That’s important to realize, but we often think that being sorry for something we’ve done means that’s all that’s needed. Especially if we say, “I’m sorry” we feel that we’ve paid our dues and should no longer feel guilty. Repentance, however, means change. And we can feel deeply sorry for something without changing it.
For example, a young man sat on a ragged street corner each Saturday smoking, not one, but three joints. With all three lit, he would take turns taking a long drag off of each. Every Saturday, the same scene. Someone watching asked him to explain.
“Well, I’ve two brothers, one in Australia and one in Ireland,” the guy explained. When we left home, we agreed to do this every week as a way to remember each other. So, I smoke one for me and one for each of my brothers.”
The next Saturday, the guy rolled just two joints. Feeling awkward, an observer said, “I’m really sorry, man. Did something happen to one of your brothers?”
“Oh, no,” the young man grinned. “Nothing like that. I joined the church last Sunday, so I had to give up drugs. Not my brothers, though!”
Sorry, but that’s not repentance. And, while it may get you in a church, it won’t get you forgiveness. Change is necessary.
Preparing for Jesus, John the baptizer’s message was, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (Matthew 3:2). Jesus’ own message was, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (Matthew 4:17). Notice a theme? We must change.
John got very specific with those coming to be baptized. “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance,” he told them (Luke 3:8). For those who possessed plenty, that meant sharing what they had (3:11). For those in business, it meant being honest and fair in their dealings with others (3:13). And for Roman soldiers, it meant ceasing to abuse their power (3:14). What might it mean for us?
It’s a good start to feel bad about sin. It’s great to be sorry for the wrongs we’ve done, or the good we’ve left undone. But feeling sorry is just the beginning, not the end. “Godly sorrow brings repentance,” Paul wrote, “that leads to salvation and leaves no regret” (2 Corinthians 7:10).
Repentance is needed, not just remorse. If you don’t change, your life will be like this forever. Is this good news?
Keith Wishum is minister, Williams Road Church of Christ, Americus.