Elements of True Repentance

Craig N. Johnson
June 13th, 2007

This article originally appeared: http://cafebiblia.com/?p=54. Used by permission of the author.

Repentance is required for salvation, but it doesn't end when a person gets saved. That's only the beginning. A person who is saved continually repents. In fact, every Christian could be called a "repenter." He continually hates sin and loves God - he continually repents of his sin.

Misunderstandings about repentance
I think we often misunderstand repentance. What is meant when a person says, He fell into sin but he is now repentant?

Some may think a repentant person is "sorry for his sins." But, why is he sorry? Perhaps he is sorry that he has been found out. Perhaps he is sorry for the consequences that are not upon him.

Some may think a repentant person is determined to sin no more. But, why is he determined to sin no more? Perhaps he wants the good feeling of being a good person. Perhaps he wants to control himself. Perhaps he wants to impress others. Perhaps he merely wants to avoid certain problems in the future.

Some may think a repentant man is one who leaves his sin behind. But, what is actually left behind? Perhaps he left only the noticeable part of his sin behind, but he continues the same pattern in his heart/thoughts. Perhaps he left only the inconvenient part of his sin behind, but embraces sin in other forms.

We must watch out for false repentance in our own lives. We must cultivate a habit of repenting quickly and biblically. But what does it mean to repent biblically? To find out what true repentance is, let's consider Psalm 51. We'll see many elements of true repentance.

An introduction to Psalm 51
This is a psalm of King David. It is his prayer of repentance for his sin of adultery with Bathsheba and his murder of Uriah, Bathsheba's husband.

The Psalm's title says it is to the chief musician. This means it was written for public worship, not for private meditation.

The Psalm can be broken up into 5 main sections. These sections are agreed upon by most Bible teachers. Here they are:

  • A request for personal restoration (vv.1-2)
  • Confession and contrition (vv. 3-6)
  • A request for restoration (vv. 7-12)
  • A commitment to serve God (vv.13-17)
  • A request for national restoration (vv. 18-19)

As we work our way through this psalm looking for elements of true repentance, we'll keep this overall framework in mind.

A request for personal restoration (vv. 1-2)

This seems to me to be a kind of summary of his whole prayer of repentance. He says some things that will be repeated later in the Psalm. But, he introduces everything to God and essentially asks God to hear the rest of his prayer.

Psalm 51:1-2
1- Be gracious to me, O God, according to Your lovingkindness; According to the greatness of Your compassion blot out my transgressions.
2- Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity And cleanse me from my sin..

Element #1: Repentance is an appeal for God's mercy (v.1). Let's look at the first part of verse 1 again.

1- Be gracious to me, O God

David has a fierce, almost desperate clinging to God's mercy. Mercy is the sole basis of anyone's approach to God since all men are sinners.

When we repent we aren't asking for what we deserve. We are asking for what we do not deserve. We aren't asking for something that we expect God should give us. Though we recognize that as Christians our sin is atoned for once and for all, we still must recognize that once again we are asking for something we don't deserve - forgiveness! We can never get over the fact that we don't deserve to be forgiven.

I think we stop crying out for mercy because His mercy is so regular, so faithful. But, most definitely, truly asking God for mercy is an essential element of repentance.

Questions to determine if you have a heart of repentance:

  • Am I coming to God thinking I deserve to be pardoned?
  • Do I feel like God owes me forgiveness?
  • Do I think God has to forgive me?
  • Do I see that there is no hope unless God forgives me?
  • Do I realize that I can't "make it up to God?"

Element #2: Repentance is an appeal for mercy on the basis of God s character (v.1).

1- Be gracious to me, O God, according to Your lovingkindness; According to the greatness of Your compassion

We must remember God's character when we repent. In fact, there are many characteristics of God we must recall to our minds. His lovingkindness and compassion are two of them.

Lovingkindness. God's lovingkindness (hesed) is God's covenantal love. It is His faithfulness to fulfill His commitment to love His chosen ones. When we ask for mercy we must ask God to act according to His promise to love us His chosen ones.

Compassion. God's compassion is His sympathetic feelings of our infirmities. God is compassionate. He has feelings. When we sin, we are in a pitiable state. We are wretched and helpless. God sees us in our pitiable state and feels compassion for us. When we repent, we ask God to take action to forgive us because we realize that He knows our pitiable state, feels compassion for us, and loves us.

David prayed for God to act in accordance with His nature. A prayer of repentance, like any prayer, must be according to God's will. We must always pray for God to act according to His nature.

Questions to determine if you have a heart of repentance:

  • Am I asking God to forgive me only so that I can feel better? Do I think God should forgive me on the basis of my desires and feelings?
  • Am I asking God to forgive me so that His glorious character is manifested? So that His holy Name is honored? So that He is glorified?

Element #3: Repentance requires an understanding of the sinfulness of sin (vv. 1b-2).

1b- blot out my transgressions.
2- Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity And cleanse me from my sin.

David has a profound awareness of his sin and its true nature. He describes his sin with 3 words, and he uses these words all throughout the psalm. He knew his personal failure ( my sin, etc.). All of this is similar to Psalm 32. The same 3 words for sin are used.

Transgression. He calls it a transgression, which is a wandering outside of God's boundaries. David recognized that God has boundaries for him, and that he had willingly wandered outside of them. When we a repentant, we will be able to explain why what we did was wrong.

Iniquity. He calls it iniquity, which refers to a perversion. It is a bit stronger than the other two words in that it leaves a repulsive taste in the mouth. David viewed his sin as a contaminant. [The same word is used in verse 5 (sinful from birth)].

Sin. He calls it falling short or missing the mark. David recognizes that God has a standard that he has not kept.

Questions to determine if you have a heart of repentance:

  • Do I understand how grievous my sin is?
  • Do I know why what I did was wrong? How have a missed the mark? In what way have I wandered outside God's boundaries?
    Why is my sin so bad?

Element #4: Repentance longs for a thorough cleansing (vv. 1b-2).

1b- blot out my transgressions.
2- Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity And cleanse me from my sin.

When we repent we understand how dirty we are. We feel gross. It is as though we have been rolling around in mud. We have been lying in a mucky pond. We have been hugging a rotting animal carcass.

Blot out. Blot out (v.1) implies a comparison with human records that can be erased. When we sin, we have something on our record, and we must have it erased! We know what is in our file, and tt will be remembered unless it is blotted out.

Wash away. Wash away (v.2) is like washing clothes. This is a vigorous washing that involves pounding, stamping, and vigorous rubbing in order to loosen the dirt.

Cleanse. Cleanse (v.2) is drawn from liturgical ceremonial law in which one might be purified for temple participation. This is similar to the idea in verse 7 where he asks God to purge him with hyssop.

Questions to determine if you have a heart of repentance:

  • Do I feel like I am really dirty?
  • Do I feel like have been lying in slime?
  • Do I despise my sin?
  • Have I spent time seeing the ugliness of my sin?
  • Do I run to God to be cleansed? Or, do I like spending extra time holding on to a rotting animal carcass?

That's all for now.

We have only made it through the first two verses. I kind of want to take this slow as I consider my own heart before God. I encourage you to do the same.

This article originally appeared: http://cafebiblia.com/?p=54. Used by permission of the author.

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