Repentance from dead works is the first of the foundational truths listed in Hebrews 6. But how well do we really understand it and how many of us truly practice repentance?
When I was baptized, the minister asked if I’d repented of my sins and accepted Jesus Christ as my personal savior. I meant it when I said yes, but I’m not sure I really understood how much more repentance is than just an, “I’m sorry I messed up.” It involves a change in our innermost being that manifests in a commitment to turn away from things displeasing to God.
As we prepare for Passover, we ask God for feedback on how we’re doing in our walk with Him. We examine ourselves to see if there are hidden sins in our lives and ponder how we can become better examples of our Lord Jesus. But we can’t stop there. We have to act on what we learn.
Psalm 51 is perhaps the best example we have in the entire Bible of repentance. David wrote it after committing adultery with Bathsheba and having her husband Uriah killed. There were consequences for those sins, but David was forgiven. He didn’t just “get away with it” because he was king and God wanted to keep working with him. David was forgiven because he confessed and repented from a humbled heart (unlike the previous king, Saul, who made excuses when confronted with his sin).
Have mercy on me, God, according to your loving kindness. According to the multitude of your tender mercies, blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity. Cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions. My sin is constantly before me. Against you, and you only, have I sinned, and done that which is evil in your sight; that you may be proved right when you speak, and justified when you judge. (Ps. 51:1-4, WEB)
Repentance starts with acknowledging how much we need God’s mercy. He’s the only one who can blot out our transgressions, wash us from iniquity, and cleanse us from our sins. To ask for that, we also need to acknowledge that we’ve transgressed God’s law by sinful actions.
Though this Psalm was written under the Old Covenant, the same formula applies today. Then, as now, the Lord desires “truth in the inward parts” (Ps. 51:6, WEB). He wants people with clean hearts and He wants to put His spirit inside them. He’s far more concerned with the state of our inner being than with any sort of physical acts we might try to substitute for repentance (Ps. 51:16-17). And once we have been cleansed, He wants us to respond by changing our lives (Ps. 51:8-15).
Put Sin Out
True repentance involves change. It’s not just about telling Jesus “I’m sorry” and then going on with your own thing. It’s about deeply regretting that our past lives didn’t conform to God’s holy standard and then moving forward to live in the spirit. Paul discusses this topic in Romans when he’s explaining grace and law keeping under the New Covenant. Though we have been saved by freely given grace through Jesus Christ, we’re still expected to live a certain way.
What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? May it never be! We who died to sin, how could we live in it any longer? (Rom. 6:1-2, WEB)
When we repented of our sins and covenanted with God in baptism, we became new people. We’re freed from sin and dead to our old way of life, but alive to God. That’s supposed to change the way we live our lives. Indeed, it has to if we’re truly converted.
Therefore don’t let sin reign in your mortal body, that you should obey it in its lusts. Also, do not present your members to sin as instruments of unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God, as alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God. For sin will not have dominion over you. For you are not under law, but under grace. What then? Shall we sin, because we are not under law, but under grace? May it never be! (Rom. 6:12-15, WEB)
Being “not under law” is not license to sin. It means we’re not punished as we deserve for breaking God’s law because Jesus covered our debt and we’re now free to keep the law as God intended. Grace gives us freedom to obey God in the spirit and serve Him in true holiness.
God’s people are meant to walk in the light. They can’t practice sin and expect to stay in fellowship with God. But we all know from direct experience that accepting Jesus as our savior doesn’t automatically make us perfect people. So does that fact make us “bad Christians”? Not in the least. We all stumble, but God doesn’t instantly disqualify us if we make a mistake. He’s not sitting around waiting to pounce on us for every error.
My little children, I am writing these things to you in order that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous one, and he is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world. (1 John 2:1-2, LEB)
The goal is for us to not sin. But if we do, Jesus Christ’s sacrifice covers us and restores us to right relationship with God. It doesn’t happen automatically, though. We can’t just go about doing whatever we want because Jesus will take care of it. We’re supposed to develop His character and when we recognize that we’ve fallen short we’re meant to repent as David did.
Continued repentance is a key part of a Christian’s walk. But we can’t do that if we’re blind to our own faults. That’s why we need to ask God to let us see ourselves through His eyes. That’s why we’re told to examine ourselves. A focus on aligning ourselves with God’s way should happen year-round, but it’s most important before the Passover. To paraphrase a point made in an excellent sermon I heard a few weeks ago, God expects us to partake of the Passover only in an approved state with nothing between us and God. As we approach Passover this year, let us ask God to show us what He sees in our lives, then listen to His correction and repent of our sins so we can fully commit to our covenant with Him.
For I received from the Lord that which also I delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night in which he was betrayed took bread. When he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “Take, eat. This is my body, which is broken for you. Do this in memory of me.” In the same way he also took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink, in memory of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. Therefore whoever eats this bread or drinks the Lord’s cup in a way unworthy of the Lord will be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread, and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy way eats and drinks judgment to himself, if he doesn’t discern the Lord’s body. For this cause many among you are weak and sickly, and not a few sleep. For if we discerned ourselves, we wouldn’t be judged. But when we are judged, we are punished by the Lord, that we may not be condemned with the world. (1 Cor. 11:23-32, WEB)