Have you ever avoided talking to God because you felt guilty about something you had done? Or have you ever felt ashamed to go to church for fear of being judged? Do you believe you have to “get your act together” before God can embrace you? Do you see repentance as a barrier between you and Him?
Repentance is a key word in the Bible. John the Baptist and Jesus preached it (Matt. 3:2; 4:17; Acts 13:24). When Peter addressed the multitude on the Day of Pentecost, he appealed, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2:38). As we read about repentance in the New Testament, it seems clear that repentance is a condition for forgiveness (Acts 3:19; 5:31; 8:22). And because Jesus forgives those who repent, many conclude that they cannot come to Him “unless they first repent.”
Repentance, however, is not something we do in exchange for God’s forgiveness. I know that often this is how human relationships work, but this NOT what the Bible teaches. In fact, many are surprised to discover that in Scripture, repentance is just as much a gift from God as forgiveness (Acts 5:31; 11:18; 2 Tim. 2:25; Heb. 12:17). That’s right. Repentance is a gift from God. And according to Paul, it is the goodness (kindness) of God that leads us to repentance (Rom. 2:4).
Consider, for example, the story of the corrupt tax collector, Zacchaeus. There is no question that he had been living an immoral life (stealing and taking advantage of poor people), yet, at what point did Jesus show Him kindness and grace? Was Jesus willing to share table-fellowship with him before or after he had shown repentance for his sinful lifestyle? Read Luke 19:5-7.
Ellen White defines repentances as “sorrow for sin and a turning away from it” (Steps to Christ, p. 23). There is no question that Zacchaeus was sorry for his past conduct, and that he was determined to stop living that way (Lk. 19:8). But did repentance come to Zacchaeus in order for him to have access to God, or did it come as a result of having been in God’s loving presence? The answer is in the text. Zacchaeus was moved to repentance as he beheld the goodness (character) of God in the face of Jesus.
If so, then what implications does this have for our relationship with others? What does this mean for the church as a whole, and how should “sinners” feel when they walk through our doors? If people need to repent of sin, what better place to be than in the presence of God (church?). The fact that repentance is a gift from God is good news, but it does present a challenge for the church—namely, how do we minister to/fellowship with those whose lifestyle choices differ from ours. I believe the answer is found in the life of Jesus. May His Spirit give us repentance and wisdom as we minister to those who are coming to faith in Him.