A Model for Repentance
36"Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ." 37Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, "Men and brethren, what shall we do?" 38Then Peter said to them, "Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit."
- Acts 2:36-38
In Acts 2:38, we read a key passage concerning a person's response to the gospel. It is key because in it the Apostle Peter answers the crucial question, "What must I do to be saved?" Most of the time when we use Acts 2:38, we quickly explain that "repentance" means turning away from sin and then focus most of our teaching on the subject of baptism. Instruction on the role and method of baptism is necessary, of course, but in order to keep these two in perspective we need to understand that baptism is the witness of our faith while repentance is the actual inner working of our spirit as we turn to God in faith and thus should receive closer analysis. For this reason, I'd like to study a good model for repentance given to us by King David in Psalm 39.
Psalm 39 was written by David approximately 800 years before Christ. He was a great warrior and dynamic ruler who was loved by his people. He was also a man who had terrible weaknesses, and succumbed to pride and sexual lust which eventually produced tremendous problems for his family and nation. He was also an eloquent poet and musician through whom God provided many beautiful psalms and songs for His people. One of these psalms, Psalm 39, was written during a time when David was very ill or threatened by a dangerous enemy. This predicament caused him to pause and reflect upon his life and the condition of his soul.
During this time we observe, through his Spirit guided writing, several elements that come together to produce true and effective repentance, the kind of repentance that God desires from all of those who have sinned against Him. In this brief psalm we can trace the process that took David from sin to sincere repentance, the type of repentance that prepares one for the baptism that Peter spoke of in Acts 2:38.
1. David Tried to Fix it Himself
1I said, "I will guard my ways
That I may not sin with my tongue;
I will guard my mouth as with a muzzle
While the wicked are in my presence."
2I was mute and silent,
I refrained even from good,
And my sorrow grew worse.
Whenever we are caught in a sin or gaze inwardly and see that we've been wrong, our first impulse is to be self-righteous. This effort at doing and saying what is right and avoiding further wrong on David's part produced two results:
A. He began to see the wicked before him as truly wicked. His attempt at doing right highlighted the evil that was around him. It was a case where he didn't realize how bad things were until he himself tried to do something good.
B. This effort began to stir greater feelings of guilt and sorrow within him. In other words, he realized that he did not have a handle on this "sin" thing in his life. He might be silent, he might make an effort at thinking and doing right, but in making the effort he saw how weak and vulnerable to sin he really was.
An effort to fix it himself yielded the frightening result that he had no power to control or remove his own sinfulness or desire to sin. (This brings him to the next stage.)
2. David Recognizes the Effect of Sin
3My heart was hot within me,
While I was musing the fire burned;
Then I spoke with my tongue:
4"Lord, make me to know my end
And what is the extent of my days;
Let me know how transient I am.
5"Behold, You have made my days as handbreadths,
And my lifetime as nothing in Your sight;
Surely every man at his best is a mere breath. Selah.
David sees the ravages of sin and iniquity within him. He doesn't even try to justify himself with the doing of good anymore since he sees it is now useless. He realizes that his only hope is to appeal to God, therefore, he asks God to let him know the final results of his own life of sin.
He recognizes that even at his very best he is not worthy of God, so in his present state there surely is no hope. David experiences the awful realization that life is not only fleeting, but sinful life is unacceptable before God and will be punished. The most discouraging aspect of all of this is that there is not much he can do about it.
3. David Asks for Forgiveness
6"Surely every man walks about as a phantom;
Surely they make an uproar for nothing;
He amasses riches and does not know who will gather them.
7"And now, Lord, for what do I wait?
My hope is in You.
8"Deliver me from all my transgressions;
Make me not the reproach of the foolish.
9"I have become mute, I do not open my mouth,
Because it is You who have done it.
10"Remove Your plague from me;
Because of the opposition of Your hand I am perishing.
Once he recognizes his helplessness to actually live up to God's standards, regardless of his efforts, David is ready to humble himself and ask for what he cannot achieve through personal effort.
He sees that his own end is shared by others, even those who make a great show of their righteousness by equating it to success in this life. The reason for this is that at that time poverty and oppression were considered a sign of God's displeasure with you because of your sins. For example, this was the attitude of Job's friends who reasoned that his trials were due to some secret or unconfessed sin that he was guilty of, and much of the discourse between them was a debate about this type of reasoning.
Being rich and successful on the other hand were equated with right living. In his psalm David writes that this was not so (he was a king, a rich king, and yet saw himself as a guilty sinner before God). From this insight he comes to the realization that all are sinners (rich and poor) and unworthy of God. At this point David changes his focus in life; no longer will he try to achieve his own righteousness by self-willed effort, he will now put his hope for salvation into the hands of a merciful God.
Because of this change in thinking, David gives up trying to justify or deflect blame and throws himself completely upon the mercy that God offers to sinners who acknowledge their sins and turn away from them (repentance). First, he asks God to forgive him, for it is God's laws that are broken to begin with. He then asks God to protect him from enemies who are searching to take advantage of his weakness. Finally, he pleads with God to remove the weakness within him that made him vulnerable to attack and death in the first place. His troubles force him to examine his life and move him to finally acknowledge his need for God's mercy and personal need to change.
In these few lines of poetry we observe that David appeals for mercy and changes his attitude, two necessary actions for sincere repentance to take place.
4. David Demonstrates the Fruit of that Repentance
11"With reproofs You chasten a man for iniquity;
You consume as a moth what is precious to him;
Surely every man is a mere breath. Selah.
12"Hear my prayer, O Lord, and give ear to my cry;
Do not be silent at my tears;
For I am a stranger with You,
A sojourner like all my fathers.
13"Turn Your gaze away from me, that I may smile again
Before I depart and am no more."
In repentance there needs to be a calling out to God for forgiveness and a willingness to change, but the biblical model of repentance always includes a real and abiding example of change in the sinner's life and attitude. David comments on how his life has changed because of his own repentance before God.
We note that he has a new view of himself. He has seen that God's testing strips a person to the core in that exterior beauty, strength and ability to cope are removed. He has understood that this change is necessary for a person to truly see his weakness and need before God. David now understands how all men are helpless and in need of God's mercy having gone through the experience himself. He has a much clearer vision of life, its meaning and ultimate conclusion:
- All (not just the poor and needy) are strangers and separated from God. Our true condition should bring us to sorrow and tears before God in repentance.
- Only God can heal us and deliver us from a wounded conscience damaged by sin.
- The time is short. While we have breath we need to appeal to God for mercy because there is no chance for repentance after we die.
David not only recognized the need for repentance and change in his life, he produced the kind of thoughts and actions showing that true repentance was actually taking place within him.
Of course, our job is not to try to determine if true repentance is taking place in others; our responsibility is to make sure that we are experiencing true repentance ourselves. And we are, if our repentance sees us…
- Making an honest effort at restitution.
- Turning to God for forgiveness.
- Producing a change of heart that includes a greater sincerity, purity of thought and action, and dependance on God.
If these things are present then our repentance is true and effective in drawing us nearer to God. I also believe that this kind of repentance needs to precede baptism, and when it does, it usually signals that this person will remain faithful long after they've come out of the water.