Religious people often complain that we grace preachers don’t emphasize repentance sufficiently. It’s true. I hardly emphasize it at all. But then neither did the Apostle John.
Here’s something that will fry your mind: Repentance is one of the most important things you’ll ever do but John never mentions the word. Not once. Not in his gospel or in any of his three letters. I guess John must’ve been a grace preacher.
Repentance matters a great deal, but you don’t get people to repent by preaching repentance.
“How can you say such heresy Paul?”
I’ll answer that question in a moment. But first, let me ask you which of the following is the best definition of repentance:
1. Repentance means to turn from sin
2. Repentance means to change your mind
As we saw in the last post, repentance is a lot like football. It means different things to different people. But Biblical repentance simply means “change your mind.” It’s what the word literally means. You can change your mind about anything, but Jesus calls us to change our mind and believe the good news (Mk 1:15). True repentance is evidenced by turning to God.
Your definition of repentance will reveal whether you are living under grace or works. In the Old Testament, sinners repented by bringing a sacrifice of penance and confessing their sins (Num 5:7). But in the new we bring a sacrifice of praise and confess his name (Heb 13:15).
We don’t do anything to deal with our sins for Jesus has done it all. Our part is to believe the good news and say thank you Jesus! It is when we receive his gift of no condemnation that we are empowered to go and sin no more.
No matter how much I preach on grace, some people just can’t see the cross for their sins. They write to tell me I’m under-selling repentance. What they mean is, “Paul you’re not telling people to turn from their sin.” It’s true. I seldom do. I’d rather talk about God’s goodness than your badness.
Yet often the message we hear is this: “God is holy and he won’t accept you unless you turn from sin.” It’s sold as a message of repentance and it appeals to our Adamic sense of “I can fix what I broke” but it’s utterly false. It’s a lie to promote the flesh and keep you from coming to Jesus.
The fact is God is holy and he won’t accept you no matter what you do. His acceptance and favor come by grace alone. Got a sin-problem? Turn to the cross and behold Christ. Come boldly to the throne of grace to receive mercy and find grace. His grace is your only hope.
Here are three reasons why you should reject any message that defines repentance as turning from sin:
1. It puts people under law
Preach “turn from sin or you’re not saved” and you are preaching pure law. You are prescribing sin-rejection as a means for salvation. This false gospel actually leaves sinners worse off because it empowers the sin that enslaves them while scorning the grace of God that might otherwise save them (1 Cor 15:56, Rm 11:6).
The righteousness that God offers is not conditional on your ability to perform. Neither your good works nor your bad works enter the equation. The gospel of grace reveals the gift of righteousness that is received by faith from first to last (Rom 1:17).
Let me give you a picture to illustrate true repentance. Suppose I call you up and give you an invitation to come to my house. You’ve never been here before so you need directions. There are two ways I could direct you. I could give you my address and provide an accurate picture of where I live. Or I could say, “flee from your house – just drive from your house as fast as possible and don’t look back.” Do you see the difference? In both cases you’re going to leave your house. That’s guaranteed. But only by trusting my directions will you arrive at my house. Repentance is just like that. It’s not fleeing from sin like a Pharisee. It’s turning to God in faith. In both cases you will leave your sin. But only by trusting God will you actually arrive someplace better than where you started.
To get people to repent (change their minds) Jesus preached the good news of the kingdom. He painted a picture of where God wanted them to be (with him here and now) and he gave them clear directions on how to get there (have faith in God).
It was the same with Paul. He didn’t walk into Corinth, one of the world’s most depraved cities, and preach “turn from sin.” Instead he resolved to know nothing but “Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2).
People need to hear how much God loves them. They need to hear about his unconditional favor and grace. The best way to tell them is to reveal the finished work of the cross. When the Corinthian Christians fell into sin, Paul still didn’t preach “turn from sin.” Instead he reminded them of their identity in Christ. He understood that grace, not dead works, is the cure for sin.
3. We’re called to preach the gospel, not repentance
Should you repent? Of course! I actually think there needs to be more repentance, particularly from believers. Repentance should be our life-style. You cannot renew your mind without repenting for repenting means to change your mind. When I discover something new about the goodness of God, I repent – I change my way of thinking so that my life lines up with what is true. I repent every day and it’s wonderful. I’m not the same person I was even six months ago because I am in the habit of repenting.
Repentance is one of the most important things you’ll ever do but you don’t get people to repent by telling them to repent. Instead, give them a good reason to repent and they’ll repent.
Paul said repentance comes as a consequence of learning about the goodness of God (Rom 2:4). So if you want people to repent, tell them how good God is. Preach the good news, which is this: God loves you, he died for you and he offers you his righteousness. Do you believe it? God’s power for salvation – for your forgiveness, healing, deliverance and provision – is revealed in the good news of grace. Do you believe it? All the blessings of God come to us by grace alone. Do you believe it?
Faith and repentance are two sides of the same coin. Repentance, like faith, is a positive response to something God has said or done.
John says little about repentance but he talks about believing over and over. He said that he wrote so “that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (Joh 20:31). The key to life is not in turning from sin but trusting in Jesus.
You want others to repent? Then preach the gospel that reveals the goodness of God: Jesus has done it all!
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