180 Degrees: A Study of Biblical Repentance

Selected Scriptures

Tom Pennington  •  November 27, 2005
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It was in geometry class that most of us were first exposed to the concept that a circle can be divided into 360 degrees. And it wasn't long until we began to buy into the concept that we now use as a metaphor constantly to speak of radical change, and that is someone has changed 180 degrees. When we speak of that, we're saying that they have turned from going one direction, and they have radically changed and are now heading in the opposite direction. We use it in a variety of circumstances to describe the change of people around us. Sometimes that change is for the good, and sometimes it's for the bad. But we understand the concept of 180 degree change.

That is exactly what the Bible describes when it describes the issue of repentance. Just to remind you where we find ourselves, we're in a study of the doctrine of salvation. We began last week to look at the first human response. We may lose power here in a minute. If we do, we'll see how far we get. But we were looking at the first human response to salvation, the first human response that comes as a part, I should say, of salvation and that is conversion. And conversion consists essentially of the concept of turning around. It means to turn from sin, that's repentance, and to turn to God, that's faith. This is, really (this conversion we're talking about) is a single act. It occurs at one point. You turn from one thing to another. You turn from sin to God. It's impossible to turn to God without turning from sin, and it's impossible to turn from sin without turning to God. Genuine saving faith is faith in Christ for salvation, but from what? From sin itself as well as from God's wrath against sin. So, if faith longs for salvation from sin, then there must be a hatred of it and a desire to be saved or rescued from it. Faith without repentance is easy believism or decisionism, and it's not true faith. A biblical faith repents, and a biblical repentance believes. So, saving faith and repentance are inseparably united. They are two sides, as I said this morning, of the same coin. And that coin is called conversion.

That explains, by the way, when the conditions for salvation are presented in Scripture, sometimes both faith and repentance are mentioned together. Turn to Mark 1. Our Lord at the very beginning of His ministry begins to preach. Verse 14 says of Mark 1,

Now after John had been taken into custody [that is, John the Baptist], Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God [here's the gospel of God[, saying, "The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God is at hand [here's what you're to do]; repent and believe in the gospel." [Here you find both faith and repentance mentioned together. That's fairly common in the New Testament.]

On other occasions, however, when the conditions are laid down for salvation, only faith is mentioned. Turn to Acts 16. You remember Paul's encounter, Paul and Silas' encounter with the Philippian jailer in Acts 16:30.

… after he brought them out, this jailer said [to Paul and Silas], "Sirs, what must I do to be saved?" They said, "Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household."

So, sometimes in the New Testament, the conditions are presented as repent and believe. Sometimes it's simply presented as believe.

On still other occasions, only repentance is presented as the condition for salvation. Turn back to Luke 13, Luke 13:3. You remember Jesus had just gotten the news update about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices, also about the tower on whom, that had fallen rather on eighteen people. And He says this in verse 3, "I tell you, unless you repent, you will all likewise perish." Verse 5, "I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish." So here, Jesus presents the gospel and the conditions for receiving the gospel as simply repent.

So, sometimes it's faith and repentance. Sometimes it's simply faith. And other times, it's just repentance. And that's because the two are so inextricably linked that they can't be separated. To turn from sin is to turn to God, and it's impossible to turn to God in faith without turning from sin. The path you were on described in Ephesians 2:1-3 and the path you get on as a believer are diametrically opposed. They are 180 degrees.

So, let's take a study of this crucial part of salvation that's called repentance. I want us to begin, as we often do, by looking at what repentance is not, very important to understand this. First of all, it's not a work. It's not a work that somehow earns you a place with God. You know, here is the unfathomable wisdom of the mind of God because both faith and repentance are conditions for salvation. And because of that, they could easily become pre-salvation works, works you do before salvation that somehow earn you a place with God. But Scripture doesn't allow for that because Scripture clearly teaches that both faith and repentance are gifts that come to us from God. They are not works we perform; and therefore, they can earn us no merit. God is the source of our repentance. You see this hinted at in, even in the Old Testament. Psalm 80:3, "O God, restore us and cause Your face to shine on us, and we will be saved." The word "restore" translated here in the New American Standard is the normal Old Testament word for repentance. "God, give us repentance" is what the prayer is.

In Acts 5:31 when you come to the New Testament, we learn that "Christ is the one whom God exalted to His right hand as a Prince and a Savior, to grant repentance" – to give it, to grant it. We understand that concept of a grant. It's something that's given to you. In Acts 11:18, "When they heard this, they quieted down and glorified God [those who heard the report of what happened with Peter], saying, 'Well then, God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life.'" God has granted repentance.

In Romans 2:4 we learn that it's "the kindness of God that leads us to repentance." In 2 Timothy 2:25, the elders are "with gentleness to correct those who are in opposition [or are opposed to the truth], if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth." Over and over again in the New Testament, we learn that repentance is not a work whereby we earn salvation. Rather, it is a gift of God.

In addition, we learn that repentance is not an external ritual or act. It's not enough to put sackcloth on your body or to somehow injure yourself, and in hopes that that gains merit with God. This of course has been a part of different forms of Christianity through the centuries and some still think of repentance in this way - as if it's something external that you do, penance of some kind. Of course in the Old Testament, there was a way, an outward external way, to demonstrate your repentance. It was to don sackcloth and put ashes on your head and not to eat, but that external act was not the essence of repentance. How do I know that? Look at Joel 2:13. God says, "Tear your hearts and not your garments." He says, "Look, I'm not interested," God says, "in the external symbol of repentance. I want you to rend your heart. That's what matters to me."

Let's move on. Another thing that repentance is not is mere regret, remorse, or sorrow for sin. There're a number of biblical examples of this. Let me give you three of them.

The first one is Esau: Hebrews 12:17 says, "[you] you know that Esau [after he sold his birthright for a bunch of stew], when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no place for repentance, though he sought for it with tears." He was sorrowful. He was filled with regret for what he had done, but that's not repentance.

The rich young ruler: you'll remember Christ said, "I want you, [here's the test of your willingness to follow Me.] I want you to go and sell everything you had." You see, Jesus had this way of putting His finger on the issue. And for this man, that was the issue. He loved his wealth. And so, Jesus said here's a test of your willingness to follow Me, of your desire to have eternal life. "Sell everything you have and give it to the poor and come and follow Me." "But when he had heard these things [Luke 18:23 says], he became very sad, for he was extremely rich." He was filled with regret. He was filled with sorrow, but that wasn't repentance. He left unchanged, still committed to his own way.

What about Judas? There's a clear example of sorrow and remorse and regret not being true repentance. In Matthew 27:3, "… when Judas, who had betrayed Jesus, saw that He had become condemned, he felt remorse and [he] returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders." He even made restitution. That wasn't, at its heart, repentance.

So that's what repentance is not. Let's look at what repentance is.

First of all, the biblical words: in the Old Testament, you have two primary words – "shuv", which simply means "to turn or to return". As I note here, it's often used literally: for example, the return to the land of Israel from Babylonian captivity. Sometimes it means literally "to turn in the sense of to move 180 degrees different physically", to actually be heading physically in one direction and to turn and head in the opposite direction. So, it's used literally in that sense, but it's also used figuratively to refer to repentance. The other is "nacham""to repent" it simply means.

In the New Testament, you have one primary word – "metanoia". It means simply "to repent". So, let's take a look at what this means, however. Those are the biblical words.

What are the elements of repentance? It's important to understand that repentance is a supernatural work. It's not something that even observing a miracle can produce in people. You know, I think sometimes we think if only Christ would show up in person and do something, then people would believe. They would repent and embrace Christ. When I hear people say things like that, or I'm struck with that thought, I remember the encounter that Jesus tells in Luke 16 between Abraham and the rich man who found himself in hell. You remember the rich man says, "Father Abraham, send Lazarus to speak to my brothers because if someone rose from the dead, they would believe, and they wouldn't show up in this terrible place." You remember what Abraham said? He said, "No, they have Moses and the Prophets; let him, let them hear him. If they won't listen to Moses, then they won't believe even if one [what?] rose from the dead." They will not repent is actually what the passage says. They will not repent even if one rose from the dead.

So, no amount of work on our parts, no amount of gyrations, of sophisticated argumentation, of apologetics for God – none of those things can produce repentance. Remember, people are dead, without the spiritual life, they're dead and cannot repent. Repentance is a gift of God, and it is a supernatural work that can't even be produced from a genuine miracle.

So, what are the elements of it? Well, true repentance is, first of all, an intellectual change. Second Timothy 2:25's clear on this point. It says, "God will grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth." There is an element of repentance whereby the truth must be embraced. You turn from the darkness of error (and all that you have believed about the world and your place in it) you turn from the darkness of that error to the light of God's revelation. There is an intellectual element of repentance. There is a recognition, for example, that I once thought of Christ as nothing but a mere man, a mortal, or perhaps a good teacher. But in repentance, in the intellectual element of repentance, I embrace the reality that He is all that He said He was. There is an intellectual element.

There's also an emotional change that happens in repentance. Second Corinthians 7:10 refers to it, "For the sorrow that's according to the will of God produces a repentance without regret." Here, it's obvious that it's related to (it grows out of) sorrow. Repentance isn't simply regret and sorrow, but there is an element of repentance that is regret and sorrow and remorse.

And then finally, there is a volitional change that happens in repentance. In Acts 8:22, we read: "Therefore repent of this wickedness of yours [of course, it's addressed to Simon Magus], and pray [that] the Lord that, if possible, the intention of your heart may be forgiven you." Notice here that repentance involves a decision of the will to desert his previous intention, his previous decision. So, there is an act of the will involved in repentance as well.

So, what's the process? How can we trace this work of God through the human heart? Well, I think as best I understand the Scripture, this is the process that repentance always takes. It begins with the conviction of sin by the Word of God. This conviction is produced by the Holy Spirit using the Word of God (either the word of conscience or the Word of Scripture) and usually the Word of Scripture. You see this, by the way, in Job 42. We won't turn there, but you see this where Job has heard from God. He's heard the revelation of God as God has spoken, and he says, "Now I get it." And there's this conviction, [there's this sense of who am I] I repent in sackcloth and ashes.

In Acts 2:37 after Peter finishes his sermon at Pentecost: "Now when they heard … [that they had crucified the Lord of glory], they were pierced to the heart [they were convicted, they were aware that they were guilty], and they said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, 'Brethren, what shall we do?'" So, repentance begins with the conviction of sin produced by the Word of God.

Secondly, conviction brings, conviction then brings about godly sorrow for that sin. Conviction brings about godly sorrow for the sin. Second Corinthians 7:8 – he's, Paul says to the Corinthians: "… [Al] though I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it; though I did regret it - for I see that that letter caused you sorrow, though only for a little while…." He's saying, "Listen, the letter that I wrote that convicted your consciences about what you were doing. I'm happy that it did convict you because it produced a godly sorrow." He's going to go on in the next verse to describe a godly sorrow. So, it begins with conviction followed by a godly sorrow.

And by the way, this godly sorrow is accompanied by [is probably the best way to say it, the godly sorrow is accompanied by] a hope in the mercy of God. You see, repentance has a hope. Its hope is that God will forgive. Joel 2 says,

"Yet even now," declares the Lord, "Return to Me with all your heart, with fasting, weeping and mourning; And rend your heart and not your garments." Now return to the LORD your God, for He is gracious, compassionate, Slow to anger, abounding in lovingkindness And relenting of evil."

God says, "Here's a motive to repentance and that is I forgive. I'm compassionate." So, this godly sorrow that you feel for sin is accompanied by hope that God will forgive that sin. Godly sorrow then produces true repentance. So you have conviction. You have godly sorrow. And then you have repentance.

Second Corinthians 7:10, the next verse follows, "For the sorrow that is according to the will of God produces [this godly sorrow produces repentance] a repentance … [unto] salvation." This is the process.

And then finally, and this is a very important part of the process, the last part of the process is that true repentance produces the fruit of repentance. True repentance produces the fruit of repentance. John the Baptist puts it very bluntly. He says to the crowds in Luke 3 who were going out to be baptized him: "You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?" It's a powerful word picture. Jesus is describing those who had come simply to escape God's impending wrath like a bunch of snakes that run from a wildfire. He said you're just running from the fire. That's what he says. You're just trying to get away from the fire. "Therefore, bear fruits in keeping with [true, genuine] repentance."

In Acts 26:20, Paul says, "I kept declaring … that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds appropriate to repentance." You see, where there is repentance, there will be the fruit of repentance.

Second Corinthians 7, let's turn there. I want to walk you through this. In 2 Corinthians 7, you see sort of the signs of where genuine repentance is. You want to know if you are truly repentant? You want to know if someone else that you're working with is truly repentant? There are signs of that, and they're contained in 2 Corinthians 7:11. Let me just walk you through this. We've already talked about verses 9 and 10. He says the letter that I wrote you has produced a godly sorrow which has produced a genuine repentance. And now in verse 11, he describes how that genuine repentance expressed itself in them. "For behold what earnestness this very thing, this godly sorrow, has produced in you…."

First of all, where there is genuine repentance, there is earnestness. This describes an eagerness to be done with your sin and to pursue righteousness. It's a new seriousness about life and about sin and about God – "earnest, diligent" would be a synonym. He says, "what vindication of yourselves." Now at first glance, that may sound like somebody justifying themselves or someone justifying himself, but that's not the idea at all. The idea of this expression is an eagerness to clear your name of the stigma of sin. It involves letting your repentance be known as far as your sin was known. It's a seriousness about clearing your name (that may be a way to put it). Vindicating yourself means to clear your name, to say, "I know what you know about me. I know what happened. I know what you've observed, but I want you to know that I've realized that sin, and I've repented of that sin before God."

He says, what indignation: the word "indignation" is a normal word for anger of a righteous sort (anger here directed against your sin and yourself for that sin, not anger at others, but anger with sin and for tolerating it for so long, for allowing it in your life). What indignation.

What fear: this describes true fear, fear of God and a fear of sinning again. "What longing." This is a word for deep desire. And probably here in the context, he's talking about the longing to be restored to God and others.

What zeal: this is a word for jealousy. It refers to focusing our desires exclusively on a particular object. Probably here, the idea is focusing solely on dealing with sin. Nothing else matters. When you're truly repentant, you just want to deal with it. You want to deal with the spiritual issue and all the stuff of life is merely a distraction to what really matters.

What avenging of wrong: this is a willingness to see justice done. It doesn't mean avenging yourself on others. It means you want to see justice done, both in the sense of your making restitution where that's necessary and of allowing God, giving God the freedom, to deal with you in chastening however He chooses. This is what David did in that great Psalm 51. He says I was (I was) born in sin. "In sin my mother conceived me." And he says I'm saying all of this so that You might be just when You [what?] when You judge. He says, "God, I'm clearing you. Whatever You want to do to me, I deserve."

And then finally in verse 11, he says, "In everything you demonstrated yourselves to be innocent in the matter."

Innocent: the word "innocent" could be translated as holy, refers here I think to the desire to be holy. You demonstrated yourselves to want holiness in the matter to be what you ought to be. That's what repentance looks like. That's what the fruit of repentance, the signs of true repentance, are like.

So, that brings us to, when we look at what repentance is, a couple of definitions. First of all, Wayne Grudem writes: "Repentance is a heartfelt sorrow for sin, a renouncing of it, and a sincere commitment to forsake it and walk in obedience to Christ."

The "Westminster Shorter Catechism", question 87, I think, puts it as clearly as it can be put: "What is repentance unto life? Repentance unto life is a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin and an apprehension [that is, an understanding] of the mercy of God in Christ, doth, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavor after, new obedience." That's repentance. That's what it is.

A picture always helps. So what does repentance look like? Well, the Scripture gives us a lot of pictures. We're going to come back to Jonah 3 in a few minutes in Nineveh, but there's a powerful picture of repentance. John the Baptist preaching . Let's turn there. Turn to Luke 3 because John gives us a picture of what repentance looks like. Remember now, he's baptizing people unto repentance. They're acknowledging their sins. They're preparing themselves for the coming of Messiah. And he says in verse 8,

"… bear fruits in keeping with repentance."

[So, in verse 10, the natural question is, the crowds were,] … the crowds were questioning him, saying, "Then what shall we do [what do you mean, fruits of repentance]?" And He would answer and say to them [in other words, this was His standard answer. When people would come and ask, he was saying this to them], "The man who has two tunics is to share with him who has none [in other words, there's to be a love of others, and it's to express itself practically]; and he who has food is to do likewise. … some tax collectors also came to be baptized [these were Jewish people who collaborated with the Roman government to collect taxes. They were extortionists who charged more than Rome required. That came along with the territory and was part of the job and they would skim that money off the top, getting wealth at their fellow Israelites' expense, so he says], … they say to him, "Teacher, what shall we do?" (Verse 13) … He said to them, "Collect no more than what you've been ordered to." Some soldiers were questioning him, saying, "And what about us, what shall we do?" And he said to them, "Do not take money from anyone by force, or accuse anyone falsely," [and here's a big one], "and be content with your wages."

Ouch. You see, John gets very practical. He's saying repentance, true repentance, isn't some big, ethereal thing that never demonstrates itself practically. You want to know what repentance looks like? Look at your sins, and 180 degrees is what God wants in repentance - very specifically, not generally.

You also see another picture of repentance in the prodigal. We won't turn there, but you remember the story of the prodigal son who decides, "I'm going to take everything's that coming to me, and I'm going to leave home. I'm sick of the authority. I'm sick of not being able to do what I want to do. I'm going to go live my life the way I want to live it." Of course, the picture is of unregenerate man taking all of God's good gifts and going and absolutely abusing them and using them all. And then, when he had spent all, we're told, he began to be in want. He committed himself to working for a man, working as a pig farmer. Remember, this is a young Jewish man. Life doesn't get any lower than this. And he wished he could have eaten what he was feeding the pigs, but no one gave him, Scripture says.

And that's when he came to himself. You remember what he said? He said, "I'm no longer worthy to be a son of my father. Instead, I will return home and I'll ask my father if I can be one of his hired servants." There's repentance. It's acknowledging that what you've done is wrong and deserving of the worst and leaving it. He got up out of the pigpen, out of the life he had created for himself, and he went home.

Of course, Zaccheus is a famous example from the New Testament of repentance - one of those tax collectors up close and personal who told the Lord after his salvation that he would return fourfold everything that he had taken above what he had been ordered to take. And the Ephesian converts you can read about in Acts 19:18 - 20 – how they were burning the books of witchcraft. They were getting rid of the idols even though they had great value. That's what repentance looks like.

Now that brings us to the heart of what I want to talk about tonight and that's: what are the lessons for us? Now that you have an understanding, you can get your arms around repentance, what does it matter? What does it matter for us who are believers? Well, first and foremost, and this is crucial, repentance is an essential part of the gospel message. Now when you read that, perhaps your first response is, "You mean there's somebody who questions that?" Sadly, yes, there is. There are, I should say. There are many people who question this reality, one of no greater fame than Lewis Sperry Chafer, cofounder of Dallas Theological Seminary, who writes, "The New Testament does not impose repentance upon the unsaved as a condition of salvation."

Or there's the current organization on the website that fosters this kind of mentality, Grace Theological Society based here in Dallas. This gentleman writes,

The sole condition for receiving eternal salvation from hell is faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. No act of obedience preceding or following faith in the Lord Jesus Christ such as sorrow for sin, turning from one's sin, may be added to or considered as a part of faith as a condition for receiving eternal life.

Just to short circuit all of that, what he's saying is sorrow for sin, the willingness to turn from sin, is not part of the gospel message.

Well, let's see what the Scriptures teach. What does the Bible say? Let's just take a quick track through. Let's begin in Matthew 4:17. Jesus began to preach and this is what He said, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." I already read to you Mark 1:15. His ministry consisted of this basic message: repent and believe the gospel. This is the message Christ preached. Mark 6:12, "The apostles went out and preached that men should repent." That was the message of Jesus' apostles when He sent them out. Luke 5:32, Jesus says, "I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance." This, folks, is how Jesus summarized His entire earthly ministry - I've come to call sinners to repentance. Luke 15, He describes the fact that when someone is saved, it's repenting. "I tell you in the same way, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance." And then of course, He tells the next of the parables, and He says, "In the same way, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents." Jesus describes salvation as repentance.

This same message carries throughout the life of Christ. In Luke 24 at the very end of His ministry – He's now been raised from the dead. He's talking to the Emmaus Road disciples and He says to them, "Thus it is written, that the Messiah would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations." That's us. That's our ministry. Here's what the Old Testament said, Christ said – that we would proclaim in the name of Christ repentance for the forgiveness of sin to all the nations. Now you tell me, what could be clearer than that?

Let's go on to the ministry of the early church. I'm belaboring this point because there are lots of people who would disagree with me. Not in the flow of the history of the church - I could give you, as I did last Sunday morning, quote after quote after quote from the great minds in the history of the church in the context of what they're saying who would agree absolutely with what I'm telling you tonight. But there are some modern voices that would disagree. It's important for you to see what the Scripture says.

Acts 2, now we're to the day of Pentecost. When they ask what should we do, Peter says repent for the forgiveness of sins and be baptized. Acts 5:31, "He is the one whom God exalted as a Prince and a Savior, to grant repentance." Here's the ministry of the apostles. Acts 14:15, on Paul's first missionary journey, he says, "Men, why are you doing these things [why], [you remember they fell down and were worshiping Paul, why are you doing these things]? We are also men of the same nature as you, and we preach the gospel to you [what is that gospel, Paul?] that you should turn from these vain things to a living God." He uses the word that's used right out of the Old Testament for repentance – "to turn", turn from these vain things, your idols, to a living God.

Acts 17:30, Mars Hill, he says to those philosophers that are gathered there, "having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent." In Acts 20:21, (Paul's ministry) he summarizes it this way. He says, "[I've been] solemnly testifying to both Jews and Greeks of repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ." You see, he had the same message as Christ. We began in Mark 1:15, "repent and believe." Paul says I'm carrying on the same message – repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.

This is the gospel message, and it's so important that we understand this. And, by the way, it's also a call (as so many times Scripture calls us) to self-examination. John Murray, in his excellent little book, Redemption Accomplished and Applied, writes this:

Repentance reminds us that if the faith we profess is a faith that allows us to walk in the ways of this present world - in the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, in fellowship with the works of darkness – then our faith is but mockery and deception.

That's what repentance reminds us of.

There's a second lesson for us and that is that our lives should manifest a lifelong pattern of repentance. Our lives as believers should continue to be characterized by a pattern of repentance. Repentance isn't something you do at the beginning of the Christian life, and you never see again. You see this consistently. There're so many prayers of confession in the Old Testament by those who love God – everything from the corporate confessional prayer of Daniel 9 to the individual prayer of David in Psalm 32 where he acknowledges his sin to God. He confesses it, and he expresses his willingness and desire to turn from it - the same thing in Psalm 51.

You say, well what about the New Testament? Does the New Testament describe a pattern, an ongoing pattern in the life of the believer of repentance? Absolutely - in Matthew 6:12, you remember the disciples came to Jesus, and they said, "Lord, teach us to pray." John's disciples taught them how to pray. And by the way, I hope to get to the Lord's Prayer sometime soon. I think it's so important for us as a church in terms of this priority of prayer and for me personally. But they say, "Teach us how to pray." So, the prayer that follows isn't the Lord's Prayer. It isn't the prayer the Lord prayed. That's John 17. Instead, it is the Disciples' Prayer. Here's how we're to pray. And in Matthew 6:12, part of our constant prayer to God is to be a prayer of repentance: "forgive us our trespasses [our debts, our sins]."

First John 1:9 reminds us of the same reality. "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive our sins." This is to be an ongoing reality. We're not to deny that we have sin, the apostle John says. We do have sins in our lives. Nor are we to deny the presence of sin as a reality in our lives. Instead, we are to confess our sins to God. And the more specific, the better.

Revelation 2:5, Jesus is talking there to the Ephesian church. This is the letter, you remember, that begins there in the first part of Revelation to all the churches. This is the one to Ephesus. And He tells this church in Ephesus, a church that has been obedient, but has lost some of its first love and devotion to Christ, He says, "Repent." This is absolutely an ongoing duty in the life of us as believers. We're to repent. The same thing in Revelation 3:19 to the church in Laodicea - repent, repent.

You know, it's so important that we take sin seriously in our lives as believers. Let me ask you. Are you serious about this? Are you as serious about repenting now that you're a believer as you were when you were seeking salvation? Do you make time in your prayer life to confess your sins to God? This is what godly men through the ages have done, through the history of Scripture. Do you enumerate as best you can recollect them and be aware of them your sins to God, seeking His forgiveness, expressing a willingness to turn from those and follow Him? This is to be an ongoing reality in the life of every believer – repentance.

Finally, and I end on a note of encouragement (I shouldn't say I end because I'm going to be a few minutes after this). That's not a key word tipping you that I'm almost done, alright? This is the last point I want to make, but it's an important point. And it's a point of, I hope, great encouragement to you as it is to me. The final lesson for us is that we should find comfort and hope in the fact that God always graciously responds to repentance with forgiveness. This is God's nature even as we saw it this morning - His nature to be a Savior, His nature to respond to repentance. And I think the classic illustration of that is found in the book of Jonah. I want you to turn back to Jonah. Jonah chapter 1 begins giving us a little context and I'm not going to go through the entire book, but I want to just give you some context. Jonah 1:1 says,

The word of the Lord came to Jonah saying, "Arise and go to Nineveh the great city and cry against it, for their wickedness has come up before Me."

Now let me just take that apart for you a little bit. Nineveh was the capital city of Assyria. It was five hundred miles from Jonah's hometown, five hundred miles in a culture with nothing faster than foot traffic or perhaps a slow pulled, horse-pulled cart. So five hundred miles is how far God asked Jonah to go. The city of Nineveh was originally built by Nimrod, and it became the capital of Assyria. It's called here "the great city". In 4:11, we're told that were 120,000 children within the confines of Nineveh. So a conservative estimate would be that there were 600,000 residents of Nineveh - perhaps in the surrounding area as many as a million people, the capital of the great and terrible empire of Assyria.

Notice he says in verse 2, "[I want you to go there] for their wickedness has come up before Me." What were the sins of Nineveh, of the people of Nineveh? Well, the Scripture records several for us. In Jonah 3:8, we're told that violence was a big part of it – violence. Let me read you the historical record of how one Assyrian king dealt with his enemies. He wrote this for his posterity. This was his legacy.

The heads of their warriors I cut off, and I formed them into a pillar over against their city. I flayed [there's an ugly word, I flayed] all the chief men who had revolted, and I covered the pillar with their skins. Some I walled up within the pillar, some I impaled upon the pillar on stakes and others I bound to stakes around the pillar.

This was a note of pride for this Assyrian king. And on and on the story goes. I could read you other quotes that would turn your stomach of the violence that characterized the Assyrian culture. They were the terrorists of Jonah's day, and God calls him to go there. So violence was one of their sins.

If you were to go over to Nahum (we're not going to turn there), but Nahum also prophesied against the city of Nineveh. A hundred years later, he prophesied its destruction. And he highlighted some of the sins of Nineveh as well. In Nahum 1:11, he says their leadership actually plotted against God. In Nahum 3:1, he says that they were unusually cruel and bloodthirsty. In Nahum 3:1, he also says that they're "full of lies". They used falsehood and treachery to subdue their enemies. And in Nahum 3:1 as well, you find a reference to pillage. They filled their cities with the goods of other nations taken by force. And Nahum 3:4 describes spiritual as well as moral immorality and prostitution, harlotry.

This was a wicked people. You know why now Jonah didn't want to go. Jonah didn't want to go because he knew that God would forgive people like that! Look at Jonah 4. You've heard lots of stories as to why Jonah didn't want to go to Nineveh. You can trace them back to bad Sunday school teaching. We have good Sunday school teaching here at our church, but there's a lot of bad Sunday school teaching that goes on out there and lots of reasons as to why Jonah didn't want to go to Nineveh. Here it is in his own words, chapter 4. When (when) the people do repent (verse 1 of chapter 4),

… it greatly displeased Jonah … he became angry. He prayed to the LORD [see if this has ever been a prayer of yours], "Please LORD, was not this what I said while I was still in my own country? [I told you so]. Therefore, in order to forestall this I fled to Tarshish, for I knew that You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger, abundant in lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity."

He said, "I knew this was going to happen! That's why I didn't want to come. I knew these terrorists would be saved, and I didn't want that to happen. They don't deserve Your mercy."

Now let's go back to chapter 3. After Jonah had rebelled (he had fled), a fish had swallowed him and "vomited him up (verse 10 of chapter 2 says) on the dry land.

… the word of the LORD came to Jonah the second time, saying, "Arise, go to Nineveh the great city and proclaim to it the proclamation which I am going to tell you." So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh according to the word of the LORD. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, a three days' walk." [The area of Nineveh was made up of a conflux of towns. Some estimate as many as sixty different towns in that region. And so it would've been approximately a three days' walk – about sixty miles around the environs of the city of Nineveh.]

So Nineveh, verse, excuse me, verse 4,

… Jonah … [begins to go through the city] one day's walk; and he cried out and said, "Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown!" [Judgment's coming, verse 5].

Then the people of Nineveh [and this is remarkable] believed in God; and they called a fast and they put on sackcloth from the greatest to the least of them. When the word reached the king of Nineveh, he arose from his throne, laid aside his robe from him, covered himself with sackcloth and sat on the ashes. He issued a proclamation, and it said, "In Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let man, beast, herd, or flock taste a thing. Don't let them eat or drink water. But both man and beast must be covered with sackcloth; and let men call on God earnestly that each may turn [here it is, here's the core of it, it's not all those externals - that each may turn] from his wicked way and from the violence which is in his hands" [each of 600,000 or up to a million people may turn from his wicked way and from the violence which is in his hands]. "Who knows, God may turn and relent and withdraw His burning anger so that we will not perish.' [And here's the key.]

When God saw their deeds, that they turned from their wicked way, then God relented concerning the calamity which He had declared He would bring upon them. And He did not do it."

An entire pagan Gentile city, or at least most of the people who made up that city, turn in genuine repentance to God. And what does God do? He responds in mercy and grace. He does just what Jonah's afraid He's going to do because He's gracious. He's compassionate. He's slow to anger. He's abundant in lovingkindness.

What's the lesson for us from this story? We all like to think of ourselves as the worst of sinners and, to some extent, that's true. Paul sort of sets the precedent for us by, with his comment about being the chief of sinners. But I don't care how bad you are. You're not as bad as the Ninevites nor am I. And so, if God will forgive their sin in response to their repentance because of who He is, there is great confidence and hope that He'll forgive ours as well.

Why would He do that? Because He's promised (as we saw this morning, and I'm not going to take any time to explain it, but I just want you to turn there. Isaiah 55), He's absolutely promised that He would act in this way. Verse 6 of Isaiah 55,

Seek the LORD while He may be found; Call upon Him while He is near. Let the wicked forsake [his patterns of behavior] his way And [let] the unrighteous man forsake his wicked thoughts; And let him turn to the LORD [there's repentance – forsaking 180 degrees, forsaking your previous way, your previous pattern of behavior, your previous thoughts and turn to the LORD], And [when that happens, he says] He will have compassion on him, And to our God, For He will abundantly pardon.

As C.H. Spurgeon said: "For God not to do that, He would first have to step down from His throne and un-God himself because He has staked this on His very character." What a great encouragement. Our God responds in grace and forgiveness to repentance.

Let's pray together.

Father, we thank You for the gift of repentance. Lord, we are reminded by the passages we've looked at tonight that we would never have responded to You. We would never have left our sin without Your work in our hearts. Lord, we thank You that You have granted us repentance unto life.

Lord, I pray as Your people, that You would help us to get the gospel message right, that we would be sure to include the concept of repenting from sin. Lord, don't let us embrace the easy believism that's a part of our culture. Help us to follow the ministry example of our Lord and of His apostles and of Paul, the early church.

Father, I pray as well that You would help us to claim and rely on the great promise You've made that where there is repentance, where there is a willingness to turn loose of sin, You respond in mercy and grace, not because we've earned it because the repentance itself is a gift, but simply because that's how You've designed Your world.

Father, thank You for all that we've learned tonight. I pray that You would drive these truths within our hearts. Help us, even this week, to live in a consistent pattern of repentance, confessing to You our sins, expressing our willingness to leave them and to follow You in obedience. Thank You that You hear, that You respond, that You forgive.

In Jesus' name, Amen.