John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. (Mark 1:4, NASB)
Have you ever heard a preacher on television or on the radio say something like this?
“If you want to be saved, repeat after me: I repent of all my sins. I accept Jesus as my personal Savior. That’s it! You are now saved!”
Of course, it is true that through repentance our sins can be forgiven. The prayer above can certainly be effectual if the words come from a place of honesty in the person’s heart. But sometimes, when we see an appeal like this on television, the preacher seems to be inferring that just repeating their words somehow saves us.
Is that true? Does the Bible teach that we can obtain salvation just by saying certain words?
The Word of God teaches that our belief and repentance must be deeper than that. Here, we will focus on repentance. Sin is a heart disease, and repentance requires a heart change. If in our hearts we are truly sorry for our sin, and confess it to God, then we obtain forgiveness (1 John 1:9). However, we cannot expect that a mere recitation of the words “I repent”, or any words for that matter, will in any way take the place of actual repentance.
This point might seem so obvious that it doesn’t merit mention. But is it really? Aren’t there people who even today believe that reciting specific words gains them some kind of favor with God? Throughout history many have fallen to this deception. In Jeremiah 7:9-10, we see that the Israelites were breaking God’s commandments – committing adultery, stealing, worshipping idols, even committing murder – and then entering the temple called by the name of God, thinking they had forgiveness, and a license “to do all these abominations…” They truly thought that because they were in the temple, they were automatically right with God; like they could recite some magic words and gain salvation.
So, it’s not so inconceivable that people might feel that the truths of the Word of God could be used in much the same way as a magic spell to make them right with God. It’s one thing to say the words. It’s another thing to mean them.
In Luke 18:9-14, Jesus tells a parable of a Pharisee and a tax collector who both enter the temple to pray. The Pharisee stood up and loudly prayed, thanking God that He was not like the tax collector, bragging to God about how good he was. The tax collector, though, simply threw himself upon the mercy of God, recognizing his utter helplessness. Between the Pharisee and the tax collector, Jesus said the tax collector was justified and not the Pharisee. (One translation says that the tax collector had been “declared righteous”.)
What did the tax collector do? Did he just casually ask for mercy? The Word says that he was beating his chest. This is what the Hebrews did when they were experiencing serious grief and mourning. Check out Jeremiah 31:19:
“After I strayed,
after I came to understand,
I beat my breast.
I was ashamed and humiliated
because I bore the disgrace of my youth.”
Beating your breast meant profound mourning, shame and humiliation. It signified a grief too deep for words. It was more than a casual request for mercy. He begged for mercy. He was desperate. He knew he was an abject sinner.
What did the tax collector do that the Pharisee did not? He begged for mercy (the Pharisee didn’t even ask); acknowledged his lowliness (the Pharisee was high on himself); and humbled himself before God. That Pharisee was being trite; the tax collector meant what he said with all his heart. Jesus summed it up by saying, “Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled, but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”
Now let’s take a look at the words of Solomon regarding what true repentance looks like:
“… if they take thought in the land where they have been taken captive, and repent and make supplication to You … saying, ‘We have sinned and have committed iniquity, we have acted wickedly’; if they return to You with all their heart and with all their soul … and pray to You … then hear their prayer and their supplication in heaven Your dwelling place … and forgive Your people who have sinned against You and all their transgressions which they have transgressed against You…” (1 Kings 8:47-50)
We can fool a lot of people, but we can’t fool God. His eyes see the darkest corners of our hearts, and he is aware of every motive within us even when we ourselves are not. If we are trite and unrepentant, there’s no guarantee God will even hear us (Psalm 66:18; 2 Chronicles 7:14).
Solomon was aware that when we as sinners go to God, we must do so with all our hearts and souls. Remember, repentance is about our relationship with God, and how we are seen in His eyes is what counts, not anyone else’s. If we’re just mouthing words, but not meaning them in our hearts, who do we think we’re kidding?
Heavenly Father, today let us experience true repentance not only for any unconfessed sins, but also for the sinful condition of our hearts. Let us feel Godly sorrow which leads to repentance and no regret (2 Corinthians 7:10). Once we are forgiven, help us to let go of the unhealthy guilt and give us Your peace (Romans 5:1). True to Your promise in Ezekiel 36:26, give us new hearts and put a new spirit within us.
In Jesus’ name,
photo by Jacob…K accessed via flickr