Billy Graham related a story of a man who attended a large revival meeting. He was somewhat agnostic but open-minded and curious. The sermon he heard touched his heart because for the first time in his life he heard the gospel message presented simply and authoritatively. At the end the preacher invited those who wanted to know more about Christ to come forward. Despite the crowd that gathered the man was able to have a short chat with the evangelist but he still had a lot of questions. He hung around a while, then headed for the exit. As he neared the door a man motioned him over and asked if he was a Christian. The man thought it a strange thing to ask considering where they were but he smiled warmly and said, “Oh yes, I think so.” The non-threatening stranger asked him the same question again. By now the man was becoming leery so he decided to humor the inquisitive guy and get away from him ASAP. He answered, “Well, I’m trying to be.” The stranger then asked, “Ever try to be an elephant?” The man was so caught off guard he could only respond with a quizzical look. The stranger grinned, gently took him by the arm and led him to a nearby bench where they could talk. The man listened as his new friend explained that no amount of trying could ever transform a person into a Christian any more than trying to grow a trunk could turn them into an elephant. He said Jesus had already died in his place, thereby paying the full penalty His sins demanded. Plus, because of the Resurrection, Christ was offering him the power to lead the kind of fulfilling life he’d always considered out of reach. His point was this: We’re not saved because we try to be. You’re saved by grace or you’re not. No in-between. It’s like there are humans and apes. Despite what schoolbooks teach there’s no evidence a half-man, half-chimp “missing link” ever existed. With Christ you’re either for Him or against Him. What the man finally realized was he didn’t have to try to earn his salvation because Jesus had already taken care of it. Applying the same reasoning, all we have to do to be saved is believe.
When that confused man in the story “let go and let God” he became born again. His life did a turnabout. He’d thought about trying Christianity but he’d never made a total commitment to the Lord because he lacked childlike trust. Jesus took the trying out of being justified before God. His ultimate sacrifice made redemption easy to attain but sometimes we mistakenly make it out to be as complicated as calculus. Christ spoke to people from all walks of life in short sentences using everyday words, illustrating his teachings with simple parables and tales. When the Philippian jailer asked what he must do to be saved Paul taught him all he needed to know with five words, “Believe in the Lord Jesus…”(Acts 16:31). How can something so significant, containing implications stretching into eternity be so easily obtained? Because God loves us with what Brennan Manning lovingly called a “furious longing” and wants us to enjoy life with Him forevermore. The irony is that nowadays when the gospel message – especially in America – is broadcast on a host of 24-hour satellite networks and radio stations, gets preached from a plethora of pulpits every Sunday and is expanded upon in thousands of thoughtfully-written books the remarkable lack of difficulty involved in getting one’s soul saved is too often overlooked. All a person has to do to be born again is repent of their sins and believe in Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior. Belief and repentance are inseparable. Yet an individual doesn’t have to wash up, change outfits, repair what’s wrong with them or straighten up their act before surrendering. They’re welcome exactly “as is.” David Crowder’s song, “Come as You Are,” expresses it well. “Come out of sadness from wherever you’ve been/Come broken hearted let rescue begin/Come find your mercy, oh sinner, come kneel/Earth has no sorrow that Heaven can’t heal/So lay down your burdens, lay down your shame/All who are broken, lift up your face/Oh wanderer come home, you’re not too far/So lay down your hurt, lay down your heart/Come as you are…” There’s a lotta hope in those beautiful lyrics.
Too many get caught up in or scared off by the commandment to repent. It’s not a dirty word. Look, salvation is what Jesus made available free of charge. Repentance is what we do in return. Some disagree. In Acts 3:19-20 Peter says, “Therefore repent and turn back so that your sins may be wiped out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and so that he may send the Messiah appointed for you – that is, Jesus.” If one plucks that verse out of context one might assume we need to do something before we put our faith in Christ in order to be saved. The fact is, a human being can’t turn to God to repent, or even to believe, without God’s help. God does the turning. God removes the blindfold. We ask and then let Him do it. The King James translation of Jeremiah 31:18 reads, “Turn thou me, and I shall be turned, for thou art the Lord my God.” One problem with using the word repentance is it’s been purged from the modern vernacular due to it connoting a concept old-fashioned and irrelevant. However, nothing could be farther from the truth. Graham wrote, “…repentance is one of the two vital elements in conversion and simply means recognition of what we are, and a willingness to change our minds toward sin, self and God.” For me to have fully grasped a comprehensive knowledge of the agony Jesus suffered for my sake and then refuse to change my way of thinking about sin would be an oxymoron bordering on blasphemy. Repentance is stepping out of denial about our sinful nature and admitting we’re sinners who deserve to be found guilty of crimes against God. If doing so results in morose self-loathing we’ve missed the point. Repentance indicates we see ourselves as God sees us and humbly asking, as did the tax collector in one of Jesus’ parables, “…God, be merciful to me, sinner that I am!” (Luke 18:13). It has nothing to do with apologizing for the evil and wickedness running rampant in the world’s institutions or populations. It’s acknowledging our own iniquities perpetrated against the great I AM and asking that He forgive us our trespasses.
The Bible teaches that sometime around the age of ten or eleven – what’s termed the “age of accountability” – God considers us full-grown adults who are now held responsible for the moral and spiritual decisions we make. Since that’s the case I was doomed several times over by the time I hit twelve! I suspect I’m not alone, though. The Scriptures make it clear that each one of us is guilty of committing sin because we’re born with an irresistible tendency to gravitate towards it. At some juncture we begin to act on that powerful tendency and deliberately choose to sin. If we allow that self-centered mindset to dominate us there’s hell to pay. “…Each one is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then when desire conceives, it gives birth to sin, and when sin is full grown, it gives birth to death. Do not be led astray, my dear brothers and sisters” (James 1:14-16). When the author writes “don’t be led astray” he means “don’t think for a nanosecond you’re immune to this stuff.” Romans 3:22-23 states succinctly, “…there is no distinction, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” All means all. Thus everyone from one pole of the planet to the other – no matter their race, color, language or culture – needs to be born again. “Nobody’s perfect” is one of the most accurate sayings we have because there’s no exception to that truism. We’re all sinners by nature, rebelling against God’s laws. Whether consciously or unconsciously, we do it every day. Sin’s a disease that entered our communal bloodstream back in Eden when Adam and Eve bought into Satan’s lie and disobeyed God’s explicit instructions and it still courses through our genes into every successive generation. It’s mankind’s fatal illness – sin – that Christ provided a permanent cure for on the cross.
Since historical records are accessible to anyone with a computer these days there’s been a renewed interest in delving into one’s ancestry. Sometimes finding out about our “roots” provides delightful surprises. But sometimes we discover things we’d rather not know about. The same thing applies to our individual and corporate hearts in that if we look closely we’ll discover a core flaw in there that’s the source of all our problems. The nefarious “sin virus” that’s infected every single one of us can only be removed by the blood of Christ. In the Old Testament the lifeblood of an innocent animal stained many an altar and those who sacrificed them looked forward to the day when the promised messiah would come and be “…the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Because of His unfathomable love for us Jesus voluntarily became the fall guy for mankind. He took all our sins, large and small, onto His flesh & bone shoulders so our Heavenly Father could forgive us and still remain altogether holy at the same time. Christ’s death and resurrection also paved the way for the Holy Spirit to enter and infuse new life into every believer. If we stand back and take in the whole picture of what it took to redeem us – the pain, the suffering and the horror of the crucifixion – it becomes obvious our sinful nature is the ugliest thing in all of God’s creation. The Apostle Peter knew he continued to sin and harbor unrighteous thoughts but he also recognized the cause of those sins wasn’t just his own physical and mental weaknesses. He understood there was something inherently wrong deep inside. That’s why he cried out in despair to his Master, “…Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” (Luke 5:8). Notice he didn’t say, “I’ve sinned,” but that he was a “sinful man.” Big difference. Job lashed out in sarcastic rage against God. God responded by revealing Himself in all His glory. When the humbled Job compared his self-touted “goodness” to God’s he became ashamed of his “I don’t deserve this” attitude. He said, “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye has seen you. Therefore I despise myself, and I repent in dust and ashes!” (Job 42:5-6). He finally stopped comparing himself to others and addressed his sinful nature. He repented.
Repentance isn’t just mumbling “My bad, Lord.” It involves experiencing genuine, gut-wrenching sorrow for sin. Sorrow’s a basic emotion everybody has inside them but the degree to which we let ourselves feel it varies. If we repent of our sins against God and don’t let sorrow engulf us then our repentance is probably hollow. In 2 Corinthians 7:9-10 Paul wrote, “Now I rejoice, not because you were made sad, but because you were made sad to the point of repentance. For you were made sad as God intended, so that you were not harmed in any way by us. For sadness as intended by God produces a repentance that leads to salvation, leaving no regret, but worldly sadness brings about death.” Those of us who’ve raised kids know what Paul is on about. A gritted-teeth apology from one sibling to another won’t cut it. How often did we have to demand an encore with the admonition, “…and this time say it like you mean it!” Worldly sadness is only skin-deep. What God requires of us is a spiritual sorrow over our sins that involves our whole being. We can fool each other but we can’t fool Him.
We’ll know if we’ve truly repented because the inner change it initiates will manifest itself in an improved attitude, behavior and frame of mind. Only God could make that happen. Graham wrote, “If we had to repent without God’s help we’d be almost helpless.” The Bible stresses that we’re dead in our sins and corpses can’t do anything to alter their lifelessness, much less repent. Frequently our repentance can only be proven real by making restitution. The 6th principle of Celebrate Recovery reads, “Evaluate all my relationships. Offer forgiveness to those who’ve hurt me and make amends for harm I’ve done to others, except when to do so would harm them or others.” Making it up to people is a key component of our salvation process. Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God” (Matthew 5:9). I know a person who actually stated, “I’ve completed all the 12 steps of AA, but I’m still working on steps 8 and 9.” Since both steps involve making amends to those she’s inflicted damage upon (something she hasn’t even attempted to do yet) it makes her claim of completion a lie and casts serious doubts on her sincerity. The Bible says if we’ve stolen anything from someone we must pay them back. If we’ve ruined their reputation through gossip or our being vindictive we must go out of our way to tell them we profoundly regret our actions. We know what we’ve done and we also know what needs to take place to put things right. If you ask Him, God will open doors to allow you to make your amends. Here’s an example from my own journey: When I was 18 I was frustrated about my virgin status so I took advantage of a willing girl of legal age to alleviate that situation. Having got what I wanted I left her apartment and never contacted her again. 43 years later I listed that sin in my moral inventory but figured there was no possibility I’d ever get an opportunity to say “I’m sorry for the way I used you.” Soon after, out of the blue and without my initiating anything, she contacted me via Facebook and I apologized profusely. Only God could’ve arranged that encounter. He will if you’re willing.
As in everything concerning one’s relationship with the Father in heaven, surrendering one’s will is crucial. Thus the essence of repentance is consenting to be changed. J. I. Packer wrote, “Self-assertion and stubbornness come naturally to everyone and W. H. Auden’s line, ‘We would rather be ruined than changed,’ is too true to be good. But willingness to be changed by Christ (which is not a natural state of mind, but a gift of grace) remains the fundamental element in all genuine Christian practice.” God insists we repent. If we don’t, hypocrisy will creep into our spiritual life and nurture doubt. We’ll start questioning the Holy Word’s validity. The exhilarating fire that blazed up when we first converted to Christianity will become a pile of smoldering coals. Our trust will get corrupted by skepticism and we’ll start bargaining with the indwelling Holy Spirit over what God wants from us and what we want for ourselves. Failing to repent puts us on a broad, traffic-free eight-lane highway that leads straight to our own destruction. That’s why repentance is so important in our walk with Christ. While we can’t “try” to be saved (or be an elephant), we can certainly “try” our best daily to be remorseful for our sins and ask God to forgive us and change our hearts. If we don’t repent our pride, our ego and our guilt will keep us chained to this world run by Satan, the fallen angel who seeks only to destroy us and all of God’s magnificent creation. Therefore repentance tops the list of things we have to do to comply with our Lord and Savior’s plan for our ongoing salvation.
Like so many things about becoming a follower of Christ, we make repentance harder than it has to be. It’s not something we should dread. Frederick Buechner wrote, “To repent is to come to your senses. It’s not so much something you do as something that happens. True repentance spends less time looking at the past and saying, ‘I’m sorry,’ than to the future and saying, ‘Wow!’” It’s merely honestly acknowledging what we are before God (sinners who constantly fall short of His glory), expressing genuine sorrow for our sins against Him and becoming entirely ready to let Him make sin look so repulsive we don’t want to go anywhere near it.