More than 50 years ago, the Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn published a small volume entitled We Never Make Mistakes, comprised of two novellas. The two offer devastating accounts of what daily life could be during the Stalin regime. A regime that “never made mistakes” or never admitted that it made mistakes grinds down the human spirit, eventually creating people who also “never make mistakes.”
We in the West don’t live in Stalinist regimes today, but we have our own variant. How many times do we see Hollywood stars, politicians, and other celebrities, when caught making a mistake or doing something wrong, begin their apology with the word “if,” as in, “If I offended anyone.” That’s not an apology. It’s not a change of heart. It’s not showing true remorse or repentance. What it is, at most, is a feeling of regret that the individual was caught doing wrong.
The Biblical concept of repentance is radically different. In What is Repentance? by R.C. Sproul, he explains that the word “repentance” is translated from the Greek word metanoia. “Generally speaking,” Sproul writes, “metanoia has to do with the changing of one’s mind with respect to one’s behavior. It contains the idea of ruing. To rue something means to regret a particular action. It carries with it not only an intellectual assessment but also an emotional or visceral response. The feeling most often associated with repentance in Scripture is that of remorse, regret, and a sense of sorrow for having acted in a particular way. This, repentance involves sorrow for a previous form of behavior.”
In other words, repentance has nothing to do with sorrow at being caught, but with sorrow for doing something wrong in the first place.
Sproul goes on to draw pictures of repentance from the Old Testament, the model of King David (who did many things wrong but experienced genuine remorse for those wrongs), and a discussion of the concept of repentance in the New Testament. It is a short book but it is packed with insight and wisdom – and explaining what used to be obvious.
Until his death in December of 2017, Sproul led Ligonier Ministries, based in Sanford, Florida. He wrote numerous books, articles, sermons, and speeches on Christianity, church history, theology, Calvinism, Reformed theology, and related topics. The Crucial Questions series includes some 30 topics which are free as eBooks, and volume on conscience is a part of the series.
In a time and culture that focuses on self, always being right, and never admitting wrong, What is Repentance? is a refreshing counterpoint.
Top photograph by Mitchell Hollander via Unsplash. Used with permission.