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The Prerequisite To Forgiveness


For various reasons there are a number of good Biblical words that have lost their original meaning, or have fallen into disuse.  The word "repent" is becoming one such word.  If you fail to understand Biblical repentance, you will fail to understand salvation. 


Did you know that God can repent?  If you think He can't repent, you don't fully understand Biblical repentance.  Jeremiah 18:8 and 10 in the KJV tells us that God does repent at times.  The NIV uses the word "reconsider". 


The Greek word "metanoeo" is translated as "repent" in our English New Testament.  "Metanoeo" consists of two Greek words, "meta" and "noeo".  " Meta " means "after".  "Noeo" means "to perceive".  Therefore, "metanoeo" means, "to perceive afterwards", or, "to change your mind".  It's that simple.  God can change his mind.  That's why He can repent.  Of course, He "will never" change His mind about anything He has promised.


Repentance, or changing one's mind, can look different from person to person.  Some people in the Bible repent with great agony and sorrow.  Others simply make the decision to repent with little or no emotion.  It's not how you repent that is important.  It's that  you repent that is important, because repentance in Biblical terms is the prerequisite to forgiveness of sins and salvation.  


There are different aspects to repentance which I won't elaborate on here.  The aspect of repentance I'm addressing now is what I call "initial repentance".  That's the changing of one's mind when one first meets Jesus and finds forgiveness and salvation.  The main thing we need to repent of, or change our minds on at that point, is the direction in which our lives should take.  Simply put, we acknowledge our failure to live as God wants us to live and so we decide to let Jesus direct our lives.  The working out of this decision takes a life time of changing your mind on individual issues as they arise.     


When I say Biblical repentance is the prerequisite to forgiveness, some people suggest that there are two Biblical passages where this isn't the case.  This is what I'd like to address in this article.


The first apparent exception is found in Luke 23:34 where Jesus said, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing."  We need to know a couple things here.  Who does Jesus want forgiven, and did they get forgiven without repenting? 

The word "they" in the phrase "for 'they' do not know what 'they' are doing" refers to Jesus' killers, and those who were legal witnesses to His death.  If you don't take time to think about this, you might think God forgave these people based on their "ignorance".  I don't see it that way.    


Did God forgive Jesus' killers, and did "they" repent?  I think Luke 23:48 clarifies this for us.  Because of the events surrounding Jesus' death, the people Jesus wanted forgiven "beat their breasts".  I interpret the beating of breasts as a gesture of repentance.  Jews had a number of symbolic gestures to express certain emotions, like sorrow, disgust, or anger.   Ripping one's clothes and shaking dust off one's sandals are two other examples of expressing emotion.  If I'm right on this point, these people repented.  Therefore, God answered Jesus' prayer and forgave them, but only after they repented. 

Acts 7:60 is a similar situation.  Stephen asked the Lord not to hold his murderers accountable for their sin.  Did Jesus forgive Stephen's killers?   The text says nothing more about Stephen's request, except in the case of Paul, and that's two chapters later.  Jesus went out of His way to help Paul repent.  He actually got physically violent with him as seen in Acts 9.  No one disputes the fact that Paul had a change of heart and mind concerning the direction his life should take.  He did repent, and it was dramatic.  God answered Stephen's prayer, at least in Paul's case, but only after he repented.   


The Bible says nothing about the other people who witnessed Stephen's death, but I'm sure God did His best to help them repent too.  He would not have ignored Stephen's prayer, as He had not ignored Jesus' prayer. I don't think God ignores the prayer of any righteous person.  That's a lesson for us all to learn.     


There's one thing I'd like to say at this point.  In Acts 5:31 and elsewhere, the Bible states that God "grants repentance".  This means God gives us repentance as a gift.  But how do we reconcile repentance being a gift from God, when the Bible clearly tells us we must do the repenting?  Is repentance a gift from God, or is it something we have to do on our own?   It's both.  Like most things in our lives as Christians, repenting is something we need help with.  Our minds are so depraved that we can't repent on our own.  At the same time, God won't make us repent, but He will provide ample opportunity and help us repent, as He did with Paul.  Repentance is a joint effort between us and God.  That's why we need to be in serious prayer for our unsaved loved-ones.  They cannot find salvation on their own.  They need the Holy Spirit to help them.  It's our place to pray to this end.        


Notice Acts 17:30.  It says, "in the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent."  It can't be any clearer.  I conclude that repentance is a prerequisite to forgiveness, and the two apparent passages found in the New Testament that seems to suggest otherwise, really don't suggest otherwise after-all.   


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