God’s grace and forgiveness are free and available to all. God is ready—even eager—to accept our repentance. That’s the good news.

Yet sometimes, I wonder if we’ve fooled ourselves into thinking that repentance is just a matter of saying “I’m sorry.” Unless our sorrow is matched with reforming action, empowered by the Holy Spirit, it is simply regret—with no real substance or effect. It quickly becomes a sham, perhaps even a mockery of grace. Sin is much more deeply engrained in us than a simple apology can remedy. Let me explain.

In the Old Testament, the Hebrew term translated most often as “repent” or “repentance” comes from a verb meaning “to turn around.” Repentance understood in this way involves more than sorrow for past sins; it requires turning around, a change of direction, going a different way. It requires more than saying a formula—even the “sinner’s prayer”—and more than making a public profession of faith. That’s because it’s too easy for words to become worthless, hollow pronouncements unless they are backed up by action.

We find precisely this situation arising in the time of the Old Testament prophet Hosea. Hosea was deeply concerned about the state of Israel in his day. In the second half of the eighth century BC, the hidden rot at the heart of Israel was now becoming obvious, as the kingdom endured a series of political assassinations; as violence wracked much of the population; as economic injustice consigned many to slave labour in their own land; and as international power politics threatened to suck Israel into the vortex of the rising Assyrian Empire.

In the midst of this swirling chaos, when Israel briefly came to its senses and realized what was happening, they mouthed a moving liturgy of repentance: “Come, let us return [i.e. repent] to the Lord; for it is he who has torn, and he will heal us; he has struck down, and he will bind us up. After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before him. Let us know, let us press on to know the Lord; his appearing is as sure as the dawn; he will come to us like the showers, like the spring rains that water the earth” (Hosea 6:1-3 NRSV).

These are all the right words. With the exhortation to return to the Lord, they acknowledge that Israel has wandered away from God and has broken the covenant relationship established centuries earlier. They articulate Israel’s awareness that God both tears down and builds up, and that any future Israel might have rests on the hope that God will raise them up. They express confidence that God will accept their repentance and hope that God will bless them. By all accounts, this should do the trick.

However, when the Lord speaks in the following verses, he calls Israel’s penitential words fleeting, at best. “Your love is like a morning cloud, like the dew that goes away early” (Hosea 6:4 NRSV). As it turns out, Israel’s repentance endures no longer than the morning dew in the heat of the mid-morning sun. Their words ring hollow. Israel’s devotion to God melts away and its repentance is exposed as bogus.
When Jesus summoned people to repent, he expected more than expressions of sorrow; he expected changed lives.
What does the Lord require of Israel? “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hosea 6:6 NRSV). Two expressions are critical here: steadfast love and knowledge of God. For Hosea, steadfast love is a critical component of Israel’s relationship with God. It requires loyalty and consistency—rock-solid love. Knowledge of God refers to more than knowing what words to mouth; it speaks of a deep-seated understanding of God that sinks into the soul of Israel and shapes every aspect of its life together.

But, according to the words of God spoken through the prophet, these are missing. Israel’s turning toward God was a matter of convenience in the face of a crisis, like a deathbed confession. It was a fleeting response—a last resort—that had no substance, no durability, no effect. As soon as the crisis passed, Israel would go back to its old ways. God saw right through this feigned repentance.

In the Gospel of Mark, even before Jesus began his public ministry, John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness preaching a “baptism of repentance” (see Mark 1:5) and people responded by confessing their sins. A few verses later, when Jesus began his public ministry, Jesus proclaimed the coming of the kingdom of God and called the people to repent and believe the good news (see Mark 1:15). A careful reading of the Gospels will show that when Jesus summoned people to repent, he expected more than expressions of sorrow; he expected changed lives. Lives that were lived according to different values, priorities and goals; lives that were lived through the transforming power of the Holy Spirit.

Repentance does not mean saying we’re sorry and then going on with our lives with no noticeable change or alteration. Repentance means turning around, a change of direction, a radical transformation in how we live, what we value and whom we serve. Saying we’re sorry may be a first step, but unless it is accompanied by such a radical change, it is useless.

Repentance that leads to following Jesus makes demands on us. It will inconvenience us; make us uncomfortable; spur us to make changes. Things that were once important to us will fade away and we will learn new values and priorities. We will begin to trust God more and seek less to secure our own lives. We will take the sayings of Jesus seriously, as though he really meant what he said about following him.

John Wesley frequently spoke about the need for “works meet for repentance,” following Jesus’s exhortation to the Pharisees and Sadducees (see Matthew 3:8) and Paul’s exhortation to King Agrippa (see Acts 26:20). In more recent phrasing, we would refer to “actions consistent with repentance.” However we phrase it, the Bible is consistent in its expectation that true repentance will produce changed behaviour.

It’s easy to say we’re sorry. It’s much harder to match those words with true repentance. But this is what the Bible teaches us, and it is what God expects from us. God does not leave us as orphans to effect this repentance all on our own. The Holy Spirit works both with us and within us to empower our change.

Dr. Donald E. Burke is a professor of biblical studies at Booth University College in Winnipeg.

Feature photo: © RyanJLane/iStock.com 

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