A good coach is one who goes back to the fundamentals. In any sport (basketball, for example), the trainer brings the players, as experienced as they are, back to the basics of passing, boxing out, defensive positioning, etc. Likewise, a good teacher never allows his or her pupils to stop practicing and executing the fundamentals. One of the foundational parts of the Christian life that we may never neglect to teach and regularly practice is real repentance.
Everywhere in the Bible we find the calling to repent. Throughout the Old Testament, the Spirit reveals to us fallen mankind the necessity of repentance. In the Garden of Eden, in the time of the Flood, through the wilderness wanderings, under the judges and then the kings of Israel, before and after the Assyrian and Babylonian captivities, sinners of all kinds were called to repent. All through the time of the prophets, the command came repeatedly: “Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the Lord, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon” (Is. 55:7). “Return, ye backsliding children, and I will heal your backslidings” (Jer. 3:33). “Oh Israel, return unto the Lord thy God; for thou hast fallen by thine iniquity” (Hosea 14:1).
Transitioning into the New Testament, we see the last of the Old Testament prophets, John the Baptist, with his main message: “Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 3:2). At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, we hear Him set the tone of His preaching: “The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel” (Mark 1:16). Commissioning His disciples at His ascension, He called them to preach the same message: “And that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among the nations, beginning at Jerusalem” (Luke 24:47). These apostles did not disobey, as Luke records in Acts 2:38, “Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.”
Young people, this is the need of the hour! It is what the world needs, it is what churches around us need, and it is what the members of the Protestant Reformed Churches need. “[God] commandeth all men everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30). Not only seasoned adults but also young people must heed this command seriously, and continually.
Here is the urgency: “I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3). You might do well in catechism, go to church twice, have the approval of others, and get good grades, but those who do not repent will perish.
Although repentance be not to be rested in, as any satisfaction for sin, or any cause of the pardon thereof, which is the act of God’s free grace in Christ; yet it is of such necessity to all sinners, that none may expect pardon without it (Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 15, Art. 3).
Defined simply, repentance is a drastic change of mind about my sin and about my God. The Greek word for repentance literally means “change of mind.” It is not a mere change of the brain’s thinking, nor a change of mood, but it is a radical change of the heart’s mind. Repentance is a 180-degree turn from liking lust to hating lust. It is turning from the enjoyment of worldly entertainment to being repulsed by it. In real repentance, the heart drastically turns from imagining a God that winks at my sins of gossip, cheating, self-righteousness, and laziness and comes to the shocking realization that the Holy God hates my sin—and with even more intense disgust when I minimize sin’s greatness.
Real repentance fills the heart with sorrow. The Hebrew word for repentance means “to be grieved.” Scripture describes it as the breaking, tearing, or piercing of the heart in sadness for my sin. Repentance is not saying sorry; it is being sorry. It is not change of behavior (though that will be the result); it is change of heart. It is not a crying of the eyes necessarily, but the mourning of the soul. It is not sorrow for some sin or most sin, but all my sin. It is not a sad demeanor only in front of people but in real private prayer before God. The heart of true repentance sorrows not merely over the grounding I got, the dirtying of my reputation, the sinful reaction of others against me, or any other consequence. True repentance feels more hurt for my sin against God and others than for others’ sins against me. True repentance does not wait until later (after tomorrow’s last hurrah), but now beats upon his chest crying, “God be merciful to me a sinner” (Luke 18:13).
The humblest person needs to stop defending himself self-righteously. The defense lawyer inside of us (a.k.a. the old man) constantly seeks to blame others, deflect accusations, minimize sin, point out how others are worse, and refuse repentance. Television, Internet, and many counselors (even the Christian kind) constantly lie, saying, “Man’s greatest problem is not enough positive thinking about himself.” There is a remnant of truth in that lie, as there always is. But God’s Word shows everywhere that, contrary to this, man’s greatest problem is, in fact, not enough negative thinking about his sin. “And there shall ye remember your ways, and all your doings, wherein ye have been defiled; and ye shall loathe yourselves in your own sight for all your evils that ye have committed” (Ezek. 20:43).
No repentance proves no living faith. You say that you have faith? Then you will repent. This is not just a warning, but an aid unto genuine repentance. You will repent if you truly believe in Christ and Him crucified. For why did thorns pierce His skull? Why did whips shred His back? Why did hands and spittle smite His face? Why did nails pierce His hands and feet? Why did scorn and denial cut His heart? Why did hellfire fill His soul? This is the answer of faith: “My sin! My beloved Lord would not have had to suffer such agony if it were not for my sin!” True believers must repent at the foot of the cross. “They shall look upon me whom they have pierced, and they shall mourn for him, as one mourneth for his only son, and shall be in bitterness for him, as one that is in bitterness for his firstborn” (Zech. 12:10b). Living faith will result in a life of repentance.
Only in the way of heart repentance is there true comfort, joy, and change! For the Christ you have distressed by your sin makes you righteous before God and then also holy by His Spirit. Dear young believer, you must practice the fundamental of real repentance.