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Volume 14, Issue 2: Poimen

Crocodile Tears

Joost Nixon

When Peter concluded his sermon at Pentecost, the conscience-smitten Jews asked, "Brethren, what shall we do?" To which question Peter replied, "Repent . . . and be baptized" (Acts 2:38). But what is repentance? The question is a weighty one indeed. Hell is teeming with men who have answered it carelessly—according to their own fancy, and not the Word of God.

What is repentance? One answer identifies repentance with strong religious feelings, feelings of guilt and remorse, feelings of sorrow over sin. This guilt can come from a number of sources. Perhaps your slumbering conscience has been roused by some particularly wicked act you've committed. Or maybe some itinerant preacher, warning of judgment day, has conjured up the smell of brimstone (2 Thess. 1:7_8). Whatever the source of religious feelings, they cannot be equated with repentance, and some of them, in fact, have only a baneful and hardening effect. One pastor wrote over 150 years ago:
Many ardent professors seem too readily to take it for granted that all religious feelings must be good. They therefore take no care to discriminate between the genuine and the spurious, the pure gold and the tinsel. Their only concern is about the ardour of their feelings; not considering that if they are spurious, the more intense they are, the further will they lead them astray. In our day there is nothing more necessary than to distinguish carefully between true and false experiences in religion.
Satan has filled the earth with his counterfeits, thus all religious feelings are not good, and even the best cannot save in and of themselves. The Apostle Paul tells us, "the sorrow that is according to the will of God produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation; but the sorrow of the world produces death" (2 Cor. 7:10). There is a good sorrow, a sorrow that leads to (but is not equated with) repentance and life. There is also the sorrow of the world, an ungodly sorrow that brings death. Worldly sorrow is sorrow at being caught, sorrow at feeling bad, sorrow about the consequences of sin, sorrow about anything and everything except the offensiveness of sin to a loving and holy God.
Miss Smith calls in for "religious counseling." She is quite forthcoming in explaining that she is laboring under a crushing load of guilt from a recent abortion, and she seeks a remedy. Of course, you are happy to tell her that Christ, and Christ alone, can throw off such a burden. But when she understands that He requires her to "go and sin no more"—that her steamy one-night stands are over—she balks. "You can take away the guilt, God, but don't You dare infringe on my sex life." There is a sorrow that produces death.
Others wrongly identify repentance with various religious acts. Repentance, they think, is responding to an altar call, praying "the prayer," signing a card, or getting baptized. Repentance is walking to Dubuque on one's knees or flogging oneself with celery greens. But God has words for those who reason so foolishly. He declares all our whitest deeds to be nasty and putrescent—they are to Him like menstrual rags (Isa. 64:6, Hebrew text). And if this is His opinion of our righteous deeds, how much more vile our unrighteous ones? Salvation, the Bible declares, is "not a result of works" (Eph. 2:9) and "by the deeds of the law shall no flesh be justified" (Gal. 2: 16; cf. Rom. 3:28). So our only conclusion can be that nothing we do saves us—not repeating the sinner's prayer, not selling our possessions and giving to the poor, not getting on the wagon, not anything. It's all filthy rags. Only God saves. Only God.
Repentance is not a feeling, though it is often preceded by feelings. Repentance is not a work of the flesh, though Christians will work at repentance until the day they see God. So what is it? Repentance, simply put, is turning from sin and to Christ. It is a change of mind that leads to a corresponding change in action. It is giving up rule of yourself, and willfully submitting to God's rule. But if repentance is "turning" and "changing" and "giving up" and "submitting," aren't these all works? On the surface it appears we may have been chasing our tail. But only on the surface. From a human perspective, all one need to do to repent is to stop pursuing sin, turn around, and start pursuing God. But because of the debilitating effects of sin, the very act of turning from it is not possible. Man is "dead in his trangressions and sins" (Eph. 2:1), and dead men can't do much. Certainly they cannot repent. Hence, the only reason anyone is ever saved is that the God of mercy intervenes and bestows repentance as a gift.
"And the Lord's bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth." (2 Tim. 2:24_25).
In closing, it should be noted that repentance has a Siamese twin sister whose name is Faith (Eph. 2:8_9, with 2:10; Mark 1:15, etc). Faith and repentance cannot be viably separated without killing both. Faith without repentance is dead faith (James 2:17). And repentance without faith is dead works (Heb. 6:1).

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