Acts 2:37 “When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’ Peter replied, ‘Repent.’”
How different were Peter’s expectations when he preached to the people in Jerusalem at the feast of Pentecost from those of many evangelistic preachers today. Contemporary evangelists speak so that people will take the step of believing they are Christians. Peter preached for these ends, that his hearers would know who Jesus Christ is, that he was the one who rose from the dead and he was exalted and in charge of our lives. Peter preached that his hearers would be cut to the heart for their attitude to God the Father and God the Son and that they would be ashamed of much of their past lives of unbelief and rebellion against God, deeply troubled that they had lived as they had. Peter longed that they be convicted for how they’d treated Jesus of Nazareth. So in his preaching Peter thrust the sword of the Spirit into their souls again and again, relentlessly, and while they remained unrepentant he was pitiless. He was mighty successful in his approach. 3000 men became disciples of Jesus Christ by this sermon. He hadn’t shouted at them or been angry with them or just upset them. He’d used no psychological devices to trick them into making a decision, but by the truth of what he had told them concerning Jesus Christ, and the fact pressed upon them – that they had to answer to him whom God had made Lord and Christ – they were cut to their hearts.
But Peter also preached in such a way that without being told to go and speak to Christians they would long to go and talk to the messengers of the Lord Christ and ask them for help. In other words, Peter wasn’t satisfied with them feeling vaguely guilty for wasted years. Many people all around us are guilty for wasting away their lives, and they have turned to non-stop TV and drinking and a stream of relationships and drugs to fill the vacuum and keep the ever-present threats of despair at bay. Peter found no encouragement in the fact that people knew that they’d messed up. He longed for an inward change constraining them to seek out the messengers of the Lord Jesus asking them for help. This is the spontaneous cry that he heard the moment he stopped preaching, “Brothers, what shall we do? We’re asking you because you know the truth. You know the living God. Jesus Christ is your Lord and Saviour. You speak the truth, and so please tell us what we have to do.” And from that moment on they continued under evangelical influence, going on in the apostles’ fellowship and teaching, in other words only satisfied with biblical influences.
So I am claiming that the concern of the preacher Peter was different from the concern of many evangelists today. I wonder would they think they’d had a successful meeting if people were cut to their hearts and if they came to you afterwards and asked what they now must do, and if they repented for what they’d done. This was how Peter wanted them to respond when they heard of the livingness and might and majesty of Jesus Christ. But I want to concentrate today on Peter’s response, in other words, what he replied when he told them what they had to do. He told them, you see, that they needed to repent, and so we are going to look at the evangelical grace of repentance.
Can’t you see how important it is? This was the purpose of God gathering these people together in their thousands from Europe and North Africa and all over Judea to come to Jerusalem at the feast of Pentecost. It was in order to hear this message of Peter and repent. God loved them all so much he sent Peter to preach this very message to them and then to urge them to change their thinking and the whole direction of their lives.
HOW IMPORTANT TO GOD IS REPENTANCE.
Just consider simply the frequency of the words ‘repent’ and ‘repentance’ that they occur 56 times in the New Testament alone. The word is similar in meaning to the one translated ‘convert’ or ‘turn.’ You begin to read the New Testament and soon you are confronted with the fact that the main theme of the preaching of John the Baptist, as he prepared the way for the coming of the Son of God, was: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (Matthew 3:2). Then the first recorded words of the public ministry of Jesus were also “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (Matthew 4:17). Jesus told us that the purpose of his coming and ministry was in order to call “sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:32). When Jesus sent out his disciples to preach, we read this, that “they went out and preached that people should repent” (Mark 6:12). After his resurrection from the dead, this duty was still crucially central to him because Jesus told them from now on that “repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations” (Luke 24:47). Do you want to be faithful to the Lord Jesus whom you declare to be your God and Saviour? Then you have to be interested in the things that he is interested in, and one of those is this, “How are things in the nations of the world? Is my message of repentance being preached everywhere?” Jesus also declared that unless people repented they would perish. He insisted on that a number of times. Peter had well learned that lesson from his Lord because here he preaches it, and then in the next chapter verse 19 in his sermon Peter presses on the people the importance of repenting (Acts 2:38; 3:19).
The apostle Paul was no different from Peter, for in his sermon to the men of Athens he told them that God “commands all people everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30). He said that the message he declared to both Jews and Greeks was that “they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus” (Acts 20:21). Peter also, many years later, wrote two letters and in the second he stated that God is “not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). It is obvious from all of that that the theme of repentance is crucial to God – let alone to us. None of us will find a meaningful relationship with God unless we’re doing what the Bible calls “repenting”. Then isn’t it important to find out what it means? Let me explain what repentance is in this way, first by clearing away a lot of the rubble that hides the true nature of repentance. This is what I will tell you first . . .
WHAT REPENTANCE IS NOT.
i] Repentance is not remorse. Peter did not tell the crowd in Jerusalem to say “Sorry!” We all know that ordinary people who’ve had to face up to the consequences of what they’ve done feel sorry for what’s happened to them. That’s not repentance. That is remorse. They are sorry that their folly meant they lost their jobs, or they lost their children, or their marriages broke up and people got hurt. They’re sorry they ended up in prison. The consequences of their sinning finally caught up with them. That feeling is remorse. Esau was remorseful because he’d lost the blessing – not because he’d sold the blessing. The sorrow of the world works death, says Paul. The prodigal son felt sorry; he could have stood up in the pig pen and said many times, “I am sorry. I am sorry. I am sorry.” If he had stayed there feeling sorry he’d have lived and died in that distant city with just pigs as his companions, sorry he’d taken his inheritance from his father, sorry he’d left the farm, sorry he’d splurged everything on fair-weather friends. “I’m sorry I left Dad and big brother. I’m sorry that sin ruined me.” Think of sailors in a storm who will lighten the boat by throwing the cargo into the sea, but once they are in calm waters they are sorry that they lost the cargo. They wish they still had it. Many of those Jerusalem sinners were sad about the crucifixion of Christ. It was a bad business. They were sorry that this good man, this young man, this teacher and healer, had been killed by crucifixion. “So sorry! Oh God, I’m sorry, really sorry!” That’s not enough! Their sorrow fell short of repenting. More was needed than their remorse. Our sinning can be the occasion of great sorrow, and yet there’s no sorrow for our actual sins. For what things are you sorry? “Oh, the usual things,” you say. Our attention as men and women is focused upon ourselves. We are sorry that we feel bad. We are sorry that we are in trouble. We are sorry that we need pills to lift us up. That response is not repentance, but repentance is God’s life-line to those who feel sorry. Catch hold of this lifeline and pull on God!
ii] Repentance is not regret. You hear people saying all the time, “I wish I hadn’t done it.” That is regret, saying, “I wish I could live my life over.” You can’t. No way can you live your life over. There is no reincarnation. You just have this one life, soon past. How fruitless to spend your one life saying, “I wish I hadn’t gone there, or that I agreed to that, or that I wish I hadn’t signed that document or agreed to that sweet talker who phoned me and sold me those worthless shares.” Jerusalem sinners wished they hadn’t voted for Barabbas. They wished they hadn’t cried out about Jesus, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” They wished they’d got another chance. They wished they could start all over. But no one can live his life over. However, they could receive the pardon of God, and so can we. They could have a spiritual rebirth, a divine new beginning. Yes, that is a wonderful reality, but you can’t live your life all over. Evangelical repentance is far more than mere regret. Judas’ so-called ‘repentance’ was just regret that he had betrayed the innocent blood of Jesus. The platform on which he was standing had no other foundation. It was that flimsy. It collapsed and he fell into the void and killed himself. It is possible to know so much about Jesus but be a stranger to gospel repentance.
iii] Repentance is not reform. Many Jerusalem sinners said, “We must make sure the crucifixion of a young man never happens again. Beastly Romans with their cruelty. We must tighten up the law. We must live in a more just society.” Some of you have vowed, “I’m going to start over and to live right. I am going to go to church every Sunday morning.” That’s not repentance. That is a natural conscience rousing and warning and exhorting you and it’s nothing more than that. In Jerusalem they were not saying, “I crucified him. My sin, my sins, my Saviour, they nailed you to the cross.” It is not enough to turn over a new leaf, and start giving money, and staying home with your wife in the evenings, and treating your children and neighbours right. That is not repentance. Reform is what we try to do, and can really try very hard at times, but so imperfectly. Reform is always inadequate, and every little bit of reform we manage to achieve, we’re rather pleased about! We ate less and drank less and spent less, and we did it; they were our works, and we’ve got a boastful spirit in our hearts at our achievement. So that is not repentance, in fact our reforms needs to be repented of.
iv] Repentance is not religion. Peter didn’t say to them, “You need to be more religious. Go to every feast! Three times a year. Make your sacrifices each time you sin, and attend the synagogue every Sabbath. That’s what you’ve got to do.” No, Peter didn’t talk to them about their religion. Most students at the university think that members of the Christian Union want them to become religious students. Not so! In fact religion has become the chief substitute in our land for repentance. If religion could meet the need in every heart . . . if religion could change your life . . . then why did God give his only begotten Son? Why did he refuse to spare him from the cross? Religions are mankind’s greatest crimes. In the name of religion men will behead innocent men and film the process and shout out that their god is great. They will burn a man alive in the name of religion. They will encourage a widow to throw herself onto the funeral pyre of her husband. Religion is a veil that comes between people and God. It is the source of unending confusion. Jesus was crucified in the name of religion. It is the most organised opposition to our Saviour in the world today. Many people going to church have never repented; instead they have become merely religious. So there are the four things that repentance is not.
WHAT ARE SOME EXAMPLES OF REPENTANCE?
I’ll begin by giving you some classic examples of repentance in the Bible.
i] There is the repentance of David. He just abused his power cruelly like any reprobate tyrant. He took women, and concubines, and wife after wife. Absolutely horrible! It was the author of the 23rd psalm who actually did that, this greatly blessed king. Then David finally fancied a married women and he had no qualms in taking her too, she got pregnant and then he had her husband murdered. After quite a time, through a courageous prophet nailing David’s sin to his heart, David repented very deeply because he had sinned very deeply. The Holy Spirit gave him a prayer of repentance to pray (though David also composed it too). Here is some of it: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are proved right when you speak and justified when you judge. Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me. Surely you desire truth in the inner parts; you teach me wisdom in the inmost place. Cleanse me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones you have crushed rejoice. Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquity. Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me” (Psa. 51:1-10). Do you know anything of regret like that, confessing your sin to God, realising you have sinned against the Lord whose name you bear who’s shown such mercy to you all your life? What privileges you’ve had from him, and how badly you have treated him.
ii] There is the repentance of the tax collector in the Temple. Jesus noticed two men there, a Pharisee who was full of himself and all he’d done for God and man, wanting everyone to know it, standing up to pray so that all could see and hear his moral boasts. But there was also a repentant tax-collector in the Temple at the same time and he was very different. “The tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’” And Jesus said of this repentant man, “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:13&14). Have you ever experienced any spirit of brokenness like this tax collector? Why not?
iii] There is the repentance of the prodigal son. We are told that “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.”’ So he got up and went to his father” (Lk. 15:18-21). Have you abandoned a worldly and ungodly lifestyle and confessed to Almighty God that you have sinned against him and are unworthy of the blessings he has given you? Are you a real Christian?
iv] There is the repentance of Peter after he had denied his Lord with oaths three times, and then the Lord turned and looked straight at him and Peter remembered Jesus’ pastoral warning of denying him soon, before the cock crew that night, and Peter went outside and what did he do? He expressed his repentance by weeping bitterly. He howled his grief. Have you repented for those times that you let the Lord down?
In all those four men there was a new grief that they had been sinning against a loving God, and they all had some hope that the mercy of God was greater than their sin. It wasn’t futile exercise for them to ask the thrice holy God for forgiveness, and humbly they cast themselves on him. Their sorrow flowed from God’s love for them. It was a sorrow that arose in their souls because they now saw God was lovely and his law seemed righteous and his judgments were just, fair and good. So when they responded as they did their souls were now taking God’s side against themselves for what they’d done wrong. “What a fool I’ve been for what I did, when I offended so gracious a God. There was no excuse for it.” They justified God. There were no excuses. They weren’t complaining against God for being over-strict, or that his law was over-righteous. No, no, what they were saying was, “I did wrong. I’ve played the fool and God is right . . . in all his ways.”
You compare the way David had acted with Bathsheba with his prayer of repentance. You compare the prodigal son swaggering off to the distant city, his bag full of money, to the way he walked back. You compare Peter cursing the servant, crying out he’d ‘never heard of this Jesus of Nazareth’, to the Peter who was weeping bitterly. Their souls were now in reverse gear: they are guilty; they are weeping; they are asking for his mercy. God is honoured, God is praised, God is loved. It is we who are now at war with ourselves. That is evidence of grace. That is ‘evangelical repentance’. There was a perfect case in the Highlands of Scotland: a woman called Muckle Kate of Lochcarron. She broke all the commandments apart from the one that says, ‘Thou shalt not kill’. She led a mean life up until her old age, and then her last years were her best years. Through the influence of the local pastor Lachlan MacKenzie, she saw her sin and her lostness and she repented and came to weep for her sins. She wept herself virtually blind. People think to themselves, “What a sad idea; what a tragic story that a woman should weep herself blind.” Men and women, that is not a sad story at all. Would to God the people of Wales would weep themselves virtually blind because of their guilt and folly against God! Far better to go to heaven blind than to go to hell with both eyes perfectly healthy. Don’t you agree? If you don’t then you are blind yourself. Far better to weep yourself blind and love the God who cancels all our blame and shame than have both your eyes healthy and not realise the sin of your own heart. You grip your repentance and take it all the way to the gates of heaven.
Why did she weep herself blind? Because her eyes now were opened to see the reality of a depraved life. You say, “I’ve not lived a foul life. I’ve lived a very decent life. I’ve done no harm to anybody.” If you think like that, you don’t know yourself, you don’t realise how corrupt you are. We’re all defiled, we’re all fallen, we’re all wicked in the sight of God. When God opens our eyes to see the sin in our own lives, then what do we do? We do what David and Peter did, and the tax collector in the Temple, and Muckle Kate. Blessed are they that mourn for they, and they alone shall be comforted.
A man once phoned my friend Maurice Roberts. He called him in order to read to him a letter which his teenage daughter had just left for him on the table. The father said, “Listen to this. She couldn’t tell me herself because she said to me, ‘It was so emotional I had to write it down, Dad.’’ It read like this: “Dear father and mother, I want you both to know the last few days I have come to see Jesus Christ as my Saviour. I’ve given my heart and life to him. Thank you both for being such wonderful parents and bringing me up to know the Gospel and for taking me to church and Sunday School. I feel so wonderful with the change in my life. I love Jesus Christ. I can’t tell you this in words because I would break down in weeping. I am so happy. I want you to read this in a letter.” The father was crying on the telephone as he told Maurice, and it wasn’t easy for Maurice to remain stoical as he heard his old friend read those words to him.
What had happened? Well, the Holy Spirit had come into this young girl’s heart evidently and he comes to convict of sin and righteousness and judgment so that we can repent. She had seen herself guilty in the sight of God and yet, she saw something else – the beauty of Christ: the glory of Jesus the Saviour, the wonderful love he had shown on the cross by his blood shedding and death. She had seen that he was the answer to all her needs and her heart was broken with affection for him.
Men and women, that is how true conversion begins with a sense of repentance for how we’ve lived. I’m not saying that every convert, necessarily, weeps – but there is always some fruit of repentance at our conversion. Whether there are salty tears, well that is a very secondary matter. Some people weep more easily than others for all sorts of reasons, none of which is important to mention. Nevertheless, there is no coming to Christ without repentance. In other words when a person repents they turn their back upon their past life – all of it. Sometimes they do very drastic and dramatic things.
When converted, a person who has been a lover of photography, for instance, might say to himself, “My infatuation with photography has become too overwhelming and dominant in my life.” So they visit E-bay and they sell all their cameras and lenses and tripods. They tell me what they plan to do. Well, I’m concerned and I test them. “Are you sure? You don’t have to, you know? There is nothing wrong with having a good camera and taking photographs.” “You don’t know the hold it has over me,” is the reply. “Ah pastor, you’re not aware of what an idol it’s become in my life.” They know that it’s domineering a chunk of their hearts. They want to put out of their life anything that stands between them and God. That is evangelical repentance. You understand me? Something quite indifferent to following Jesus has become an idol, and so you pray, “The dearest idol I have known, whate’er that idol be, help me to tear it from Thy throne and worship only Thee.” The mere Christian does that. He is somebody who jealously desires to give his all to God. “Lord, here I am, take me” – that is what the repentant Christian says. He wants to give his everything to God. Even things which are lawful in themselves – sports, music, business, the web, etc – if they have been in the past too important, too much like an idol, then at our conversion we are repentant. We are very jealous about having such things in our lives; we sorrow and put them out of our lives.
4. REPENTANCE IS TO CHARACTERIZE OUR WHOLE CHRISTIAN LIFE.
Men and women, we never stop repenting. Repentance doesn’t begin and end at our conversion; repentance goes on all the way through life. Our Lord taught us when we pray to say, “And forgive us our trespasses.” Repentance and confession wasn’t just for a time of decision at a camp, or at an evangelistic meeting with a tear shed and a pat on the back and “off you go – you’re a Christian now” but then we are soon drifting back to the old worldly pursuits plus a bit of religion on Sundays. No, no, repentance is a linear grace, not ‘point repentance’ but progressive repentance with a sense of sadness that in heaven there’d be no more repentance.
The Geneva reformer said once: “If we wish our sins to be buried before God, we must remember them ourselves.” Look at that! You see if we want God to forget our sins, we must see their trajectory and bring them to him. Is that seemingly contradictory? You say, “How do you argue the logic of that?” Well, if God sees us remembering our sins with a sigh (our past lives and wickednesses, what we used to be before he saved us) we can be sure that then God will forgive us. However, if we quickly obliterate our old sins, shrugging and behaving as though God had never saved us, then beware! God is still remembering them; God will deal with them.
Listen to John Calvin, that great Reformer, again: “God buries our sins while we recall them to memory.” Isn’t that clever? That is his assessment of repentance: we remember our sins, not in the sense that they condemn us, no, they don’t condemn us. If we are in Christ there is no condemnation, but our sins are brought to our remembrance in order that we humble ourselves. We cultivate the contrite spirit and broken heart. That is the good old Bible religion. I don’t think I have prepared a single sermon without thoughts of my past sins coming into my mind and my needing to cry to God for help and pardon. This sermon was no exception.
Remember Peter’s written words later on about the daangerous absence of feelings of repentance; “But if anyone does not have them, he is short-sighted and blind, and has forgotten that he has been cleansed from his past sins” ( HYPERLINK “http://www.bible-sermons.org.uk/bible/2-Peter_1/” \t “_blank” 2 Peter 1: 9). That is a great sin, to forget that we were purged from our old sins. We must never forget as Christians that we were hell-deserving sinners and God saved us from our sins. If we forget it then we’ll soon be leaning against a bar, and having a second pint, and behaving like the world again. It is a sure thing; if we forget our sins, we’ll soon be indulging them and God will be chastising us for them. We must remember what we are and what we deserve. It is a spiritually healthy exercise to say to God, “Lord, here I am again, this wicked sinner who’s acting like a minister of the Gospel; here I am again – worthy of being cast into the very lowest pit of damnation. What a mercy, Lord, thou hast spared so great a sinner as me.” Isn’t that the Gospel way of thinking? Every Christian thinks like that, whether they be a minister, or deacon, or elder; that is the way a Christian thinks in his best mood.
How many men and women, boys and girls here have never gone to God and said to him how sorry they are, and asking him to forgive them, and for power to stop grieving his Spirit. If we put off repentance for another day then we’ll have another day to repent of, and also one day less in which to repent. Yes, God has promised that he will respond to late repentance – consider the dying thief. Do not despair! God has promised forgiveness to them that repent but he has nowhere promised repentance to them that sin. One thief was saved that none might despair, but one only that none might presume. God has nowhere promised he will give everyone late repentance. Do you think that when you will feel so weak that you can’t turn your bodies on your beds that then you’ll turn your souls from sin and unbelief to repentance? The only time we have to repent is now. If God’s ‘today’ is too soon for your repentance then your “tomorrow, yes tomorrow, yes when I have tasted the world, tomorrow I’ll repent and believe,” that may be too late for God’s acceptance. Now is the accepted time; now is the day to turn from your idols to serve the living God. Now is the day of repentance. “Brothers, what shall we do?” That is what they asked. Peter cried, Repent! Turn from your sin to God.
8th February 2015 GEOFF THOMAS