i. Old Testament Hebrew
ii. New Testament Greek
2. Seeking to gain a working understanding of what exactly
happens during repentance
i. Conviction of sin
ii. Man's responsibility (turning to God)
a. Acknowledge sin and not hide it or try to justify it
b. Confess sin (to God)
c. Seek God's forgiveness
d. Set the will not to sin again
iii. A change of heart (An act of God)
3. Practical applications of repentance
i. The first word of the Gospel of the Kingdom
ii. Into revival
Appendix 1 - The forgiveness of man's sin
Appendix 2 - God's timing
It’s quite true to say that many words that occur both in the Old and New Testaments are coloured dramatically by the context in which they’re used, sometimes going unrecognisable in passages where they occur. But the word-groups for ‘repentance’ normally carry with them certain concepts that aren’t only present in their usage but which are confirmed by the context in which they’re used. Therefore, though we may look at many different words throughout the Biblical narrative and it be no more than an academic exercise that helps us in only a small way to come to terms with the authors’ intentions, the words used to explain the subject under discussion are extremely illuminative.
But how do we understand the word “repentance”?
What do we mean when we use that word in conversation?
Our understanding of the word group can be very far removed from the Biblical usage of the word so that we must go back, put our culture’s understanding of the word aside and allow the Scriptures to redefine its meaning. Below, then, are the original words transliterated into English that are used in the texts from which the Bible is translated.
a. Old Testament Hebrew
Strongs Hebrew number 5162
Nacham means ‘to repent’, ‘to feel or display compassion’ and ‘to comfort’. It’s a word that implies an emotional response being present in an individual’s life before it can truly be used of that individual. TWOTOT mentions that
‘The origin of the root seems to reflect the idea of “breathing deeply” hence the physical display of one’s feelings, usually sorrow, compassion or comfort’
It’s used of man and in both a positive and negative attribution to God because the word can carry with it the sense of guilt and wrongdoing. Therefore we read that God is not a man that He should repent (because He does no wrong - Num 23:19) but that He does repent (Deut 32:36) where the RSV translates this latter passage with the word ‘compassion’ rather than ‘repentance’ to better bring home the assumed meaning.
When used of God, then, it can mean, according to TWOTOT, that God
‘...relents or changes His dealings with men according to His sovereign purposes’
without having to contain any idea of sin being present on God’s side. Because God’s intentions of judgment are revealed to man this doesn’t make them pre-written history, but intentions of God’s will dependent upon a response from mankind.
Therefore, a sense of guilt or remorse may be present when the word is used of mankind, but the concept of compassion, of feeling sorry or full of pity, would be the correct understanding of the word when used of God.
Nacham is the usual word that’s translated ‘repent’ throughout the OT, occurring this way 38 times in its 108 usages in the KJV but 41 times as ‘comfort’ - this compares to just 3 occurrences of the second OT word below being translated as ‘repent’ even though that word occurs in over 1100 passages in the text which lies behind the KJV.
In summary, it carries with it the sense of an emotional response to a situation but the idea of that response being because of the conviction of sin or through the pricking of the conscience would only be there by implication rather than being inherent in the word.
But, in itself, it doesn’t imply a turning around like the following Hebrew word does.
Strongs Hebrew number 7725
Shuwb means ‘to turn back (or away)’ or ‘to retreat’. TWOTOT records that
‘...better than any other verb it combines in itself the two requisites of repentance: to turn from evil and to turn to the good’
Again, though, the word can be used of God (see Gen 18:14 where God says that He will return to Abram to cause Sarah to conceive) so there doesn’t have to be an automatic implication of sin being present.
However, when we look at the passages where Israel ‘turns back’ to God or where they’re commanded to do so, this word is often found. Its contrast with nacham above is quite striking - though nacham could be taken to contain a sense of guilt or remorse by implication, shuwb displays the ideas of ‘turning around’ or ‘changing one’s thoughts’. As such, shuwb is usually translated ‘turn’ or ‘return’.
God didn’t just want grief (which may be present as an emotion with no real commitment to do anything about it), but a demonstration of sorrow from Israel in returning to Him as servants (see especially Is 59:20, Jer 3:12, 3:14, Hosea 14:1, Zech 1:3, Mal 3:7 - repentance implied a turning around to face a different way and a journey along a different path).
By implication, therefore, the word means ‘to turn around’ as a result of sin (or, negatively, to turn back from following God into a life of sin). It’s only translated as ‘repent’ in three places in the KJV - I Kings 8:47, Ezek 14:6, 18:30 (in the last two passages, ‘repent’ and ‘turn’ are the same word but slightly varied. The true translation would be something like ‘return and turn...’ - that is, ‘return to God and turn away from your sin’).
These two words, therefore, go well together when they’re considered as a unit outlining the concept of what it means to repent.
On the one hand, nacham indicates that there needs to be an emotional response to a situation (that is, a conscious awareness of sin), a feeling of remorse and not just a conclusion arrived at by a logical thought process and, on the other, shuwb speaks to us of an action whereby that emotional feeling is acted upon by a turning around from one thing (a life of sin) into another (a life for God).
b. New Testament - Greek
Strongs Greek number 3340
Metanoea means ‘to think differently’ or ‘to think afterwards’ - that is, ‘to reconsider’. The word came from two other Greek words meaning ‘after’ (implying change) and ‘to perceive’.
The word is never used with God as the subject in the NT and is used as a concept that’s an integral part of the conversion experience. Therefore Jesus begins His three and a half year ministry (Mtw 3:2, Mark 1:15) with the words
‘Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand’
while Peter continues this call to unbelievers (Acts 2:38) and Paul is so bold as to say (Acts 17:30) that
‘...the times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all men everywhere to repent’
In just one verse in the NT, the word is used to convey a changing of one’s mind that doesn’t imply a turning away from sin (II Cor 7:8) but, of the other 33 occasions, sin is most definitely present and is the object of the word.
The word carries with it the idea of a change. Primarily, the idea is one of turning as an act of the will, not as an emotion - but one must be aware of what is wrong in order to turn from it. When we come to consider it in the light of the call of individuals to ‘repent’, the changing of one’s mind has both a ‘from’ and ‘to’ aspect - to change ‘from’ a state of sinfulness before God and ‘to’ a state of righteousness.
The word can seen to be similar in meaning to the OT word shuwb considered above.
Strongs Greek number 3338
Metamellomai is translated ‘repented’ in Mtw 27:3 in the KJV and RSV (‘Judas repented...’ - I will deal with the application to Judas under the section headed ‘Conviction of sin’). It means to ‘care afterwards’ or ‘to regret’ but it doesn’t necessarily indicate any change of mind or heart. The word occurs only five times in the NT.
In Mtw 21:29 and 21:32, the word is used about the son who refused to work in his father’s vineyard but then felt bad about what he’d done and so changed his mind and went and worked - contrasted by the chief priests and elders (Mtw 21:23) who heard the words of John the Baptist and knew them as being from God but who hardened their hearts against his message and, even when they realised that what they’d done was wrong after seeing the effects of his ministry, still didn’t do anything about it.
The word occurs twice in II Cor 7:8 where the KJV has the word ‘repent’ but the RSV translates it ‘regret’. Paul felt grieved that he’d written a strong letter to the Corinthians even though, in another sense, he knew that that was what he’d had to do. In this passage there’s no idea of sin, only a feeling that he would rather not have done what he knew he had to.
Finally, in Heb 7:21, it’s used of God in choosing Jesus as a priest ‘after the order of Melchizedek’ and, in that choice, refusing to change His mind on the matter.
The word, therefore, doesn’t necessarily imply the turning away from sin - though in Mtw 21:29,32 where a turning from sin is being discussed, the actual moving from a state of rebellion to a state of obedience is dealt with by a subsequent action and a different word (the phrase ‘and went’ in Mtw 21:29 and ‘and believed him’ in 21:32). It indicates an emotional response to a situation that one finds oneself in but the word doesn’t inherently convey the meaning of a turn around away from sin to a state of righteousness. As such, the word parallels the OT nacham.
Referring to these two different words, Kittels summarises the contrasts by noting that
‘Unlike metanoein, which means “change of heart”, [metamellomai] means the “experiencing of remorse”...The NT, then, has a clear sense of the distinction between the terms; it reserves metanoia for the divinely effected change of heart which leads to salvation’
2. Seeking to gain a working understanding of what exactly happens during repentance
Repentance is just as relevant for the saved as the unsaved, even though we tend to apply it just to those who want to know Jesus. But we’re all being changed to be more like Jesus and, therefore, from time to time we need to repent of our way of life and change into something much different.
Considering the definitions that we’ve looked at in the previous section, it’s obvious that repentance must contain a realisation of guilt/a sense of remorse on behalf of an individual. Both the words nacham (in the OT) and metamellomai (in the NT) indicate this. This concept will be dealt with under the heading ‘Conviction of sin’ (section a).
Then, just as obvious, is the need for individuals to turn or repent, or to think differently. For this idea, the words shuwb (OT) and metanoea (NT) are used in Scripture. This will be considered under the heading ‘Man’s responsibility’ (section b).
There’s a part of repentance which must entail a change in man’s tendency to sin which isn’t displayed in the word definitions. We would be falling short in our study of repentance if we presumed that an individual could continue to sin, using repentance only to gain forgiveness and healing from God, then going out after repenting and commit the very same things that he’s just been forgiven for.
Therefore, there needs to be a change within a person when repentance takes place for the work of God to have full effect. This will be considered under ‘A change of heart’ (section c).
Before we begin these sections, it’s important to read both II Samuel 12:1-15 and Psalm 51. The former passage should be seen in the context of the passage in which it occurs, so it’s best to read II Samuel 11:1-12:25, dealing, as it does, with David’s great sin of adultery and murder which was to eventually destroy his kingdom for a time through Absalom his son.
Psalm 51 is David’s response to the feelings of guilt that he experienced when Nathan came to him in the same situation and when he realised just how God felt about what he’d done. It would possibly have been composed around the time of Nathan’s declaration to David, even before the death of Bathsheba’s child, and it gives us a good insight into David’s feelings as he was confronted in his own mind with the awfulness of his actions.
It’s important that these passages are understood before we go through the definition and explanation of ‘repentance’ as we will be referring to them extensively.
a. Conviction of Sin
An act of God
Paralleled by the OT word nacham and the NT metamellomai
John 16:8 tells us that conviction of sin is a work of the Holy Spirit. Because the world doesn’t believe in Jesus, they cannot experience the forgiveness of their sins so the Holy Spirit shows them the reality of it and their need for cleansing.
It’s the Holy Spirit, then, who convinces us of sinful actions and lives, of the wickedness of the heart and evil intention. Simply put, the Holy Spirit shines His perfect standard into a life while an individual’s own standards and efforts are seen compared to the perfection of Christ. The reality of the person’s state before God is then made known and there comes upon them a feeling of remorse and guilt.
Psychiatrists and psychoanalysts wish they could get rid of those guilty feelings out of the lives of the people they counsel. For a long time, they’ve tried to deal with these feelings and set their patients free from these ‘damaging’ emotions that drag them down into neuroses and depression. But dealing with these feelings in the correct manner brings release to an individual and warns them to keep in the right path for their lives, rather than to commit the very same things that have got them into the situation where they feel the need to seek counsel.
If more counselling pointed upwards to God rather than pointing within oneself or pointing to someone on earth (dependency of the counselled upon the counsellor) then the world would indeed be a much happier place to live for the majority of people with guilt problems.
The conviction of sin is an aching inside, a restlessness, a pain, knowing that what we’ve done (or are doing) doesn’t meet up with the level that God requires from us. Conviction of sin is the Holy Spirit prodding us with the sharp two-edged sword that pricks our minds into a realisation of our guilt and unworthiness, of our sinfulness and wretchedness in the eyes of God.
Therefore the psalmist writes (Ps 32:3-4) that
‘When I declared not my sin, my body wasted away...’
and (Ps 38:4)
‘...my iniquities have gone over my head; they weigh like a burden too heavy for me’
Such spiritual prodding can result in physical problems if they are dealt with in the wrong way as noted above and it’s therefore important that the individual who falls under the conviction of the Holy Spirit deals with them effectively by recourse to God alone (or through an intermediary who will point to the solution in God) and not by suppression or by thinking that the state of mind they’re in has to be dealt with at an earthly level.
The conviction of sin is an important constituent of the conversion experience and must precede any commitment to follow Christ. Though many have decided to follow Jesus, there must come a time when the individual falls under the realisation of the sinfulness of their life before God in order to receive both healing and forgiveness. We see this demonstrated in Acts chapter 2 on the Day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit descended upon the 120 believers after Jesus’ ascension.
Peter, prompted to stand up and address the crowds that were witnessing the outbreak of speaking in foreign tongues, spoke about what they’d seen and known about Jesus, appealing to them to see in Him the answer to their prayers for the Messiah they had been long awaiting (Acts 2:14-36). As Peter drew to a close, it’s recorded that the crowds (Acts 2:37a)
‘...were cut to the heart...’
that is, they had fallen under the power of the conviction of sin and were acknowledging their need for forgiveness as they spoke out the words (Acts 2:37b)
‘...Brethren, what shall we do?...’
With this realisation of their sin, Peter is able to speak the word ‘repent’/’change’ into the situation (Acts 2:38) as a necessity laid upon them to receive the forgiveness of their sins through the rite of water baptism and by the reception of the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Of course, it’s important that an individual receives and accepts the truth about themselves and doesn’t just feel the effects of the Holy Spirit’s conviction and refuse His witness. In Luke 18:9-14, Jesus told a parable about two individuals, a Pharisee and a tax collector, who came before God with two very differing attitudes. The tax collector beat his breast in anguish for he realised the sinfulness of his life before God. Instead of trying to justify his life by recourse to comparisons with other people (as the Pharisee did), he freely confessed what he felt and so prayed to God for forgiveness and healing.
This, said Jesus, was what gained him acceptance before God, whereas the Pharisee, by exalting himself and considering how great he was, couldn’t find acceptance.
The Pharisee here may never have felt the convicting power of the Holy Spirit but it would be difficult for him to ever receive it (that is, to believe it) when he had such a high opinion of himself. The tax collector, on the other hand, was all too aware of the way his life stood before God and was honest and willing enough to admit it before the only One who He knew could do something about it.
In the book of Jonah, the Ninevites, believing God’s declaration of their guilt and being convicted of their sin, realised their need for forgiveness (Jonah 3:1-2,4-5). Had they not felt the remorse for their evil ways before God, they would not have had opportunity to repent and to turn to God but conviction paved the way for them to face up to the reality of their actions and to how God felt about it.
God then went and did what Jonah had not wanted Him to do and forgave the people of their sin by turning away from His intention of destroying their city.
David and Bathsheba
David had to have declared to him the sinfulness of his own actions (II Sam 12:7,9) before he faced up to the reality of how God felt about them (II Sam 12:13). Conviction of sin is to be shown the sinfulness of our actions, of our own lives before God, under the anointing of God and not through fleshly declaration. This latter method only brings condemnation to an individual and may even be based upon external assessments rather than God’s perfect standard.
While the acts of adultery and murder are fairly well defined and David’s actions appear to have been clear-cut, matters such as the drinking of alcohol have clear guidelines in Scripture but are often added to and expanded upon to make our own cultural traditions that are forced upon other believers.
It was to the religious leaders of Jesus’ day (Mark 7:8-9) that He said
‘You leave the commandment of God and hold fast the tradition of men...You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition!’
Even though their traditions were based upon the God-given Law, by adding to it they’d gone further than the Law had intended and brought in a series of principles that brought condemnation to the Israelites rather than allowing God to bring conviction through the precepts of the pure Law.
The conviction of sin is not ‘self-evaluation’ and neither is it others’ fault-finding of a brother’s life (which brings condemnation), but it’s a work of the Holy Spirit.
But, returning to the passage under question in II Samuel, though God chose Nathan the prophet to confront David in the matter of Bathsheba, it was the voice of the Lord and not merely one man’s opinion as to the legality of a man’s actions that brought conviction to David.
God’s work and timing
We would do well to consider and remember that repentance is a work of God - as is salvation which is the whole process out of which repentance springs. God must grant us the ability to repent for in our own state we’re both unwilling and unable to turn to God.
Notice John 6:44 where we read that it’s only if God grants it that a man can be drawn to Christ and II Timothy 2:25b (also Acts 5:31) where God is described as the One who ‘may’ grant repentance (again, the choice is His, dependent upon His mercy and not upon any work on our part). Psalm 80:3,7,19 also, shows us that it’s God’s action first that brings opportunity for salvation. And, finally, Lamentations 5:21 which says that we are only restored if God restores us.
In all these Scriptures cited, it’s plain that, far from man thinking that he can run the show and choose the day of conversion, it’s dependent upon God’s timing in the choice of bringing the Holy Spirit’s conviction to an individual.
Conviction of sin is the first step of repentance and is a work of God. For too long we have preached that to become believers we’re doing God a favour - we’ve emphasised the manward acceptance of Christ in our neglect of God’s acceptance of man. Both conviction of sin and a change of heart (see section c below) are gifts from and workings of the Holy Spirit.
So, when God is willing to accept us, we may accept Him.
And, when God is willing to receive us, we may receive Him.
These two statements show up the often quoted fallacy that proclaims proudly
‘When I’m older I’ll accept Christ’
Salvation firstly depends on God allowing us opportunity to do so through Him convicting us of sin - only then are we able to adequately respond to the message of the cross before God seals it with a change of heart.
Similarly, we should not force-convert unbelievers but allow God to draw them until the time that they’re ready to follow Jesus. There’s a time and moment as God works out His purpose for individuals and it’s this that we must be aware of when we spread the Gospel of the Kingdom (see Appendix 2 for a further discussion of this topic).
Judas and repentance
Mtw 27:3 informs us that
As has already been seen in the definition of the Biblical words used, it should be more properly translated
‘Judas regretted what he’d done’
Judas in himself recognised the evil of his own action but it’s doubtful that the Holy Spirit convicted him. He convicts individuals for the purpose of restoring and not condemning one who is not to be given any opportunity to repent. Man has the ability to feel remorse for his wrong actions (because of the work of conscience) but he’s unable to be convicted of his sin unless he’s granted it by God. With conviction of sin, there’s always the opportunity for man to repent of his wrongdoing and the willingness on God’s part to forgive.
But, in Judas’ case, there wasn’t to be any opportunity for forgiveness.
In Heb 12:16-17, it’s also recorded that Esau, because of the nature of his sin, found no opportunity to repent even though by his tears he had much anguish of heart - he realised the sinfulness of his own actions but, like Judas, was to find no way of being restored into the condition he was in before he committed the sin.
b. Man’s responsibility
Turning to God
Paralleled by the OT word shuwb and the NT metanoea
Repentance begins with a work of God (as has been shown in the previous section) when a man’s sin is revealed to him by God. It’s certainly something that’s ‘felt’ and not mind-knowledge in its entirety.
When this happens, man’s responsibility to act upon it is fourfold. These four steps are set out below in order
i. Acknowledge sin and not hide it or try to justify it
There are two passages worth contrasting here. Firstly, II Sam 12:(1-12)13 in which we see David’s right reaction. When convicted of his sin by a direct work of the Holy Spirit through Nathan the prophet, he says
‘I have sinned against the Lord’
He acknowledges the truth about himself and doesn’t try to hide it or justify the actions that have now been called in to question. David’s willingness to believe God, whether it be as a rebuke or in blessing, was one of the major reasons why God was able to use him so much and do through him all the things He did.
Secondly, I Kings 13:(1-3)4 shows us how not to react to the Lord’s conviction of sin. King Jeroboam hated the truth about himself so much that he gave orders that the prophet who’d been used to point out his sin should be arrested. The desire to be always right and to have one’s actions go unchecked by God is a matter of the ego. We like to think that we can do as we please and only have others’ sin called into question as and when they sin against us but, when it gets personal, the danger is that we react against the words violently and quickly.
Reactions, such as Jeroboam’s here, are foolishness, for God doesn’t convict to condemn but to forgive. But the feelings that he experienced only caused his pride to be wounded and affronted and to provoke him into trying to remove the source of that conviction from himself.
As I write this, I’ve just finished being verbally abused by a subscriber to a hamster newsgroup on the Internet who, although I had calmly corrected him so that he would desist from posting articles that were an infringement of the agreement he had with his Internet Service Provider, had reacted quite violently because he didn’t want to be told that his actions were wrong.
The person in question had posted what is known as ‘binaries’ onto the newsgroup - a picture in text format that can be decoded when received to reveal a picture (in this case, of a hamster). This wasn’t his first posting of a binary, either - there had been a previous posting but, because it looked as if it was a one-off, I decided not to comment at that time.
The original posting in this series with the binaries attached to his post was (I’ve kept, in main, the original spelling, lack of caps and everything in these series of quotes)
‘enjoy this pic of these 2 cute & lovely hammies...’
to which I replied both publicly on the newsgroup and by private email
‘Although I’m sure that people would love to see your hamsters, NGs are not the place to post pictures unless it’s a binary group which (as far as I’m aware) this isn’t
‘Posting binaries in this manner is often considered to be an infringement of an ISP’s agreement with a subscriber so it’s best to post a note offering to privately email the pictures to anyone who’s interested.
‘No offence taken...but please don’t post binaries’
and another subscriber commented
‘I hate to be rude, but please do not post binaries to a non-binary group
‘It slows the news readout
‘A more effective and bandwidth-saving way is to include a link to a webpage with the binary you’ve attached here’
Not exactly slandering him here, were we? However, his response was quite incredible. Privately, he sent me an email which read
‘Bite me son!!! I’ll post whatever & whenever I want scum!!!’
and to the newsgroup
‘any moronic scum who can’t setup their mail program to decode images and whom don’t appreciate cute hamster photos should get off the net for good and never surf online again. bite me! your messages suck too! if it’s to[o] slow for you, then get a faster modem or computer! anyways for those who enjoy pics of these furry creatures, here’s some more from me to you...’
going on to post two more binary pictures attached to his ‘loving’ message (I found it quite amusing that on one of his previous postings he’d signed off ‘peace and faith’! Those words must obviously mean something different to what I’ve always taken them to mean...). Admittedly, he had his supporters. When one who opposed what he was doing posted
‘Actually I agree, images shouldn’t be posted on this news group...please don’t because it slows the d/l [download] of news a lot! Thanks’
two responded with
‘Well, the pictures do not affect the speed of my news, they load instantly. They are also very cute hamsters’
‘i agree, they don’t slow anything!’
to which I responded
‘Well, they slow the download very much so here. The download times are 3.5K/s for a 28K8 modem so, for a 20K attachment we’re talking 6 seconds. If everyone began posting binaries then download times would increase drastically.
‘But this is hardly the point...
‘...this is a non-binary NG and, as such, the posting of binaries is an infringement of that agreement.
‘Everyone (I hope) forgives someone who does it inadvertently, who’s excited to show people pictures of their cute hamsters...but to be bloody-minded as Mr [name removed!] is when he is contravening Netiquette is unfortunate.
‘Other people who have been told about this have responded very positively. And the NG love ‘em just as much as everyone else.
‘Binaries can be offered to be sent by private email...or put on web sites...but the NG exists for text postings only.
Finally, as the author of the binary postings and of the aggressive posts wasn’t going to listen to what he was ‘illegally’ doing, I posted in response to his newsgroup posting (his words are italicised):
‘any moronic scum who can’t setup their mail program to decode images
‘The program I have decodes images okay. But binaries can have hidden .exe files in them that contain viruses [which, in my early days on the computer, I thought to be accurate] - so it’s a risk to decode them when they appear on a NG anyway.
‘whom don’t appreciate cute hamster photos should get off the net for good and never surf online again.
‘The point that has been made is that it is not Netiquette to do what you’ve done - but it is also a breach of the agreement that you are under when you use the NG for posting binaries.
‘bite me! your messages suck too! if it’s to slow for you, then get a faster modem or computer! anyways for those who enjoy pics of these furry creatures, here’s some more from me to you:
‘Yes, I can decode attachments...
‘...I also have a kill file which I don’t want to have to put you on...
‘...but if you insist’
The ‘kill file’ is a facility to make sure you never see a posting again from someone you don’t want to read. Although I was waiting to see if he wants to change his mind on the matter, his next posting would have prompted me to ‘hit the button’ and remove him from my in-tray forever!
But why have I included this here? Because it’s so much like Jeroboam - in fact, it’s so much like the normal reaction of mankind when their actions are called into account by God. We don’t like being told that our ways are wrong, we rebel against it. Even when the Holy Spirit comes to gently tell us that there’s an area of our life that needs changing, we react against it - sometimes violently - because it represents an infringement upon our own ego and self-esteem. We don’t want to change to bring ourselves into line with what’s ‘right’, we want to be the way we are and have others change.
Therefore, we don’t want to accept Truth and acknowledge what has been revealed to us about our wrong actions.
In one sense, the discussion (cum slander!) was about no God ordained commandment, but the principle is the same here - mankind doesn’t like acknowledging the truth about himself and is willing to defend his position violently if need be to make himself justified in his own eyes.
Just like Jeroboam.
But not like David.
God only strives with man for a time. After that He ‘kill-files’ him. Though a man’s conscience may trouble him, the heart of the individual becomes hardened against the voice of God, and he becomes impervious to the convicting power of the Holy Spirit. God then has to withdraw from the individual and thus give him over into worse and worse sin (see Rom 1:18ff).
Luke 18:13 speaks to us of the positive response to the convicting work of the Holy Spirit - the publican recognised the truth about himself and acknowledged it in the sight of God. Rather than try to justify himself by comparing himself with others who were ‘less holy’ (as the Pharisee did - Luke 18:11-12), he acknowledged what he knew to be true.
Contrasting this passage, I John 1:8 says that if we say that we have no sin we fool ourselves, while Mtw 3:8-9 shows us that the Pharisees (the religious leaders of Jesus’ day and held in high honour by the people) tried to justify themselves by claiming natural descent through Abraham. They were effectively saying that conviction of sin was not a relevant concept with regard to a man’s salvation, only descent from a specific man who had been given a promise from God.
If they’d been truly repentant and had been seeking a change of heart, then they would have been bearing the spiritual fruit that would have demonstrated the change but, as it was, their lifestyle was not acceptable to God.
ii. Confess sin (to God)
There was a very real difference between the characters of Jeroboam and David when their sin was made known to them by the power of the Holy Spirit. While Jeroboam violently opposed the message, David humbled himself before the revelation of God through Nathan and confessed his sin (II Sam 12:13a), receiving God’s forgiveness in an instant because of the sincerity of his heart (II Sam 12:13b - see below).
The prayer that David recorded for ‘posterity’, Psalm 51, gives us a better insight into what David went through when the realisation of what he’d done hit him forcefully - even though he knew full well that his actions had been against both God and man, it needed the convicting power of the Holy Spirit to make him sit up and ‘feel’ it.
Here, in the first four verses of Psalm 51, we witness David laying out before God the acknowledgement of what he’d done and the confession of his sin. David understood that all sin is committed against God (Ps 51:4) as a transgression of His Law, and, if so, then it’s important to confess it before Him. Even though the acts he’d committed had earthly consequences - the murder of Uriah, the rape/seduction of Bathsheba - primarily his sin was against the revealed will and purpose of God for all mankind. Therefore David makes confession to God directly, he uses no earthly intermediary but talks to God direct.
In Luke 15:21 when the prodigal son returns to his father (who is symbolic for YHWH), he confesses his sin as being against his father and heaven (that is, God), realising that not only has he treated his birthright as something to be exploited but that, in doing so, he’s committed sin against God’s revealed purpose for mankind. Such a confession makes the way for him to be forgiven both by his father and by God, the former of whom immediately removes the consequences of his sin and restores him into the position that had been rightfully his before he left.
Such ‘removal of the consequences’ is an important aspect of forgiveness though, having received forgiveness from God, the restoration into the original state is not a definite consequence. While God may heal and remove the effects of sin when it’s confessed, there are many believers who still bear the scars that their actions have brought upon themselves. These may be removed after many years or, as is the case with many, never removed until death.
But the prodigal’s confession of sin was important after he was convicted of the sinful state of his life and actions.
Of course, the confessing of sin to God can be thought of as a way to gain an advantage over Him. That, having now confessed what He’s displeased with (even though we may not perceive the sinfulness of the action at all), He will turn to bless us and perform whatever petition that we’ve laid before Him.
Such was the experience of many of the medieval ‘believers’, especially the knights who participated in the Crusades to the Holy Land who would confess their sins on the eve of a battle and put away the sin that was within their camp (such as the prostitutes that followed after the band to ply their trade), thinking that God would be pleased with their short-lived abstinence until after the victory had been won. But this was, of course, as Steve Camp writes in one of his songs
‘playing marbles with diamonds...’
Ps 38:18 is the antidote to this sort of mindset. David writes
‘I confess my iniquity, I am sorry for my sin’
The confession of sin means that we realise that what we did was wrong, that we are sorry enough to come before God humbly and not expect a ‘fix’ or some bargain being struck. It’s not a way to gain an advantage, but a way to realise the foolishness of our ways and so return to God.
The first two points considered here under points i and ii are also demonstrated for us in the life of Daniel. In Dan 9:2 we see Daniel’s conviction of Israel’s sin after reading passages from such places as Jeremiah 25:11-12 and Jer 29:10. Then, in Daniel 9:4-6, we see his confession of that sin (see also the relevant phrases in v.7,9,10,11).
Finally, confession leads us to receive God’s forgiveness (I John 1:9) - which brings us very neatly to the next point.
iii. Seek God’s forgiveness
Or, ‘receive God’s forgiveness’
When God has convicted an individual of sin and that individual has confessed their sin before God, forgiveness lies close at hand - even though it’s the case in a number of passages that some individuals have had to seek God’s forgiveness fervently in order to receive it.
Of note here is Paul who, when blinded on the Damascus Road by Jesus (Acts 9:1-8), had to seek the Lord for three days and nights in fasting (Acts 9:9) until a messenger was sent to him to declare privately that his sin was forgiven (Acts 9:10-19).
The basis of forgiveness is only ever on the basis of Christ’s work on the cross for there’s no other sacrifice that can pay the price that’s necessary for cleansing (see the notes on ‘Yom Kippur’).
The Pharisees claimed that only God could forgive sin (Mark 2:7) - Jesus didn’t dispute their theology (Mark 2:8-10)! But, although their doctrine was correct, they hadn’t received God’s forgiveness because they gloried in the self-exaltation of their righteousness according to Law and not according to a free gift of God bestowed upon all who turn to Him for mercy and forgiveness.
The Pharisees saw the forgiveness of God being almost a reward upon the outcome of their good works - whether through charitable acts or self-willed restrictions - instead of being a free gift bestowed upon individuals when they were convicted of their sin and were willing to confess and to turn from it.
Therefore, they were unable to accept the tax collectors, publicans, sinners and prostitutes who came in their droves to Jesus to receive forgiveness before they’d performed any good work or had striven for any level of perfection in their own lives (Mtw 9:11, 21:31-32, Mark 2:15-16). These were the people who’d come to John the Baptist in the wilderness to receive forgiveness, having been honest to that inner voice that was convicting them of the sinfulness of their ways before God (Luke 3:10-14). The Pharisees also came to John to be baptised but because everyone else was coming, not because they were necessarily convicted of their sin (Mtw 3:7-10).
Notice also the various passages throughout the Bible which speak of confession by individuals of sin before God. In Ps 51:7,9 we read of David’s prayer to receive forgiveness from God; in Daniel 9:18-19 we read of Daniel’s plea to God that He would forgive Israel their sin; in Jonah 3:4-5,8-9 there’s the record of the Ninevites’ repentance after God had revealed to them their sin and so received forgiveness. The judgment that had been declared as about to fall upon the city was withheld.
Ps 32:3-5, also, which could be paraphrased
‘...when I confessed my sin, You forgave me. When I didn’t, You convicted me all the more’
The purpose of God here in convicting His children of their sin is that, come the Day of Judgment in the future, there’ll be nothing that God can level against them or have to ‘overlook’ that He’ll judge others for.
Finally, Mtw 5:4 speaks about those who mourn being comforted and it relates to the sorrow for sin that often comes upon people when they first have the sinfulness of their lives made known to them by the Holy Spirit. Being convicted may bring mourning - many people, when they first come to acknowledge Jesus as the Saviour, shed tears profusely because the pain of having sinned is a very real experience.
The problem here can be not that God wants to forgive them but that they can’t draw themselves away from the sorrow they feel and the knowledge of the sinfulness of their lives in order to turn to God for healing!
iv. Set the will not to sin again
Well, you would have thought that this point would go without saying, but many individuals miss out here and their lives remain the same. But a man must turn from his sin so that he does not commit what he once did wrong, so falling back into a state where he needs to be convicted all over again! Repentance (as we shall see under section c) demands that there be a change within that can only be effected by God - but, for that to happen, man must set his will not to choose to sin in that way again.
Many times we see in Scripture that men and women are forgiven by God and then told not to commit the very same things that they’ve been forgiven of.
The woman taken in adultery, having been forgiven by Jesus was told to go her own way but not to sin again (John 8:11). The weight of His words here don’t mean
‘make sure that you commit no sin in any area of your life ever again’
even though Jesus knew how the effects of sin screw people’s lives up - but
‘make sure that you do not commit this type of sin again’
Having been forgiven, the woman needed to make sure that she stayed well away from such a sin.
Strangely, a healed lame man was told to sin no more (John 5:14), even though there’s no obvious statement from Jesus’ lips or in John’s commentary that the incapacity was a result of an action on his part. But the implication is that Jesus was concerned that the same incapacity would not again befall him - an incapacity that, somehow, had been brought about by sin, either through a direct physical sin (was he climbing on a roof trying to break in to a building to steal?) or as a physical consequence of a spiritual sin (was the judgment upon his sin this incapacity in the same way as the judgment upon David’s sin with Bathsheba was the physical death of the conceived child and the physical loss of the kingdom of Israel for a time?).
In both these instances from the Gospel of John, Jesus forgave sin and dealt with the consequences of the individual’s sin, but they were then under obligation to set their will not to commit the very same things again.
There are numerous other passages where a commitment of the will to turn away from sin is enjoined upon individuals. Rom 6:18 speaks of the ‘new birth’, of being converted from a life of self-indulgence and sin to a life of obedience before God, Paul talking of us being freed from sin and being enslaved to do good. Forgiveness is not a ‘God-work’ devoid of a response from man.
When Israel sinned before the Lord (as they often did) they weren’t told just to forsake what was evil (Isaiah 1:16-17). The implication in that command was that they should turn away from what was displeasing to God but begin to learn to do good.
Jer 25:5 also notes that God required Israel to turn from all their evil - implying (though not positively stating) that they should do good. But the two must go hand in hand. We cannot think that God’s forgiveness is cheap - it costs us our wills to receive it. And there must be a freewill choice - once forgiveness is received - that says we’ll not choose our way any longer but God’s way. It’s a death to self but a life lived in obedience to God.
If we were to axe ‘man’s response’ from the concept of ‘repentance’, then we could effectively save the world without mankind ever having to do anything about their own sin. Consequently, sin would abound and the world would become more corrupt as time went on. But repentance demands a positive response from man in the area of his will so that he doesn’t sin again.
Psalm 51 is the psalm of repentance over the matter of Bathsheba. In subsequent years and throughout the following pages of Scripture, we see that David never committed the same sin again. He changed his will to bring it in line with that of the Lord.
In the list of foundational doctrines in Heb 6:1, the writer speaks of salvation having a twofold effect. Having turned from ‘dead works’ (of righteousness - aimed at gaining acceptance before God), man is obligated to have ‘faith toward God’. Salvation is the forsaking of the one in order to possess the other.
As a short aside, we should consider the situation when a brother sins against us frequently but doesn’t seek our forgiveness. Firstly, it’s important that we choose to forgive this brother so that his persistent sin doesn’t embitter us. But, secondly, and more importantly, we have to realise that we can’t effectively forgive him until he’s convicted of his sin and turns to us in order that we might release him from his sin by our forgiveness (see also Appendix 1).
From that moment of confession, it’s not unreasonable to presume that this sin will not be repeated (even though it could well be! - Mtw 18:21-22).
Concluding these four points, if a man is convicted of sin, he must acknowledge that sin, confess it, seek and receive forgiveness and then set his will not to sin again in like manner (even though there would still remain forgiveness should this happen).
c. A change of heart
An act of God
Not paralleled by any of the Hebrew or Greek words
Setting our will to be obedient to God is one thing, but being able to carry it through is another. Though we may will something, we may have little power to carry it through (Rom 7:14-20 esp v.14,15,18). When we consider the work of repentance thus far described, we see a picture of God convicting men and women of their sin, who then acknowledge their sin and turn away from it. But, in man, there’s weakness that undermines the good intentions of the heart.
The power of sin, of knowing what is both right and wrong, stimulates that part of man to desire to sin. Even though we may resist the ‘voice’ that tempts us to go our own way, sooner or later we succumb to its leadings and follow the path that leads away from the will of God, sometimes even justifying our actions as righteousness.
Jer 17:9 speaks of the heart being desperately corrupt and Ps 14:3 that all men have gone astray and are therefore corrupt because ‘no one’ does good. It was obvious to God that if He was ever to get a people of obedience, He would have to provide a way to sort mankind out from within, to cause them to be obedient by either healing, removing or dealing with the offending characteristic.
When David says (Ps 51:10)
‘Create in me a clean heart...and put a new and right spirit within me’
he’s really saying
‘Fix me for good that I don’t sin again’
He realised his inward sinfulness and yet was wise enough to know that God, and only God, could change him within to be obedient. Even though he’d tasted nothing but good from the Lord (and knew that to be so), he nevertheless stood up against what he knew to be the correct way, turning aside to flout the Law of God.
The ultimate solution required desperate measures. On the cross, Jesus took it upon Himself to crucify our evil natures, our evil hearts, the sinful body (Romans 6:6 - for more on this subject see the study on ‘Baptism’) and, for those who believe, God implants a new nature, a new heart, within. The rest of the Christian life is a battle between the old and the new (Eph 4:22-24) for, even though we must consider ourselves dead to the old way of life, we find ourselves constantly veering away from the right way and desiring the wrong.
This ‘new heart’ is given to His people primarily because they return to Him (Jer 24:7). So we see points a and b above as being the prerequisites to God implanting the new nature within us, causing us to be able to know Him and giving us the ability to be obedient from the (new) heart to His will for our lives.
Notice these two passages from the prophets, both of which were prophetically given to the Israelites to declare to them God’s intention to inaugurate a New Covenant, that which has now been brought in by Jesus. Firstly Ezek 11:19-20 which comments that a new heart is given so that his followers will be obedient to Him and Ezek 36:26-27 where God is spoken as causing His people to be obedient. In both cases, a new heart is spoken of that’s tied in with the beginning of obedience to the revealed will of God.
In the New Covenant, the Law has not changed - ceremonial aspects have been substantially fulfilled but categorical Law (that is, the ten commandments) remain unaltered. But the Law has changed position from being external to internal (Jer 31:33) and he who slackens even one of the least of the external laws is called ‘least’ in the Kingdom (Mtw 5:19).
We’re called to live in the power of the Spirit within us but out of the new man that has been placed within, while the written word outside us (the Bible) confirms what should already be within. The new nature is therefore our new person - the type of person that God desires us to be - while the Spirit of God is the empowering force that equips us to obey his leadings.
The New Covenant is not ‘higher law’ (as one preacher I once heard said), some external code that supersedes all that has gone before, but an internal one, the same as has always been God’s intention for His people.
Repentance, then, ends with God changing man on the inside that he may have the ability to be obedient from that time onwards to both God’s will and word. Far from being an optional extra, it’s vitally important that God changes an individual on the inside in order that he might now be obedient to the will of God.
Sandwiched between two acts of God (conviction and change) there needs to be a correct response in man, without which repentance will not be seen to be complete. When an individual has undergone this radical experience of repentance - whether that be for initial conversion or afterwards concerning a particular area of their lives - it’s not unreasonable to expect a visible external change that’s a witness to what has taken place within.
3. Practical applications of repentance
a. The first word of the Gospel of the Kingdom of Heaven
After 400 years of silence between the ending of the writings of the Old Testament and the beginning of the New (though that’s not to say that God did nothing with His people Israel throughout that entire time), God began His new work with the word ‘repent’ through John the Baptist (Mtw 3:2).
Just in case we should miss the point of the relevance of John’s words, Jesus begins His ministry with the very same word (Mtw 4:17), the word ‘repent’. In fact, should we be in any doubt as to whether the messages were the same, we need only to consider the Greek of both proclamations translated as
‘Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand’
for they’re identical. It wasn’t that John and Jesus had grasped something similar about entry into the Kingdom that was shortly to be established, but that they had received directly from God something that was identical. Entry into this New Covenant had to begin with repentance.
Mark 16:15 is the most frequent text used by preachers to highlight the Church’s call to ‘preach the gospel’ but, before we rush out into the streets and proclaim it, we would do well to consider just what it is. Luke records a similar passage in his Gospel at 24:47 but there, instead of the word ‘gospel’ there’s a description of the content of such preaching which runs that
‘...repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached...’
Instead of there being only forgiveness of sins proclaimed, repentance is coupled with it. The full Gospel is repentance and forgiveness of sins, neither one nor the other exclusively. The Church has often proclaimed forgiveness to the people who come to hear the message of the Gospel, without them ever hearing of the need for repentance to be able to receive that forgiveness. But, until repentance is experienced by an individual, there can never be the forgiveness of sins by God.
Indeed, should God only forgive, the need for repentance and for more forgiveness will be necessary in any area in which a transgression has occurred.
But, going one step further, we need to ask ourselves if this message of repentance and forgiveness was what was preached in the early Church. Acts 2:38 records Peter’s summary of the necessary actions of his hearers as being
‘Repent and be baptized...for the forgiveness of your sins...’
Acts 3:19 records it as
‘Repent...and turn again that your sins may be blotted out...’
Acts 5:31 that Jesus has come
‘...to give repentance [where repentance is here spoken of as being a gift of God]...and forgiveness of sins...’
and Acts 26:18 that God has granted men and women opportunity to
‘..turn from darkness to light [repentance]...they may receive forgiveness of sins...’
Notice also that, in Luke 3:3, John the Baptist also preached
‘...a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’
Though ‘repentance’ was the beginning of his message, he linked it in with the forgiveness of sins.
This, then, was the Gospel message of the early Church - repentance and forgiveness. There’s not forgiveness only when a person comes to Christ, but repentance coupled with forgiveness. Or, more accurately, repentance is the experience that allows an individual the capacity to be able to receive God’s forgiveness of his sins.
We’ve just seen that the first word of the Gospel of the Kingdom is ‘repent’. If repentance was not our experience when we first took the label of a follower of Jesus, then we have no part in the Church of Christ. This may sound rather harsh and overbearing, but an individual who sees nothing wrong in his own way of living and the things he does, is in no position to humble himself before God and to ask God to change him for the better.
Further, how can an individual confess his sin to God when he doesn’t believe that he has any? And how can he then receive the forgiveness for something that he doesn’t believe is wrong? And how can he want to change from a way of living that’s an offence to God when he doesn’t believe that there’s anything wrong with it? As repentance requires a correct response from man, so entry into the Church is dependant upon that correct response being made when God convicts an individual of their sin.
Repentance, therefore, is not an optional extra, it’s a requirement. Thus, Paul says in Acts 17:30, that
‘[God] commands all men everywhere to repent...’
If anyone has entered the Body of Christ without repentance then, as Jesus said in Luke 13:1-5
‘Unless you repent you will all likewise perish’
And yet, we should also realise that repentance must begin with a work of God upon an individual, a work in God’s timing and not our own (see Appendix 2).
Finally, if we continue to sin after having repented (Rom 6:2), then we haven’t allowed repentance to have its full effect and have chosen not to live in the change that God brings to us when we set our wills not to sin again. In this case also, we don’t belong in the Church and, though we have gone so far as to come to a point where we could enter, we’ve shut the door in our own face by either refusing to be changed or by refusing to live out the reality of the change within.
b. Into revival
Revival is too broad a subject to be narrowly defined as a time when there is a great harvest of souls. God requires His Church to be prepared for that time and it’s this that’s a foundation from which revivals come. God wants to visit this land with His presence in full power, full glory and full majesty - but first His Church must be prepared.
David summed it up simply (Ps 51:12-13 - my paraphrase) when he wrote
‘Restore me...then I will be able to reach out to others...’
Far from thinking that, in his sinful condition before God, he could effectively be a witness to His goodness, he realised that he needed something doing in his own life before others would be willing to turn back to God because of him. And, instead of praying that God might do something in others’ lives to draw them back to Himself, he saw that the responsibility for doing such a thing lay not in a sovereign act of God but in himself being restored by God and then being used as His channel out to others.
God desires to cleanse His people. In I Peter 4:17 the thought is primarily that, if judgment is coming upon the world on account of their sin, then His people must be ready for that day so that, when they stand before Him, there’s nothing in them that’s requiring judgment. Though this doesn’t directly comment on the need for God’s people to be cleansed before revival comes, we can see that Jesus’ disciples must live lives of repentance - not just experiencing it once when initial conversion takes place - being changed to be more like Christ (Rom 8:29) and less like the old person we were.
God’s preparation of His Church for revival
When God was going to manifest Himself to the Israelites, they had three days in which to cleanse themselves for the King’s arrival (Ex 19:10-11,14-15) - God’s holy presence cannot tolerate sin. I’ve already mentioned how the medieval crusades did similar things before they went in to battle, expecting God to move on their behalf, but in those cases (as well as here, unfortunately) they only put away defilements for the time because they wanted blessing showered upon them. The meeting of God with His people was going to be a special event, so the Israelites had to prepare themselves for it.
In Is 40:3-4 (Pp Mtw 3:3, Mark 1:3, Luke 3:4-6, John 1:23), we read that John the Baptist (the ‘voice’ of Is 40:3) was the one sent by God to prepare the way for Jesus. But what was this highway that John the Baptist was going to prepare?
In Luke 1:76-77 and Mtw 3:2 we see that it was the hearts of Israel, by preaching the cleansing from sin through repentance. The passage in Isaiah says much the same in v.4 where it reads
‘every valley shall be lifted up’
that is, the humble exalted and
‘every mountain and hill be made low’
which is the proud humbled. The way must be prepared first before the Lord will travel that path. Though there’s a highway that God desires to use to come to His people, there’s necessarily a call of God laid upon them to repent in order that, when He does come, He doesn’t come in judgment. We are God’s way to reach out to this world and the onus is upon us to be prepared first before the Lord will come in full glory into our lives and, through our lives, reaching out to others.
When a monarch comes to visit a nation, envoys are sent on ahead to prepare the way before they arrive. Similarly, when God’s presence comes to His people, they must be spiritually prepared to receive Him. God’s cleansing of His Church is His way of preparation. This call to preparation, to be cleansed, occurs in many different places throughout Scripture. Always, the problem is not that God doesn’t want to visit His people and move amongst them in blessing, but that His people aren’t willing to cleanse themselves from the things that God finds abhorrent and unclean.
For example, II Tim 2:19-21 notes that it’s our responsibility to be cleansed, ready for God’s use. Though God has provided a way that individuals can be cleansed, the responsibility for being uncontaminated vessels lies with those individuals in order that God might use them for service in His will and purpose.
God’s Temple must also be cleansed before true service can take place. Hezekiah couldn’t reintroduce the sacrificial system at Jerusalem until the priests had entered the Temple and cleansed its courts from all the defilements of former years through previous kings of Judah (II Chr 29:15). In the New Covenant, God’s people are His temples, mobile places of worship (though they aren’t objects of worship but the place where worship should take place) that need to be cleansed for God’s presence to shine through in all His glory and power (I Cor 3:16-17, II Cor 6:16-7:1).
Mal 3:2b-4 also notes that God will purify His people so that they present right offerings. The acceptability of our offering to God is dependant upon being cleansed from every defilement that tarnishes what we offer. It’s primarily God’s work (repentance begins with a work of God) but, quite obviously, individuals must be cleansed and be willing to turn away from their sin.
Finally, in II Kings 4:3-6, God calls to Himself empty vessels to fill them with the oil of His Spirit. He’s only limited by the number of vessels that are made available to Him, not by the quantity of the oil that’s being poured. Likewise, God will fill all of His people who are empty of their own way of living and who are ready to be filled by Him with the oil of His Holy Spirit. If revival is going to come, there needs to be many empty vessels, prepared for that dynamic infilling that overflows out to the areas around them.
This being cleansed is a type of repentance - we must come to an understanding of what’s wrong in our lives, put it aside and live lives of holiness before God. As previously noted, it’s only when this happens in God’s people (Ps 51:12) that they will ever be able to reach out effectively to others (Ps 51:13).
Finally, if we were to ask ourselves what or who is the biggest hindrance to revival in the local fellowship, we would have to answer that it’s not the unsaved but the believer - that is, you and me, because so often ‘me’ is the one who’s unwilling to repent and cleanse ourselves from all defilements of spirit, soul and body, which would ensure that, when God came to His people, there would be at least one empty vessel that He could use to make His presence known through.
Appendix 1 - The forgiveness of man’s sin
So far, we’ve only looked, in the most part, at God’s forgiveness of man in the context of repentance which has its basis in the work of Christ on the cross.
But there remains a few questions that need answering when we begin to consider man’s forgiveness of man and the importance of such a concept to our walk with Jesus. There’s no one, I expect, who has not at some point or other - and, more than likely, on a regular basis - found an individual committing sin against them. Whether this be directly, in the form of stealing, adultery or the like, or indirectly, such as actions that bring consequences to bear upon us, there are two possible reactions to being wronged.
Avenged 70x7 times
The result of Lamech’s unforgiveness in the passage quoted channelled itself into an act of murder. Indeed, unforgiveness imparts death whether physical, spiritual or emotional. That may take the form of inward death, where we become dead to the life of God, or real death when we declare war on the person who’s sinned against us and seek vengeance, also, as a consequence, finding that we begin to grow dead to the movings of God around us.
While anger burns in our hearts, there’s always the possibility that it may overspill from within and find expression in actions that, though they may stop short of murder, are certainly not actions based upon love (Mtw 5:21-26).
Because Lamech didn’t choose reconciliation with the one who wounded him, the only course of action left open to him was one of retaliation and vengeance which he pursued speedily.
Luke 17:3-4 (Pp Mtw 18:21-22)
Forgiven 70x7 times
Jesus’ instructions to his disciples were to forgive those who sinned against them (Mtw 6:12). The end result of forgiveness is reconciliation and healing - it imparts life and release into situations that are bound up through bitterness.
Forgiveness calms the anger that burns within when we feel we’re wronged and pacifies the hatred that can so easily spill over into our dealings with the one who’s wronged us.
That’s why forgiveness is so important and urged upon His followers by Jesus. If we are aflame with anger then we cannot be full of love and cannot therefore reach out effectively to others who are continually sinning against us - and it’s only love that’s a reflection of the character of God into the world (see also my notes here).
These are the two responses that we can give to the personal sin problem as I’ve noted above - one leads to death, the other to life. But two further points need to be considered that qualify the above statements.
Firstly, the forgiveness of sins is always to be bestowed upon those who offend us but notice that Paul refused to take Mark with him (Acts 15:36-40) because he’d withdrawn from the work that they were engaged in. What we need to ask ourselves is
‘Was Paul bitter towards Mark?’
‘Had Paul allowed unforgiveness to remain undealt with?’
The answer to both questions need not be anything other than ‘No’. Paul refused to take Mark with him not because he continued to remember the action against him as a sin and hadn’t dealt with it but because, in his assessment of Mark’s character, there continued to be a weakness that meant he was not the ideal person to select for furthering the work.
An assessment of a brother’s weakness must continue for his own salvation, to avoid him stumbling (as in the case of the weak brother - Rom 14:1-15:3) and it’s not the same as holding unforgiveness in one’s heart against someone.
Therefore, though we’re commanded to forgive all who sin against us in order that we may not grow bitter against such individuals, there are still considerations to be made if that individual turns to be forgiven by us.
Secondly, it’s not possible to bestow forgiveness upon a brother if he’s not repentant. There must be an acknowledgement of sin in the individual’s life before forgiveness can be received. Notice Luke 17:3-4 above which talks about a brother who acknowledges his sin. Mtw 18:21-22 omits this detail, but the need for repentance qualifies the passage as is shown by the parable that follows in Mtw 18:23-35.
If there’s no acknowledgement, the forgiveness ‘works’ for us only, not for the unrepentant transgressor. We are ‘released’ from any bitterness or hardness of heart - that is, spiritual death - and so can continue to serve the Lord in purity.
But a person cannot receive forgiveness unless he’s repentant.
This entire subject of ‘forgiveness’ of men and women is a tricky one and one that we’re all probably going to struggle with for the rest of our lives.
Who can honestly say that they feel confident that they could forgive the grossest sin committed against them without in the least feeling any bitterness or anger towards that individual? Even considering how God lives out the reality of what He tells us to do (while at the same time knowing that God will judge everyone at some future day), makes it no easier for us.
But forgiveness is where we must aim for and turn to God for help in this area. That may sound a glib answer (and I admit that it sounds that way to me, also - and I wrote it!) but it’s the only way that we’re going to find ourselves remaining unembittered in our dealings with the world.
Appendix 2 - God’s Timing
A consideration of Acts 13:48b
The RSV of Acts 13:48b (my italics) reads
‘And when the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and glorified the word of God; and as many as were ordained to eternal life believed’
Actsmar writes concerning this passage that
‘The phrase indicates that not all the Gentiles in the town believed the Gospel. It could be taken in the sense that God had predestined certain of them to believe. But it could also refer to those who had already put their trust in God in accordance with the OT revelation of His grace and were enrolled in His people, or perhaps it means that the Gentiles believed in virtue of the fact that God’s plan of salvation included them. Whatever be the precise nuance of the words, there is no suggestion that they received eternal life independently of their own act of conscious faith’
Unfortunately, he doesn’t indicate which is either more likely or what he takes the phrase to mean so the commentator’s belief in the matter remains shrouded in mystery. Actsbruce relegates his teaching on the verse to a footnote stating that
‘There is no good reason for weakening the predestinarian note here...’
Of course, he fails to examine the usual meaning of the Greek word used for ‘ordained’ and chooses rather to pull a quite valid doctrinal truth from else place in the Scriptures and impose it upon the text under consideration.
Kittels comments briefly on the Greek word used and interprets the verse to mean that conferring of status rather than foreordination is the point after an investigation of the normal meaning of the word, listing ‘to appoint’ and ‘to order’ as the most common, with shades of meaning running through ‘to arrange’, ‘to determine’, ‘to set in place’, ‘to establish’ and ‘to fix for oneself’.
The Greek word used here (Strongs Greek number 5021) occurs only eight times in the NT. The main thrust of the word, as Kittels, is to appoint or to order something which is established at the instigation of someone or something. There’s no implication of predestination inherent in the meaning of the word.
To look more closely at the usual meaning, it’s important that we take time to think about the other places where the word occurs. Firstly, in the non-Lukan writings (Acts having been written by Luke - my italics occur throughout).
‘Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them’
Jesus made an appointment with His disciples to meet them at a prearranged location.
’...those [authorities] that exist have been instituted by God’
In the present set up, the world powers and administrative organisations have a commission from God Himself to be in the position they are and to exercise His authority. It’s God’s appointment - though how they use their authority is not always under God’s control.
I Cor 16:15
‘...they have devoted themselves to the service of the saints’
The household of Stephanas made themselves available (they had appointed themselves) to serve the believers.
And, secondly, onto the other four passages all of which are in Luke’s writings.
‘For I am a man set under authority...’
A Roman centurion made the statement that his position had been determined by others.
‘...Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem...’
A group of people were selected by others to be representatives of the new teaching that was being undermined.
‘...you will be told all that is appointed for you to do’
These were the Lord’s words to Paul on the road to Damascus. Notice that the appointment does not need an interpretation of predestination (God fixing beforehand) but definitely foreknowledge (God knowing beforehand).
‘When they had appointed a day for him...’
The Jews selected a day on which Paul was to make a defence of the Gospel in their hearing.
In all these verses, the word ‘appointed’ would be entirely adequate but in none of them is it necessary to see any idea of predestination, even though in the Romans passage we might like to add that meaning - the point is that the word doesn’t hold this concept in its usage and, therefore, when we come to the passage under consideration we need to be very careful just what we might like to impinge upon it from other Scriptural sources.
The Greek word for ‘predestination’ is only ever used with God as subject, but the Greek word for ‘appoint’ is used with both God and man as subject. This should also indicate to us that ‘appointment’ is not a unique function of God as predestination is.
So, moving on to an explanation of Acts 13:48 in conclusion. The verse doesn’t mean that all those present who had been predestined to receive eternal life were the ones who believed the message - even though, from other NT passages, we see that God’s predestination of individuals to be saved and those same individual’s freewill do go hand-in-hand for salvation (though the emphasis is often put upon the necessity of God’s selection before man’s - see my notes on this difficult subject here).
In fact, it’s vitally important that Luke doesn’t use the word for predestination in this verse as he would have contradicted Paul’s (and others’) teaching on that subject.
Luke is saying that God had made an appointment, an arrangement at that time, under Paul’s preaching, that certain people were going to be saved. God made the appointment of just who those individuals were going to be and, by implication, those individuals must have been predestined to be saved (for all who are saved are predestined).
But, there were others there who could have been and probably were also predestined by God to be saved. However, they hadn’t been appointed by God to be saved at that time.
To have used the word for ‘predestination’ would have meant that only the ‘predestined’ had turned up to be saved whereas Luke is teaching us that, even though an individual may be predestined to be saved, the individual must wait God’s appointed time in which to be saved.
For example, in a Church meeting, if three become believers and two remain unsaved, then it’s not true to say that only three were predestined. All may be predestined by God to be saved, but only three were appointed to believe at that time.
The old adage
‘I’ll wait til I’m older to get saved/I’ll wait til I’m about to die before I accept the Lord’
is shown to be futile and empty, therefore. Man can only receive Jesus Christ at the time appointed by God and not in his own time.