Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Practice of Repentance

It is time for a FIRST Wild Card Tour book review! If you wish to join the FIRST blog alliance, just click the button. We are a group of reviewers who tour Christian books. A Wild Card post includes a brief bio of the author and a full chapter from each book toured. The reason it is called a FIRST Wild Card Tour is that you never know if the book will be fiction, non~fiction, for young, or for old...or for somewhere in between! Enjoy your free peek into the book!

You never know when I might play a wild card on you!

Today's Wild Card author is:

and the book:

The Practice of Repentance

CrossHouse Publishing (October 15, 2010)

***Special thanks to Jennifer Nelson, PR Specialist, Hannibal Books for sending me a review copy.***


Woody Wilson and his wife, Judy, live in McKinney, Texas, where he serves as senior pastor of Waddill Street Baptist Church. They have four grown children and two grandchildren. Woody received his M.Div. from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and his D.Min. from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.


What does being sorry for one's sins truly mean? Why do many Christians regret their wrongdoings but never engage in true, utter, and complete repentance?

Pastor Woody Wilson contends that as believers we are content with what he calls "incomplete repentance" in our repetitive sin-struggles and never actually engage in the necessary practice of repenting of sin before we commit it--genuinely forsaking our tendency toward sin and turning away from it before it entangles us again.

Product Details:

List Price: $11.95
Paperback: 120 pages
Publisher: CrossHouse Publishing (October 15, 2010)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1934749877
ISBN-13: 978-1934749876


This is a small book, right around 100 pages, but the words it contains are oh-so-important. Repentance is a word we don't hear too often these days, and Woody Wilson has sounded a warning to churches as well as to the hearts of so many who consider themselves Christians. Not only do we not preach or practice repentance, few of us really understand what repentance actually means, even to the point of where it fits on the timeline with sin. This is an excellent book which should be read by lay persons and church leaders alike.

On a personal note, while I did not begin reading the book with any preconceived notions regarding its value, I did enjoy the fact that the author is the pastor of the church where some of my relatives have been members for years. It is indeed a small world after all!



The Enigma of Repentance

The first word of the gospel1 is in grave danger of becoming the last word of the church. Repentance is not a popular subject. True repentance is difficult to describe. Is it an emotion—feeling sorry for our sins? Is it an attitude—thinking positively about the human condition? Is it an act of will—promising never to commit a particular sin again? Is it a personal resolution—turning over a new leaf? Most of our thinking about repentance places it squarely in the domain of human activity. It is something we do.

Repentance is, in fact, a God-ward action, but this is only part of the story. Repentance begins and ends with God. In between, however, we are dynamically involved in the process. The enigma of repentance is that it is both a gift that God gives, a divine enabling of sinful man to turn his heart away from sin and toward God, and also a command to be obeyed, without which no one can approach God or find forgiveness for sins.

As central as repentance is to the gospel message, it has fallen on hard times. When Jonathan Edwards preached his famous sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, on July 8, 1741, in Enfield,Connecticut, people literally held on to one another or to fence posts, in fear that the earth would open up and swallow them alive, taking them down to the pit of hell itself. The people, previously characterized as “thoughtless and vain,” were so changed before the sermon was ended that they were “bowed down with an awful conviction of their sin and danger.”2 No wonder that repentance was a mark of the First Great Awakening in America. In the words of W. G. T. Shedd, “All great religious awakenings begin in the dawning of the august and terrible aspects of the Deity upon the popular mind.”3

Times have changed; seldom do pastors today preach with such tones as did Edwards, George Whitefield, and other preachers of that day. The modern/postmodern preacher usually opts for a more positive approach to the gospel in his sermons, rarely mentioning either sin or repentance. One of those Great Awakening preachers was Aaron Burr Sr., who stood in stark contrast to many of the preachers of that day and this:

He was none of those downy doctors who soothe their hearers into delusive hopes of the divine acceptance, or substitute external morality for vital godliness. He scorned to proclaim the peace of God till the rebel had laid down his arms and returned to his allegiance. He searched the conscience with the terrors of the law, before he assuaged its anguish with the sweet emollients of a bleeding Deity.4

The accusation of soothing their hearers into delusive hopes should cause us to sit up and take notice. Preachers today want the power, popularity, and results of those renowned preachers but do not want to carry the message necessary to bring those results. We will not experience peace without preaching repentance, and we will not see repentance without preaching sin. We have become accustomed to—and prefer—a watered-down version of the gospel marked by an absence of the awe and fear of God. We have, consequently, lost the impetus of calling people to return to a holy and just God who will not leave sin unpunished. In response to the attitude of that former day, the preaching of “the Great Awakening was often alarming, and intentionally so.”5

Richard Owen Roberts sounds a renewed alarm for this current generation:

The biblical doctrine of repentance hinges on the fact that all sin is a grievous affront against God. None of us has a right to offend Him. We must turn from our sin in repentance. Thus, it is scarcely surprising that in a time of deep moral and spiritual decline, the world cares as little for the doctrine of repentance as it does for negative statements about sin. It is time for alarm, however, when the church that the Lord Jesus Christ established knows scarcely any more about repentance than does the sin-loving world. Tragically, that is the situation today. Granted, the word repentance is still in our religious vocabulary, but it is nonetheless a tragically misunderstood and carelessly disregarded term.6

One reason why repentance may be so neglected in many churches is that there is a general disregard for biblical doctrine. Christians have substituted slogans and philosophical ideas for God’s revealed truth. An example of such is the oft-quoted “God helps those who help themselves.” It is quoted as if it is a divinely inspired verse in the Bible. Of course, it is not—in fact, it is contrary to what the Bible teaches. This popular byword implies that God is a last resort—help yourself first and, if that does not work, then ask God to help.

Another factor is that churches have preached a brand of salvation that requires no repentance. We call people to “walk the aisle,” “to say a prayer,” and “to invite Jesus into their hearts.” If there is no repentance that accompanies these acts, then we are calling people to turn to Christ without turning from sin—an incomplete repentance at best. No wonder so many who call themselves Christian today are merely nominal believers7 who persist in the same sins they committed before their so-called salvation.

Many view repentance as a one-time event (as a synonym for salvation) rather than as a continuing response to God’s grace. The Bible calls us to be repenting repenters. As I typed this line, the spell check on my computer underlined the word repenter as a misspelled word. I clicked on the word to see what the suggested spelling was and found two possible substitutes: reenters and repeaters. At first, I chuckled at the suggestions, but then I realized that this is exactly what we do. We are “repenting repeaters,” never truly turning away from sin, often repeating the same old sins without ever truly repenting of them.

The end result of these factors may very well be a “repentanceless” church. That specter begs the question: Can such an entity truly be called church? One may also ask whether a Christian life void of repentance can truly be called Christian.

Where does repentance fit into the Christian experience? Jesus came preaching, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15).8 For the gospel to be the good news that it is, it must always remain “repent and believe.” Jesus joined these two aspects of our salvation in what Roberts called the “irrevocable link … between repentance and faith.”9 To separate these concepts is to destroy the essence of the gospel. To abandon repentance proves extremely detrimental to the life of the Christian and to the church.

Nevertheless, repentance has fallen into misuse and disuse in the church today. My first encounter with an erroneous view of repentance came in the days of my youth. I lived in a central Illinois town that tended to be predominantly Catholic. My Catholic friends found it strange that I was a Baptist; I was equally bewildered by their practices. Without launching into the theological explanations of why they did what they did, suffice it to say that their practice of visiting the confessional on Saturdays and being given some penance to do by the priest did not alter their lifestyle one iota. They sinned with impunity, confessed their sins by rote recitation, and returned to their sins as quickly as they could. There was absolutely no concept of life-transforming repentance, even less any vital commitment to the Lordship of Jesus.

I have learned, however, that Baptists and other evangelical groups have equally misshapen views of repentance. Most, if pressed to describe their own repentance, would relegate it to an entrance event. To them, repentance is synonymous with their conversion experience. They “repented” by asking Jesus to forgive their sins. Years later, if you asked them about repentance, they would say they had already done that and had no need to repeat it.

Others who are more serious about their Christian life and are struggling against some persistent sin also focus on repentance as a one-time event. They are tired of some specific sin affecting their life and want to be done with it once for all. They seek a repentance that will rid their life of the problem for good. I have found in my own experience that it does not happen that way. I will treat the issue of habitual sin and our struggle with sin in a later chapter, but for now I confess that I, too, wish I could leave some sins behind and never be troubled by them again. In the moments of my deepest regret over repeating the same sin, having again turned my heart and will back to the Lordship of Jesus, I know that even though I am forgiven, I am not through with the sin. It will rear its ugly head again and again. What I do with that temptation is the subject of this book. Moving beyond the concept of a repentance that removes sin and temptation out of our way once for all, we embrace the truth that repentance is intended to be the constant companion of the dedicated Christian. It is one of the Christian disciplines (even though many books treating the subject of spiritual disciplines fail to recognize it as such). Just as we abide in God’s Word on a daily basis and maintain an attitude of prayer throughout the day, so we seek to practice repentance as a matter of daily discipline.

The truth that I am seeking to declare is that we will never understand true repentance until we comprehend that repentance is not merely an act of turning away from sins already committed but is, more importantly, an act of turning away from our proclivity toward sin. The thirteenth-century Jewish teacher Rabbeinu Yonah refers to the highest level of repentance as “shunning a sin when faced with it and still fully craving it and fully capable of committing it again.”10 Most people see repentance as something they do only after they have sinned. I am suggesting that true repentance is primarily something we do before we sin, which keeps us from straying into that sin again. It is turning away from the temptation to sin. In this sense, then, repentance not only releases us from sin’s guilt but also from sin’s power. This truth transforms repentance from a past action (I have repented) to a present action (I am repenting).

Let us not confuse our terms here. There is an entrance-level repentance when we first come by faith to Jesus. In that moment, we can say without hesitation, “I have repented of my sins.” There are also those times when, under conviction of some sin committed, we turn back to God in godly sorrow. We can, at these times, also say, “I have repented of sin.” For the follower of Jesus, however, it cannot stop there if we are to have victory over sin’s sway in our lives. We must practice repentance preemptively. I referred to this earlier as being a “repenting repenter”—that is, one who, having repented of sin and placed his faith in Jesus, is actively repenting, turning away from sin one temptation at a time. W. T. Conner explains,

The initial act of repentance is the beginning of a life of repentance. Jesus says we should take up the Cross daily (Luke 9:23). … The sinful self has to be crucified daily. The old man, as Paul calls him (Col. 3:9), has more lives than the proverbial cat. He will not stay dead when killed. Oftentimes the deepest repentance does not come at the beginning of the Christian life.11

In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin says that the one who has placed his faith in Jesus “must depart from the errors of his former life, enter into the right way, and devote all his attention to the exercise of repentance” (emphasis added).12 Calvin explains further:

This restoration is not accomplished in a single moment, or day, or year; but by continual, and sometimes even tardy advances, the Lord destroys the carnal corruptions of his chosen, purifies them from all pollution, and consecrates them as temples to himself; renewing all their senses to real purity, that they may employ their whole life in the exercise of repentance, and know that this warfare will be terminated only by death. … There still remains in a regenerate man a fountain of evil, continually producing irregular desires, which allure and stimulate him to the commission of sin.13

In the first of his ninety-five theses, Martin Luther states, “When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said ‘repent,’ he meant that the entire life of believers should be one of repentance.”14 Luther taught that penance, the way the Catholic Church of his day practiced it, had little, if anything, to do with true repentance. He was convinced that “the Gospel called not for an act of penance but for a radical change of mind that would lead to a deep transformation of life” and that “repentance is a characteristic of the whole life, not the action of a single moment.”15

Reflecting upon the theological approach to repentance of Calvin and Luther, one may conclude that “true repentance can never be reduced to a single act found only at the beginning of the Christian life. … Since its goal is our restoration into the image of Christ, it involves the ongoing practical outworking of our union with Christ.”16 This truth refers to repentance as a “lifelong process of the restoration of sinners,” which is “an inescapable, ongoing, and permanent necessity.”17

The practice of repentance is therefore the ongoing, continual exercise of resisting temptation and turning our hearts toward the Lord in renewed and steadfast commitment. The enigma of it is that many Christians are content with an incomplete repentance. They repent of sins committed but never learn how to repent of sin before they commit it. That sounds absurd! How can you repent of something you have not done? This is exactly the point. Repentance is misunderstood by most. Repentance is far more than feeling sorry for sins committed; it is the forsaking of our tendency toward sin, turning away from it before it entangles us again. I want you to learn the practice of repentance—to become “a repenting repenter.” The purpose of this book is to teach you how you can live this truth: “I am repenting of my sin.” This is the path to victory over sin.


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