Repentance or Remorse, Heaven or Hell
They are Not the Same Thing
Last Sunday in church we celebrated the Lord’s Supper and focused on the need we have for self-examination. I know what you’re thinking, self-examination and the Lord’s Supper don’t seem to go together— at least not in my prior church experience.
I remember all my formative years in a Southern Baptist church and how the Lord’s Supper seemed like just another religious ritual, full of pomp and fluff and feel-good stuff, always heavy on form and light on substance. There was a great emphasis, an overriding emphasis, on the service looking good and proper from the pews and not necessarily impacting the heart. Come on, you know what I’m talking about… the deacons standing in military formation, the white linen sheets that covered the “remembrance” table, the solemn looks on the faces of the participants— nobody talking, nobody moving, nobody breathing.
Remember? Then the elements were passed out as quickly as possible while the organ, or piano, or keyboard, or CD player filled the sanctuary with Christian-like instrumental background music. Religious Muzak.
We took the bread (uh, actually it was more like a cardboard dough droplet) and the grape juice and followed, on cue, the preacher as he told us when to eat and when to drink and when to pray and when to go home. When he raised his plastic 1/4 of a shot glass of grape juice, so did we. When he put the dough droplet in his mouth and looked down in his best “this is a serious moment” preacher posture, we did the same. When he closed his eyes and prayed, we closed our eyes and prayed as well.
“Great. All done. Now we’ve celebrated the Lord’s death until He returns. Can’t wait until next time. Let’s hit the road!”
But for me, something was missing, something was conspicuously absent— almost by design— and it left me hungry and longing for more. It was like I was only privy to half the truth about the Lord’s Supper and what it all meant.
Looking back, every preacher I ever sat under would read the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 in their best James Earl Jones baritone voice as they began the ceremony. They would say:
For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus in the night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, “This is My body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” In the same way He took the cup also after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood ; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.
Got it. But once I became a preacher, I continued reading:
Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner, shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord. But a man must examine himself, and in so doing he is to eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself if he does not judge the body rightly. For this reason many among you are weak and sick, and a number sleep. (1 Corinthians 11:27-30)
Oh, I see. This paints a completely different picture altogether. The proverbial “horse of a different color.”
It seems that one of the reasons for the Lord’s Supper is for each of us to take time and draw a line in the sand, as they say, and examine ourselves to make sure we are not taking this Supper in, as Paul puts it, an “unworthy manner.” And if we do, Scripture says we will bring judgment upon ourselves like many did in the early church, where they became sick and some actually died.
“So this is serious business and not just some lame religious formality.” Uh, hello.
In our church, I actually try to discourage people from participating in the Lord’s Supper unless they have first thoroughly examined themselves, repented of any known sins, reconciled any fractured relationships, forgiven any unforgivable person, “climb every mountain and ford every stream,” and agreed willingly to obey the Lord in any area of their lives they had previously shaken their fist in His face and defiantly told Him, “No Way, Jose!” Only after a time of intense self-examination do we ask our people to come and partake of this ordinance with a clean and pure heart and in a “worthy” manner.
Repentance or Remorse
This Sunday, the “unworthy” area we specifically focused on was that of true repentance or simply heart-felt remorse. How important is the distinction between the two? It’s essential, vital— one of the non-negotiable of the Christian faith. One leads to life and the other to death. One is a a small, hand-painted, inconspicuous sign pointing to the turnstile that leads to eternal life and the other is a bright, flashing, neon sign boldly beckoning all to take the wide path of destruction. (Matt 7:13-14)
“Don’t you think that maybe you’re making a bit too much of this?” I don’t think so.
Consider the definition of repentance. The root meaning of to repent (Gk: metanoeo) is “to think differently” or “to reconsider.” Virtually all Greek lexicons agree that to metaneois means “to reconsider” or, as we commonly used it today, “to change one’s mind.” * But don’t make the mistake of thinking that true repentance is simply mental gymnastics. No, true repentance involves not only the cognitive change in our way of thinking about sin, but also the will and volition to have our lives changed by Christ to bear more of His fruit and to conform more to His likeness.
Plus, it’s a key, essential, do-or-die element in salvation. Without repentance and faith, there is no eternal life, no matter what Joel Osteen tells you. Take a look at the following few Scriptures and note that repentance is more than thinking differently about sin, it is actually changing one’s behavior.
We’ll begin in the Old Testament:
2 Chronicles 7:14
“If My people who are called by My name humble themselves and pray and seek My face and (what) turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”
Note, not just “changing one’s mind about sin” but “turning from their wicked ways.”
“So when you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide My eyes from you; Yes, even though you multiply prayers, I will not listen. Your hands are covered with blood. Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from My sight. Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, reprove the ruthless, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”
Again note, there is action involved, the “fruits in keeping with repentance” that John the Baptist and others talked about. (Luke 3:7-8 and Acts 26:19-20)
“Seek the LORD while He may be found; call upon Him while He is near. Let the wicked (what) forsake his way and the unrighteous man his thoughts; and let him return to the LORD, and He will have compassion on him, and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon.”
Forsaking sin and seeking God is the repentance and faith of salvation.
Plus, in the New Testament, repentance was the cornerstone of the preaching of Jesus, John the Baptist, Paul and the early church. And it always involved more than just feeling sorry for your sins. “Oh, you poor, poor, lil’ sinner.”
Let’s just look at the message preached by our Lord:
The Pharisees and their scribes began grumbling at His disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with the tax collectors and sinners?” And Jesus answered and said to them, “It is not those who are well who need a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to (what) repentance.”
Now after John had been taken into custody, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”
And he (Jesus) came into all the district around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
Even in the Great Commission, Jesus connects repentance and faith as the message to be proclaimed to the entire world.
Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and He said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.”
In summary, repentance is a change of mind or attitude toward sin, one’s own sin in particular. It includes remorse (sorrow, grief) and also a sincere desire to be rid of it (the kind David expresses in Psalm 51), as well as a determination to forsake sin and walk before God (see Acts 14:15). *
But What About Remorse?
Great question. What about remorse? Isn’t feeling sorrow or guilt or shame for your sin enough? After all, isn’t changing one’s mind about sin and feeling bad about it what repentance is all about?
Answer. Not even close. This is the well-traveled, wide path that leads to destruction our Lord talked about in His Sermon on the Mount. Let me elaborate.
Like God, we are also triune in nature— spirit, body and soul. We are, in fact, a spirit created in the image of God. We, as a spirit, live in a body that allows us to interact with the physical environment that surrounds us. And we possess a soul, which is the center of our mind (intellect), emotion (feelings), will (choice), and conscience (moral capacity). It is in our soul that we choose to “walk according to the flesh or according to the spirit” (Gal. 5:16). It is our soul that chooses, like Mary, to magnify the Lord (Luke 1:46) and it is our soul that is often troubled, weary and in need of refreshing or restoration by the Lord (Psalm 23:3).
It is also in our soul that true remorse for sin is felt and, if genuine, becomes redeeming repentance. But, it is also in the soul that remorse can remain remorse and never bring changes in the actions and attitudes of the person that the Scripture refers to as “fruits in keeping with repentance” (Luke 3:7-8).
When a person is under the conviction of the Word by the Holy Spirit, all aspects of the soul are brought into play. The mind (intellect) must understand the message preached, the standard of God, compared to the fallen life of man. This understanding brings with it emotion (sorrow, remorse, shame, guilt) for the sin we have committed and the need for forgiveness. If true repentance follows, then the will (choice, volition) will move to commit to a new way of living, to get rid of the sin and unrighteousness and replace it with righteousness. In other words, to live a holy life like Christ commands us to.
For repentance to take place, all three— mind, emotion and will— must be active in the life of the repentant sinner. If only the first two occur, mind and emotion, then the end result is not repentance, but remorse, and salvation does not take place. Again, we are back on the Yellow Brick Road, leading to death and destruction.
Let me give you a couple of examples from Scripture.
Repentance Example: Acts 2
Peter preaches his incredibly bold and confrontational sermon to a great crowd gathered on the day of Pentecost. He challenges and accuses them of the murder of Jesus, God’s own Son (Acts 2:22-24). He then appeals to their mind by asserting facts about Jesus:
“Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain (mind) that God has made Him both Lord and Christ— this Jesus who you crucified.” (Act 2:36)
And what was the result? They were grieved, guilt-ridden, pained, and in great remorse. So much so they asked Peter and the others what they must to do alleviate the pain of their guilt, shame and sorrow. Remember?
Now when they heard this, they were pierced to the heart (guilt, remorse, sorrow), and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brethren, what must we do?” (Acts 2:37)
Now this is where we separate the truly repentant from those who are only sorry for their sin. Peter replies to them:
“Repent, and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Acts 2:39.
And some did. And some didn’t.
In fact, the account tells us a couple of verses later that “3,000 souls” were added to the church that day. Just 3,000. Of the great multitude that heard Peter’s message and called out with the others in the pain of their guilt and remorse, “Brethren, what must we do?”— 3,000 chose to respond (will and volition) with repentance and follow in baptism while the others fixated at remorse only and chose not to respond to Peter’s call.
When the soul understand the message (mind, intellect – Step One) and the emotions bring guilt, sorrow and remorse (feelings – Step Two), the individual stands at a crossroads. How am I to get rid of these unpleasant feelings of guilt, remorse and sorrow for my sin? I can repent of them and ask the Lord to forgive me, vowing never to commit them again (will, volition – Step Three). Or, I can walk away and drown them out in drink, food, sex, drugs, entertainment or whatever poison you use to numb your conscience. One path leads to life and one path leads to death.
Remorse Example: Judas, Rich Young Ruler
The Scriptures also show us examples of those who stopped, dug in their heels, and fixated at Step Two – Remorse. Remember Judas? He felt remorse for betraying Jesus and returned the 30 pieces of sliver to, in some sort of perverted way, try to remove the pain of his guilt. “I have sinned (mind and intellect) and betrayed innocent blood!” he cried (Matthew 27:4). He returned the silver and went out and committed suicide to rid himself of the pain of remorse. Did he repent? Scripture says, no.
The following Scripture flow will help illustrate this point:
Then when Judas, who had betrayed Him, saw that He had been condemned… (Matthew 27:3a)
he felt (what) remorse and returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders. saying, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” But they said, “What is that to us? See to that yourself!” And he threw the pieces of silver into the temple sanctuary and departed; and he went away and hanged himself (Matthew 27:3b-5).
Act of the Will (Volition) – Fruits of Repentance: None
The Rich Young Ruler fell into the same trap.
And someone came to Him and said, “Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may obtain eternal life?” The young man said to Him, “All these things I have kept; what am I still lacking?” (Matthew 19:16, 20).
Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” But when the young man heard this statement, he went away grieving; for he was one who owned much property. (Matthew 19:20-21)
Act of the Will (Volition) – Fruits of Repentance: None
Same thing with King Saul in 1 Samuel 15:24-25.
* Cottrell, Jack. The Faith Once for All. Joplin, Mo.: College Press Publishing Company, 2002.)