The Starting Point for Change

By John MacArthur   •   April 30, 2008

What is repentance? The Greek word, metanoia, has to do with changing your mind. But authentic repentance is much more than merely changing your opinion. It is a complete spiritual about-face. If real, it will always result in a change of behavior, too.

Jesus’ parable in Matthew 21:28-30 is a classic illustration. “A certain man had two sons; and he came to the first, and said, Son, go work to day in my vineyard. He answered and said, I will not: but afterward he repented, and went. And he came to the second, and said likewise. And he answered and said, I go, sir: and went not” (KJV).

The response of the first son explains the meaning of repentance. He said, “I will not,” but he did. That’s repenting. He said one thing but changed his whole attitude and purpose and went the opposite way. Repentance is a complete change of heart and direction, not merely a new idea about something.

Peter preached repentance to the Israelites who gathered after he and the Apostle John had healed a lame man at the Temple gate in Jerusalem. Peter indicts the Israelites for ignoring the prophecies about Jesus, for labeling Him a blasphemer and crucifying the very One who was sent to rescue them from their sins. But then Peter offered a solution, “Repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out” (Acts 3:19).

The nation of Israel had decided that God’s will for them was a self-generated righteousness. The Pharisees manipulated and maintained a system of legalism, or works, for righteousness. They made sure it maintained its hold over the people. If a Jew kept the 365 negative commands and the 248 positive commands of the Law of Moses, he was safe and righteous. They thought that was what God wanted, and they rejected Jesus because of it.

Peter said to them, “You blew it on every count. Jesus is the very opposite of what you concluded Him to be. Therefore, reverse your decision and change–turn all the way around.” That’s repentance. That’s the message we preach today. Whatever you think you’re doing to please God–if it isn’t based only on faith in Jesus Christ–stop doing it and turn around.

God has ways to prod us into repentance. Here are five that I have found.

First, He uses knowledge. God has given us His Word, the Bible, so that people might repent. Through the Bible, He tells us that we ought to turn from a self-righteous attitude toward total faith in God through Jesus Christ plus nothing else.

Second, God has given us sorrow for sin. Have you ever done something wrong and then felt bad? That’s a good thing, because guilt is God’s way of enabling us to feel the evil of our own sin. He has built within us a conscience that responds to sin and rebukes us internally when we sin, so that we usually know immediately when we have done wrong.

It is important, though, that we let sorrow over sin move us to repentance and change (2 Corinthians 7:9). There are a lot of people who are sorry for sin but who are not saved because they do not turn from sin.

Goodness is God’s third method to call us to repentance. As Jesus said, “He … sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45). God showers His goodness on people through the joys of life, such as love and the beauty of nature. In Romans 2, the Apostle Paul says that Israel had every blessing and promise of God, and yet they treaded on His goodness.

Paul says, “Or do you despise the riches of His goodness, forbearance, and longsuffering, not knowing that the goodness of God leads you to repentance?” (Romans 2:4). God’s goodness is for the purpose of bringing us to turn around and change our minds about Him and about Jesus.

If knowledge, sorrow for sin and God’s goodness fail to bring us to repentance, God has a fourth tool. He disciplines us. Revelation 3:19 says, “As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten. Therefore be zealous and repent.” Do you know why God rebukes and chastens us? He sometimes puts us through crises to bring us to change. That happened in my life.

As a young man, I never would have denied a belief in God, and yet in my heart I was rebelling against what I knew He wanted in my life. God had tried knowledge, sorrow for sin and then goodness. Finally, He got to chastisement, and it worked.

After being thrown at 75 mph from a car as it flipped and rolled, and then sliding on my backside approximately 100 yards down the highway–scraping off some 64 square inches of my back a half-inch deep–I knew God was dealing with me. My body was covered with abrasions and bruises. No one else in the car was injured, and I was able to get up and walk to the side of the road. It was a miracle that I was alive. Standing there immediately after the accident, I thought, “I know why this happened. I have been trying to ignore God’s calling, and He is making sure that He has my attention.” Right then I said, “From now on, I’ll do whatever You want me to do.” That was the change in my life. That’s when I really turned around.

A fifth way that God brings us to repentance is by warning us of judgment to come. Acts 17:30-31 says, “These times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent, because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world.” The message of judgment is all over Scripture, and it must be preached because God designed judgment to lead us to repentance.

God placed guilt within the Israelite’s hearts and chastised them with wars, famine and exile. He displayed His goodness to them by bringing them back to their homeland after the chastening. And He preached judgment to them through the prophets. God had tried to prod Israel with knowledge through the Old Testament and then He sent Jesus to perform miracles in their faces. Jesus preached judgment to Israel in Matthew 21, but they didn’t repent.

In Acts 3:19, after the word repent, is the Greek word epistrepho, which means “to turn back” or “to be converted.” In the New Testament it is used for a sinner who turns back to God, but notice it is passive: “Be converted.” You can’t convert yourself. That’s an act of God. You turn around from sin and exercise faith in Jesus Christ; God changes you into His child. Both repentance and faith in Christ make up conversion.

So Peter made a simple appeal, “Turn around. Turn from your sin; turn to God, and He will change you.” Be converted–completely reborn. But Peter doesn’t just end at the word converted. He said that if you change your mind about Jesus and turn around toward God, your sins will be blotted out. Oh, what a promise!

The animal sacrifices in the old Levitical system could not blot out sin; they were only symbolic. Until Jesus Christ came and made one full final atonement for sins forever, the sin remained. God covered the guilt for those who believed in Him and who offered the temple sacrifices that expressed their faith in a coming Messiah, but the sins remained.

Only when the Messiah came could sin be wiped clean. God said in Isaiah 43:25, “I, even I, am He who blots out your transgressions for My own sake; And I will not remember your sins.”

Colossians 2:13-14 says, “And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses, having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.” In Paul’s mind, God kept a handwritten record of every time an individual broke one of His ordinances. The implication of the term comes from the word handwriting.

It was common in those days that a person listed his debts and then signed at the bottom saying in effect, “I agree these are my debts.” That’s how it is with us. God owes us the full wages of sin and we’ve signed at the bottom. It’s a self-confessed indictment. What is the wage we deserve? Death. But if we look to Christ in faith as our Savior, we don’t have to die because Jesus died in our place (Romans 6:23). God took all of our sin and put it all on Christ, and then notice how God blotted it out: “Nailing it to the cross.”

When Jesus died, God wiped clean the list of every person who had ever believed His promise of salvation, even though Christ had not yet come when the sins were committed (Romans 3:25-26, Hebrews 11:13, 39). He now forgives all the sins of everyone who looks back in history and trusts what Christ has done to redeem sinners.

You say, “Well, I’m still sinning.” That doesn’t reverse God’s forgiveness. All of our sins were in the future when Jesus died. Every one of them was already there, and He erased them all. You ask, “Do the sins that I commit now go on the list?” No. First John 1:7 says, “If we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin.” God never looks at the slate of a believer and sees sin, because He sees us in the righteousness of Jesus Christ.

The wages of sin were already paid. That’s why Paul says in Romans 6:14, “Sin shall not have dominion over you.” Sin could only require death from you, and if you have already died in Christ, sin has no claim on you. Romans 8:1 says, “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus.” The day that you put your faith in Jesus Christ, turned around from your self-righteousness and turned toward Jesus Christ by faith, God took out His eraser and wiped your debt clean forever.

Shall we sin that grace may abound? God forbid. It’s not a license to go out and say, “It’s all forgiven. Let’s live it up!” If you do that, I doubt you understand this kind of forgiveness. If you are forgiven, the love and gratitude in your heart will prevent you from living like that. When we come to Him through faith in Jesus, God wipes the sins away forever–even the sin of rejecting Jesus and standing with the crucifiers.

We remember our sin, but isn’t it glorious to be free from its bondage?

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