Imagine you’ve noticed something wrong and you go to the doctor. They run their tests and scans, take their samples, and sit you down with the results. You were right — you’re sick and quite probably dying without prompt attention. But instead of offering a cure, the doctor says he can alter the test results. You’ll still be dying, but you can pretend you’re not and tell all your friends the doctor says you’re fine.
Sounds ridiculous, right? I’m not sure any of us would take that deal. But that’s what churches are doing on a spiritual level if they hold out the idea of salvation without repentance.
Our Western society is uncomfortable with objective morality. It’s unpopular to think certain actions are inherently wrong. We don’t want to acknowledge a higher power with the right to determine what is and is not sin. Yet that’s exactly what you must do when you become a Christian. My decision to follow Jesus means I’m not the ultimate authority in my life. He and Our Father are.
Repenting From What?
When Jesus began preaching, He said, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). It has become popular in some Christian churches to say God’s commands aren’t relevant today. If you accept Jesus as your personal savior that’s it — you’re saved. There’s a measure of truth to this last statement, for God sent Jesus “that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). But Jesus also commanded repentance and that begs the question, “What are we repenting of?”
In Christian theology, repentance involves recognition that you’re going the wrong direction and making changes for the better as you turn back to God. Repenting “from dead works” is the first of the foundational truths listed in Hebrews 6:1-2. Jesus said He came to call “sinners to repentance” (Mark 2:17), and “repentance for the remission of sins” is a key first step in coming to Jesus for salvation (see Luke 3:3; Acts 2:38; 3:19; 5:31; 17:30-31; 26:20). Knowing we repent of sins leads to the question, “What is sin?”
Sin is defined by the law of God, “for sin is the transgression of the law” (1 John 3:4, KJV). Paul also talks about this in Romans, where he gives a detailed (and often misinterpreted) break-down of how the law gave us knowledge of sin, but couldn’t save us from sin. Only Jesus could do that by forgiving us and taking us out from under the Old Covenant law’s death penalty. Now, in the New Covenant, we have His law written in our hearts so we can live out both the letter and, more importantly, the spirit of the law.
Separated From God
Transgressing God’s law, which we’ve all done, separates us from God (Is. 59:2; Rom. 3:23). We can’t get un-separated if we don’t recognize that there’s something wrong. None of us can come to the Father through Jesus for salvation until we acknowledge we need a savior. And that involves realizing some things we were doing are wrong, turning to God, and doing “works befitting repentance” (Acts 26:20, see also Luke 3:8). That certainly doesn’t mean you’re earning salvation by your works. Rather, after you realize you need Jesus for salvation and enter a relationship with Him, you start following His commands and not your own desires.
The church can’t lie about the problem of sin to people whether they’re inside or outside our fellowship. Those who follow Jesus are to “walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4). Knowing that we were purged from our old sins should prompt us to develop the fruits of God’s spirit and work to “make your call and election sure” (2 Pet. 1:5-11).
There will be temptations we struggle with more, and must repent of more often. But we are to battle them with the power of Jesus in us, not adopt an attitude that “Jesus loves me, so I can act however I want.” Yes, Jesus loves you, and because of that He doesn’t want you doing things that are contrary to God’s righteousness. And if you love Him in return, you will keep His commandments (John 14:15, 21; 15:10; 1 John 5:2-3; 2 John 1:6).
Healed and Healthy
None of us are good enough for God’s kingdom by ourselves as human beings. We’re fallen, sinful, and separated from our righteous God. That’s why Jesus had to die — to take our place and repair the breach between God and man. He’s the great physician, Yahweh Rophe, the Lord Who Heals.
The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance. (2 Pet. 3:9)
Without repentance and asking God for forgiveness through Jesus Christ, we perish. The church isn’t doing people any favors if we don’t preach humanity’s need for healing and change. We must always do so in a spirit of love, but to neglect that message entirely is the exact opposite of love.
To walk with Jesus requires repentance and change, personal growth and submission to God’s transformative work in our lives. Jesus heals us and He wants us involved in staying healthy. If you or I just keep on with a spiritually unhealthy lifestyle and try popping “forgiveness pills” whenever we want to sin, we won’t be growing “in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 3:18). We won’t deepen our relationships with God and we might even get so distracted by pursuing things contrary to godliness that we miss the narrow road leading to the kingdom (Matt. 7:13-14; 1 Cor. 6:9-10; Gal. 5:19-21).
We’re offered the incomprehensibly valuable gift of forgiveness and eternal life. It’s our choice whether or not we accept it and follow God’s way of life. Doing that isn’t about legalistically jumping through hoops trying to keep the law — it’s about letting God change us from the inside out to look like Him. It’s about relationship, and growing to the point that we want to do the things God says because we trust He really does know what’s best.