Some folks say that repentance is “the hardest command of God to obey.” Perhaps this is so, but why? The answer is actually pretty simple: Repentance requires us to change our minds, hearts, and lives. Not so easy? I said the answer was simple- I didn’t say it was easy!
Let’s begin with a clear picture of exactly what repentance is, and isn’t. Repentance is, as implied above, a change of mind and heart that leads to a change of course or direction. More graphically, it is deciding that you are going the wrong direction in life, making a U-turn, and then being happy about the change. Take these elements one at a time for a little more clarification.
The Decision. For anyone to truly repent, a change of mind has to take place. A bank robber may stop robbing for a while because he fears the police are on to him. He hasn’t repented though he has changed his behavior. There was no change of mind regarding the sinfulness of his activity, nor was there a change of heart (emotions or desires) either, just a fear of being caught. So, his behavioral change isn’t true repentance, it’s just a temporary modification that will inevitably revert back to its former state.
The Change. True repentance also requires a change of activity, course, or direction in life. To borrow from the same illustration of our bank robber, imagine that he reaches the conclusion that what he has been doing is just not right. He’s taking by force what belongs to others, and breaking both God’s and man’s laws by so doing. But, because he’s also unwilling to “work for a living,” he continues to rob banks anyway. He’s changed his mind regarding the rightness/wrongness of his activity, but has not changed his behavior. This can’t be repentance either- the end result of his life is exactly as it was; he just has a guilty conscience about it now!
The Emotion. Let’s go back our bank robber one last time. He changes his mind about the course of his life, and as a result, stops robbing banks and gets a job (as a security expert for the banking industry!). But, though he changed his mind and life, he isn’t happy about it. In fact, he’s miserable and misses the “excitement” of his former life, as well as the luxuries it provided him. Has he repented? He isn’t robbing banks anymore, and doesn’t intend to do so again, but he sure longs for his previous path. He’s doing the rightthings in his life, and even thinking and saying the rightthings in his job, but he doesn’t feel the right things! How long do you suppose he’ll stick to the “strait and narrow” way?
Do you see now why repentance requires a change of mind, activity, and emotion? Just modifying one of the three requirements doesn’t result in lasting change. Again, the reason is simple: In modifying one part of himself, he failed to change all of himself. Repentance, to be effective, must change everything about us- our minds (decision-making processes), our activities (the overall course and direction of our lives), and our hearts (how we feel about this new direction relative to our past). Now, lest you think I’m pulling all of this out of my hat, note what the Bible says on the subject.
Matthew 3:8-9. Hypocritical Jewish leaders came with the multitudes of believers to be baptized by John. These leaders were doing the right thing, but their minds were not right in this matter. Therefore, John told them they needed to “bring forth fruits in keeping with your repentance.” How does this indicate their repentance was incomplete in regard to their thinking? Consider the next verse, “and do not suppose that…. ‘We have Abraham for our father,’ for….” Their supposition- their thinking, was wrong. Just being baptized wasn’t going to change their minds- but their minds would surely have to be changed for them to truly repent!
Acts 2:37-38. Those who had crucified Jesus as an imposter, once they became convinced that He was indeed the Christ, asked, “Brethren, what shall we do?” Their mindshad already been changed by the apostles’ sermon, but what remained? They needed to change their course and direction in life- they needed to go from being persecutors of Christ to being His disciples. So, they were told to repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ!
2Corinthians 7:10. Paul wrote, “the sorrow that is according to the will of God produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation; but the sorrow of the world produces death.” When the mind and life have been changed, the heart must follow for true repentance to occur, for Jesus said, “for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also,” Matthew 6:21.
Now, have you truly repented by changing your mind, your course, and your desires? Or, are you still fighting the battle with sin by attempting to change only part of yourself? Such is surely a losing battle!