By Andrew Hudson
I think it’s safe to say no one enjoys repentance.
But repentance is where spiritual journeys begin, when our hearts are opened to the idea that we are sinners in need of a Savior. In practice, repentance is an incredibly difficult process to endure.
Even here, “difficult” seems far too small of a word.
For me, I’m set in my ways and don’t like to be told what to do; I especially don’t like to be told I’m wrong and that I need to change.
Do you see the difference with those two statements?
Given that observation, how do we lead people in our churches toward repentance?
1. Guide them through a model of repentant prayer.
It’s hard for anyone to talk about the coming kingdom of heaven and not discuss Daniel. It’s a prophetic book that goes into detail of what the coming future days will look like.
Daniel’s heart broke for the generations of people who had turned away from God.
Keep in mind, this prayer is after Daniel had been captured, tortured, thrown into a lion’s den, experienced difficult-to-interpret dreams, and was weighed down by the sin around him.
But first, Daniel repents of everything he knows to repent of:
“So I turned my attention to the Lord God to seek him by prayer and petitions, with fasting, sackcloth, and ashes” (Daniel 9:3).
Daniel mourned his sin. He longed for repentance. He wanted to be made right with God, but not only that, he also mourned and repented on behalf of his people—people near and far away.
He continues in Daniel 9:4–6:
“I prayed to the Lord my God and confessed: Ah, Lord—the great and awe-inspiring God who keeps his gracious covenant with those who love him and keep his commands—we have sinned, done wrong, acted wickedly, rebelled, and turned away from your commands and ordinances. We have not listened to your servants the prophets, who spoke in your name to our kings, leaders, ancestors, and all the people of the land.”
I encourage you to read the rest of Daniel’s prayer in chapter 9. My heart gets heavy when I read it.
The list is simple: We’ve sinned, done wrong, acted wickedly, rebelled, and turned away from God’s commands. Our hearts should break, and we should be longing to be made whole again by our Creator.
Don’t just tell people to repent; show them how.
2. Point them toward scriptural examples of repentance.
The Bible is filled with characters we ought to emulate. Jesus, obviously, but John the Baptist and Daniel are also great examples of what it means to live a life worthy of your calling.
Another such example is the life of David. It’s said that David loved God with his whole heart.
David isn’t without his blemishes and stains, but I’d love to turn our attention to how David repented and how it arguably provides a pattern for us to follow in true repentance.
Psalm 32 is a psalm of joy, the joy of forgiveness. Many pair this psalm as a continuation of Psalm 51 as David cries out to God to restore him after sinning against God and God alone.
These two psalms show us a great example of how in true repentance our sin not only disgusts us, but tortures our soul, and we long to be made right and whole in the presence of the Almighty.
Psalm 51 begins with David’s plea to God for His grace—grace that’s handed out freely and excessively through His faithful love:
“Be gracious to me, God, according to your faithful love; according to your abundant compassion, blot out my rebellion. Completely wash away my guilt and cleanse me from my sin. For I am conscious of my rebellion, and my sin is always before me. Against you—you alone—I have sinned and done this evil in your sight. So you are right when you pass sentence; you are blameless when you judge. Indeed, I was guilty when I was born; I was sinful when my mother conceived me” (Psalm 51:1–5).
God is faithful to our repentance. It’s important to note the verbs used in these verses: blot out, wash away, and cleanse.
“Blot out” is a verb used in conjunction with human records, meaning to make me whole again with those around me.
“Wash away” is a verb often used to describe washing clothing or the body, meaning wash me and make me clean.
“Cleansing” here is a ceremonial, liturgical cleansing, asking God to make him clean in His presence. All need to be purified and made new.
David also acknowledges that at no point in his life has he been without sin, and that it’s only through God’s forgiveness and salvation that we are able to be brought into His company.
3. Remind them of the grace that awaits them.
In Luke 15, we find the Parable of the Lost Son. Growing up for me, this parable was often referred to as the Parable of the Prodigal Son.
I had a misconception around the word prodigal—I thought it meant to return, focusing on the end of the parable.
But actually, prodigal is in reference to the son’s lavish living and opulent spending, a wasteful expenditure.
A son decides he wants his inheritance, and his father gives it to him only for the son to squander it, become a servant to work amongst pigs, and finally, in shame, return to his father.
Inside the mind of the son during that walk, we might see him rehearsing over and over the words he would say to his father. He wanted the apology to be just right, not too long, but saying everything he’d thought of in the past few days.
His father was watching, eager for his son’s return. Scanning the horizon for a glimpse of his son to come home, his father waited. And the moment he saw him, he dropped what he was doing and ran to him!
No matter how foolish the son had been, he was still his father’s son, and his father loved him dearly.
In the case of the lost son, repentance looks like returning home. Just as the father had compassion on his son, we too are extended this same love when we return.
Where do we go from here?
2 Corinthians 5:16–17 shows us how our ministry should work:
“From now on, then, we do not know anyone from a worldly perspective. Even if we have known Christ from a worldly perspective, yet now we no longer know him in this way. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, and see, the new has come!”
After repentance, we look different. We are different.
Suddenly, seeing a man like John the Baptist dressed in camel’s hair, eating locusts and honey, and yelling at people to repent doesn’t seem so odd. His perspective is different.
Our perspective should be different, too. We shouldn’t fear repentance; it’s not a consequence for doing wrong, but rather it’s the marvelous realization of God’s grace that abounds.
ANDREW HUDSON (@andrewhudson) is the brand manager for Bible Studies for Life and leads the Creative Media team at Lifeway Christian Resources.
Bible Studies for Life is offering a free e-book, How to Repent. Download it for free.