What Does True Repentance Look Like? #192

Happy Tuesday, friends! You survived another Monday in the midst of the the worst year of our lifetimes, so take a moment and praise God for His faithfulness – His lovingkindness endures forever!

Today’s Bible readings include Joshua 9, Psalms 140-141, Matthew 17 and Jeremiah 3, which is our focus passage – our first time to focus on a truth from the book of Jeremiah. The ‘Gibeonite deception’ of Joshua 9 is also worth at least a mention. Very funny and clever people, these Gibeonites – they avoided utter destruction by being sly and extremely clever. I probably shouldn’t, but I am impressed by those Gibeonites, and wonder what became of them…did they intermarry with the Jews? Did they die out? I don’t know, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the first person that said, “I admire your chutzpah” was talking about those crazy Gibeonites!

That, however, is not our focus today – but true repentance is. True repentance is important primarily because fake/false repentance is meaningless to God, and unlike Joshua, He will not be deceived by our cleverness or our acting. Consider this profound paragraph:

Nevertheless, her treacherous sister Judah was not afraid but also went and prostituted herself. Indifferent to her prostitution, she defiled the land and committed adultery with stones and trees. 10 Yet in spite of all this, her treacherous sister Judah didn’t return to me with all her heart—only in pretense.”

Jeremiah 3:8-10

Judah sinned heavily against God, and, upon seeing the punishment brought upon the Israelite clans for their unfaithfulness,  tried to return to God in pretense, rather than wholeheartedly. Pretense is a fascinating word – and a dangerous thing to be avoided by every Christian. Pretense is pretending, feigning, faking, or make believe.  A good definition is, “an inadequate or insincere attempt to attain a certain condition or quality.” There is WAY TOO much pretense among those who claim Christ. Far too much acting and not enough sincerity. It may fool other people, but who cares? Pretense and pretending and fake repenting will never fool God. Let’s read Jeremiah 3 together and ponder true repentance.

What is the opposite of pretense? Genuineness, I suppose. Authenticity, but let me be very clear: This is not a Disney channel/Disney Plus tv show or movie. Practically everything that Disney makes these days, particularly their shows targeted at kids, all promote the same ultimate moral message: Just be yourself. I do appreciate genuineness – greatly appreciate it…but the message of the Bible is that if you ‘just be yourself,’ yourself and myself are profoundly sinful! We are not called to merely be ourselves, but to genuinely follow Jesus without acting. When we sin, we don’t excuse it as if we were just living according to our nature, and neither do we pretend to be upset about it and say ten hail Marys and ten Our Fathers so that God can forgive us whether we are genuinely sorrowful or not. Those kind of things are fake – repentances of pretense, rather than true repentance.

So, what does true repentance look like, and why is it so important? First and foremost, genuine and God-pleasing repentance begins with genuine and God-pleasing sorrow. There is no repentance without genuine grieving or sorrow over the wrong act that you committed. Paul puts it like this:

10 For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, but worldly grief produces death.

2nd Corinthians 7:10

Worldly sorrow, as I understand it, is a sorrow of acting and external displays of contrition, rather than real and genuine sorrow. Jeremiah shows us what I believe are the two real and important components of repentance. #1 is acknowledging your sin – or confessing.

Only acknowledge your guilt—
you have rebelled against the Lord your God.

Jeremiah 3:13

And to be very clear, I am not speaking of confessing your sin to a priest, but to fellow believers, as we are commanded to do in James 5:

Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.

James 5:16

So the first step in true repentance is acknowledging and confessing your sins. Not trying to hide them or justify them, but genuinely owning up to them and ‘saying with’ God that those sins were wrong and displeasing to Him. To confess is, very simply, to agree with God about something – to say the same thing about something to Him. “Lord, I lied, and you have commanded me not to lie – I have sinned against you.”

Step #2 is Godly sorrow, which may often include weeping, as we see in Jeremiah 3:21

A sound is heard on the barren heights:
the children of Israel weeping and begging for mercy,
for they have perverted their way;
they have forgotten the Lord their God.

Jeremiah 3:21

This is spelled out even more clearly in James 4, where we see that repentance and Godly sorrow are not only the keys to returning to God, but also a profoundly important part of spiritual warfare:

Therefore, submit to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be miserable and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. 10 Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.

James 4:7-10

What is the foundation of true repentance? Is it fear of God, or fear of punishment? Is it a desire to be good and holy? Actually, says John Piper, the foundation is LOVE:

This was the startling discovery I made last January. In order to cry over not having something, you must really want to have it. And the more you want to have it, the more you feel distressed over not having it. This means that true evangelical contrition, true repentance must be preceded by a falling in love with God. To truly weep at not having God’s holiness, you must long for God’s holiness. To truly weep over not possessing it, it must be attractive to you.

So you see how strange this seems at first: God and his way of holiness must become your joy before you can weep over not having it. You must fall in love with a person, before estrangement really hurts.

So hell is insufficient to produce tears of genuine repentance. For the tears to be real, they have to come from really missing God, not just missing heaven. Brainerd found that words of winsome attractiveness produced more brokenheartedness in the Indians than did the words of warning. Warning has value in stirring us up to take the glories of holiness and heaven seriously so that we come to see them for what they are and delight in them. But it is the delight in them that causes true grief when we fall short. No one cries over missing what they don’t want to have.

Peter saw in the miracle of Jesus a treasure of hope and joy that was so wonderful he was overwhelmed with how out of sync his life was with such a treasure. If this much power and this much goodness is there in Jesus for those who trust him, then O how different would be my life if I truly believed! How radical would be my obedience! What abandon would I feel in my living for such a Christ! What freedom from petty grievances and from fleeting pleasures of sin would I enjoy!

So the discovery I made was that true remorse and contrition and repentance flow from falling in love with all that God is for us in Jesus. Until God is our treasure we will not grieve over our falling short of being satisfied in him and living in a way that shows that satisfaction. 

John Piper, Sermons from John Piper (1990–1999) (Minneapolis, MN: Desiring God, 2007).

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