By Billy Graham
Joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons which need no repentance. --Luke 15:7
WE HAVE now seen that Jesus demanded conversion. We have also seen that the three elements of conversion are repentance, faith, and regeneration. It may be debatable in which order these three should come, but it is generally agreed that they probably happen at the same time. Whether you are conscious or unconscious of it, in that critical moment of conversion these three take place simultaneously.
If repentance could be described in two words, I would use the words "turning around." Turn around from what? you ask. The answer can be given in one word -- "sin." The Bible teaches, as we have already seen, that sin is a transgression of the law. Sin is the rejection of all authority and the denial of all obligation to God. Sin is that evil principle which came into the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve were tempted and fell. Ever since the disaster in Eden this evil poison has affected all men so that "all have sinned," and "there is none righteous, no, not one." Sin has destroyed our relationship with God, and as a consequence it has disturbed our relationship with each other, and even with ourselves.
We cannot possibly have peace with God or peace with each other in the world or even peace within ourselves until something is done about that "abominable thing which God hates." Not only are we told that we must renounce or turn our backs on sin, but we are also told to renounce sins -- plural. We are to renounce the evil influence of the world, the flesh, and the devil. There can be no parleying, bargaining, compromise, or hesitation. Christ demands total loyalty.
Repentance and Faith
But here again the principle of love is involved, because when you fall in love completely and absolutely with Jesus Christ you will not want to do the things that He hates and abhors. You will automatically renounce all the sins of your life when you surrender by faith to Him. Therefore repentance and faith go hand in hand. You cannot have genuine repentance without saving faith, and you cannot have saving faith without genuine repentance.
The word repentance is sadly missing today from the average pulpit. It is a very unpopular word. The first sermon Jesus ever preached was "Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Matthew 4:17). This was God speaking through His Son. Jesus had come with a heart filled with love and compassion, but He immediately began to press home man's guilt and to turn from their ungodliness. He said repentance must come before He could pour out His love, grace, and mercy upon men. Jesus refused to gloss over iniquity. He insisted upon self-judgment, upon a complete right about-face. He insisted upon a new attitude before He would reveal the love of God.
The people came to Jesus one day and told Him of certain Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with sacrifices as his Roman legions quelled the Jewish uprising. They reported, too, how the falling of a tower in Siloam had killed many. In answer Jesus declared, "Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish" (Luke 13:2-3). In other words, Jesus said whether men are taken away by violence, by accident, or by natural death, their doom is the same unless they have turned to God in repentance. Until this is done, faith is absolutely impossible. This does not limit the grace to God, but repentance makes way for the grace of God.
Repentance and the Grace of God
We know that salvation is based entirely upon the grace of God. The Bible says that no man is justified by the law in the sight of God, and it also says, "The righteous man shall live by faith" (Romans 1:17). Salvation, forgiveness, and justification are based entirely upon the atoning work of Christ. However, if the sacrifice of Christ on the cross is to be made effectual for any individual of any age, that individual must repent of sin and accept Christ by faith.
Jonah preached repentance in Nineveh until Nineveh repented. Ezekiel preached repentance when he said, "Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways, says the Lord God. Repent, and turn yourselves from all your transgressions; so iniquity shall not be your ruin" (Ezekiel 18:30).
The great message of John the Baptist was repentance when he said, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Matthew 3:2).
Repentance is mentioned seventy times in the New Testament. Jesus said, "Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish." The sermon that Peter preached on the Day of Pentecost was, "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins" (Acts 2:38). Paul preached it when he said that he "testified both to the Jews, and also to the Greeks, repentance toward God, and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ" (Acts 20:21). The Bible says God commands repentance, "And the times of this ignorance God overlooked; but now he commands all men everywhere to repent" (Acts 17:30). It is a command. It is an imperative. God says, "Repent! Or perish!" Have you repented? Are you sure of it?
There are many biblical examples of false repentance. For example, Pharaoh said to the children of Israel who were seeking to leave Egypt for the promised land, "I have sinned . . ." (Exodus 9:27). Obviously it was an expression of regret or remorse but not an expression of true repentance. Saul did the same thing in 1 Samuel 15:24, 30 and 26:21. But when David said to the prophet Nathan, "I have sinned" in 2 Samuel 12:13 and 20:10, 17, he was truly repentant (see Psalm 51).
Jesus' Definition of Repentance
What did Jesus mean by the word repent? Why does it appear over and over throughout the Bible? If you look in a modern dictionary you will find that repent means "to feel sorry for, or to regret." But the original words that Jesus spoke meant a great deal more than that. They meant a great deal more than just regretting and feeling sorry about sin. The biblical word repent means "to change, or to turn." It is a word of power and action. It is a word that signifies a complete turnabout in the individual. When the Bible calls upon us to repent of sin, it means that we should turn away from sin, that we should do an about-face and walk in the opposite direction from sin and all that it implies.
Jesus told the parable of the Prodigal Son to dramatize what He meant by the word repent. When the Prodigal Son repented he didn't just sit still and feel sorry about all his sins. He wasn't passive and limp about it. He didn't stay where he was, surrounded by the swine. He got up and left! He turned his feet in the other direction. He sought out his father and humbled himself before him, and then he was forgiven.
Too many modern Christians have lost sight of what the Bible means when it talks about repentance. They think that repentance is little more than shaking their heads over their sins and saying, "My, but I'm sorry I did that!" and then continuing to live just as they have lived before.
True repentance means "to change, to turn away from, to go in a new direction." To be sorry is not enough in repentance. Judas was sorry enough to hang himself. It was an admission of guilt without true repentance. Even reformation is not enough. There is no torture that you can give your body, no trials you can set for your mind that will be pleasing to Almighty God. Our sins were atoned for by Christ on the cross. There He suffered sin's penalty. No suffering that we can undergo will lead us to repentance.
Repentance Is Not Mere Emotion
When I speak of repentance I am not speaking of the old-time mourners' bench. Many people have taught that to repent you must mourn for a stated time in order to be ready for salvation. One man told me the night he found Christ he went forward in an old-fashioned camp meeting some years ago. While he was kneeling at the altar trying to find God, some dear sister came and slapped him on the back and said, "Hold on, brother! If you want God, you'll have to hold on." A few minutes later a church officer came up and slapped him across the back and said, "Brother, turn loose!" Then another sister came up a few minutes later and said, "The night I was converted a big light hit me in the face and knocked me cold." He said, "I tried to turn loose and hold on at the same time while looking for the light. I almost never made it in the confusion!"
A very intelligent Christian leader once told me that at the time he was converted the demonstration of emotion expected of him by the preacher and congregation almost kept him from coming to God.
Falsely produced emotionalism in some revival meetings has been a stumbling block to many a sincere, searching soul. But the type of repentance I'm talking about is true biblical repentance, which involves three things: it involves the intellect, the emotion, and the will.
Three Aspects of Repentance
First, there must be a knowledge of sin. The Bible says, "All have sinned, and come short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23). When Isaiah was convicted of his sins he said, "Woe is me! . . . I am a man of unclean lips" (Isaiah 6:5). When Job got a glimpse of God's holiness he said, "I abhor myself" (Job 42:6). When Peter was convicted of his sins he said, "I am a sinful man" (Luke 5:8). When Paul was convicted of his sins he called himself "the chief of sinners" (1 Timothy 1:15).
It is the Holy Spirit who brings about this conviction. Actually, repentance cannot take place unless first there is a movement of the Holy Spirit in the heart and mind. The Holy Spirit may use a mother's prayers, a pastor's sermon, a Christian radio program, the sight of a church steeple, or the death of a loved one to bring about this necessary conviction. However, I have seen men in some of our meetings stand trembling under conviction and still not repent of their sins. It is possible to be convicted of sin and know you are a sinner and even shed tears over your sins, and yet not repent.
Second, the emotions are involved in repentance, just as they are in all genuine experiences. Paul said there is a godly sorrow that works toward repentance. Someone has said, "Many people abhor all emotion, and some critics are suspicious of any conversion that does not take place in a refrigerator." There are many dangers in false emotionalism, produced for its own effect, but that does not rule out true emotion and depth of feeling.
As Dr. W.E. Sangster, the great British Methodist preacher, says in his book, Let Me Commend, "The man who screams at a football or baseball game but is distressed when he hears of a sinner weeping at the cross and murmurs something about the dangers of emotionalism hardly merits intelligent respect."
Horace Walpole once accused John Wesley of acting out very ugly emotionalism in his preaching, yet Wesley turned thousands to God.
Third, repentance involves the will.
It is only when we come to the will that we find the very heart of repentance. There must be that determination to forsake sin -- to change one's attitudes toward self, toward sin, and toward God; to change one's feeling; to change one's will, disposition, and purpose.
Only the Spirit of God can give you the determination necessary for true repentance. It means more than the little girl who prayed, "Make me good -- not real good, but good enough so I won't get whipped."
There are thousands of people in America who have their names on church rolls. They go to church when it is convenient. They give their money to the church and support its activities. They shake hands with the minister after the service and tell him what a splendid sermon he preached. They may talk the language of the Christian and many of them can quote a fair amount of Scripture, but they have never really experienced true repentance. They have a sort of "I can take-it-or-leave-it-alone" attitude toward religion. They turn to God and pray when they get in a tight place, but the rest of the time they do not give God very much thought. The Bible teaches that when a person comes to Christ a change takes place that is reflected in everything he does.
Repentance Demands Surrender
There is not one verse of Scripture that indicates you can be a Christian and live any kind of a life you want to. When Christ enters into the human heart, He expects to be Lord and Master. He commands complete surrender. He demands control of your intellectual processes. He requires that your body be subject to Him. He expects you to surrender your talents and abilities to Him. He expects nothing less than that all your work and labor will be performed in His name.
Too many of today's professing Christians would give up going to church before they would give up getting a new refrigerator. Given a choice between making the down payment on a new car or contributing to the building of a new Sunday school, it is easy to guess what the decision of many would be. Thousands of so-called Christians are putting money and the things that make up our high standard of living ahead of the teachings of Christ. We can find time for the movies, baseball, or football games, but we can't find time for God. We can save toward a new home or a bigger television set, but we feel we no longer can afford to tithe. This is idolatry.
A change must take place! We point our fingers at the heathen and at the idol worshipers of old, but the only difference is that our graven images are made of gleaming chromium and steel and have thermostats and defrosting devices instead of jeweled eyes! Instead of gold, their surfaces are covered with easy-to-clean lifetime porcelain, but we worship them just the same, and feel that our lives would be impossible without them. We have come to worship things, status, fame, popularity, money, security. Anything that comes between God and ourselves is idolatry.
Jesus demands Lordship over all such things. He wants you to yield everything concerning your social life, your family life, your business life to Him. He must have first place in everything you do or think or say, for when you truly repent you turn toward God in everything.
We have the warning of Christ that He will not receive us into His kingdom until we are ready to give up all, until we are ready to turn from all sin in our lives. Don't try to do it part way. Don't say, "I'll give up some of my sins and hang on to some others. I'll live part of my life for Jesus and part for my own desires." Jesus expects one hundred percent surrender, and when that is accomplished He rewards a thousandfold. But don't expect Jesus to hand out any five hundred percent awards for fifty percent surrenders! God doesn't work that way. He demands all. When you have determined that you are renouncing sin, forsaking sin, and yielding all to Christ, you have taken another step toward peace with God.
The repentant thief on the cross said to Jesus, "Lord, remember me . . ." (Luke 23:42). His use of the word, "Lord," implied his total submission to Jesus Christ. It implied his total surrender and true conversion. This is the result of true repentance.
With the hymnwriter, the repentant sinner says:
All to Jesus I surrender, All to Him I freely give;
I will ever love and trust Him, in His presence daily live.
All to Jesus I surrender, make me, Savior, wholly Thine.
Let me feel the Holy Spirit, Truly know that Thou art mine.