What Is True Repentance?
By Liu Shuo
At a meeting of co-workers, Wang Wei, Ma Tao and Hu Zhi sat engaged in Bible study.
Wang Wei smiled and spoke to the group, saying, “Co-workers, let’s begin by reading a couple of verses of scripture. Thesays, ‘Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’ (Matthew 4:17). ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent you, and believe the gospel’ (Mark 1:15). We can see from the Lord’s words that, if we want to enter God’s kingdom, then we must confess our sins to God and repent. We’ve believed in the Lord for years, however, and although we often confess our sins to Him, we are still capable of committing sin and we live within a vicious cycle of confessing and sinning. It seems as though we still don’t understand what true repentance is, and so we are not yet free of sin. Therefore, being clear on what true repentance is is extremely important to our ability to enter into the heavenly kingdom. Today, let’s delve into this issue together.”
Hu Zhi then spoke contemptuously, saying, “I believe that so long as we wholeheartedly come before the Lord Jesus, pray to Him and acknowledge our sins, crying our hearts out, then that is true repentance. As long as we frequently confess and repent in this way, then we will be able to obtain the Lord’s forgiveness, and when He returns, we can then be raised up into heaven.”
Wang Wei frowned slightly and retorted, “But we’ve prayed and confessed in this way for so many years, giving a reckoning of our sins before the Lord and weeping bitter tears. But the moment we encounter something real, we still involuntarily commit sin and, moreover, we commit the exact same sins over and over. I really worry that we who often live in sin will be abandoned and weeded out by the Lord when He returns.”
Ma Tao nodded and said, “I’ve also contemplated this before. I think that frequently crying our hearts out in prayer and confessing to the Lord only demonstrates that we have the desire to confess and repent to the Lord. Whether it constitutes true repentance, however, depends on how we practice and whether or not we undergo real change. For example, when a thief gets caught stealing something, he will own up to his offense and will promise never to steal things belonging to other people again. But this doesn’t demonstrate that he really has turned over a new leaf and will never steal again. Most of the time, in order to evade taking temporary responsibility for his offense and to avoid legal punishment, he has no other choice but to admit his offense, but this doesn’t mean that he will not want to steal again in the future. If he is able to refrain from stealing under any circumstance, then this is the only thing that will prove that he truly repents. Are we not like this as well? Although we often confess our sins to the Lord and our confessional attitude appears sincere, after a while we commit sins in the same old way, and we neither abhor our sins nor disdain them in the slightest. Praying and confessing in this way is, in reality, us trying to cheat God, and we do it to evade God’s temporary discipline, and to seek the forgiveness and pardon of the Lord. And yet we make no plans to thoroughly change ourselves, so how can this be true repentance?”
Wang Wei listened earnestly to Ma Tao’s fellowship, and thought for a moment. Then he said, “Having listened to Brother Ma’s fellowship, King David suddenly springs to mind. In order to forcibly take Bathsheba for his own, David planned to have Uriah killed, and he committed adultery and murder. Jehovah God sent Nathan the prophet to speak to David, to make David aware of the sins he had committed and that he would be punished. From that time on, the sword would never depart from his house. David knew that he had violated the commandments proclaimed by God and had offended God’s disposition. After realizing his evil deeds, David became extremely remorseful and he abhorred the sins he’d committed, and he therefore sincerely prayed to God, confessed his sins and repented. When he grew old, David greatly disliked the cold, and so his attendants chose a virgin girl to warm his bed, but David did not have sexual relations with her. From the matter of David’s repentance, we can see that he possessed a God-fearing heart, and that not only did he feel true repentance and abhorrence for his sins, he also underwent real change—only this is an expression of true repentance.”
Ma Tao nodded and said, “Yes, and the testimony of the people of Nineveh’s true repentance to God is also recorded in the Bible. When the king of Nineveh heard the prophet Jonah relaying, saying ‘Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown’ (Jonah 3:4), he believed it and obeyed. He laid aside his kingly status, removed his kingly robes, and led the people of the city of Nineveh to confess and repent to God in sackcloth and ashes, just as it is recorded in the Scriptures, ‘For word came to the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, and he laid his robe from him, and covered him with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. And he caused it to be proclaimed and published through Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles, saying, Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste any thing: let them not feed, nor drink water: But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily to God: yes, let them turn every one from his evil way, and from the violence that is in their hands. Who can tell if God will turn and repent, and turn away from His fierce anger, that we perish not?’ (Jonah 3:6–9).”
Just then, Wang Wei said excitedly, “Speaking of the repentance of the people of Nineveh, I recently read a passage in a book that relates precisely to this matter. Let me read it to you.”
Wang Wei took a notebook out from his bag, flipped through until he found the page he was looking for, and then read: “After listening to God’s declaration, the king of Nineveh and his subjects performed a series of acts. What is the nature of their behavior and actions? In other words, what is the essence of the entirety of their conduct? Why did they do what they did? In God’s eyes they had sincerely repented, not only because they had earnestly entreated God and confessed their sins before Him, but also because they had abandoned their wicked conduct. They acted this way because after hearing God’s words, they were incredibly frightened and believed that He would do as He said. By fasting, wearing sackcloth and sitting in ashes, they wished to express their willingness to reform their ways and refrain from wickedness, to pray for Jehovah God to restrain His anger, to entreat Jehovah God to withdraw His decision as well as the catastrophe about to befall them. Through examining all of their behavior we can see that they already understood that their previous wicked acts were detestable to Jehovah God and that they understood the reason why He would soon destroy them. For these reasons, they all wished to utterly repent, to turn away from their evil ways and abandon the violence in their hands. In other words, once they became aware of Jehovah God’s declaration, each and every one of them felt fear in their hearts; they no longer continued their wicked conduct nor continued to commit those acts hated by Jehovah God. Additionally, they entreated Jehovah God to forgive their past sins and to not treat them according to their past actions. They were willing to never again engage in wickedness and to act according to Jehovah God’s instructions, if only they would never again infuriate Jehovah God. Their repentance was sincere and thorough. It came from the depths of their hearts and was not feigned, nor was it temporary” (“God Himself, the Unique II”).
Wang Wei then gave fellowship, saying, “We can see from this passage that true repentance is not just admitting to our sins and evil deeds. We must also know what God’s attitude is toward our sins, and we must also understand the essence and harm of our sins. Only in this way can true reverence and fear for God arise within us, we will feel true repentance and abhorrence from the bottom of our hearts for our sins, we will no longer walk the same old path as we have always done, and we will begin to make a change and become new people—only this is true repentance. Like the people of Nineveh, for example. They realized that their wicked deeds had aggravated God’s disposition, and they knew that, if they didn’t repent, then they would be destroyed by God. They therefore all repented to God in sackcloth and ashes, from the highest king to the lowest commoner. They began to repent thoroughly of their misdeeds and would no longer do evil or defy God. Their repentance was true, and it arose from the very bottoms of their hearts. And what about us? Although we say we often go before God to repent and confess, this is just a verbal admission, and is not abhorrence or disdain for our sins that we feel from the bottom of our hearts. When we encounter issues, we still care only about our own interests, we act under the control of our inner sinful nature, we covet the pleasures of sin and we undergo no real change. This kind of repentance is just going through the motions and is totally at odds with God’s will. God scrutinizes the innermost heart of man and man cannot cheat God. Only through true repentance can we earn God’s mercy and grace.”
Ma Tao then said with sincerity, “Thanks be to the guidance of God that we now understand clearly what true repentance is. With sin, man cannot possibly enter into heaven. The Lord Jesus said: ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, Whoever commits sin is the servant of sin. And the servant stays not in the house for ever: but the son stays ever’ (John 8:34–35). And it also says elsewhere in the Bible: ‘Holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord’ (Hebrews 12:14). God is righteous and holy, and the kingdom of heaven permits no one still capable of committing sin to enter. No matter how well someone pays lip service to repentance, they are unable to win God’s praise. Only by casting off one’s sinful nature and being able to be absolutely obedient and devoted to God can one be qualified to enter into heaven. Although we’ve believed in the Lord for many years, yet we don’t revere God in our hearts at all and we don’t fear God. Instead, we believe that the Lord is loving and merciful and that, when we commit a sin, all we need to do is confess and repent to the Lord for our sins to be forgiven, for God to not remember our transgressions and for us to be raised into the heavenly kingdom when the Lord returns. Through our fellowship, I’ve finally realized that our faith is so muddled. We are like beggars who know only to stretch out our hands to the Lord and ask for things, and yet we don’t understand how to appreciate God’s concern and the grief He feels in His heart for us living in sin and taking no thought to repentance, and we also lack the resolve and determination to distance ourselves from sin. It looks now that, if we are unable to fear God and shun evil, then we will be unable to truly repent, and our waiting for the Lord to come to raise us up into heaven is just an idle dream. We cannot go on believing in God by relying on our own misconceptions and imaginings, for that is too dangerous! We must focus on practicing the truth and pursuing change, for only that accords with God’s will.”
Wang Wei went on, “Recently, I fellowshiped with a brother about the conditions for our entry into the heavenly kingdom. He said, ‘The Lord Jesus prophesied: “He that rejects Me, and receives not My words, has one that judges him: the word that I have spoken, the same shall judge him in the last day” (John 12:48). “And when He is come, He will reprove the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment” (John 16:8). Although our sins are forgiven when we accept the Lord Jesus’ salvation, our sinful nature is still deeply rooted within us and we are still capable of involuntarily committing sin and defying God; until we can cast off the bonds of sin, we will not deserve to enter into heaven. When the Lord returns, He will perform the stage of work of judging and purifying man with words, and if we want to enter into God’s kingdom, then we must accept the Lord’s work of judgment when He returns in the last days, recognize our sinful nature, be able to truly abhor ourselves and forsake our flesh, practice God’s words, obey God and revere God, and cast off our corrupt dispositions. Only in this way can we be purified and attain God’s final salvation.’ I believe that his fellowship makes a lot of sense, so I’ll bring him here to give us fellowship, if that’s OK with you all?”
Ma Tao immediately said, “Great! If the Lord’s work of judgment in the last days can enable us to be purified and to achieve true repentance, then we have hope to enter into heaven. We really are so fortunate! Brother Wang, you’d better hurry up and bring that other brother here to fellowship with us.”
Wang Wei smiled as he said, “Fine, I’ll go find him tomorrow …”
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