It can be argued that repentance is not a popular subject to bring up these days, even in the church. And your response to such a statement may be, “Yeah, and it wouldn’t take much to make that case either.” Assuming that this is true, how should this neglect be addressed? More sermons on repentance? A Sunday school series, perhaps? Those are good answers, but only if the repentance that is taught isn’t a reduced repentance. That is, we need to embrace and teach a comprehensive repentance that captures all of what the Bible says repentance is.
I make this point because there can be a tendency for us to see repentance as just turning from what is wrong to what is right: “A complaining spirit used to permeate my life, but I have replaced that with habitually giving thanks,” or, “Before, I would respond to my problems with outbursts of anger, but now I seek to resolve problems peacefully.” By themselves, there is nothing wrong with these statements. Repentance does involve this kind of shift in behavior, but they are leaving something out when it comes to what we might call the fruit of repentance.
A question will help us identify what is missing. Where is God in these statements? He’s not there. This is crucial to recognize because repentance means much more than turning from sin to righteousness. It also means turning from self to God. In Psalm 73, Asaph demonstrates this full-orbed view of repentance. Early in the Psalm, he reveals that he had previously been “envious of the arrogant” when he saw their “prosperity” (v. 3). The wicked people he was observing had lives that were marked by comfort and ease (vv. 4-5), even though they were living in rebellion to God. His life, on the other hand, was marked by difficulty, even though he was seeking to walk in righteousness (vv. 13-14).
To understand the deeper nature of repentance, we need to see how Asaph perceived the trouble in his life. In v. 13, he says, “All in vain have I kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence.” Because he was not experiencing ease like the wicked, Asaph thought it was a waste for him to choose holiness. Where is God in this? He is certainly not the end for which Asaph is seeking to be holy. Rather, the goal of Asaph’s holiness was a comfortable life. In other words, Asaph is at the center of Asaph’s choices. He needs to turn from self. But where must he turn instead?
After he enters the sanctuary of God, Asaph’s eyes are opened and he understands something vital about the wicked: they are walking toward God’s destruction (vv. 17-19). Following this realization, Asaph makes confession to God: “I was brutish and ignorant; I was like a beast toward you” (v. 22). Asaph has turned from self to God in confession, but this only demonstrates part of the turn. In our repentance, confession to God leads to something more: enjoyment of God. The beauty of restored fellowship with God is put on display for us as we listen to Asaph utter some of the most well-known words in the Psalms: “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (vv. 25-26).
Restored fellowship with God is the fruit of true repentance, not simply right behavior, right thinking, or even confession. Perhaps this means we need to repent of our repentance because God has been left out of it. If that’s the case for you, then remember that the blood of Jesus paid for your reduced repentance as well, just as with the sins you were seeking to repent of in the first place. His loving sacrifice is yet another reminder that fellowship with God is the sweetest fruit we can seek as we turn from self and sin.