Repentance and the Conscience (1)
“Therefore, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision, but declared first to those in Damascus and in Jerusalem, and throughout all the region of Judea, and then to the Gentiles, that they should repent, turn to God, and do works befitting repentance.” Acts 26.19, 20
Many Christians today believe that saving faith consists in hearing the Good News of Jesus Christ and believing in Him for the forgiveness of sins and the gift of eternal life.
All we need to do, is present Jesus and the Gospel in a way that scratches some itch in our neighbors’ lives – whatever that might be – and they’ll come to Jesus and (hopefully) our church and find a home in our midst. The Gospel, in such a scenario, is all about making Jesus appealing, so that anyone looking for something more in life might find in Him the satisfaction of their deepest needs. Do they need a true and reliable friend? Jesus is the Friend Who sticks closer than a brother. Do they need reassurance and a feeling of self-worth? Jesus can jack up their self-image by coming alongside them throughout the day. Are they afraid? Confused? Desperate to be accepted somewhere? Jesus is up to all these challenges and more.
Jesus, we say to our neighbors, is just what you need.
But what if people don’t know what their deepest need is? Or what if their deepest need is something they refuse to consider? Or don’t even understand? What if their deepest need is just the kind of thing that churches today seem increasingly reluctant to talk about? What if their deepest need has to do with sin?
And what if what’s true of our unsaved neighbors is true of us as well?
Many people today carry around a burden of guilt and shame because they know there are things in their lives that aren’t right, and yet they can’t – or won’t – desist from them. It’s easier just to feel bad about them. Their conscience indicts them, and they spend a good bit of their waking moments trying to ignore their conscience and just get through the day. All people have the works of the Law written on their hearts. Some work hard to bury the memory of that Law, but because they are the image-bearers of God, their conscience won’t quite cut all ties with the truth (cf. Rom. 1.18-21; 2.14, 15).
The conscience of every person knows what is needed when sin has established a presence in the soul. Repentance.
The heart of the Gospel
Deliverance from sin – its power, shame, guilt, and self-deception – is the heart of the Gospel of the Kingdom. And deliverance from sin begins in repentance. Jesus routinely began His sermons with the word, “Repent!” All the apostles also understood that the starting point for saving faith is not in identifying any merely superficial needs we may imagine Jesus will satisfy. The starting point for saving faith is in facing up to, admitting, confessing, and turning away from our sins. The starting point for saving faith, in short, is repentance. When presented with the Gospel, if the soul is quickened, people will ask, “What shall I do?” Our answer must be: “Repent and believe the Good News” (cf. Acts 2.36-38).
Repentance is that voice in the conscience which speaks up when we have strayed from the holy and righteous and good Law of God, which He writes on the heart of all people (Rom. 2.14, 15) and which He is daily renewing on the hearts of those to whom He has sent His Spirit (Ezek. 36.26, 27). Repentance demands a change of thinking and feeling and attitude about some practice or practices. What we formerly accepted as normal – agreeable, if not entirely right – we now come to see, in the light of God’s truth, as shameful, wrong, and even despicable. Our purified conscience bears witness against us, and its call for repentance demands to be heard. In the face of Jesus’ holiness, we realize we could never be acceptable to Him so long as these practices continue unchecked. And in the light of His sacrificial suffering and death – occasioned by our wicked practices – repentance demands that we be done with these disgusting and disgraceful ways and find a new path for our lives.
When our conscience is functioning for repentance as an indispensable priority and value, we will begin thinking and feeling differently about our lives, and how we ought to live them to be most pleasing to God. The call for repentance heeded, our soul grows stronger and we increase, if ever so slightly, into the likeness of Jesus.
Faith and repentance
There is no saving faith without repentance. Saving faith, as Paul indicates in our text, arises from repentance, and leads to good works of righteousness which are in keeping with repentance. But if there is no repentance, how can there be any good works in keeping with repentance? And if there are no good works, then, as James explains, our “faith” is dead, being unaccompanied by good works in keeping with repentance (Jms. 2.14-26).
Repentance is not much discussed, let alone practiced, among Christians these days. And the lack of teaching about repentance is a major hindrance to achieving a good conscience, one purified from dead works (Heb. 9.14). The failure to take repentance seriously also helps to explain why our good works, such as they are, have not been sufficient to stem the tide of immorality that threatens to inundate all aspects of our society.
Without repentance, there can be no faith, and without faith, there can be no good works in keeping with repentance.
Until we as Christians recover the importance of practicing repentance, there may not be much real saving faith in the churches of the land. We will always need to practice repentance from sin, because we will never be without sin in this life (1 Jn. 2.8-10). Only as we purify our conscience in all the ways we have thus far discussed, will repentance play the powerful and restorative role God intends.
1. Explain the relationship between faith and repentance in the Christian life.
2. How would you explain repentance and why it is necessary to a new believer?
3. Why does it make sense to relate the work of repentance to the conscience?
Next steps – Preparation: Pay attention to your walk with the Lord today. How often are you called to repent of some sin? Is this typical?
T. M. Moore
All the installments in this “Strong Souls” series are available in PDF by clicking here.
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Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.