Friday, March 25, 2011

Repentance: The Genuine Article (Part Four)

Now that we have considered the two main Old Testament words for "repentance," we can look at the New Testament Greek word metanoia. It literally means "an afterthought," and this can help us understand why the writers of the New Testament used this word to convey the godly idea of repentance. Simply, it is an afterthought because we do not repent before we sin, do we? A person cannot repent before he sins; that would be averting sin, not repenting of it.

The popular saying, "Hindsight is 20/20," also comes into play in terms of metanoia. When we look back and realize what we have done, we are led to think deeply about our actions, which can lead us into changing our future actions. Our "afterthought" results in changed behavior.

Metanoia complements the Hebrew terms rā'āh and shûb quite nicely, and in fact, it combines the meanings of these two Hebrew words. A strict dictionary definition of metanoia is "a change of mind that results in a change of direction." Note that both actions are contemplated: both a change of mind and a turn away from destructive to improved behavior. A mere change of mind would be useless without corresponding positive conduct.

In II Peter 3:9, the apostle's use of metanoia helps us to understand its spiritual connotations: "The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance." Peter explains that God is patient with us, willing to work with us for a long while to bring us to the point that we leave the path that leads to death. A Christian does not just repent once and that is all that is needed. We must continue repenting throughout our Christian lives because, not only do our bad habits produce the same sins that we sought forgiveness for before, but we are constantly made aware of new sins too. Clearly, repentance is a long-term process, not a one-time decision, and God works closely with us for the duration.

Some have taken God's longsuffering to be slackness on His part—that He lets us linger in our sins over such a long time. However, Peter's argument is that those who think this way are looking at it backwards: It is not slackness but divine mercy! On the one hand, if He punished us for our sins with unyielding justice, we would all be decaying in pine boxes awaiting the judgment. On the other, if He did not require real change in behavior and character—just a quick and instant "repentance"—we would be no better for it. The kind of repentance that lasts for all eternity, the kind that leads to eternal life, is a life-long, deep-down, hard-won, blood-sweat-and-tears change in our way of living. It is an alteration in the course of our lives that we have felt deeply, considered deeply, and maintained rigorously throughout our lives. God's mercy allows us to take the time to do it right.

This kind of repentance takes us off the Satan-inspired path of death and puts us on God's path of life, on which we begin to think like, act and react like, and generally live like God as much as is humanly possible. Because this is the lofty goal of true Christianity, and as human nature is always battling to regain control over us, we must be in a repentant frame of mind at all times.

Not everyone, however, is receptive to repentance. Luke 5 contains the narrative of Jesus calling the tax collector, Matthew, called Levi by Luke, after which they go to Matthew's house.
Then Levi gave Him a great feast in his own house. And there were a great number of tax collectors and others who sat down with them. And their scribes and the Pharisees complained against His disciples, saying, "Why do You eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?" Jesus answered and said to them, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance." (Luke 5:29-32)
The scribes and Pharisees, who lived in constant fear of spiritual defilement, ask Jesus why He spends so much time with sinners. His answer is simple: It is His mission to come to this world and to change people's minds so that He can change their lives—to bring them to spiritual health. Recall that all have sinned (Romans 3:23). Every human being—including the scribes and Pharisees—needs the services of the Great Physician. We all need to change our minds so that we experience a positive change of life.

Taken literally, though, Luke 5:32 sounds as if some people need repentance while others do not. However, Jesus never intended His words here to be understood literally. Remember that He is answering the scribes and Pharisees, so what Jesus tells these self-righteous know-it-alls is coated with a heavy layer of sarcasm: "Certainly, you, being so righteous, have no need to repent! I just go where I am most needed!"

The scribes and Pharisees did not consider themselves to be sinners; in fact, they had come nowhere near the point where they could repent. Their hearts were so hard and they were so convinced of their own goodness that they had closed their minds even to the suggestion that they needed to change in any way. They were blind to their own depravity. However, Jesus went to the ones who knew that they were sinners and needed and wanted His help, people He could work with.

God had to bring even righteous Job to this point as well. He held onto his integrity as if it were a bar of gold, and it took a great deal of effort for God to pry it from him. In Job 27:1-6, Job is speaking with his three friends:
Moreover Job continued his discourse, and said: "As God lives, who has taken away my justice, and the Almighty, who has made my soul bitter, as long as my breath is in me, and the breath of God in my nostrils, my lips will not speak wickedness, nor my tongue utter deceit. Far be it from me that I should say you are right; till I die I will not put away my integrity from me. My righteousness I hold fast, and will not let it go; my heart shall not reproach me as long as I live."
What a hard heart Job had! When he looked in the mirror, he saw a paragon of virtue, the ultimate in righteousness. In introducing him, God calls him "blameless and upright" (Job 1:1), but a deeper study into his character shows that, while he may have stuck fastidiously to the letter of the law, he was terribly proud of how righteous he was. He was so uber-righteous that he offered sacrifices for his children, just in case they may have sinned (Job 1:5).

All things considered, Job was indeed a good man, but when God looked at him, He saw something that Job missed. Next time, we will learn how God brought him to repentance.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Repentance: The Genuine Article (Part Three)

Last time, while discussing the Hebrew word naham, frequently translated as "repentance" in the Old Testament, we saw that sorrow for sin may be nothing more than self-pity. A person may be sorry that he did something that will have harmful repercussions. He may feel shame that his dirty laundry has been exposed or fear for his reputation among his fellows. But does his emotion produce anything good—actions that bring about godly change? We learned that emotion is not the essence of repentance but only part of it. Change is the heart of repentance.

Here, the second Hebrew word that underlies "repentance" becomes important. It is shûb, which means "to turn" or "to return." In English, we might use a more colorful term such as "about face," bringing to mind soldiers marching in a column and suddenly turning around and heading back the way they had come. In modern lingo, we might speak of "doing a one-eighty." When we repent, we are turning off the path that leads to destruction and onto the narrow path—through the strait gate—that leads to life in the Kingdom of God (see Matthew 7:13-14). Thus, on the heels of godly sorrow must proceed the act of turning onto the path of righteousness.

In Ezekiel 33, the well-known chapter on the Watchman and his message, we find a typical use of the word shûb. Each time "turn" or "return" appears in this passage, it is a form of this word:
So you, son of man: I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel; therefore you shall hear a word from My mouth and warn them for Me. When I say to the wicked, "O wicked man, you shall surely die!" and you do not speak to warn the wicked from his way, that wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood I will require at your hand. Nevertheless if you warn the wicked to turn from his way, and he does not turn from his way, he shall die in his iniquity; but you have delivered your soul.

Therefore you, O son of man, say to the house of Israel: "Thus you say, ‘If our transgressions and our sins lie upon us, and we pine away in them, how can we then live?'" Say to them: "As I live," says the Lord GOD, "I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live. Turn, turn from your evil ways! For why should you die, O house of Israel?" (Ezekiel 33:7-11)
God describes the Israelite's way of life as evil, wicked, and leading to death, and He implores them to leave it and turn onto the path that leads to life. He tells them, "If you live the way that I live, you will truly live!" God lives forever in peace and joy. However, they had to turn from their destructive ways and begin walking the path that God approves.

The churches of God also use Ezekiel 18 to explain repentance. The chapter begins with the false proverb about a father who eats sour grapes, yet it is his children's teeth that are set on edge. This encapsulates the idea that children receive the penalties for their fathers' sins. God, however, says that it does not work that way. The fathers' sins may affect their children, but God certainly does not hold the children responsible for them. Those sins lay squarely on the fathers' own heads. As before, "turn" and "repent" translate shûb:
"Again, when a wicked man turns away from the wickedness which he committed, and does what is lawful and right, he preserves himself alive. Because he considers and turns away from all the transgressions which he committed, he shall surely live; he shall not die. . . . Repent, and turn from all your transgressions, so that iniquity will not be your ruin. Cast away from you all the transgressions which you have committed, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit. For why should you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of one who dies," says the Lord GOD. "Therefore turn and live!" (Ezekiel 18:27-28, 30-32)
Notice that God says, "Because he considers and turns away . . ." (verse 28). This should help us better understand the process of repentance. We have seen the necessity of emotion and action, but this brings in another element: a rational, mental factor. Not only are our hearts and feet to be involved, but our minds must also be engaged in the process.

Believe it or not, a person can claim to be repentant without really thinking about it. This sometimes happens when the penalty for a sin descends immediately, and the sinner instantly regrets what he has done. He feels the pain of a loss. But is this true repentance? Sorrow without consideration is mere reaction, not godly repentance. It is turning without understanding what one is turning toward and what this change will require.

As an illustration, suppose an argument rages between a man and his wife, and he shoots and kills her. He sees her lying in her blood on the floor and immediately regrets what he has done. Has he really repented of his murder? His reaction is entirely emotional at this point; he has not truly considered the ramifications of his crime. He may wish he were dead and wail that he will never kill anyone again, but he still has not produced any real change.

Godly repentance requires deep thought. When doing so, a sinner considers what he has done and the whole process of his sin: what tempted him to start down the road to sin, what led him onward, and how he reached the point where he could see it was not good. He thinks about how his sin has hurt him and others, feeling sorrow and regret for his actions and their consequences and pledging never to do it again. Finally, he diligently embarks on a program of doing what he knows to be good, right, and pleasing to God.

This entire process is concentrated in the Hebrew word translated "considers" in Ezekiel 18:28: rā'āh, which typically means "to see" or "to observe." However, like our verb "to see," it has many metaphorical meanings, such as "to understand," "to realize," "to examine," "to search," "to witness," etc. It can also mean "to admit" or "to accept," as we might say, "I see that I have a problem." All of these actions are contemplated in rā'āh.

These Hebrew words help us to understand how repentance works. When we sin, we must seek to understand what we have done as fully as possible and then admit our guilt. The Bible commands us to confess what we have done to Him and to seek forgiveness (I John 1:9; Psalm 32:5; 51:2-4). Once we truly comprehend what we have done and what we are, we should be motivated, with "a new heart and a new spirit" (Ezekiel 18:31), to turn, to change—to choose to forsake evil and to pursue what is good. With God's help, we can do it!

Friday, March 11, 2011

Repentance: The Genuine Article (Part Two)

In Part One, we saw that, while people can make positive changes in their lives, true repentance—the kind that counts toward salvation—only occurs after God has invited a person into a relationship with Him. Human beings are full of sin, and our natures compel us away from the path that God has revealed to lead to the Kingdom of God. Once God initiates the relationship, and we believe and vow to seek Him and His Kingdom, then real change for the better can commence and continue throughout the rest of our lives.

Knowing that we need to repent, however, still does not tell us what true repentance is. Repent and repentance are words that we have a vague understanding of what they mean, but like many theological terms, they stand for a great deal more than their simple definitions tell. It will take a little digging to come to a full understanding of the concept.

The English word repentance derives from a Latin word, penitēre meaning "to make sorry." It is closely related to penitence, which means "contrition leading to change of behavior," and is a distant relation of the word pain. Its native English equivalent is rue, "regret, sorrow, remorse." Other than its association with penitence, repentance can strike an English speaker as a mere feeling of sorrow, regret, or contrition. However, we realize that biblical repentance goes beyond mere feeling.

Even so, this etymology provides a clue about an element of true repentance: It involves pain, particularly emotional pain. To repent is wrenching to the psyche. It really hurts because it is difficult to do. Oftentimes, what we must do is a bitter pill to swallow because it means changing ingrained attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors that have set hard like concrete in our lives. From this, we can conclude that any repentance that comes easily is probably not true repentance. If we have not felt some measure of pain in repenting, it is likely that we have not seen the depths of our sinful ways.

The writers of the Old Testament used two different words to convey the idea of repentance. The first is naham, which means "to be sorry" or "to rue." The Hebrew writers use this word to describe God's "repentance" in the few instances when He decides against an intended action. In this case, "repent" is an unfortunate translation of naham, as it would be better translated as "relent" or perhaps "regret." Being perfect, God has no need to repent.

For instance, in I Samuel 15, Samuel orders Saul to attack the Amalekites and utterly destroy them and their livestock. However, Saul disobeys, sparing the life of Agag, the Amalekite king, and the best of the animals. Because he did not obey God's command explicitly, Samuel writes, ". . . the LORD regretted [naham] that He had made Saul king over Israel" (I Samuel 15:35). Here, God was sorry that He had raised Saul to be king over His people; He rued that decision. However, God made it work out for good ultimately.

The essence of the meaning of naham lies in the action of breathing strongly. A person will often display this kind of behavior when something has gone wrong and he is sorry for it. In his regret, he may try to control his emotions by taking deep breaths that may descend into sobbing or even painful wails of remorse. This sort of repentance contains a strong emotional character.

Nevertheless, we need to remember that true repentance is not an entirely emotional experience. It is not just feeling sorry, not just an emotional outburst about something one regrets. There is more to it than that. Matthew 27:3-5 contains an account of an emotional, regretful repentance, but Scripture makes it clear that it is not a true one:
Then Judas [Iscariot], His betrayer, seeing that [Jesus] had been condemned, was remorseful and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders, saying, "I have sinned by betraying innocent blood." And they said, "What is that to us? You see to it!" Then he threw down the pieces of silver in the temple and departed, and went and hanged himself.
Judas experienced a deeply emotional reaction to what he had done. He felt regret and remorse about betraying an innocent Man to His cruel death. But, instead of seeking forgiveness and changing his behavior, what did he do? He immediately compounded his sin by committing suicide! In no way could this be considered true repentance because it led only to sin and death (see Proverbs 14:12).

Obviously, any person under the influence of human nature will sin after he repents, but his sin should decrease in both the level of iniquity and frequency. Matthew's use of "remorseful" in Matthew 27:3 is similar to the Hebrew use of naham, suggesting not repentance but only emotional regret. It can be part of true repentance, but alone, it is not biblical repentance, lacking the vital element of character growth.

In II Corinthians 7, the apostle Paul makes a distinction between regret or remorse and true repentance. The Corinthian church had allowed a great sin to continue unopposed, and Paul had written to them in a stern, corrective manner (see I Corinthians 5:1-13). He had told the whole congregation that they had been sinful in this matter, having become proud of their "love" toward the sinner, which was really an extreme tolerance of sin. After some time elapsed, Paul writes another letter, having heard of their subsequent repentance:
For I perceive that the same epistle [I Corinthians] made you sorry, though only for a while. Now I rejoice, not that you were made sorry, but that your sorrow led to repentance. For you were made sorry in a godly manner, that you might suffer loss from us in nothing. For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death. For observe this very thing, that you sorrowed in a godly manner: What diligence it produced in you, what clearing of yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what vehement desire, what zeal, what vindication! In all things you proved yourselves to be clear in this matter. (II Corinthians 7:8-11)
While Judas may have been sorry, it led only to his death. The Corinthian example, though, shows us what godly sorrow really is. The strong emotion produces a determination to clear matters up, to clear oneself of guilt. It gives way to new emotions like anger at sin and fear of punishment for their transgressions. All that the truly repentant person wants to do is to attack the problem and overcome it in order to be vindicated through Christ. Repentance does include regret, but it must produce these other qualities to complete the process.

In Part Three, we will consider the second Hebrew word rendered as "repent."

Friday, March 4, 2011

Repentance: The Genuine Article (Part One)

In the American presidential campaign of 2008, eventual winner Barack Obama ran on a platitudinous platform of hope and change. His supposedly soaring rhetoric captured the support of more than half of the voters longing for a bright tomorrow, and if nothing else, for something different. More than two years later, the real results are beginning to be tallied, and the striking oratory has been replaced by stark reality: Our hopes are unfulfilled and the changes have not been for the better.

Christianity is a way of life of hope and change, and perhaps that is a reason why so many Americans, a majority of whom are professing Christians, voted for Obama. They saw in him someone who was speaking their language, and now many of them are disappointed because his policies run counter to his idealistic promises. Their hopes for a return to economic soundness have been dashed because his changes have accelerated rather than reversed American decline. Clearly, while our hopes can be grand and even pie-in-the-sky, reality is in the change.

In Christianity, change is most often discussed in terms of repentance. Indeed, it is a life of repentance, of change, that mounts up—with a huge assist from God through His Spirit—into the desired transformation into the image of Jesus Christ (see Romans 8:29; II Corinthians 3:17-18). However, many professing Christians think of repentance merely as one of the first steps in the process of conversion and salvation, and they leave it at that. As we will see, repentance is certainly a first step, but it is also ongoing throughout our lives. To become a true Christian, we must repent—and then we must make it a continual practice as long as sin remains in us.

Sin is the problem. The world is full of sin and so are we. Though God "is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (I John 1:9), we must be progressively turning from sinfulness in every area of life, building godly character so that Christ can "present [us] holy, and blameless, and above reproach in His sight" (Colossians 1:22). The goal, as I Peter 1:15 reminds us, is "as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct." Deep repentance plays a key role is our becoming holy like God.

Even so, genuine repentance is impossible without God first acting in our lives. Nothing truly spiritual happens in our lives until God initiates a relationship with us. Jesus tells us plainly in John 6:44, "No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up at the last day." His wording is definite: No one has the ability to approach Christ without God the Father first calling him, summoning him, inviting him, to draw near. One may think he is seeking God and the truth, but unless the Father has opened his mind, nothing will ever come of all his efforts.

Therefore, any purported repentance that occurs apart from God and His way of life is not a biblical, godly repentance. If someone who has not been called by God—say, a professing Buddhist or an atheist, to use an extreme—claims to have repented, he has simply altered his lifestyle, a human self-improvement. Positive though it may be, his "repentance" is mere change; God is not involved. A closer inspection of the situation will show that, despite improving in one area of his life, other areas continue to be ungodly, and in the case of the Buddhist or atheist, completely outside the bounds of Christian doctrine.

Unfortunately, many who say they are Christians also fit in this category, claiming to have repented of their sins, but their lifestyles argue against them. Despite the Bible's clear teaching to the contrary, much of the Christian world believes that all they need to do to be saved is to believe in Jesus, and their initial remorse over their previous lifetime of sin fulfills the requirement to repent. From that time on, they believe, the blood of Christ covers their sins, so they have no need to keep God's commandments and to conform to God's way of life, since Christ did it all for them.

Yet, the apostle John writes in I John 2:4, "He who says, ‘I know Him,' and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him." I John 2:9-11 gives the example of a person claiming to be "in the light" yet continuing to hate his brother. The apostle says that such an individual is still "in darkness and walks in darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes." The fruit of his life shows that there has been no true repentance.

Sin is ever-present with us, even those of us who are under the covenant. Paul writes in Romans 3:9: "What then? Are we better than they [the world]? Not at all. For we have previously charged both Jews and Greeks that they are all under sin." We are all sinners. The apostle says in Romans 3:23, "For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." Earlier in the same chapter (verses 10-18), he had listed quotations from the Old Testament describing the sinfulness of man, beginning with "There is none righteous, no, not one."

For those of us who are truly called and converted, God has graciously forgiven us and cleared the long record of our past sins through the shed blood of Jesus Christ (see Romans 3:24-26), but even helped by the Holy Spirit to live righteously, we nevertheless continue to sin. Because sin still relentlessly dogs us, we must repent again and again. Why?

The simple answer is that, even though we have found the truth and started along the path toward the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, we are still very much human, reeking of human nature and constantly influenced by this present, evil world. To transform from sinful to godly is not a matter of divine fiat but a protracted struggle against self, Satan, and this world, with countless turnings of the tide of battle while we surge ever closer to victory. Every time we give ground—after every sin, trespass, or transgression—we must repent and rejoin the fight.

This is not easy to do. In Jeremiah 10:23, the prophet acknowledges, "O LORD, I know the way of man is not in himself; it is not in man who walks to direct his own steps." Left to ourselves, we would not know how to live properly before God, and even with His help, it takes us years of study and experience to learn God's ways. We spend that time repenting of our own ways and taking on God's.

The same prophet records in Jeremiah 17:9, "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?" The track record of mankind has shown that we are quite adept at deceiving ourselves. We are especially good at considering ourselves to be in the right though all the evidence is against us. In most cases, God must work over years to show us that His way is best, and we spend much of that time repenting.

What, then, is true repentance? We will consider the answer next time.