“For Real” Repentance

It’s no secret that repentance can look real even when it isn’t. We have all met Christians who have “repented” but, in reality, only switched the track on which their selfishness runs. Worse than that, we can remember when we have done the same thing! 

Repentance is not a one-time act in the life of a follower of Jesus Christ. As mentioned in a previous post (“Repentance”), we are aiming for a horizon (lined out in the Beatitudes.)  As in any flight, this requires frequent “course corrections” and adjustments to keep our course aligned with that horizon. 

How do we know our repentance is real and not just a product of our emotions or an effort to save our reputation? How can we keep from only shedding “crocodile tears” when we should be seeking real life change?

The answer lies in the stories of Saul and David.  Both were kings. Both had committed serious sins. Both were confronted by prophets for their sins but only one of them repented for real.  The other king produced and directed a touching repentance show – crying “crocodile tears” – putting his life into a shallow dive from which it never recovered. The story this second king is told in 1 Samuel 15.

A few years after being anointed king of Israel by Samuel the prophet, Saul was busy establishing the kingdom of Israel and fighting its enemies on every side.  This included the nations of Moab, Ammon, Edom, the kings of Zobah, and the Philistines. He also had some skirmishes with a group called the Amalekites (1 Samuel 14:47-48). After this, Samuel the prophet came with a message from the Lord to Saul that he was to utterly wipe out the Amalekites – men, women, children, and all livestock – because of what they did to the children of Israel when they were wandering in the wilderness.

At first Saul obeyed, gathered an army, and then destroyed the almost all the people – he kept the Amalekite king and the best of the animals alive. God quickly informed Samuel about Saul’s disobedience and the prophet went to confront Saul with his sin. When confronted, Saul protested that he did obey the command of God by bringing the king of Amalek and allowing the people to bring the best of the animals to sacrifice to the Lord. 

After Samuel rebuked Saul with the declaration that “to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams,” Saul raised the curtain on his repentance drama. His opening lines were spot on – “I have sinned” (1 Samuel 15:24) as he confessed that he trespassed against God’s commandment and feared the people more than God. But the plot took a twist as Samuel prepared to leave Saul – never to see him again. Saul begged the prophet to go with him as he returned to the people to worship the Lord.  Samuel refused and started to walk away and, as he did, Saul grabbed Samuel’s robe in desperation and it tore. Samuel used this as an illustration of how God was going to tear the kingdom away from Saul and give it to someone better. Saul continued to beg Samuel help him save face and return with him to worship the Lord in front of the people. Samuel finally relented and returned with Saul to worship and then went on his way, leaving the king to his stubborn and rebellious ways.

On the other hand David, who was Saul’s successor, committed two sins that were much worse than Saul’s (see 2 Samuel 11,12).  First, he committed adultery with Bath-Sheba.  After he found out she was pregnant with his child, he tried to hide his sin by calling her husband, Urijah, back from the war under the guise of getting news of how it was going.  When Urijah chose to lodge with David’s servants instead of going home to be with his wife, David conspired to have him killed in battle. 

David was confronted by the prophet Nathan – and through him, God pronounced a severe judgment on David ‘s family because of his sin.  When confronted, David responded like Saul – “I have sinned” (2 Samuel 12:13) but the similarity ends there.  David’s repentance was real and is on full display in Psalm 51.  You might call this psalm an “Anatomy of Real Repentance.” It is worth some serious study – there is a lot to learn there – but let’s look at a few key points.

  • David approached God on one basis alone – Yahweh’s lovingkindness and tender mercies.  All of David’s past victories and virtues are forgotten here – they do not matter. These two sins outweigh them all (vs. 1).  No matter how “big” or “small” – our sin is still sin. When we really repent, we approach God the same way – on the basis of His mercy alone.  Forget your past successes.
  • Unlike Saul, David did not try to escape the consequences of his sin. He did not try to save face – just the opposite!  He wrote this whole psalm about his sin and there are fifty-two verses in 2 Samuel detailing the sordid affair. In Psalm 51:2 he asks God to “wash me thoroughly from my sin.”  The word for “wash” (Hebrew – kabas) is not the word for taking washing your hands or taking a bubble bath.  It is the word for washing clothes. It literally means to trample because trampling the clothes with the feet was the “agitation cycle” in ancient times. Not only was David not seeking to escape the consequences of his sin, he was inviting them! “Trample over me many times because of my sin.” In other words – “Work this filth out of me, no matter what You have to do!” is the attitude of a repentance that is for real.
  • He was very aware that he had trespassed into forbidden territory. He grasped the seriousness of his sin – he did not seek to minimize it. He saw it for what it was – not a mistake or a weakness – but a slap at a holy God.  In the New Testament, the word for “confess” is homologeo which means to “agree” or to “say the same thing.” This comes when we see something the same way as someone else.  Somebody who has truly repented has taken the time to see his sin the way God sees it (vs 4).
  • He knew the only remedy for sin was blood.  Hyssop tree was a bushy plant whose sprigs were used to strike the posts and lintels of the doors of the Israelites when the death angel visited the Egyptians the night of the Passover. The blood of a lamb without spot or blemish was the only thing that saved them that night.  A repentant heart knows that forgiveness can only come through the blood that Jesus shed for us (vs. 7,9; 1 John 1:7; Hebrews 9:22).
  • Finally, David prayed for restoration.  He did not pray for the restoration of his reputation – he prayed for a restoration of his relationship with God. He asked for a clean heart, a right spirit, the privilege of living daily in His presence, the joy of his salvation, and that God’s Holy Spirit would not be taken from him.  He did not ask for restoration just he could feel good and sleep at night.  He prayed for this so he could teach his fellow transgressors God’s ways and turn back to Him.  When we repent “for real” we seek God’s restoration so He can use us to restore others.

To truly repent is the beginning of eternal life.  It opens the door to a relationship with God Himself – the Creator of heaven and earth!  The blood of the lambs and bullocks of the Old Testament were God’s “placeholders” – speaking of the blood of His only begotten Son, Jesus – cleansing us like David was cleansed.  

Look over Psalm 51 for yourself.  Study it.  Ponder it. Pray it to God from your heart. Real repentance is the most important thing you can do in your life.

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