Practical repentance – steps we need to take
In practical terms, you need to take real steps to do things differently and to change your lifestyle and behaviour. If you have any occult or pornographic books or DVDs then burn them. If you are engaged in sexual activity with your boyfriend or girlfriend or with someone else’s husband or wife, then stop immediately. If you are living together with someone you are not married to, then move out. Or ask them to do so, if it is your house.
NB. It would not be a good idea to solve such a problem by getting married to a non-Christian person you may be living with. It may mean you would no longer be having sex outside of marriage, but it would also mean that you would be marrying an unbeliever. We must never do that as it is a recipe for disaster:
Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?
2 Corinthians 6:14 (NIV)
If however you are already married to an unbeliever then apostle Paul says you should stay with them (if they will let you do so) and seek to share the good news of Jesus with them too:
12To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord): If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. 13And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him. 14For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. 15But if the unbeliever leaves, let him do so. A believing man or woman is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace.
1 Corinthians 7:12-15 (NIV)
If you have been stealing then you need to stop and you need to return the goods that you have stolen, or pay for them. If you have been gossiping then you need to stop and put right the damage that you have caused, by telling the truth where you have falsely slandered people. Your sins might also mean that you need to go and personally apologise to some of the people that you have wronged.
This will not always be possible, because you will have wronged so many people in your life that you cannot possibly find them all and speak to each one. It would take years, so don't apologise to everyone. Plus, don't go and apologise to someone if it will only cause them pain and stir up more trouble or bitterness, for example, if something is firmly in the past. Ask God to help you to know which people need you to go to them and which don't.
For a very practical example of what real repentance is like, look at Zaccheus, the corrupt tax collector, whom Jesus met in Jericho. Jesus had dinner at his home and he was so convicted that he made a dramatic and decisive repentance and he showed it by his actions:
1He entered Jericho and was passing through. 2And there was a man called by the name of Zaccheus; he was a chief tax collector and he was rich. 3Zaccheus was trying to see who Jesus was, and was unable because of the crowd, for he was small in stature. 4So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree in order to see Him, for He was about to pass through that way. 5When Jesus came to the place, He looked up and said to him, "Zaccheus, hurry and come down, for today I must stay at your house." 6And he hurried and came down and received Him gladly.
7When they saw it, they all began to grumble, saying, "He has gone to be the guest of a man who is a sinner." 8Zaccheus stopped and said to the Lord, "Behold, Lord, half of my possessions I will give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will give back four times as much." 9And Jesus said to him, "Today salvation has come to this house, because he, too, is a son of Abraham.Luke 19:1-9 (NASB)
Make sure you really mean it
God knows those people who are genuine and those who don’t really mean it. He knows whether you have made a real commitment to turn away from sin and to change your life, or whether you are just play-acting. If you were to tell me that you had repented, I would not know whether you really had or not. I have no way of knowing for certain what is really going on in your heart.
However God knows, and what’s more, you know. You do not know if anyone else is genuine, but you do know whether you are genuine when you say something. If you are not genuine, then do not pretend to repent. Only repent if you mean it sincerely. Otherwise, you are just mocking God and it will not be effective anyway, because God knows where you really stand:
"And you, my son Solomon, acknowledge the God of your father, and serve him with wholehearted devotion and with a willing mind, for the LORD searches every heart and understands every motive behind the thoughts. If you seek him, he will be found by you; but if you forsake him, he will reject you forever.
1 Chronicles 28:9 (NIV)
Repentance does not need to be done in any fancy way or with any particular formula or elaborate form of words. It does however need to be sincere. Only you can know whether you are. If you aren’t, then ask God to help you to see the full gravity and dreadfulness of your sin. Remember, God is watching and testing you to see whether you are genuine and whether your repentance is truly heartfelt:
"This is the one I esteem: he who is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word. Isaiah 66:2 (NIV)
Repentance is probably the most neglected aspect of Christianity, at least in the Western world and in modern times. In previous centuries when the gospel was preached, sin, judgment and repentance were spoken about openly. Now, they are glossed over, if they are even mentioned at all. It is partly because they are so under-emphasised, even ignored, in the modern church that I have tried to emphasise them so strongly within this book. In part I am trying to redress the balance.
Moreover, it is clearly right that repentance should be emphasised as being the foundation for salvation. That is precisely what God does in the New Testament. If you look at Matthew’s Gospel you will see that before Jesus began His public ministry, John the Baptist was sent on ahead of Him to prepare the way for the coming of the Messiah. John the Baptist was, in effect, the last of the Old Testament prophets. In a sense, he was the greatest of them all. He was sent by God to go ahead of Jesus Christ and to prepare the people for Him.
John the Baptist therefore had a ministry that went on for some years. He spent most of His time out in the open countryside, not in grand buildings. Probably more than a million people went to hear him in the open air and to baptise themselves in rivers like the Jordan to demonstrate their repentance. It is no coincidence that the very first recorded word spoken in public by John the Baptist was “repent”:
1In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the Desert of Judea 2and saying, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near." Matthew 3:1-2 (NIV)
The ministry of John the Baptist was focused very strongly upon repentance. He spoke of it with great urgency and emphasis. He did so because God wanted to ensure that genuine repentance was in place as a solid foundation before Jesus Christ began His public teaching ministry and before people were invited to follow and believe in Him. In other words, Jesus’ ministry was built upon the foundation that John the Baptist built, namely repentance.
If that does not persuade you to emphasise repentance and to put it first, take a look at the first words that Jesus Himself spoke publicly in His own ministry. He too began it with the word “repent”, just like John the Baptist did:
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”. Matthew 4:17 (NIV)
Jesus deliberately chose to ensure that the word ‘repent’ was also the first word He uttered publicly in His own ministry. As with John the Baptist, it was no accident. It reaffirmed the emphasis that God places on repentance as the foundation for everything else in the Christian life.
Three and a half years later it is, again, no coincidence that the apostle Peter used similar words when addressing the crowds at the very beginning of his ministry:
Peter replied, "Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Acts 2:38 (NIV)
Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord, Acts 3:19(NIV)