Repentance That Counts with God
Annually thousands profess repentance upon hearing some evangelist preach. Is repentance as simple as that? What does the Bible say?
“REPENT, for the kingdom of the heavens has drawn near.” With those stirring words John the Baptist introduced his ministry, and Jesus Christ preached the same message following John’s imprisonment. Then some three years after Jesus began preaching this message in Galilee he told his disciples that “on the basis of his name repentance for forgiveness of sins would be preached in all the nations—starting out from Jerusalem.” First the apostle Peter, then Paul, and today hundreds of thousands of Christian witnesses of Jehovah are fulfilling those words of Jesus.—Matt. 3:1, 2; 4:17; Luke 24:47.
Repentance is an elemental Scriptural teaching mentioned in connection with such basic tenets as faith in God and baptism. It is required of all creatures who would gain salvation.—Heb. 6:1, 2.
According to Webster, to repent means “to change one’s mind or one’s heart with regard to past or intended action, conduct, etc., on account of regret or dissatisfaction.” It means “to feel regret, contrition or compunction for what one has done or omitted to do.” Repentance goes farther than penitence, we are told, in that it emphasizes the element of new purpose; it involves making a distinct about-face.
The word almost invariably translated “repented” or “repenteth” in the more popular versions of the Hebrew Scriptures is nahhám. It means “to sigh, i.e., to breathe strongly.” Hence, by implication, to breathe a sigh of relief, to feel sorry, to feel regret; to change one’s mind or attitude regarding something. It is because of this meaning that the Scriptures at times speak of God as repenting or feeling regrets. In the Christian Greek Scriptures the corresponding verb is metanoéo, and simply means to think differently, to change one’s mind, to reconsider. The related Greek noun, metánoia, translated “repentance,” however, does carry with it the thought of compunction or reformation.—Strong’s Lexicon.
TRUTHS AND PRINCIPLES INVOLVED
To understand fully just the kind of repentance that counts with God we must first of all appreciate the truths and principles involved in Scriptural repentance. We must recognize that God exists, that He is the Creator and Owner of all his creatures, and that He is the Most High, Judge and Lawgiver, and therefore rightfully holds all his creatures accountable to him. Obviously, the correlative of this must also be inherent in repentance, namely, that man is not only God’s creation but also a free moral agent, able to distinguish between right and wrong, and therefore can be held accountable to God for his actions. In other words, Jehovah God, by reason of his superior position, his infinite qualities and his works of creation, is the One to whom all his intelligent creatures, by reason of their inferior position and their capabilities, are morally accountable. Incidentally, these basic principles are the very ones over which the atheist, agnostic and deist invariably stumble.
Also involved in the teaching of repentance is the fact that man is a sinner, and not only that, but that there are extenuating circumstances that he can plead that justify God’s extending to him the mercy of forgiveness. As King David pleaded when overtaken in a grievous sin: “Look! with error I was brought forth with birth pains, and in sin my mother conceived me.” Were there no extenuating circumstances, no true repentance could be possible and then neither could nor would God forgive. Thus we read: “For if we practice sin willfully after having received the accurate knowledge of the truth, there is no longer any sacrifice for sins left, but there is a certain fearful expectation of judgment.” That is why repentance was not possible for Adam nor for Judas.—Ps. 51:5; Heb. 10:26, 27.
Scriptural repentance further requires that there be some provision by which or some basis upon which God can uphold the majesty of his law and yet take cognizance of repentance, for he is not given to change. (Mal. 3:6) Were his forgiveness to be indiscriminate, all fear and respect for him and his laws would disappear. This provision the Bible shows to be the sacrifice of God’s only-begotten Son: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and it is as a free gift that they are being declared righteous by his undeserved kindness through the release by the ransom paid by Christ Jesus. . . . that he might be righteous even when declaring righteous the man that has faith in Jesus.”—Rom. 3:23-26.
And finally, the provision for repentance that counts with God involves the issue, Who is supreme? Jehovah God or Satan the Devil? Scriptural testimony, such as that at Job, chapters one and two, shows that one of the chief ways in which this issue will be determined is on the basis of man’s keeping integrity. To enable lovers of righteousness to keep integrity—and thereby prove the Devil a liar when he boasted that he could turn all men away from God—provision needed to be made for their repentance and forgiveness. That God’s servants appreciated the relationship between forgiveness and the honor of His name the Scriptures repeatedly show: “For your name’s sake, O Jehovah, you must even forgive my error, for it is considerable.” “Help us, O God of our salvation, for the sake of the glory of your name, and deliver us and cover over our sins on account of your name.”—Ps. 25:11; 79:9.
WHAT IT MEANS TO REPENT
For many centuries Jehovah God overlooked the sins of ignorance of the nations, but beginning with the conversion of Cornelius and in a special way in our day “he is telling mankind that they should all everywhere repent. Because he has set a day in which he purposes to judge the inhabited earth in righteousness by” Jesus Christ. Particularly pertinent to our day are also the words of the apostle Peter: “Jehovah is not slow respecting his promise, as some people consider slowness, but he is patient with you because he does not desire any to be destroyed but desires all to attain to repentance.”—Acts 17:30, 31; 2 Pet. 3:9.
For us to approach God and win his good pleasure by sincere repentance we must “believe that he is and that he becomes the rewarder of those earnestly seeking him.” More than that, we must also take in knowledge of his righteous requirements, which are summed up in this way: “What doth Jehovah require of thee, but to do justly, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with thy God?”—Heb. 11:6; Mic. 6:8, AS.
As we come to know God and his righteous requirements we must become ‘conscious of our spiritual need,’ acutely aware of our sinful, undone condition and feel truly sorry about our sins. We must feel deeply, as did the tax collector going up to the temple to pray, who, “standing at a distance was not willing even to raise his eyes heavenward, but kept beating his chest, saying: ‘O God, be gracious to me a sinner.’” Like sincere repentance was also expressed by Ezra, on behalf of the erring returned exiles, and by the apostle Peter after he had denied Jesus.—Luke 18:13; Ezra 9:3-15; Matt. 26:75.
To count with God, we must plead such sincere repentance on the basis of God’s provision for forgiveness: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous so as to forgive us our sins.” This is done on the basis of the Helper we have “with the Father, Jesus Christ, a righteous one.” He is the “Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world.” Of course, this provision of the ransom seems foolish to those who do not feel any need to repent.—1 John 1:9; 2:1; John 1:29.
Also vital in repenting is right motive. Ours must be a godly sorrow, based on love of God and of righteousness, and not merely on fear of punishment. Only “sadness in a godly way makes for repentance to salvation which is not to be regretted.” ‘It is the kindly quality of God that is trying to lead us to repentance.’ A solely selfish remorse will profit us no more than it did Esau, Pharaoh or Judas.—2 Cor. 7:10; Rom. 2:4; Gen. 27:34-37; Ex. 10:16, 17; Matt. 27:3-5.
“FRUITS THAT BEFIT REPENTANCE”
To the crowds that traveled out to hear John the Baptist, he said: “Produce fruits that befit repentance.” Just as “faith without works is dead,” so repentance without befitting fruits is vain. What are these fruits?—Luke 3:8; Jas. 2:26.
The very first fruit of repentance is doing an about-face. As Peter told the Jews in his day: “Repent, therefore, and turn around so as to get your sins blotted out.” From then on we may live, “no more for the desires of men, but for God’s will.” Yes, the fruits befitting repentance require us to dedicate ourselves to do God’s will and to follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ. And since the first thing Jesus did upon dedicating himself was to give a public expression of it, symbolizing it by water baptism, we may not delay being baptized once we have turned around and resolved to do God’s will.—Acts 3:19; 1 Pet. 4:2.
Chief among the fruits that befit repentance is witnessing to God’s name and kingdom. Without producing such fruits our repentance would be of no avail, for, while “with the heart one exercises faith for righteousness, . . . with the mouth one makes public declaration for salvation.” There are various ways in which this public confession can be made, and by making the most of our opportunities we can produce much Kingdom fruit.—Rom. 10:10.
To bring forth fruits befitting repentance we must also exercise care that we continue to abstain from the selfish works of the flesh. We must ever bear in mind that “the time that has passed by is sufficient for you to have worked out the will of the nations when you proceeded in deeds of loose conduct, lusts, . . . that are without legal restraint.” Instead of letting a longing for such things return, we must set our affections on God’s kingdom and its service and our minds on producing the fruitage of the spirit, which is “love, joy, peace, long-suffering, kindness, goodness, faith, mildness, self-control.”—1 Pet. 4:3; Gal. 5:22, 23.
Extending mercy and forgiveness to those who have sinned against us and who repent is a further fruit befitting repentance and without which our repentance would not count with God. Only the merciful will be shown mercy. Jesus taught us to pray, “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” And how often should we forgive? Jesus answered: “I say to you, not, Up to seven times, but, Up to seventy-seven times.”—Matt. 6:12; 18:22.
While being conscientious to bring forth such fitting fruits of repentance, we should not go to the other extreme of brooding over our sins all the time as though by making ourselves miserable we could atone for them. Rather, we must have faith that “the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.” Far from encouraging such brooding, the Scriptures tell us: “Happy is the one whose . . . sin is covered.”—1 John 1:7; Ps. 32:1.
From all the foregoing it is very apparent that there can be no such thing as salvation because of deathbed repentance.
DIVINE AIDS IN BRINGING FORTH FRUITS OF REPENTANCE
Outstanding among the aids God has provided for our bringing forth fruits befitting repentance is prayer. We need to commune with God in prayer, praising and thanking him as well as asking him continually for forgiveness, wisdom and strength to do his will. Unselfishly our prayers should include petitions for the prosperity of His cause and the welfare of our brothers.—Phil. 4:6; Col. 4:2.
Imperative also is the regular study of God’s Word together with the aids he has providentially provided so that we may get the sense of what we read in his Word. We cannot live “on bread alone, but on every utterance coming forth through Jehovah’s mouth.” Only by diligent study can we make progress and become “fully competent, completely equipped for every good work.”—Matt. 4:4; 2 Tim. 3:17.
Christian association is another aid God has provided for us in bringing forth fruits befitting repentance. Even as the members of a human body have need of one another, so do Christians. We may therefore not forsake assembling ourselves together at congregation meetings, where we can encourage and incite one another to love and right works.—1 Cor. 12:12-27; Heb. 10:23-25.
If any dedicated Christian finds himself overtaken in gross sin, he should make haste to repent of his wrong conduct. First to God and then to the responsible ones in His visible organization he should make open confession of his wrong, express his repentance and earnestly seek forgiveness. By thereafter making straight paths for his feet and humbly submitting to any discipline that may be administered he can demonstrate that his repentance is indeed due to godly sorrow and that he sincerely does want to walk in the ways of righteousness.
Truly the Scriptural truth about the repentance that counts with God satisfies heart and mind. It magnifies God’s wisdom and justice and, above all, his love and mercy.