A few days ago, Jesus woke me up with these words: “Renewal comes after repentance.”
Each time when something like that happens, I know there is a major lesson to be learned.
His words immediately made me think of David’s words: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” (Psalm 51:10, ESV). In that Psalm, David was repenting, asking for forgiveness of his sins and begging for restoration.
It made me realize how often I ask for God to restore my body, soul, and spirit with things like healing, joy, or peace, without repenting for the mistakes that caused the brokenness in the first place. In His grace and patience, God often grants us these things even though we don’t deserve them. But that morning, He wanted me to look into how repenting renews us, and teach myself (and you) these ways.
Repentance and renewal in the Bible
All throughout the Old Testament and the New Testament, we are taught to repent and turn to God after which we can be renewed. Renewal, revival, reparation, restoration, refreshing, regeneration- many times they follow repentance. Just a few examples:
Jeremiah 15:19 (NIV): “…this is what the Lord says: “If you repent, I will restore you that you may serve me;…”
2 Chronicles 7:14 (NIV): “if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”
Acts 2:38 (NIV): “Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
The first time when we who are called enter the presence of the King of Kings we do it while bowing down in humility. Because we can only be born again once we humble ourselves before God and tell Him that we are sorry for our sins and that we realize that Jesus Christ alone can save us. He then restores us, in order that we can fulfill our purpose for His glory and demonstrate our repentance by our deeds (Acts 26:20).
When we are baptized, we demonstrate that we will be dead to sin and alive in Christ Who washes us clean. That is the reason why the Biblical order is to first repent and then to be baptized.
Not a one-time event
Being born again is a one-time event, but coming humbly before our Lord is not. As we are being perfected, we make mistake after mistake for which we should repent. That Christians still need to repent for their sins when they become aware of them, becomes clear when you read Jesus’ words to the churches in Revelation 2 and 3. Or Paul’s words when he speaks to the church in Corinth (2 Corinthians 7 and 12). And Jesus didn’t teach us to daily ask for forgiveness in our prayers for no reason (Matthew 6:12).
So, you could say that we have been forgiven, but we are also being forgiven. And that we have been restored, but we are also being restored. In the same sense that we have been saved, while we are also being saved (Ephesians 2:81, Corinthians 1:18).
We have plenty to repent about
Nobody is without sin (2 Chronicles 6:36, 1 John 1:10). All wrongdoing is sin (1 John 5:17) and everything that does not come from faith is sin (Romans 14:23). So, we usually have plenty to repent about.
And even if we would be doing a relatively good job, we still need to grow mature as parts of the body of Christ (Eph 4:16).
If we look at the Book of Job, we can learn that even though superficially we might seem blameless and upright, hidden underneath, deep inside our hearts, we can still harbor feelings that aren’t supposed to be there. Those sinful attitudes usually only surface when we are challenged. So, we can always become more humble, more loving, more obedient to Christ, etc.; we will never be done learning in this lifetime.
We are – or should be – continually working to subject our thoughts, emotions, and body to Christ.
When we are born again we start loving Jesus from the inside out. But then the struggle starts to learn to love God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength all the time.
So we need to subject our entire body and all our thoughts and emotions to this love. We must learn to feel, think, and act in line with the love we have for God, which should be an ever-increasing love.
This can only be done by the power of the Holy Spirit. The more the Holy Spirit is in the lead in your life, the more you will see, savor, appreciate, understand, and love God. And since we will never be God (we will only be more like God) there is always a higher level to attain.
But growing inside of an imperfect body is uncomfortable. As we learn to speak, we are often misunderstood. As we learn to walk, we lose our balance and fall. As we learn to eat solid food, we also need to digest things that we don’t really like. As we learn to interact with friends, we face the pain of saying goodbye after playtime.
And what do toddlers do when they have these experiences? They express displeasure in anger, frustration, sadness, fear, disgust, etc. And how often do we do the same when we are faced with discomfort during our walk with Christ?
The brains of toddlers have not yet developed the ability to have any self-control. But we are expected to be adults. How would a mature person respond? Well, for example in these ways:
- Like Jesus (1 John 2:6, 1 John 4:17)
- With love for brothers and sisters in Christ (1 John 2:9-11, 1 John 4:12)
- Completely humble (Eph 4:2)
- In like-mindedness and unity (Phil 2:2, John 17:23)
- In perseverance (James 1:4)
- In obedience to God’s Word (1 John 2:5)
- In faith (2 Tim 4:7)
- In love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal 5:22-23)
I can assure you that I fail on many of these points on a daily basis. I often get impatient, I fail to be humble enough, and I worry too often. Your challenges could be of a completely different nature.
But this list demonstrates that we will have to repent and ask for forgiveness until the day we die, so that we can be made more whole until that day comes (or until Jesus returns).
Why? Because feeling sorry for not having acted patiently, brings me one step closer to being more patient. While thinking that it is okay that I wasn’t patient, takes me one step further from becoming mature in that area. And that is dangerous.
What happens if we don’t repent
Jesus’ words made me realize that I don’t repent often enough, and that is a painful realization.
Because the Bible teaches us that repentance leads to restoration, but It also teaches us that the reverse is also true: If you don’t repent, you will perish.
Some might think that if you have repented once and experienced forgiveness and have the Holy Spirit, that you are set and nothing can take you off the right path, but the reality is way more nuanced than that. Yes, we are protected by Jesus against continuing in sin (1 John 5:18) but we also know that some Christians fall from their secure position during the trials that are set before them (Matthew 13, Luke 8, James 1, 2 Peter 3:17). So, we should rest secure but also be on our guard.
Warnings against unrepentance in the Bible
Listen to what Ezekiel prophesied:
“Therefore, son of man, say to your people, ‘If someone who is righteous disobeys, that person’s former righteousness will count for nothing. And if someone who is wicked repents, that person’s former wickedness will not bring condemnation. The righteous person who sins will not be allowed to live even though they were formerly righteous.’ (Ezekiel 33:12, NIV)
In line with this, Jesus also taught us that people who know the will of God and don’t do it, are worse off than people who don’t know His will and sin (Luke 12:45-48).
Or to what the writer of Hebrews said about Esau:
See that no one is sexually immoral, or is godless like Esau, who for a single meal sold his inheritance rights as the oldest son. Afterward, as you know, when he wanted to inherit this blessing, he was rejected. Even though he sought the blessing with tears, he could not change what he had done. (Hebrews 12: 16-17, NIV)
He is talking to fellow believers here. Fellow believers whom he encourages to be holy, for without holiness no one will see the Lord (verse 14). We should never trade being a child of God for the fleeting pleasures of this life, because if we do, we could reach a point of no return like Esau did.
And listen to what Jesus said to the church in Ephesus:
“Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first. Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.” (Revelations 2:4-5, NIV)
That is a severe warning to Christians who were, by the sounds of it, doing a not so bad job. But they lacked love, the most important thing of all. And so the way they were going wasn’t leading them to eternal life in paradise.
Separation from God
I believe that the main reason why sinning without repentance leads to death is because it separates us from God. God is Light; in Him, there is no darkness at all (1 John 1:5). Darkness and light don’t go well together: in the presence of light darkness is annihilated.
In His mercy, He called us out of the darkness and into His wonderful light (1 Peter 2:9). So, when we go back to the darkness, we actually walk away from Him. To be in His presence, we really need to leave the darkness behind and walk in His light.
But the more we sin without repenting, the harder and darker our hearts become, and the further away from repentance and forgiveness we stray (Jeremiah 5:3).
Not only that, in doing so, we also close the door to wisdom and the knowledge of Truth, which makes us stray even further from the way of the Lord (2 Timothy 2:25, Proverbs 1:23).
Only when we turn to the Lord, will the veil that covers our hearts and faces be taken away.
If you cover your face in guilt and shame, it prevents you from seeing God’s light clearly and it prevents your face from reflecting His light.
If you allow a veil to cover your heart, it will prevent God’s light from shining on it and transform it to be more like His own.
When Jesus died on the cross He tore the veil for us, granting us access to God’s glorious light, allowing us to be renewed day by day. Let’s not waste that privilege! (2 Corinthians 3-4, Matthew 27:51)
What happens if we do repent
Each time that you do repent, you will be one step closer to being made whole in Christ.
“He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by his wounds you have been healed.” (1 Peter 2:24, NIV)
When we die to sin and live for righteousness, Jesus brings us healing. His healing can come in 3 ways: physical, mental, and spiritual.
Of these three, spiritual healing is the most important because if your spirit gets sick and dies, you’ll be dead for eternity.
In my experience Jesus heals all three, but not in equal amounts. He almost always brings healing to my spirit, but He doesn’t always heal me physically or mentally. But since all three are intertwined, well-being in one area has a positive effect on the other parts of me as well.
Remember, your spirit is God’s breath, breathing life into you (Genesis 2:7). Because of the sin of Adam and Eve, our spirits are dead by default and so we live fleshly lives. But after being born of the Spirit of God, God revives us by giving us His Spirit, the Holy Spirit (John 3:6).
We should only live by this holiness now that we are a new creation. Otherwise, we are slowly killing our spirit again, and our relationship with God.
When we are faced with challenges and mess up and repent, God heals our apostasy or waywardness (Hosea 14:4), and so heals our spirit and our relationship with Him.
How to repent in order to be renewed
I asked my husband how he repents, and he told me that he repents often. Each time that he catches himself having a thought that doesn’t align with God’s Word, he asks God for forgiveness. It is his way of taking captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5).
I thought that was wise, and it made me feel that I have a lot to learn about that process. Because although I try to do the same thing, I get so caught up in my work, that many times I simply rebuke the bad thought in Jesus’ Name and then move on. And although that is important, it is only part of the process. Because the thought had a cause and a consequence.
So, I studied the text Jesus laid on my heart and He allowed me to see 5 steps that lead us from repentance to renewal. When you pay close attention, you might notice that renewal doesn’t only come after these 5 steps; it also comes through these 5 steps.
God and your righteousness will make your path straight (Proverbs 3:6, 11:5).
Now, expect to say goodbye to your sin and hello to revival!
1 Realizing that you have sinned
In his psalm, David said: “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me…” (Psalm 51:3, ESV). Before we can ask for forgiveness we must realize that we have sinned.
If you have trouble realizing in which areas you have sinned, these three things will help you:
- Ask God to make you aware of it, because He searches you heart and knows in which way you fail to align it with His (Matthew 9:4, John 5:42, Romans 8:27, Acts 15:8).
- Listen closely to the Word of God, the Sword of the Spirit, Which judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart (Hebrews 4:12).
- Check your conscience and keep it clear, because the Holy Spirit will often speak through it (Romans 9:1, Hebrews 9:14, 1 Tim 1:19).
Usually, sin automatically rises to the surface when you are faced with challenges in life. That is when you realize that there is still work to do in the area of becoming more like Christ. Seize those opportunities to deepen your repentance and reach new levels of holiness.
2 Realizing how serious your sin is
You can only have humble and heartfelt repentance if you understand the gravity of your sin.
In the next verse, David continued: “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight,…”
He said that he sinned only against God. This is remarkable because what he did (desiring a married woman, sleeping with her, impregnating her, and then killing her husband) was sin against a lot of people. Think about the people who died during the battle that was supposed to kill her husband. Or about the many people, including his household, who eventually suffered as a result of his sin.
But David was right. When we sin, we always sin against God. That means that even a sin that seems small to you, and doesn’t seem to hurt anybody directly, is a major sin. God surpasses the time and space He created. He is everywhere and always. That means that any sin against Him is way bigger than we can grasp and way bigger than anything we could ever do to a human being. It carries through all time and space even if we don’t realize it.
That is why Adam’s sin against God (what can one tiny bite do?) still has its effect on the world today. It is also why only God Himself in bodily form, taking all of our sins upon Himself, could undo the wreckage Adam’s sin caused. It takes eternal forgiveness to undo eternal sin.
Mothers may know what it feels like if you work hard to prepare a nice, healthy meal and you serve it to your child with joy and your child responds in disgust. Although you might understand and will show the child patience, it stings. The ideal response for a child would be one expressing gratitude, or joy.
Now God loves us more than any mother could love a child because He is love (John 4:16). Any meal He serves us, is absolutely perfect. Just like anything else He provides us with because He knows what we need when we need it, what we need it for, and how it all fits in His glorious plan for our lives. The pleasure it gives Him, to serve us a meal or anything else we need, is unimaginable for us. So try to imagine the pain we cause Him when we receive it with grumbling, disgust, or disappointment.
Children are selfish by nature, but as we grow up, we need to learn to take other people’s feelings into account, and then we need to take God’s feelings into account. And we grieve His Holy Spirit by our rebellion (Isaiah 63:10, Ephesians 4:30).
The complexity of God’s feelings
If you think you can’t hurt God’s feelings (which I used to think before I gave my life to Christ), think again. Not only is love a feeling, and a major one at that, the Bible often speaks of other feelings God has:
- Anger (Exodus 4:14, Hebrews 4:3, Mark 3:5)
- Compassion (Nehemiah 9:7, Exodus 22:27, Matthew 9:36)
- Pity (Jeremiah 16:5, Joel 2:18)
- Regret (Genesis 6:7, 1 Samuel 15:11)
- Feeling troubled (Genesis 6:6, John 11:33, John 12:27)
- Pleasure (Proverbs 16:7, Ezekiel 18:23-32, Ephesians 1:9)
I can go on for a while.
A toddler can’t comprehend the complexity of emotions his mother experiences. How much less are we able to know how God feels! It is an incomprehensible mystery to us. But God wouldn’t have given us these descriptions of what He feels if that wasn’t at least a bit like how we experience these feelings. And I would dare to argue that what we feel is bleak in comparison to how deep and wide and full God’s experience is. Why then, do we continue to test His patience?
A transformation of the heart
It is the state of your heart that brings forth sin. If your heart is wicked, you will enjoy watching, thinking, doing wicked things. If you like coarse joking for example, then it’s a symptom of something evil going on in your heart that needs to be dealt with (Ephesians 5:4, Matthew 15:19).
We deal with it by fighting it and by repenting before it takes hold of our entire hearts. Repentance is part of the process that shapes the heart to be more like God’s.
So, even when we did not noticeably hurt another human being, for example because the sin played out in our heads, we should always ask for forgiveness for our own sake.
3 Feeling sorry
David in his psalm seemed to be very sorry for what he did, he spoke of brokenness and joylessness. He also knew how truly feeling sorry is important for receiving forgiveness. In verse 17 (ESV) he said: “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”
After understanding the seriousness of your sin to a certain extent, we should feel hurt that we caused the One Who loves us so much, Who does nothing but good to us, Who sacrificed Himself for us, so much pain.
If you are not able to feel this, you either don’t love God enough or you make Him less awesome. (And usually a combination of both.) If this is the case then that is the very thing you should repent of.
The thing is that the more you truly love and revere God, and see how very good He is to you, the more you will feel sorry for your sin. “Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?” (Romans 2:4, NIV).
I am not talking about feelings of false guilt here or about discouraging accusations by the devil, I am talking about feeling that you are actually guilty of sinning against the King of Kings.
Because “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.” (2 Corinthians 7:10, NIV).
A hard heart can’t feel remorse
If you don’t feel sorry for what you have done, it might be that your heart has hardened due to repeatedly giving in to sin. That sin doesn’t always have to be something obvious like sexual immorality, it can also be that there is pride or stubbornness in your heart that you haven’t dealt with (Daniel 5:20, Zechariah 7:12, Romans 2:5). Pride and stubbornness hinder you from sincerely repenting. You have to be truly willing to repent to get the process going, and Jesus knows if you are. For He knows your heart and mind (Revelation 2:21-23).
Hardness of heart also prevents us from understanding God’s wisdom and from experiencing a closeness to God (Hebrews 3:15, Ephesians 4:18, Matthew 13:15), so it actually steers you away from restoration and renewal.
If this is the case, all doesn’t have to be lost. God can soften your heart and He can grant you repentance (2 Timothy 2:25, Ezekiel 36:26). So, fast and pray earnestly that He will help you overcome this stumbling block.
The right first response to the realization that we have sinned against God would be “What have I done?” and a feeling of shame and humiliation (Jeremiah 8:6, 31:19).
As we become aware of the distance we have put between ourselves and God, we should long for restoration of the relationship. David said it this way: “Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit.” (verses 11 and 12, ESV).
4 Confessing your sin and asking for forgiveness
David told God in a song, that he realized he was a sinner and he begged God for mercy. He wanted to be washed clean and purged.
Once we realize that we have sinned, that our sin was evil in God’s sight, and we are sorry, we can ask God for forgiveness with a pure heart.
“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9, NIV)
That is unless you harbor bitterness in your heart. For if you do not forgive others their sin, God will not forgive yours (Matthew 6:15, Luke 6:37). So make sure to forgive the ones who sinned against you, and always treat others with love and mercy, because you need at least as much forgiveness from God for your own sins.
5 Changing your ways
The final step that leads to renewal is to change your ways.
When someone behaves in an ugly way towards a friend and feels sorry about it afterward, he can go to his friend and explain how sorry he is. If the friend patiently forgives that person, the friendship between the two can be restored and trust can be rebuilt.
But this only works when the person who repents is humble and sincere, and really tries to do better next time. If he says sorry just for the sake of saying sorry and carries on with his ugly behavior, then this “friendship” will not last long.
If you are truly sorry indeed, then change your ways. If you willingly start sinning again after being forgiven, what are you communicating to Jesus? What are you implicitly saying about His painful death on the cross, the death you and I deserved?
David told God about all that he would do once he is forgiven: He promised to teach other people how to stop sinning, and that he would sing aloud and praise God for His righteousness.
After receiving forgiveness we need to do something with it. We need to stop sinning and start producing good fruit.
Jesus says: “Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent.” (Revelation 3:19, NIV). The Greek word translated to earnest here actually means zealous or passionate. So, we must eagerly follow up on Jesus’ instructions. If He tells you that you should not watch that program on tv anymore, you should stop doing it immediately and repent. We must feel more enthusiasm for obeying Him than for watching that program.
And when you do obey and change your ways, you will become richer. You have grown, you know more than you did before, and the newfound wisdom can be applied to other areas in your life.
In other words: you can now use your testimony to produce good fruit for God’s glory.
Become a strong tree with healthy fruit
If you are rooted in the Word, you are rooted in healthy soil. We all start out as a small sprout, but as Jesus provides you with water and light, He will let you grow into a big and strong tree. His life-giving soil will keep you steady and healthy.
But because we live in a broken world, parasites and poison can ruin a good tree. If that evil is not dealt with immediately, then it can take hold of an entire branch. That branch won’t produce good fruit if any fruit at all. And if it is not dealt with, the whole tree may die and it will eventually be burnt in the fire (Matthew 3:10).
When you don’t deal with sin immediately but continue in it, you can reach a point of no return. Just like this tree and just like Esau. And that is a very scary thought.
God prunes rotten branches away. This is uncomfortable, but it will make you grow new branches, stronger and more fruitful than before.
So, thank God that He is patient and slow to anger. But let’s not misuse His patience and repent of any sin that comes to mind right now.
Jesus said in His parable about repentance in Luke 13: “…‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’
‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.’” (verses 7-9, NIV)
This article is your fertilizer and mine.
Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord. (Acts 3:19, NIV)