People who fail to live up to conscience, the Law, and the Gospel are called upon to repent, to change our minds, to do better, to live in accordance with these higher standards.
When people are called upon to repent and do not, we invariably suffer the consequences. We are punished in at least three ways:
1. First, we are punished by our sins. In Ezekiel 18 30, God calls upon Israel to, and I quote, “Repent and turn from all your transgressions, lest your (transgressions) be your ruin.” Remember, in this life, it is not so much that we are punished for our sins, as we are punished by our sins.”
2. Second, we are punished by their fellow human beings. In primitive societies, we are punished by those we wronged, if they are strong enough. Cain killed Abel, but God marked Cain, and Cain found it unbearable. (Genesis 4) In more advanced societies, we are punished by our rulers and those in authority over us. Thus, in Romans 13:3-4, we read:
For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of him who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4 for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain; he is the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer.
3. Third, we are punished by God himself. In Psalm 7:12 we read, “If a man does not repent, God will whet his sword…” In the Old Testament, we learn that God frequently punishes sin in this life, and that this punishment often leads to suffering of one kind or another, and often to an early death. In the New Testament we read that “God has fixed a day in which he will judge the world in Righteousness, by a man whom he hat appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising this man from the dead.” (Acts 17) God will judge the world by Jesus, and by the standard of behavior God established in Jesus, the Christ, the Last Adam, the prototype of humankind as we are meant to be.
Human beings repent when we are genuinely sorry for our sins and seek to do better. We turn from our sins, and “bear fruits worthy of repentance.” (Acts 26:20)
When we repent, God too repents, or “changes toward us,” and remits or at least reduces our punishment. Therefore, the citizens of Nineveh repented of their sins saying, “Who knows, God may yet repent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we perish not?” (Jonah 3:9)
The Bible teaches that it is a good thing to repent, and a bad thing to fall back into sin after we have repented. At the very least, we reactivate the punishment that is built into our crime. At worst, we become so insensitive to our sin that we lose the capacity to repent. Thus, in Hebrews 6:4 we read:
For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit…
The Joel 2:13-14 the prophet reminds us that God’s mercy is the foundation of our repentance. He writes:
“…rend your hearts and not your garments.” Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and repents of evil. Who knows whether he will not turn and repent, and leave a blessing behind him.
In Romans 2:4 St. Paul tells us that “God’s kindness is meant to lead (us) to repentance.” He warns us not to presume upon this kindness.
And in Matthew 18:21-22, Jesus discusses repentance with Peter.
21 Then Peter came up and said to (Jesus), “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.
I do not think that God would ask us to so often forgive our brother when he repents toward us and not be equally willing to forgive us when we repent toward him. There is hope in that. Indeed, repentance is one of the Wonderful Words of Life.
Worth Green, Th.M., D.Min.