"The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise" (Psalm 51:17).
There is perhaps no doctrine so essential yet so misunderstood as the doctrine of repentance. Jesus preached repentance (Matthew 4:17) and commanded His disciples (us) to do likewise (Luke 24:47), so we need to know what He meant. As sinners, repentance is an honest response to the gospel. So churches committed to an everyday gospel should be marked by everyday repentance (see the first of Luther’s 95 Theses).
Many have asked: What about our joy in God’s love and grace? Having been forgiven, must we talk so often of our sin? But having to choose between repentance and joy presents a false dichotomy; the two are really not opposed to one another.
Repentance is an obvious theme throughout both the Old and New Testaments, and really, the process of repentance is the same for the Church as it was for the nation of Israel: We sin, we see our sin, we admit our sin, we mourn our sin, we look to a sacrifice for pardon, and we respond in worship! To be sure, genuine repentance is completed by worship. But unfortunately, this element is all too often ignored, and we’re left with a dark, gloomy, emotionally taxing, and inherently negative pseudo-repentance.
Additionally, I believe the joy (yes, joy!) of repentance is revealed most clearly when we consider its most fundamental purpose. If the Lord dwells with the lowly in spirit (Isaiah 57:15), and he who dwells with the Lord finds forgiveness (Psalm 130:4), then the lowly in spirit will find forgiveness! And Psalm 130 tells us why this is: “that [God] may be feared.” We repent primarily that God might be glorified, and His glory is always good for us!
So if we agree that repentance is God-glorifying, we’re freed to repent joyfully and often. There’s a critical difference between hope-filled sorrow and worldly despair. The former leads to salvation, and the latter leads to death (2 Corinthians 7:10). But this won’t come easy. In fact, all the power of sinfulness within you is fighting against it. Fortunately for us, Jesus has overcome our sin. And all of His “kindness and forbearance and patience” are “meant to lead you to repentance” (Romans 2:4).
So ask God for a repenting heart. Only He can give it (Acts 11:18). Then plough your hardened heart through repentance that the seeds of our everyday gospel might bring forth a harvest of grace in our churches. In fact, repent publicly! The gospel bids surrender, and repentance is a manifestation of surrender; it’s a tangible expression of rest in Christ. So repenting before your community actually demonstrates the gospel, and neglecting this is a sinful form of modesty.
Thomas Watson said it well: “The more bitterness we taste in sin, the more sweetness we shall taste in Christ.” Life abundant is found in the death of sin as honey from the carcass of Samson’s lion. And we who set forth weeping shall come home with shouts of joy (Psalm 126:6)! Every penitent soul will experience the absolute comfort of standing before our righteous Judge as He speaks out on our behalf (Zechariah 3)! What greater joy could we experience?
In the age to come, we’ll exchange our mourning for dancing, our sackcloth for robes of gladness, and our silence for an anthem of praise (Psalm 30:11-12)! Our immortal glory on that day will testify eternally to the Lord’s steadfast love and grace for us. But today, we are sinners. And how precious is the blood of Christ to a sinner!