turn to God

True Repentant Prayer

Photo by  Angello Lopez  on  Unsplash

Photo by Angello Lopez on Unsplash

What does true repentance look like?

As I've written before, the idea of repentance gets turned around from what God desires. Too often it's seen as a person's responsibility to change the direction of their life 180 degrees in the opposite direction.

Although there's truth to that, it puts the cart before the horse. It's backward to think a person needs to straighten out his or her life before they turn to God.

The first step of true repentance is turning towards God. This is the change of direction that's needed! When a person turns toward God they turn their back on what they need to repent of and turn to the one Person who can bring real change— God.

The first step of true repentance is turning towards God

This is the essence of the first three steps of the 12-Step program of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). AA and similar 12-step programs are geared towards the restoration of a person's life through freedom from addiction.

The goal of biblical repentance is restoration. It should not be an attempt at restitution. It's not about doing good or making good karma. It's about a restored relationship between a person and God.

The goal of biblical repentance is restoration

A story of lust gone wrong

The pursuit of a restored relationship with God is seen in King David's prayer in Psalm 51—a true repentant prayer. The life context of this prayer is found in chapters 11 and 12 of 2 Samuel.

The story of David and Bathsheba is a classic story of lust gone wrong—very wrong. The gist of the story is King David taking advantage of his role as king of Israel, committing adultery, then trying to cover it up.

David and Bathsheba is a classic story of lust gone wrong—very wrong

But God doesn't let David get away with it all, at all. God sends a prophet to David who tells him a parable with a foil—a trap David sets for himself (2 Sam 12:1-7).

The story goes downhill from this point with a tragic turn and later consequences in David's life—but that's, as they say, another story for another time.

A man after God’s heart?

King David was a great leader as a warrior-king but the example of his personal life wasn’t so good. He was an adulterer and murderer. 

He lied and deceived others—even a priest of God. His actions at various points in life brought grave consequences upon the whole nation of Israel—the people who loved him.

And yet, God saw David as a man after His own heart (1 Sam 13:14). What is it about David that God saw as good?

David’s prayer of repentance in Psalm 51—after his grievous sin with Bathsheba and confrontation by Nathan the prophet—reveals David’s heart and gives insight into true repentance.

What is it about David that God saw as good?

A perfect prayer of repentance

A look at David's prayer of repentance in Psalm 51

  • David's plea for mercy—Psalm 51:1-2
    • see how David appeals to God’s merciful compassion, authority, and power in his life to forgive and “wash” him on the inside—his heart.
  • David's confession of sin—Psalm 51:3-6—
    • David expresses his guilt and acknowledges his sin is ultimately against God—even though it effects many other people.
    • He also acknowledges God’s righteous judgment of his own sinfulness and wrong—that it’s the opposite of what David knew to be right.
  • David begins to request restoration—Psalm 51:7-9—
    • David seeks what is necessary for restoration to take place and acknowledges that only God can forgive and restore him.
  • 6 elements of true repentance and restoration—Psalm 51:10-12—
    • David asks God for a pure heart—a heart free from sin
    • David asks God to renew his spirit—to move from brokenness to wholeness
    • David wants to maintain access into God’s presence
    • David also asks for God’s Spirit to remain with him
    • David asks for a restoration of God’s salvation—God’s assurance of His forgiveness and acceptance in David’s life because of God’s mercy and grace
    • David asks for a willing spirit—he knows God’s restoration requires a willingness on his part to submit his life to God first
  • A glimpse of the benefit of restoration—Psalm 51:13-15—
    • David understands that his own life needs to be in right order before he can tell others of God’s forgiveness and faithfulness.
  • What God doesn't and does desire from us—Psalm 51:16-17—
    • David knows God isn’t interested in what we have to offer Him (sacrifices or offerings) for God desires a brokenness and repentant spirit and heart in us.
  • The resulting benefit of things made right with God—Psalm 51:18-19—
    • David knows that when things are right with God—blessings will follow and a person’s devotion and service to God are acceptable.

Step by step

What true repentance looks like—

David's prayer in Psalm 51 is what true repentance looks like.

First—to turn to God for His forgiveness and restoration—always the first most important step. Then, accept His forgiveness by faith and allow God to work His restoration into your life.

Can you relate to David's struggle and need?

Are you willing to follow his example of repentance?

Repentance—the Heart of the Matter

Photo by  Cristian Newman  on  Unsplash

"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.

Reconciliation

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?

An Unknown God—part 2

unsplash_RPelati

unsplash_RPelati

Formulaic ways of presenting the gospel—the message of God's redemption of humanity—have been developed and taught to many eager evangelists. But I wonder how many times someone, prepped with an evangelistic formula, shares the gospel only to meet with disappointment and rejection? I know I've experienced this on both sides of the gospel—hearing it and sharing it. 

As a young man lost in my own spiritual search, two clean-cut college guys approached me at the beach to share the gospel with the four spiritual laws, telling me I could be a Christian and still own a sports car. Their approach was far off the mark for me. I experienced several other off-target attempts as I've shared before.

As with so many things in life, we can set ourselves up for disappointment with unrealistic expectations. Formulas and approaches go along with our penchant for results. But more and more I want to equip people with the story and heart of the gospel. Reading through all four gospels and the book of Acts it's hard to find any set methodology.

A city full of idols

As mentioned last week, when the apostle Paul arrived in Athens he saw a city filled with idols (Acts 17:16). This disturbed him but he still went to the Jewish synagogue to share the gospel, as he had done in other cities and regions.

He also went into the public market area to preach among those who were not Jewish (Gentiles). While engaging in discussions with those in the marketplace, he was questioned about what he taught, since it seemed so foreign to them.

Some philosophers wanted to hear more about this Jesus he spoke of and about the resurrection, so he was invited to Mars Hill (the Areopagus), the city court where much debate took place (Acts 17:17-21).

Paul's message to the Athenians

Paul realized the gospel he preached in the synagogue was foreign or strange to the ears of these philosophers, which is much like what cross-cultural missionaries experience overseas. It's also similar to sharing the gospel with those who have a postmodern mindset.

Based on this context, Paul adjusted his presentation of the gospel for a people who were ignorant of the Scriptures and the theology revealed in them.

I see three general parts to Paul's message at Mars Hill focused on connecting with the Athenians at a level they would understand. The text for Paul's message is found in Acts 17:22-31.

Connection

Paul first acknowledges they are "very religious," what we might call superstitious, as he sees all their objects of worship (idols). He establishes a connection with the Athenians by noting an altar to "the unknown god" (vs 22).

Paul says to them, "What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you" (vs 23). By saying this he stirs their interest because those gathered at Mars Hill "would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new" (vs 21).

He also establishes himself as an authority regarding this unknown God. He preaches to them, but in a way they can relate to as philosophers.

Creator and Sustainer

The first thing he tells them about this "unknown God" is that He is living and is the Creator of all (vs 24). Not only the Creator but the Lord over all He's created. He is transcendent above all and doesn't live in a temple or shrine created by humans. He wasn't imagined or designed by anyone.

He's not in need of anything people can offer. Instead, God is the Sustainer of all humanity to whom He gives life itself, breath, and everything else (vs 25). Paul goes on to speak of God's relationship with people from God's perspective.

All humanity began with one person (vs 26). It's God who established the seasons within a year and set the boundaries of earth, the oceans, and our atmosphere, as expressed in the ancient book of Job (chapters 38-40).

God makes Himself known and seeks people out so we may know Him and have a relationship with Him (vs 27). He is the Sustainer of all life and Paul relates this truth to what their own poets have said (vs 28), making another point of connection with the Athenians.

Challenging the status quo

Paul begins challenging them to think differently about God, "the divine being," since we are "God's offspring" (vs 29). God isn't like any of the idols or images their artisans have imagined because God is Spirit and not restricted to human or physical constraints.

Then Paul tells them that their ignorance of God, whom they call unknown, is no longer acceptable to God. A day of judgment is coming and people need to repent and turn to God for the timing of this judgment day is already determined by God (vs 30).

He then introduces them to Jesus but not by name. There is one person whom God has appointed as the one who will be the judge. This person is known by His resurrection from the dead (v 31), an unparalleled supernatural event.

The resurrection is the open door into a personal relationship with God and eternal life. This is a truth Paul made clear to a church he planted not long after this message (1 Cor 15:20-22).

Response

One of the criticisms I've heard about Paul's message to the Athenians is the poor response to it as if the response to Peter's message on Pentecost in Jerusalem (Acts 2:41) is some kind of norm. It wasn't the norm then nor is it now.

Most of the reaction of those who heard this message was to the concept of the resurrection from the dead. It's a great dividing line of faith. Although some mocked the resurrection others wanted to hear more, and some believed and joined Paul (vs 32-34).

As I've made clear in an earlier post, we American evangelicals tend to be very results oriented. It seems to be in our Christian-culture-DNA. But we don't see this with Jesus nor the early church leaders. They were committed to discipleship which is a long-term investment in people.

Evangelism or discipleship? Both!

Jesus invested more than three years in His chosen apostles. Paul spent a year (with Barnabas) teaching the church in Antioch, then a year and a half in Corinth, and two years in Ephesus (Acts 11:26; 18:11; 19:10).

Evangelism needs to be linked with discipleship to be effective in fulfilling the Great Commission (Matt 28:19; Mark 16:15), for church planting (the book of Acts), and to equip the church for ministry (Eph 4:11-13).

There should never be a choice between evangelism or discipleship, as to which is better. It's not either-or but both in concert with one another.

So, what are your thoughts on all of this and sharing the gospel in our times and within our culture?

Be sure to look at the notes and cross-references below and please share this with others if you find it helpful!


Here are some cross-references to go with each verse and the 12 elements I see in Paul's message to the Athenians—

  1. Paul observed the religious pursuit of the Athenians (vs 22)
  2. They focused on "objects of worship" [idols] (vs 23)
  3. Paul identified the altar "to the unknown god" as a point of connection (vs 25)
  4. He presented the Living God as Creator of all (vs 24)
  5. God is transcendent above human or earthly origins (vs 24)
  6. God is the origin of life for all people and all that exists (vs 25)
  7. All humanity is descended from one person and God is sovereign (vs 26)
  8. God makes Himself known and seeks relationship with people (vs 27)
  9. God is the Sustainer of life and connects God's nearness to all with their own poets (vs 28)
  10. God is Spirit and not restricted to human or physical constraints (vs 29)
  11. A day of judgment is coming, people need to repent and turn to God (vs 30)
  12. Jesus is the judge and proven to be so by resurrection from the dead (vs 31)
  •  Here are the Cross references—
    • vss 22-25– Psa 19:1-6; Rom 1:20; John 4:24
    • vs 25– John 1:4-5; Gen 2:7; Isa 42:5
    • vs 26– Gen 5:1-4; Dan 4:35-37
    • vs 27– Rom 1:20; Eccl 3:11; Psa 139:7-16
    • vs 28– Psa 82:6; Col 1:16-17
    • vs 29– Psa 115:3-8; Rom 1:22-23
    • vs 30– Matt 4:17; Luke 24:47; Rom 3:23-26
    • vs 31– John 5:21-27; Acts 2:22-24; Rom 2:11-16