordís heart for us today, that we would come to a place of genuine repentance.
What Is Repentance?
I donít think most people know what repentance is. Most people are living their Christian life, the sanctification process, on 1 John 1:9: "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." "If we confess our sinsÖ" Ė do you know what it means? I heard a Bible scholar say once that to confess means to say what God says. What does God say about sin? He says itís sin. So, what do I say? "Itís sin, God. Iím sorry, God, I sinned again. First John 1:9 says, ĎÖfaithful and just to forgive us.í Sorry, God. Sorry, God." What a paltry understanding of confession!
Before you can ever say what God says about sin, you need to see what God sees. Repentance is the process of seeing what God sees. You have never truly confessed unless you have preceded it with repentance. Confession is easy if it follows the extremely difficult work of repentance. If repentance were easy, everyone would be doing it. Most Christians are trapped in a cycle of sin, confess, sin, confess, sin, claiming grace, 1 John 1:9 Ė but not changing. Repentance is the process of seeing our sin the way God sees it. That is not an easy thing to do.
Repentance is change in every way at every level. Repentance is not change of spouse or change of job or change of where I live or change of friends. Repentance is change in the place where it is needed most. Repentance is change within the person Ė the way I think about it, the way I see it, the way I feel about it. Repentance doesnít lead to change; repentance is change. Repentance is recognition of sin for what it is, followed by heartfelt sorrow, culminating in a change of behavior. You donít repent and repent and repent and repent about the same things over and over. It is not that we canít fall back into something, but repentance is change. I donít think about that sin the same way anymore.
Repentance is my mind, my emotions and my will; it is the totality of who I am. You think about the story of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). He stole the inheritance and ended up moving in with the pigs. Then all of a sudden, the Bible says that he came to his senses. He had a change of mind. The Bible says that repentance is a deed wrought in God (John 3:21). You canít do this by yourself. Acts 5:31 says, "God exalted Him [Jesus] at His right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins." God gives this to you. Acts 11:18 says, "When they heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, ĎThen to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.í"
In 2 Timothy 2:25 we find a classic passage on repentance being Godís work. Paul says concerning the Lordís servants: "Öcorrecting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth...." You canít see the truth yourself. If you or someone you love is trapped in sin, you and that one canít see it. When that prodigal son was in that pigsty and he came to his senses, God had touched him. All of a sudden he looked around and thought, "What am I doing here?" So first of all, he had a change of mind. Then he had a change of heart. He had this feeling: "I am no longer worthy to be called a son. I deserve to be a slave." He felt differently about himself. Earlier he was puffed up, but then he came to his senses and deflated. He had a change of mind and a change of heart, but there is another part about repentance. When real repentance is happening, already the will is beginning to engage with the mind and is forming a plan. "I will arise. I will go to my father. I will say to my father...." When a person is truly repentant, you donít have to tell that one what to do. He will figure it out for himself when God does the work in his heart. Repentance is mind; it is emotions; it is will.
Repentance before Revival
Every blessing God wants to pour out to us comes through this funnel of repentance; repentance in me before revival in me. When was the last time God dealt with you over your sin? When was the last time your eyes filled with tears about the unfinished work of sanctification in your own life? When was the last time God broke your heart with the gap between Jesus and you? You want revival? Repentance is where that starts.
Some Categories of Sin
Godís Spirit doesnít convict us with generalities. Godís Spirit is like a surgeon: "That has to go." Letís begin to probe:
The first category is pride, the second is pleasure and the third is priority. Under the pride category: pride about your position. If you want to be introduced, if you want to be known, if you want to be recognized, if you have some position and are anxious for others to know who you are or what you have accomplished, you have a pride problem. Pride is anti-God; where pride is, God is not.
Right beside that is pride of prestige Ė my status. I need applause, I need recognition. Then pride of power. "I donít need position and prestige; I have power. I rule my house." Powering up over others, using my influence is pride. God is able to humble those who walk in pride (Daniel 4).
There is another category of sin: pleasure. Pleasures are not wrong but wanting them in the wrong amount, and at the wrong time, or with the wrong person makes pleasure become sin. The first in the pleasure category is sex: my needs, when I want them, the way I want them, what I want. Itís sin. And secondly, a substance, legal and illegal. "I have to have this." To have to have anything other than God is sin. Do not be under the power of anything other than God, not a person, not a situation, not a substance legal or illegal. By Godís grace as a follower of Jesus, I will not be under the power of anything. If I am, it is sin.
Next is "stuff." We tell ourselves, I know for sure I will be happy when I have that car, that home, that trip, etc. On one side we have people who think that things are evil, and they are getting ready to take monastic vows. That doesnít lead to godliness. And on the other side we have people who think that blessing and wealth are the same thing. We need balance. Psalm 62:10 says, "Öif riches increase, set not your heart on them." It is not wrong to have things; it is wrong when things have you! God will not share the throne with anyone. When I think that stuff can make me happy and satisfy me and can give to me something that only God can give, it is idolatry. And if it is idolatry, it is sin.
And thirdly is this general category of priorities, the good left undone. James said that if you know to do good and you donít do it, it is sin (Jas. 4:17). The first priority is in regard to not taking care of myself. My body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, and to not take care of myself Ė to overeat, to underexercise, overwork, overentertain, to not be a balanced person, to not live in a healthy way Ė is sin. I have to take care of myself. I want to serve God for as many days as He will give me, but to overserve or overentertain is not honoring to God. We must have balance.
The second priority is others. Relationships matter and people matter to God. Be loving, kind, forgiving. To harbor in my heart resentment and unforgiveness is related to the obligation that results from a person injuring me. Unforgiveness is a cancer in the soul, and it is sin. We need to repent of it. "Iím wrong, God, I canít hold that over her. I have to release her from it."
Iíve been saving the best for last Ė the ultimate priority is God first. God first in my day, first in the first day of the week, first in the highest priority of my life. "You shall have no other gods before Me" (Ex. 20:3).
Revival is just a dream until we get specific and repent about specific sins. Not, "O God, I want to be a better Christian." We need to repent.
Marks of Repentance
From 2 Corinthians 7, we see five marks of genuine repentance. A biblical basis for looking at marks of repentance is Luke 3:8: "Bear fruits in keeping with repentance." In other words, I canít see into your heart, but when repentance is in your heart, this is the fruit that is going to be on the tree. Jesus said, "You will know them by their fruits" (Matt. 7:20). So we can know if a person is repenting, but maybe not right away. They can pray the prayer and say the words and shed the tears, and eventually you will see the fruits. That is why Acts 26:20 says, "Örepent and turn to God, performing deeds in keeping with their repentance."
The first mark of true repentance is grief over sin. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 7:9-10: "Öfor you felt a godly griefÖFor godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation." The clearest statement on the feelings accompanying repentance in all of Godís word is "grief." Now, not all grief is repentance. The Apostle Paul calls that a worldly grief or a worldly sorrow, like "Sorry I feel so bad," "Sorry I got caught," "Sorry I look so bad," "Sorry You donít like this, God." It is a "Sorry I, sorry I." "Sorry I" versus true heart sadness over what I have done to God. Sin is first and foremost a rejection of God. Sin says, "You are not right about this, God. I wonít suffer for this, God. You canít meet this need in me, God. I have to have this, God." Sin is a rejection of God. Genuine repentance is a rejection of that faulty thinking. It begins with a godly grief, soul anguish. The first mark of true repentance is grief over sin. Only God can give that.
The second mark is repulsion toward sin. Look at verse 11: "See what earnestness this godly grief has produced in you." The truly repentant heart is obvious, it is earnest, it is haste, hurry, diligence. "I am done with my gossipy mouth." "I am completely done with my lustful eye." "I am sickened by my draining addition." Notice in verse 11: "What indignation," a feeling of strong displeasure and opposition where the thing once desired becomes repulsive to you. "I donít desire that anymore. I despise it." So one of the fruits of repentance is a repulsion. "I used to like that? Now it sickens me." Thatís when "make no provision for the flesh" becomes a reality (Rom. 13:14). Only God can bring you to the place where you come to your senses and you see sin for what it is.
Now, I believe you can cultivate a repentant heart. You can seek the Lord. "Öbreak up your fallow ground, for it is the time to seek the Lord, that He may come and rain righteousness upon you" (Hos.10:12), and "You will seek Me and find Me. When you seek Me with all your heart, I will be found by you" (Jer. 29:13). You can seek God for repentance. If you ask Him for bread will He give you a stone? God is not reluctant to grant repentance, but I donít think it is an easy thing to get: grief over sin and repulsion toward sin. "What earnestnessÖwhat indignation...."
The third characteristic of repentance is restitution toward others. Notice also in 2 Corinthians 7:11 Paul says, "Öbut also what eagerness to clear yourselves." It is the idea of the energetic pursuit of fixing the fallout of my sin. When you are really repentant, you canít wait to set the matter right with the people that your sin has injured. Many people in the church claim to be right with God, but they are not right with the people that their sin injured. "If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all" (Rom. 12:18). God forgive us for claiming to be right with Him and raising holy hands to Him, but having no regard whatsoever for the way that our sin has affected others. Verse 11 says, "At every point you have proved yourselves innocent in the matter." You have done everything that could have been asked of you. You have sought to see the relationship restored.
When Repentance Is Very Hard
There are two categories of sin where repentance and restitution are very hard. Number one is opportunity squandered. You squander an opportunity; how can you repent of that? A girl has had an abortion. How is she going to fix it? A man was unbiblically divorced. Now his former wife is remarried. How do you repent of that? A couple was a two-career, three-child family. They were wealthy and busy. Their children had everything but them. Now the children are grown and they want nothing to do with God. How do you repent of that? Opportunities squandered are very difficult to repent of.
Number two is pleasures consumed. A pleasure consumed is terrifically difficult to repent of: an angry outburst, an alcoholic binge, a homosexual tryst, a private pornography, a repeated gluttony, a strong compulsion, a willful pursuit, a deliberate choice, a pleasure consumed. "Iím saying Iím sorry, God. I think Iím sorry. I want to be sorry, but I always do it again." Look at Esau (Heb. 12:16-17). He found no place for repentance, though he sought it diligently with tears. Why? He was a profane person. He sold his birthright for a morsel of food. He had sinned against the truth and sinned against the truth to the point where he didnít even care anymore. You say, "Can it be too late for a person?" Yes. The Spirit of God will not always strive with all men (Gen. 6:3). "Is it too late for me?" If you care, it isnít. Esau couldnít get to the place where he cared anymore. He just cared about himself. Sometimes restitution is very difficult. How do you make restitution for an opportunity squandered? How do you make restitution for a pleasure consumed? Thatís why sin is so serious.
Thank God there is good news also. A fourth mark of true repentance is revival toward God. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 7:11, "Öwhat fear." Fear is the attitude of the heart that seeks a right relationship with the fear source. "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom" (Psa. 111:10). When you are living in a state of non-repentance, you donít fear God. You do what you want. But when you repent, you have this fear upon you, fear of being in a wrong relationship with God, fear of losing His favor, fear of doing something to discredit His name or to forfeit His blessing. It is painful to deal with disappointment and injustice, but I would rather embrace the injustice than take vengeance myself because I fear God.
Paul says, "Öwhat fear, what longing, what zeal." That is revival! And it came from repentance. Zeal is an overall passion for the things of the Lord, renewed interest after a period of indifference or decline, more of God in my life experienced and enjoyed. That is revival toward God!
The final characteristic of genuine repentance is moving forward, not looking back. That is repentance. Notice that it says in 2 Corinthians 7:9: "Öyou suffered no loss through us." Paul is telling them that he is not wasting their time. He is not talking about some trivial point that doesnít lead to Godís best in their life. If you get this work of repentance done, your life will get to higher planes.
And then notice in verse 10: "For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret." If godly grief produces a repentance without regret, what does worldly grief produce? Regret. You know that your repentance is not genuine if you are asking, "Why am I like this?" Repentance is not thinking about the past anymore. Repentance is a life-changing experience. Repentance is, "God help me for the rest of my life. Itís going to be different and there is nothing that will get in my way."
How serious are you about righteousness? Make no provision for the flesh. None! The awesome thing about repentance is that it produces a genuine sorrow. Worldly sorrow produces grief and regret. Genuine, godly sorrow is looking ahead to what my life is going to be. "I can be different, I can be changed, I can be revived if I repentÖ."
Dealing with Specific Sins
Lord, am I guilty of anger... anxiety... being argumentative... addiction... bigotry... bitterness... being boastful... causing dissension... conceit... controlling of others... being controlled by emotions... being controlled by peer pressure... covetousness... having a critical tongue... deceitfulness... depression... dominance... drug dependence... drunkenness... envy... false modesty... fear... feeling rejected... feeling helpless... feeling worthless... gluttony... greediness... false guilt... hatred... hostility... homosexual lust... idolatry... impatience... impulsiveness... impure thoughts... indifference to others... insecurity... intemperance... jealousy... laziness... being a loner (withholding myself)... lust for pleasure... being materialistic... negativism... occult involvement... being opinionated... being overly sensitive to others... passivity... prejudice... profanity... projecting blame... prone to gossip... rebellion to authority... resentment... restlessness... prolonged sadness (inconsolable)... self-centeredness... self-indulgence... self- justification... self-pity... self-reliance... self-righteousness... self-sufficiency... sensuality... sexual lust... being slow to forgive... stubbornness... temper... being unloving... vanity... withdrawal... being a workaholic?
I invite you to think about these specific sins. Lord, prick our heart about these things. Am I guilty? Am I like this? God, would you break my heart over this? Would you give me faith to believe that You honor genuine repentance so that I could be different? Could I break the cycle of sin, confess, sin, confess Ė that has trapped me for so long? Could You by Your Spirit obliterate the rationalizations that have held me in this place? Forgive me, God, for comparing myself to others when You are the standard. Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts! The whole earth is filled with His glory!
Used by permission. James MacDonald is pastor of Harvest Bible Chapel, Rolling Meadows, Illinois.