It’s fair to say that repentance and confession aren’t popular topics at present, either in the broader culture or in the church. To contemporary ears, the words can convey feelings of guilt, judgment and condemnation. Who wants to think about things like that?

Even so, the themes of confession and repentance run throughout the Scriptures and are integral to the message of the Gospel. Faithful followers of Jesus cannot in good conscience downplay or ignore them.

It may be necessary, however, to refocus our view of these often misunderstood and neglected subjects by looking through the lens of Scripture. In doing so, we may be pleasantly surprised to find our motivations fuelled more by God’s kindness and compassion than by his judgment.

Moses: “The Lord, compassionate and gracious”

Reading through the Old Testament, with its accounts of plagues, wars, famines and other acts of judgment, it might be tempting to think of God as a harsh taskmaster. Yet when the Lord physically appeared to Moses on Mount Sinai to display his glory, he did so with these words of self-revelation:

The Lord – the Lord is a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger and abounding in faithful love and truth, maintaining faithful love to a thousand generations, forgiving iniquity, rebellion, and sin. But he will not leave the guilty unpunished, bringing the consequences of the fathers’ iniquity on the children and grandchildren to the third and fourth generation.
(Exodus 34:6-7)

With this statement, God disclosed the essential qualities of his character: compassion, grace, patience, faithful love and truth. Variations of this phrase are scattered throughout the Old Testament, a constant reminder to God’s people that this is who he is. His justice demands that he judge and punish evil, but he takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, rather that they turn from their ways and live, because he delights in showing mercy. Although it breaks his heart when his people sin, he continually calls them to repent, confess and receive his forgiveness.

This process of repentance and confession for the purpose of reconciliation with God formed the core of the Levitical sacrificial system and lay at the heart of the prophetic oracles. Repenting and confessing sin was to be individual as well as corporate, personal as well as national, reflected in the range of sacrifices and variety of prayers offered by the people of Israel.

God, however, was not interested in empty sacrifices or superficial displays of emotion. What he was after was the heart of his people, turning from their sin in genuine sorrow out of love for him.

David: “You are the man”

The Scriptures describe King David as a man after God’s own heart. He loved and trusted the Lord, sought always to obey him, and wrote the bulk of the Psalms as expressions of praise and worship to God.

None of this was to suggest David was sinless. In the darkest chapter of his life, he slept with Bathsheba, a woman in no position to resist his advances, got her pregnant and then had her husband, Uriah, murdered in a desperate attempt to cover up his sin.

In response, God sent the prophet Nathan to David, who told the king a parable:

There were two men in a certain city, one rich and the other poor. The rich man had very large flocks and herds, but the poor man had nothing except one small ewe lamb that he had bought. He raised her, and she grew up with him and with his children. From his meager food she would eat, from his cup she would drink, and in his arms she would sleep. She was like a daughter to him. Now a traveler came to the rich man, but the rich man could not bring himself to take one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare for the traveler who had come to him. Instead, he took the poor man’s lamb and prepared it for his guest. (2 Samuel 12:1-4)

David, infuriated, told Nathan that the rich man deserved to die, to which the prophet responded, “You are the man.”

The heartbreaking tale of the poor man and his little lamb is enough to move anyone to tears. For David, who had been a shepherd in his youth, it was especially so. Struck to the core, he confessed that he had sinned against the Lord. Nathan assured David that the Lord had forgiven him, but that there would be consequences to his actions.

Considering the severity of David’s crimes, God’s approach for leading him to repentance was remarkably sensitive. David wrote Psalm 51 in response, a heartfelt prayer of repentance in which he confessed to God, “Against you – you alone – I have sinned and done this evil in your sight” (Psalms 51:4).

It’s obvious that David had sinned terribly against Bathsheba and Uriah, and justice needs to be upheld when others are hurt by our actions, but it is important to realize that all sin is primarily and ultimately against God. It’s the heart of genuine repentance to recognize this. God's heart breaks when we hurt others, so our sin against them is a sin against their Maker.

In the face of his failures, David always kept his eye of faith on God’s tender mercies and unfailing love. Because of this, he was able to pour out his heart to the Lord in many of his psalms, honestly confessing the height and depth of his guilt, knowing that God would not reject a broken and humbled heart.

Isaiah: “Comfort, comfort my people”

“Comfort, comfort my people,” says your God. “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and announce to her that her time of hard service is over, her iniquity has been pardoned, and she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.” (Isaiah 40:1-2)

Thus begins the second half of the book of the prophet Isaiah. Together with the Psalms, these chapters contain some of the most sustained and encouraging calls to repentance in all of Scripture. Over and over, the Lord promises to receive those who turn to him for forgiveness, a universal appeal to people of all nations:

I have swept away your transgressions like a cloud, and your sins like a mist. Return to me, for I have redeemed you. (Isaiah 44:22)

Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth. For I am God, and there is no other.
(Isaiah 45:22)

To drive home the trustworthiness of these promises, the prophet draws repeated attention to God’s wisdom, compassion and sovereign power as Creator of the universe. In truth, God is as far beyond us as his vast cosmos is beyond our world:

Let the wicked one abandon his way and the sinful one his thoughts; let him return to the Lord, so he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will freely forgive. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, and your ways are not my ways.” This is the Lord’s declaration. “For as heaven is higher than earth, so my ways are higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:7-9)

Throughout these chapters, God’s promises of forgiveness and redemption sit squarely on the shoulders of the coming Messiah, whom Isaiah describes as the suffering servant. Written seven centuries before the birth of Jesus, Isaiah 53 describes the Lord’s suffering and death for the sins of his people, laying out the truth of the Gospel in great detail that anticipates the New Testament.

Jesus: “Repent and believe the good news”

Of the four Gospel writers, Mark is the briefest and quickest to the point. With minimal preamble about John the Baptist, Mark immediately jumps to the start of Jesus’ ministry:

After John was arrested, Jesus went to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”
(Mark 1:14-15)

Here was not only a beginning, but also an encapsulation of Jesus’ mission: to proclaim that God’s kingdom was at hand and to call people to repent and believe God’s good news. The rest of Jesus’ time on Earth – his life, teaching, miracles, death and resurrection – embodied and fulfilled this good news.

Compared with Mark, Luke’s writing, both in his Gospel and in the book of Acts, is rich in detail and nuance. Luke is especially sensitive to the way Jesus related to outsiders, foreigners and women. He also writes about repentance far more than any other biblical author; his two books contain nearly half of all references to it in the New Testament – almost all of them on the lips of Jesus.

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus described himself as a gentle physician of souls who had come not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. At the same time, he warned his listeners that unless they repent, they will perish.

Although Jesus taught that repentance is primarily toward God, he also stressed its role in human relationships. “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him,” he instructed his followers. “And if he sins against you seven times in a day, and comes back to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him” (Luke 17:3-4).

To demonstrate God’s heart toward repentant sinners, Jesus told a series of three parables, recorded in Luke 15. The first two of these, about the lost sheep and the lost coin, illustrate God’s intense joy over every sinner who repents. Jesus then raised this joy to incandescent levels in his parable of the Prodigal Son. When the returning son was still far off, his father, filled with compassion, ran to him, embraced and kissed him. Before the boy could finish his rehearsed prayer of confession, his father cleaned him up and threw a massive party to celebrate his return.

Throughout the Gospels, the portrayal of Jesus is in perfect harmony with the portrayal of God in the Old Testament: compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in faithful love and truth. As Jesus assured his disciples, “The one who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). He welcomed those whom society considered the worst sinners – the woman caught in adultery, the Samaritan woman at the well, Zacchaeus the chief tax collector – with kindness and respect. In each case, he drew them to repentance, confession and restoration with the utmost sensitivity to their particular situation.

The Lord’s final teaching on repentance, addressing his disciples after his resurrection and shortly before his ascension, is recorded – appropriately – by Luke:

He told them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you – that everything written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures. He also said to them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead the third day, and repentance for forgiveness of sins will be proclaimed in his name to all the nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. (Luke 24:44-48)

Paul: “The kindness of God leads to repentance”

In the book of Acts, Luke picks up the theme of repentance right where he left off in his Gospel. From Pentecost onward, the apostles and other early disciples followed Jesus’ instruction, testifying to his resurrection and proclaiming repentance and forgiveness of sins in his name. Like their Lord, they tailored their approach with sensitivity to their hearers’ circumstances, whether among Jews, Samaritans or Greeks, whether addressing large public crowds, private households or lone individuals. However, the core of their message remained the same, and it turned the world upside down.

Writing to encourage believers in the Early Church, Paul and the other New Testament authors continued to stress the vital role of repentance and confession for a healthy relationship with God and with one another:

I now rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because your grief led to repentance. For you were grieved as God willed, so that you didn’t experience any loss from us. For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, but worldly grief produces death. (2 Corinthians 7:9-10)

Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is very powerful in its effect. (James 5:16)

If we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say, “We have no sin,” we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say, “We have not sinned,” we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. (1 John 1:7-10)

The Lord does not delay his promise, as some understand delay, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish but all to come to repentance. (2 Peter 3:9)

God delights to show mercy and faithful love. It’s because he is kind and compassionate that he sent his Son to reconcile us to himself through his death and resurrection, to heal our relationship with him and with each other. As Paul elaborates, since we’ve been reconciled to God, his kindness and compassion should be evident in our relationships with our brothers and sisters in the Lord:

Brothers and sisters, if someone is overtaken in any wrongdoing, you who are spiritual, restore such a person with a gentle spirit, watching out for yourselves so that you also won’t be tempted. Carry one another’s burdens; in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. (Galatians 6:1-2)

And be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving one another, just as God also forgave you in Christ. (Ephesians 4:32)

Therefore, as God’s chosen ones, holy and dearly loved, put on compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another if anyone has a grievance against another. Just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you are also to forgive. (Colossians 3:12-13)

What is the ultimate motivation that fuels our repentance? Paul gives the answer with a rhetorical question to the self-righteous:

Or do you despise the riches of his kindness, restraint, and patience, not recognizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance? (Romans 2:4)

No one is truly led to love God through shame and condemnation. Conversion may be accompanied by feelings of conviction, guilt and fear, but in the end it’s the kindness of God, expressed through his Son, that melts our hearts and draws us to adore him in wonder, obedience and worship.

Jesus reserved his harshest words for the hypocritical and self-righteous religious authorities of his day. But to sinners of every stripe who knew their own brokenness, he offered welcome, compassion and respect, inviting them to turn from their sin and join him in a life of everlasting joy. This is the message that changed the world and will continue to do so until the day of Christ’s return.

Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.

© 2024 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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