"You've turned your backs, not your faces, to me" (Jeremiah 2:27 GW). This is what God says to His people through Jeremiah. It's a recurring theme in God's messages through Jeremiah to Judah—the southern kingdom of Israel.
Judah had abandoned the living God for lifeless idols. It wasn't just misplaced worship or foolish religion, it was accompanied with gross immorality and perversion of justice. The behavior of the leaders and people was atrocious. But this wasn't God's main issue.
Although God held His people responsible for their bad behavior, His great lament was how they shunned Him. God spoke through Jeremiah to tell the people they committed two evils. Number one was that they forsook God—the fountain of life-giving water.
My people have done two things wrong. They have abandoned me, the fountain of life-giving water. They have also dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that can’t hold water. (Jer 2:123 GW)
Repentance isn't about behavior
Repentance is not about behavior, but a renewed relationship. It's a matter of reconciliation. It's a matter of the heart.
It's not that bad behavior should be ignored or overlooked, but it is secondary. It should change as a result of a changed relationship, not the other way around. When changed behavior is the focus of repentance, God's intent for it is misplaced.
Relationship has always been primary to God. When Adam and Eve gave in to the serpent's temptation, God looked for them because He knew something was wrong. The entire story of redemption began there.
Repentance is a matter of reconciliation. It's a matter of the heart.
A classic picture of repentance is given in the third of three parables in Luke 15—the Lost Son. The climax is when the lost son returns to his father.
The son's focus is on his own sin, the father looks past the son's sin and filthiness to embrace him and celebrate (Luke 15:11-32).
Forgiveness and restoration
However, we still tend to focus on sin—our own or that of others, and it's lingering effect. That's the picture of the brooding elder son in the parable of Luke 15. We want forgiveness and justice, but often have difficulty accepting forgiveness, or as it's often put, forgiving ourselves.
Sadly, when we focus on our own sin or how others have sinned, and the ripple effect of sin—we lose sight of the purpose of forgiveness.
Forgiveness is granted by God to restore our relationship. It's not a means of satisfying His divine justice or wrath against us. Jesus absorbed the penalty of sin upon Himself.
Forgiveness is granted by God to restore relationship not to satisfy divine justice
Righteousness is relational
Of course, things must be made right, but righteousness itself is relational. It's not a theological concept to be understood. Why did the father celebrate the return of his son? Because—
"My son was dead and has come back to life. He was lost but has been found" (Luke 15:24 GW).
Repentance isn't our effort to be good but the restoration of our relationship with God. As King David requested in his own prayer of repentance, "Restore to me the joy of your salvation" (Psalm 51:12).
Repentance is not about "turning over a new leaf," as if making a New Year's resolution. It's about returning to God. There are countless examples of this throughout the Bible.
Repentance isn't our effort to be good but the restoration of our relationship with God.
Unfortunately, much well-intentioned teaching and preaching focus on changed behavior as the mark of true repentance.
How about John the Baptist's rebuke at the Jordan River (Matt 3:1-12 GW), you might ask? John spoke of true repentance, not a religious or emotional expression.
Changed behavior is the fruit of genuine repentance, not its essence.
Redemption is not just forgiveness, it is about reconciliation between God and people. Repentance is returning to God. As God said, "you've turned your backs, not your faces, to me" (Jer 2:27 GW)
God wants people to turn their faces to Him, not their backs. He's not interested in what we can do to make things right because He knows it will fall short and be short-lived.
What repentance is not
Repentance is not remorse, nor emotion, or promises of better behavior. It's a change of heart. A changed heart that leads us back to God, as shown by the lost son in the parable.
Repentance is not behavior modification—"changing our ways" or "making a 180º turn"—on our own, but returning to God—the Father—and receiving His mercy and grace.
Once our relationship is restored—yes, through forgiveness on God's behalf—then true repentance results in a changed life.
Repentance needs to start from the inside—our heart—first. External change—changed behavior—follows our heart change.
When our face is turned to God, our back is turned on sin.
Repentance and redemption
There is no true redemption without genuine repentance. But the essence of repentance is returning to God regardless of any personal cost.
The good news is this—God has covered the cost of failure and sin on the Cross. Our work is to turn our face and trust back to God. Trying to change your behavior on your own is a futile effort and doomed for failure.
There is no true redemption without genuine repentance.
True repentance brings freedom
If you're trying to be a good Christian—stop it! But if you want to turn towards God—go for it!
My wife and I saw the power of repentance and reconciliation in the process of disciplining our young children. First, they needed to realize they did something wrong.
Once it was made clear what they did was wrong, our children's heads dropped and their faces turned sad. They were at a point of repentance.
When a form of correction was applied and a new path of behavior and change of heart was discussed, things were settled and the result was freedom. They were reconciled.
True repentance ought to bring freedom, not brooding or depression.
Going back to the parable in Luke, the father celebrated with the restored son, while the elder son brooded. The elder brother couldn't look past his own expectation of justice and his self-righteousness (Luke 15:28-30).
It's your choice to brood or to rejoice. I prefer joy over whining any day of the week and so does God. How about you?