The foundation for a relationship of passion is a heart of purity. Sin kills intimacy. It comes as no surprise, then, that perhaps the greatest obstacle to a vibrant and intimate relationship with Jesus Christ is the failure or refusal to repent. This accounts for our Lord’s pointed plea to the Laodiceans: “Be zealous and repent” (Rev. 3:19)!
What, exactly, did Jesus have in mind when he called the Laodiceans (and us) to a zealous, immediate, unqualified repentance? What is repentance? I want to portray repentance in terms of five realities.
First of all, it begins with recognition, which is to say, an eye-opening, heart-rending awareness of having defied God by embracing what he despises and despising, or at minimum, being indifferent towards, what he adores. Repentance, therefore, involves confessing from the heart:
"This is wrong."
"I have sinned."
"God is grieved."
The antithesis of recognition is rationalization, the pathetic attempt to justify one’s moral laxity by any number of appeals: “I’m a victim! You have no idea what I’ve been through. If you knew how rotten my life has been and how badly people have treated me, you’d give me a little slack.”
True repentance, notes J. I. Packer, “only begins when one passes out of what the Bible sees as self-deception (cf. Js. 1:22,26; 1 Jn. 1:8) and modern counselors call denial, into what the Bible calls conviction of sin (cf. Jn. 16:8)" (Rediscovering Holiness, 123-24).
We must remember that “confession by itself is not repentance. Confession moves the lips; repentance moves the heart. Naming an act as evil before God is not the same as leaving it. Though your confession may be honest and emotional, it is not enough unless it expresses a true change of heart. There are those who confess only for the show of it, whose so-called repentance may be theatrical but not actual” (Jim Elliff).
The second element in repentance is remorse. If one is not genuinely offended by one’s sin, there is no repentance. Repentance is painful, but it is a sweet pain. It demands brokenness of heart (Ps. 51:17; Isa. 57:15) but always with a view to healing and restoration and a renewed vision of the beauty of Christ and forgiving grace.
Repentance is more than a feeling. Emotion can be fleeting, whereas true repentance bears fruit. This points to the difference between “attrition” and “contrition”. Attrition is regret for sin prompted by a fear for oneself: “Oh, no. I got caught. What will happen to me?” Contrition, on the other hand, is regret for the offence against God’s love and pain for having grieved the Holy Spirit. In other words, it is possible to "repent" out of fear of reprisal, rather than from a hatred of sin.
Paul had this distinction in mind when he wrote 2 Corinthians 7:6-11. Due to the insidious influence of a group of false teachers who were undermining his apostolic authority in Corinth, as well as for other reasons, the apostle was forced to write what he calls a sorrowful letter to the church in that city. Paul initially regretted causing them grief by this letter, but later rejoiced when he saw the fruit in their lives that the letter produced. “As it is,” said Paul, “I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting. For you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no loss through us. For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death. For see what earnestness this godly grief has produced in you, but also what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what longing, what zeal, what punishment! At every point you have proved yourselves innocent in the matter” (vv. 9-11).
Paul speaks of godly grief in v. 9 and the godly repentance it produces in v. 10. Godly grief or sorrow is the sort that is agreeable to the mind and will of God; sorrow prompted by recognition that one's sin has offended God. Worldly grief (v. 10) is born of self-pity and anger for being exposed. The test that distinguishes the two is simple: Does your sorrow lead to repentance?
The fruit of godly repentance is unmistakable: earnestness (to do what was right); vindication (of themselves, not in denying they had done wrong [cf. vv. 9-10], but in being roused to a concern for their reputation lest they bring reproach on Christ and the gospel); indignation (with themselves, for having allowed the situation to develop as it did); fear (of God and of Paul; see 1 Cor. 4:21); longing (as in v. 7, to be reunited); zeal (for Paul; cf. v. 7); punishment or the avenging of wrong (their desire to see that justice is done by bringing the guilty person(s) to discipline).
Paul's statement that such repentance is to salvation (v. 10) points to the fact that "the nature of their response to Paul's letter was in itself a sure indication that they were, as they professed to be, genuine Christians, and not dissemblers [i.e., hypocritical pretenders]" (Philip Hughes, 272).
Remorse, regret, sorrow, and the pain provoked by sin will only increase and intensify the longer we are Christians. Maturity in the faith does not lead to less sorrow over sin, but more. The pain does not diminish; it deepens. Says Packer: “It is, in fact, a law of the spiritual life that the further you go, the more you are aware of the distance still to be covered. Your growing desire for God makes you increasingly conscious, not so much of where you are in your relationship with him as of where as yet you are not” (138).
The third essential element in real repentance is request. We must ask God for forgiveness and for strength. In David’s repentant prayer in Psalm 51, we see both his request for forgiveness (vv. 7-9) and his request for strength and renewal (vv. 10-12).
Fourth, there must be repudiation of all sins in question and active practical steps taken to avoid anything that might provoke stumbling (cf. Acts 19:18-19). I.e., there must be a deliberate resolve to turn around and away from all hint or scent of sin (Ps. 139:23). Paul writes: “But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (Rom. 13:14). If, in our so-called “repentance”, we do not abandon the environment in which our sin first emerged and in which, in all likelihood, it will continue to flourish, our repentance is suspect.
Finally, there must be heart-felt reformation, which is to say, an overt determination to pursue purity, to do what pleases God (1 Thess. 1:9). For the Laodiceans this meant forsaking whatever might perpetuate the spiritual sluggishness and unwarranted self-sufficiency in which they languished.
Perhaps the best place for each of us to begin is with the sentiments expressed in this hymn:
"Search me, O God, my actions try,
And let my life appear
As seen by thine all-searching eye;
To mine my ways make clear.
Search all my sense and know my heart,
Who only canst make known,
And let the deep, the hidden part
To me be fully shown.
Throw light into the darkened cells
Where passion reigns within;
Quicken my conscience till it feels
The loathsomeness of sin.
Search all my thoughts, the secret springs,
The motives that control,
The chambers where polluted things
Hold empire o'er the soul."