Summary: The importance of repentance
About four years ago, I read a story in the paper about a couple who were about 45 years old. They were fortunate enough to have picked the correct six numbers in the lottery the year before the story appeared and they were featured in the same paper at that time when they said that the win would not change anything at all in their lives. Because of that statement, the paper did a follow up story the year afterwards to see if what they said was true. Much to the reporter’s surprise, he discovered that it was.
They were living in the same three-bedroom house, working at the same jobs, driving the same second hand car, still going to the pub once or twice a week for a drink; it appeared that nothing had changed apart from their bank balance. It was only after further questioning that they admitted that one thing had changed – they now went abroad for two weeks holiday a year instead of staying in this country.
Some of my friends had read the same story and they all admired the couple for being able to do this, for being so content with their lives that they didn’t want to change anything. They were somewhat shocked by my reaction to this story when I told them “What a sad couple!”
Here they were with nearly a million pounds in their bank, and they were not willing to change anything. My friends were wishing that they could be like this couple, but I was thinking, “God, please never let me get like that!”
It was shortly after reading that account that God began showing me that I and many other Christians are exactly like that couple. Ok, we don’t have a million pounds in our bank accounts, instead we have something much more valuable. When we gave our lives to Christ each of us were given the gift of eternal life, and I know which of these two gifts I would prefer. The problem is that for most of us, that gift of eternal life, for much of the time since then has been making little difference to our lives apart from sitting there in God’s heavenly bank account.
You only have to look at all the empty spaces in our churches to see that this is true of many Christians today. Yes, we are grateful for God’s gift to us, we thank him every Sunday for all that Christ did to make that gift possible. But for most of us, there has been little change in our lives between the time that we didn’t have this gift, and now, when we do. This is why others find it so hard to see Christ in us, and so aren’t really interested in getting to know him for themselves.
How could this be? How could we have such a wonderful gift as this, and not let it make a difference to us? I think that one of the main answers to this question can be found in what the early believers went through when they became Christians.
Before Jesus began his ministry, we heard in our reading that John the Baptist came with his warning to God’s people telling them to repent. The first words that we hear from Jesus’ lips after his forty days in the wilderness are the words “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is near.” On the Day of Pentecost when Peter preached to thousands in Jerusalem, what was his message to them – “Repent and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ, for the forgiveness of your sins.” A little later, Peter is again preaching to the crowds “ Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, so that times of refreshing may come from the Lord,” When Paul stood up and spoke to the very religious people in the city of Athens. He told them “In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.”
Could it be that one of the reasons why our churches are so empty, why our lives do not display the love of God, as they should, is because we have forgotten or do not understand God’s command to repent. Could it be that the reason why God’s gift of eternal life makes little difference to our lives here and now is because we have not repented fully of our old life without God and so we cannot live fully in our new lives with God.
To give some examples of what it means not to understand repentance. Charles Finney told of a woman who came to him and said “I sin and repent all of the time.” Then told her that if this was so, she was not repenting. To repent means to stop doing what we used to do, and start doing what God wants us to do. A young male Christian once told me that they repent in their heart all the time. Again, this is not repentance; repentance is not an act of the heart. The heart is involved, but is not central to the act of repentance.