Did you know that this phrase is not in the Bible? Jesus told the man healed in John 5 to “Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you,” and he told the woman caught in adultery to “Go and sin no more” (John 8:11). Jesus never told anyone to “repent and sin no more.”
However, Jesus did use the word repent with a far different word in Mark 1:15, “The kingdom of God is near, repent and believe the gospel.” Not just repent, but repent and believe. Both are in the present imperative, active, 2nd person plural. In other words, it was a command to do these things continuously: “You all out there, continue to repent and continue to believe the gospel!”
Just as we cannot imagine a follower of Jesus without faith, so we should not imagine the same follower without the continuing character of repentance. We should not just call ourselves Believers but also Repenters, for we will not stop repenting until we stop sinning. Unfortunately, this continual character of repentance is sadly lacking in our churches, in our Christian colleges and graduate schools, in our interpersonal relationships and in our marriages, where we readily admit to our brokenness but when it comes to repentance, we act as if other people need to repent, but not us.
I would like to clarify what repentance is because I think many people are often confused as to the meaning of the word. So over the next few blogs let me unpack the biblical concept of repentance by describing it in 3 different ways:
- Repentance is not penance [see blog from two weeks ago]
- Repentance is without regret (remorse) [see last week’s blog]
- Repentance is without excuse
Repentance is without Excuse
It has been my observation that many people who think they are evidencing true repentance are really not because their penitence is accompanied by self-defense. We can often see this as we work to reconcile marriages or fractured relationships in churches/Christian organizations; even in racial reconciliation; we are sorry for something we have done, but our apology is often muted by some form of justification. I once counseled a man who was broken because his wife had left him. He confessed, “It is all my fault. I have tried to control her with my anger and manipulate her by my silence, and I have failed her as a godly husband.”
I was thrilled by what he said and heard the faint rumblings of a repentant heart coming from a very proud and quirky man. However, he then said, “But I wish she would respect me more and listen to what I tell her to do.” So I smacked him! Just kidding, but I sure felt like it because his repentance turned into excuse-making.
In 1 Samuel 15 we see a very clear example of defensiveness and self-justification hidden behind what looked like repentance. King Saul was commanded by God to wipe out the Amalekites as part of God’s judgment upon the historical wickedness of that people. Instead, Saul disobeyed by sparing the king, some of the best livestock, and the money. Samuel confronted Saul about his disobedience, and Saul started in with his excuse—“It wasn’t really me but my soldiers who took the spoil for themselves and were going to sacrifice the best to the Lord.”
Let’s go back to the guy who had tried to excuse his behavior with his wife in my office. I told him about Saul. I also told him that true repentance would be demonstrated by going to his wife and getting down on his knees, coming clean about his angry manipulative behavior, telling her that he had failed her and God as a husband, and asking her for forgiveness even though he did not deserve it. I told him one more thing; “when you get off your knees, do not expect your wife to suddenly trust you and take you back into her life. You have hurt her deeply and she will be watching you carefully to see if you’ve really changed or whether this is just part of your manipulative bag of tricks.” He never came back to see me, and he never regained his marriage. Repentance without excuse is the life-breath of the Christian. I think it was Gary Thomas in his book Sacred Marriage who said that “couples don’t fall out of love as much as they fall out of repentance.”
Maybe marriage is not the issue for you but where is repentance most needed in your life? Do you find yourself doing penance by trying to do enough good to alleviate your guilt… but you keep sinning? Or perhaps you’re just so filled with remorse over something, but you keep doing it and you are so filled with shame that you; you are closing yourself off from God’s mercy and questioning how He could ever love a scum bag like you. Or perhaps you recognize your own sin in a relational matter, but you honestly believe that someone else’s sin has caused the real problem…so you are waiting for them to admit it and repent before reconciliation can take place.
“The kingdom of God is near. It is imperative that you be repenting and be believing the gospel.” Acknowledge your sin before God; let your sorrow drive you to the cross where God’s mercy and forgiveness flow freely because of what Christ has done for you. Don’t trust your self-fixes; repent and lean into the Holy Spirit so He can purify you mind and change your behavior. And if you fall again tomorrow; do it all again—keep repenting and keep believing the Gospel!
Once again, let me recommend an excellent book on this subject by Richard Owen Roberts, “Repentance: the First Word of the Gospel.” (Crossway Books, 2001)