The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ comprise the heart of the Christian gospel, making Good Friday and Easter two of the most significant celebrations in the Christian year. This year, Lent starts with Ash Wednesday on 2 March and ends on 16 April with Holy Saturday. The season of Lent invites us to ready our hearts to remember Jesus’ passion and celebrate His resurrection. It also calls us to repentance even as we anticipate Good Friday and observe Easter Sunday on 17 April.
Repentance Involves Changing our Mind
What is the biblical understanding of repentance? In the New Testament, the Greek word for repentance is metanoia, which means to ‘change the mind’. Fundamentally, it indicates changing our mind about something. We have been thinking one way, but now we think the opposite way. It leads us to say to God, “I have sinned” and prove it with a 180-degree change of direction. In other words, repentance is asking the Lord for forgiveness, with the intent of not sinning again.
A classic Bible story that illustrates true repentance is that of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-6). Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector in the city of Jericho. He was not popular with the citizens because like all corrupt tax collectors, he collected more taxes than he should and pocketed the extra for himself. However, he underwent a complete change of heart when Jesus called out to him by name and invited Himself to his house. Not only did Zacchaeus stop his sinful act, which was a disguised form of stealing, he also gave half his wealth to the poor and made a fourfold restitution to people he had defrauded.
Admit our Disobedience
What can we learn from Zacchaeus’ contrite act of repentance? It starts with a clear admittance of our disobedience to God. This can only happen when we stop rationalising our sinful words and deeds by comparing ourselves with people whom we perceive as ‘bigger’ sinners than us. The truth is that in God’s eyes, “all our righteous acts are like filthy rags” (Isa 64:6). Therefore, we must get past our tendency to relativise or downplay our sins, and face our wrongdoings by resolutely turning away from them and to God.
Godly Sorrow Convicts
The Apostle Paul identified two kinds of sorrow that might manifest in a person who sins. “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death” (2 Cor 7:10). It was godly sorrow that convicted Zacchaeus to repentance and led to his salvation (Luke 19:9).
The difference between godly and worldly sorrows is the chasm between heaven and hell, salvation versus damnation. Worldly sorrow may bring about deep regrets over the sins committed, but there is no accompanying change of mind and heart, nor any willingness to change behaviour that shows our abiding faith in the Lord.
This kind of worldly sorrow was depicted in a boy who was caught stealing apples from the kitchen of a boarding school. He was brought to the chaplain and was told, “You must now confess your sins, and ask God for forgiveness.” So, the boy in remorse, bowed his head, clasped his hands, and prayed, “Dear God, please forgive me for taking seven apples from the kitchen.” Puzzled by his prayer, the chaplain asked, “But I thought you stole five apples.” To which the boy replied, “Yes Pastor, but I am including the two I am going to take tomorrow.”
For one Bible commentator, worldly sorrow is like a steamboat on a river that has a tiny boiler and a great big whistle. When the steamboat blows its whistle while going upstream, it would drift downstream because the boiler is too small to propel the boat and blow the whistle at the same time.
Many of us are like this steamboat. We have a great big whistle and a tiny boiler. We shed tears over our sins and make a big display but there is no true, lasting repentance. It may seem like we have repented and gotten on the right path but we soon drift back into the wrong direction.
Repentance Allows God’s Forgiveness
Let me offer the reasons that compel our repentance.Firstly, it allows God to forgive and cleanse us from our sins. God assures us through Scripture, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). Let us do everything we can to confess and repent, no matter how unworthy we might feel, knowing that God will surely forgive us and draw close to us when we do that (James 4:7-8). Just as God reached out to us before we came to know Jesus, He is still reaching out to us through the Holy Spirit and calling us to return to Him if we are trapped in our sins. Furthermore, He promises to restore us when we are truly repentant (Jer 15:19).
Repentance Keeps Us Humble
Secondly, repentance keeps us humble. When we have trouble repenting, it is often because of our pride. Pride makes us think that our thoughts and ways are higher than God’s. The opposite of pride is humility. Repentance helps us humble ourselves when we agree with the truth of God’s standards of righteousness and allow His Spirit to change our heart (2 Tim 2:25-26). Therefore, let us be quick to repent, so that we may be kept humble and receive God’s abundant grace, especially in our time of need (James 4:6).
Repentance Leads to an Abundant Life
Thirdly, repentance leads us to abundant life in Christ. “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 6:23). After urging everyone in the church to “be earnest and repent,” Jesus said, “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me” (Rev 3:20). When we confess and repent, we are inviting Jesus to fellowship with us so that we might live life to the fullest in Christ (John 10:10). May God convict our heart to move from worldly sorrow to godly sorrow so that true repentance might take root in our heart. May His goodness convict us to live only for Jesus with fullness of joy, even as we resolutely repent of our sins and turn to Him for protection, deliverance, and guidance. May God in His grace and mercy, forgive and restore us for every sin committed against Him in thought, word and deed. In the name of Christ Jesus, our Lord and Saviour. Amen.