The Lost Art of Repentance

By Michael Brown Published on March 30, 2023

The Hebrew word for repent means “to turn” or “turn back.” Over and over the prophets proclaimed, “Turn back to God and He will turn back to you!” Turn away from your sins and turn back to God, and He will turn away from His anger and turn back to you. Or, when Israel repents, God relents.

But repentance was not only the theme of the Hebrew prophets. It was the foundation of Jesus’ own message (“The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” “Unless you repent, you too will all perish.”) and the heart of the great commission (“Repentance and forgiveness of sins must be preached to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.”). It was the key to Peter’s preaching (“Repent and be baptized, every one of you!”) and the essence of Paul’s gospel (“God calls all men everywhere to repent.”) Without repentance and faith, no one can be saved.

Repentance means spiritual revolution. Strongholds of sin are demolished. Lifetime bondages are overcome. Hardened hearts break open. Satan’s grip is undone. Repentance sets the prisoners free!

Do We Teach a No-Repentance Gospel? Salvation Without Sacrifice?

Yet many of our leaders have implied, “You can have Jesus as Savior before you have Him as Lord. Jesus already died for your sins, so don’t even think about that junk. Just confess Him with your lips, believe in your heart, and it’s done!” In other words, “You can believe today and repent tomorrow!” But does tomorrow ever come? Is this how people got saved in the Bible? Does it even make spiritual sense?

Unfortunately, many of those who stumble over the repentance message now that they are in the church are the very ones who never heard it when they were in the world.

Actually, this no-repentance gospel hardly resembles the message of the Scriptures, since according to the Word: 1) There is no forgiveness where there is no repentance (Acts 3:19); 2) You can no more believe without repenting than you can repent without believing (How can you believe in God without turning back to Him? And how can you turn back to God without believing in Him?); and 3) It is impossible to come to God without repenting, since repentance is the very act of coming back. For those taken captive by the devil, repentance is the only way out (2 Tim. 2:25-26).

What kind of fruit has this “salvation without sacrifice” message produced? It has brought about a whole generation of double-minded “believers”, a multitude of worldly “children of God.” It has filled our church buildings without changing men’s hearts. But a great shaking is coming to the Body. And while the “no-cross gospel” has drawn the big crowds, the numbers will not stand when the shaking arrives.

A Lifestyle of Repentance

But what about repentance for those already saved? Do believers need to repent? Haven’t we become the righteousness of God in the Messiah? Aren’t we new creations in Him? Or, to paraphrase what you’re likely to hear when you talk to believers about repentance, “Quit preaching condemnation! I’m free from all that stuff. I repented when I got saved.”

But did they truly repent when they got saved? Were they really challenged to “count the cost”? Have they genuinely “taken up the cross” and followed Jesus? Are they dead to sin and alive to God? And today, where are their lives? What have they done since they’ve been born again?

Unfortunately, many of those who stumble over the repentance message now that they are in the church are the very ones who never heard it when they were in the world. We’ve told the lost, “You don’t have to give up anything! Just add Jesus to your life and do your thing for Him!” Then we tell the saved, “You’ve arrived, you’re complete! The past is all dead. Keep doing your thing for Him!”

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But where is the message of repentance? Where is the preaching of the cross? As believers, how often have we been challenged to “examine ourselves” and “test ourselves” (2 Cor. 13:5)? Have we forgotten that we must “judge ourselves” if we do not want to be judged with the world (1 Cor. 11:31-32)? Doesn’t the Word tell us plainly that we must “purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God” (2 Cor. 7:1)? Isn’t this why there are thousands of selfish, superficial, and shallow believers with only skin-deep professions, because they have never been called to repent?

Yet this so-called “Good News” not only hurts those who hear it. It degrades the very sacrifice of the Messiah and demeans the blood of Jesus. It implies that the Son of God has little claim on our lives and that He does not deserve our all. It suggests that our sin was not so bad and that we were not under the judgment of God. And when we “make deals” with people to sell them our faith (“Just look at all the good things God will give you if you follow Him!”) we forget that the Lord Himself is the great prize of our salvation, and that eternal life means knowing Him.

Does the Church need to repent? Is this message still for our day? Let’s see what Jesus has to say!

In Revelation, Jesus Tells the People of His Church to Repent

“To the angel of the CHURCH of Ephesus write: … I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love. Remember the height from which you have fallen! REPENT and do the things you did at first. If you do not REPENT, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place” (Rev. 2:1, 5).

“To the angel of the CHURCH of Pergamum write: … I have a few things against you. You have people there who hold to the teaching of Balaam … [and] you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans. REPENT therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of My mouth” (Rev. 2:12, 14-16).

“To the angel of the CHURCH in Thyatira write: … I have this against you: You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess. … I have given her time to REPENT of her immorality, but she is unwilling. So I will cast her on a bed of suffering and I will make those who commit adultery with her suffer intensely, unless they REPENT of their ways” (Rev. 2:18, 20-22).

“To the angel of the CHURCH in Sardis write: … I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of My God. Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; obey it and REPENT” (Rev. 3:1-3).

“To the angel of the CHURCH in Laodicea write: … I know your deeds, that you are neither hot nor cold. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm — neither hot nor cold — I am about to spew you out of My mouth. … Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and REPENT” (Rev. 3:14-16, 19).

Are we getting the message loud and clear? We must turn back to God if we’ve turned away. His grace flows out towards those who repent.

 

(Excerpted from Michael L. Brown, The End of the American Gospel Enterprise, first published in 1989.)

Dr. Michael Brown (www.askdrbrown.org) is the host of the nationally syndicated Line of Fire radio program. His latest book is The Political Seduction of the Church: How Millions of American Christians Have Confused Politics with the Gospel. Connect with him on Facebook, Twitter or YouTube.

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