The Canadian Red Ensign

The Canadian Red Ensign

Monday, March 19, 2012

The Repentance God Requires

God requires or demand certain things from man. This does not fit with an idea of God that is very popular today. In that concept all God ever does is love and give. Now, God as He has revealed Himself to us in Christ is certainly a God of love and of grace. He is also, however, a God Who requires much of us. Nobody made that clearer than Christ Himself, Who in His Sermon on the Mount explained that formal, outward, conformity to the letter of God’s Law is not enough to meet God’s requirements – He demands that we obey Him internally, in our hearts as well as in our outward actions. God then, loves us and freely gives us His blessings out of His love, but He also requires and demands things from us. There are two possible errors to fall into here. One is to think that God’s love and grace depend upon our meeting His requirements. The other is to think that God’s love and grace negate our obligation to meet His requirements.

What does God require of man?

His first requirement, before all others, is faith, that is that we believe in Him and in His goodness to us. The author of the book of Hebrews tells us “But without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.” If we do not start with faith, we can never please God, we can never meet any of His requirements. In the book of Genesis, the beginning of man’s fall was when the serpent persuaded Eve to disbelieve what God had told her. Unbelief is the first step in sin and disobedience, likewise faith is the first step in obeying God.

Faith is also the means whereby we receive God’s love and grace. It is vitally important that we understand that this is a separate function of faith from faith’s being the first of God’s requirements. God’s love and grace are given to us in Christ. Christ is presented to us, in the preaching of the Gospel and in the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, as the Saviour God has freely given us out of the love of His heart. (1) We are promised that whoever believes in Him is cleansed from all sin and justified by His propitiatory sacrifice and possesses in Him everlasting life. When we receive the gift of love and grace God has given us in Christ through faith, we do not receive it because by believing we have met one of God’s requirements. We receive it because that is the only way this freely given gift can be received.

Faith is the only means whereby we can receive God’s gift of love and grace in Jesus Christ. It is not the only thing God requires or demands of us. (2) After faith, God requires that we love and obey Him. Love arises out of faith, and obedience, true obedience, flows out of love.

None of us meets any of these requirements perfectly, or even comes close to it, because we are fallen, sinful creatures. If our salvation were not a free gift, given to us in Christ, and received through faith, but were something we had to obtain by meeting God’s requirements, none of us would ever make it.

There is another requirement God has for man. This is a requirement which takes man’s fallen condition into consideration. Faith, love, and obedience were all required of man before man fell, before man needed the salvation which is freely given him in Christ. The next requirement is one which is there because man has sinned and rebelled against God. It is a requirement that is only ever placed upon sinners, as the proper thing to do once one has sinned.

That requirement is repentance.

What is repentance?

The primary Greek word translated “repentance” in the New Testament is the word metanoia. This word is a compound formed by adding the prefix meta, which in this case means “after”, and the noun nous which refers to the intellect, the faculty of thought. The main verb for “repent” is a virtually identical word, using the verb form of nous, which means to think. The resulting concept is that of “thinking again” or an “after thought”. Metanoia is often defined as a “change of mind”. (3)

Just as the words “salvation” and “save” do not automatically refer to God’s actions to rescue us from sin and condemnation, but can be used with reference to any kind of rescue, such as a fireman who saves a child from a burning house, so the Greek words for repentance and repent can be used in any situation in which someone changes their mind and do not have to refer to the repentance of a sinner.

When these words are used to describe the act God requires from someone who has sinned, they refer to a more specific kind of change of mind - the act of thinking over something you have done, coming to the realization that you should not have done it and that it is has offended God and perhaps other people, asking forgiveness of God and other people, and determining not to repeat this act in the future.

Other Scriptural concepts which are closely connected with the idea of repentance are the concepts of sorrow, confession, brokenness, contrition, and humility.

We often think of repentance in terms of “being sorry”. The emotion of sorrow is related to repentance but it falls short of being repentance. We all know how much easier it is to be sorry over something we have done than to commit ourselves to not doing it again. St. Paul, in his second epistle to the Church in Corinth wrote:

For though I made you sorry with a letter, I do not repent, though I did repent: for I perceive that the same epistle hath made you sorry, though it were but for a season. Now I rejoice, not that ye were made sorry, but that ye sorrowed to repentance: for ye were made sorry after a godly manner, that ye might receive damage by us in nothing. For godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of: but the sorrow of the world worketh death. (2 Cor. 7:8-10, bold represents italics in Authorized Version)

In this cunning play on words, St. Paul acknowledges that his previous epistle had made the Corinthians sorry, but he did not repent of that, because their sorrow brought about repentance. Sorrow and repentance are not the same thing, but the right kind of sorrow, godly sorrow, leads to repentance, to a mending of ways. There is both a right and a wrong kind of sorrow.

Dr. Johnson wrote:

The completion and sum of repentance is a change of life. That sorrow which dictates no caution, that fear which does not quicken our escape, that austerity which fails to rectify our affections, are vain and unavailing. But sorrow and tenor must naturally precede reformation: for what other cause can produce it? He, therefore, that feels himself alarmed by his conscience, anxious for the attainment of a better state, and afflicted by the memory of his past faults, may justly conclude that the great work of repentance is begun, and hope by retirement and prayer, the natural and religious means of strengthening his conviction, to impress upon his mind such a sense of the divine presence as may overpower the blandishments of secular delights, and enable him to advance from one degree of holiness to another, till death shall set him free from doubt and contest, misery and temptation. (4)

The idea of confession is the idea of owning up to and acknowledging our sins, rather than trying to hide them and cover them up. The latter comes much easier to us. Note that in Genesis Adam and Eve’s first thought, after sinning, was to cover up their nakedness and to hide from God. Fallen human nature has not changed since.

St. John tells us:

If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 Jn. 1:8-9)

Confession here, is placed in opposition to denial and self-deception. The word translated “confess” is another compound word, which combines the word for “same” with the word for “speak”. Its primary meaning is to verbally agree with another person. These verses occur in a context in which St. John is contrasting light and truth with darkness and deception. We walk in the darkness of self-deception when we deny our sinfulness, but if we confess our sins, i.e., if we do not hide from what the light of God’s truth reveals about our sinfulness but openly acknowledge it, God faithfully forgives us. This confession of our sin before God is a key element of repentance.

In Psalm 51, which King David wrote to express his repentance before God over his sin with Bathsheba, he wrote:

The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise. (v. 17)

In the Scriptures, as in everyday language, “broken” seldom describes a desirable or good thing. The opposite of broken, i.e., being whole is usually connected with that which is desirable and good. This verse is an exception, because it is talking about the state of someone who has already been broken by sin. Before there can be healing, there must be further brokenness. It is human pride which leads us to cover up and hide our sins, rather than to confess them, or worse, to harden our hearts, stiffen our necks, and justify our actions. What is needed is for the sinner’s heart and spirit to be broken in repentance and humility, rather than hardened in pride. This is what David is referring to here.

God demands repentance from all men everywhere (Acts. 17:30) because we have all sinned. In both Testaments, however, it is primarily God’s own people who are called to repentance.

If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land. (2. Chron. 7:14)

In the Old Testament, there is a cyclical pattern where God’s people turn away from Him to idols and wickedness, God in judgement sends their enemies against them as a scourge, they repent, and then God forgives and restores them.

When Christ came, the message which John the Baptist preached, then Jesus, and then His Apostles when He commissioned and sent them out, was “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”. This message was addressed to those who were God’s people under the Old Covenant. The kingdom of heaven promised by God through the prophets was at hand, in the person of Christ the promised Messiah. This call to repentance was a call for God’s Covenant people to repent of their sins and receive their Messiah.

Through His death and resurrection, Christ took away our sins, and established the New Covenant in which all who believe the Gospel, all who trust Jesus Christ as Saviour, become God’s Covenant people, His Church. All people everywhere are still called to repent, and this call is especially addressed to God’s Church.

The call to repentance is reflected in the liturgy of the Church. The Book of Common Prayer includes the following General Confession in the order for Morning and Evening Prayer:

ALMIGHTY and most merciful Father, We have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep, We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts, We have offended against thy holy laws, We have left undone those things which we ought to have done, And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us. But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders. Spare thou them, O God, which confess their faults. Restore thou them that are penitent; According to thy promises declared unto mankind in Christ Jesu our Lord. And grant, O most merciful Father, for his sake, That we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life, To the glory of thy holy Name. Amen.

The need for a humble, repentant attitude is also stressed in the order for Holy Communion. The Book of Common Prayer is the official order of services for the Anglican Church but it draws on and reflects the historical, traditional, liturgy of the broader Christian Church as well.

We must remember, however, that God’s demand that we repent, calls us to do more than just say the words of Confession in services of public worship. In calling Israel to repent, the prophet Joel called upon them to “rend your heart, and not your garments”. It is in our hearts that true repentance must take place.

As with all other things God demands of us, we will not perfectly meet His requirements in this life. We do not trust Him fully, we do not love Him with our whole hearts, We do not obey Him completely, and alas, our repentance, in contrast to that spoken of by St. Paul, often needs to be repented of. Our sinfulness keeps us from meeting God’s requirements in such a way that could bear up and be seen to be faultless under scrutiny. Thankfully, God has given us a perfect Saviour in Whom to trust, and we are to place our faith in Him rather than in our own efforts to meet God’s requirements.

(1) The sacraments are often called the “means of grace”. This can be misleading. They do not share the role of faith, which is the means of receiving the grace God gives us in Christ. They share the role of preaching, which role is to convey the grace of God in Christ in the Gospel, to those who receive it through faith. They are, indeed, another means of preaching the Gospel. St. Augustine describes the sacraments as the union of the Word and a physical element. The role of the physical element is as a vessel to convey the Word, which makes the Word more real to us, perhaps because it reaches the senses of sight and touch, as well as of hearing.
(2) This is how we must understand “sola fide” or “faith alone”. It does not mean that faith is the only thing God demands of us. It means that God’s saving grace in Christ comes to us through faith alone. Faith, as the means of receiving salvation, is not a requirement in the sense of a condition. A condition is something which you do in order to obtain something which you receive in exchange for your fulfilling the condition. Grace, by definition, is free, and can have no conditions. Faith is the empty hand that receives the gift. It is a requirement in the sense that it is something which God demands from us as His right. As a requirement in this sense it is the first of many requirements.

(3) Interestingly, the English word looks like it has a similar derivation, the addition of re meaning again, to the French penser meaning “to think”, but this is not in fact its actual etymology.

(4) Samuel Johnson, The Rambler, 110.


  1. People may forget that Dr. Samuel Johnson was a religious man; thanks for the reminder. (I always loved his comment about women preachers, being like a dog standing on its hind legs, "It isn't done well, but one is amazed that it is done at all.")

  2. You're welcome Will. I like that comment too, I quoted it to someone over coffee just last week.