A Plea for Repentance : Part 1
When I was a teenager, my friend and I ran a trapline together. My friend asked permission for us to set traps on the property of one of his relatives. Things were fine until one day when I was checking traps, I noticed a set we hadn’t made. Because all traps needed to contain a tag with the owner’s name and address, checking the trap revealed who had set it.
As I went further along the stream, I found more traps that weren’t ours. One of those traps had made a successful catch. I took the animal from that trap and added it to our catch for the day. Immediately, I knew it was wrong, but I justified myself because this person didn’t have permission to set traps there. I rationalized that if he hadn’t placed traps there without permission, he would never have caught the animal. So, he really wasn’t missing out on anything, and the animal really belonged to us anyway.
But over the next several days, the Spirit of God began to work on my conscience. I knew I had taken something that didn’t belong to me and that was stealing. Of course, I explained to God the rationale for my actions, but that didn’t ease the weight of my guilt. I tried to put it out of my thoughts, and I was somewhat successful. But whenever I tried to pray, the first thing that came to my mind was what I had done.
After several weeks, I couldn’t bear the guilt and the distance I felt in my relationship with God. I knew what I had to do. I remember getting in my car and driving to the address of the man who owned those traps. I drove by his place several times, asking God for the courage to do what I knew I had to do. Finally, I pulled into his driveway, walked toward the barn, and met him.
I explained to him what had happened and why I was there. He was understanding, but when I offered to make restitution, he didn’t to accept it. As I recall, after I told him it was important to me that he accepted it, he finally did. Immediately, a weight lifted off me.
I remember getting into my car, putting a tape in the player (it was an 8-track so that shows my age), driving down the road singing a Gospel song at the top of my lungs! I felt so free. The load of guilt was gone, my joy was restored, and I could freely talk to my Heavenly Father.
Was that the last time I needed to repent? No, there have been many times of repentance since then. Repentance is something that needs to happen often in our lives as you and I walk with the Lord.
As we continue our study in the book of Joel, we’ve come to Joel 2:12 to 17. In these few verses, God, through the prophet makes a plea to the people of Israel for repentance. That’s the title of my teaching, “A Plea for Repentance.” I invite you to follow along as I read these words to us from Jehovah Elohim, the Lord God.
The Lord through Joel shows us several necessary STEPS of action in responding to God’s plea for genuine repentance. I believe God is extending that plea for repentance to the church today.
The First STEP (in responding to God’s plea for genuine repentance) is,
Turn to Me
Even with Joel’s pronouncements of the coming judgment, God offers a way of escape. Remember, this impending judgment, the day of the Lord, was so certain that Joel spoke about it in the past tense. The transformation of the land from the lush likeness of the Garden of Eden to a barren, desolate wilderness was a horrible thing to contemplate. Biblically and historically God only destroys His creation when it reaches a point of severe wickedness and corruption.
Yet even now, at this late hour, with judgment hanging over their heads, declares the Lord, “Turn to me with all your heart…” Adding the phrase, “declares the Lord,” adds weight to Joel’s words. This isn’t a manmade invitation; these aren’t Joel’s words; they are from Jehovah Himself. A holy God, deeply offended by the sin of His people, still holds out an offer of mercy.
What is God asking of His people? In verse 12 we have the word, turn, and in verse 13 it is return. These are the same Hebrew word. Turning is the basic meaning of the word repentance. We are going in one direction, then we stop, turn our back, and go in the opposite direction. That’s what I had to do in my opening illustration. I was acting under my own will and intellect and engaged in stealing; something the Scriptures clearly call sin. I needed to turn around and follow God’s commands and the leading of His Spirit.
In my turning, in my repentance, what was I doing? I was simply agreeing with God about what He said about my sin. I had acted as though I could ignore God’s commands and make my own definitions of right and wrong. I thought I had a valid reason to act in a way that was opposite of His laws. God said stealing was sin, I said stealing was justifiable based on the circumstances. In repentance I agreed with God and His commands. That inward agreement produced the visible results of seeking forgiveness from the one I offended and making restitution.
God’s plea, His invitation was, “Turn to me with all your heart…” What does it look like to turn to God with all your heart? Most often the word translated heart is used in the Bible to refer to our inner nature. Our thought patterns are often attributed to the heart. So, it was appropriate for God to ask His people to return to Him with ALL their hearts, to choose to follow His ways, and believe that His ways are the best. Their hearts were divided. By their rituals they appeared to worship God, but they also embraced idol worship. Prosperity led to the oppression of the poor and justice was perverted. That sounds like today, doesn’t it?
Here God is making the choice clear, but He will not choose for them. God has gifted us humans with the amazing stewardship to make the choice of who or what to trust, how to look at things (perspective), and what actions to take. God admonishes us to see reality, and make a good choice, a choice for our benefit, rather than a choice that leads to destruction.
As sinful human beings, we are predisposed to sin. We are not sinners because of our sinful acts, we are sinners because it is our nature. The sinful acts simply reveal what’s in our hearts. God is looking for a wholehearted turning from a predisposition toward disobedience to a predisposition toward obedience to the covenant promises of God. Repentance is a turning away from the path of sin and self-reliance and it results in restored fellowship and peace with God. Restored fellowship with God restores the practice of loving our neighbor. That is why the LORD asked His covenant people to return to Him with all their heart. His invitation still stands for us today.
Notice with me the outward evidence that God says will accompany a genuine turning to Him. He mentions fasting, weeping, and mourning. When was the last time you or I experienced these effects of repentance?
In the Bible, fasting is pictured as a means of opening myself to the work of God. It expresses grief over sin. Think of the people of Nineveh responding to the message of Jonah. Fasting acknowledges I’m dependent on God for all forms of sustenance. Fasting includes abstinence from food, from work, and from sexual relations with one’s spouse according to First Corinthians 7:5. It involves prayer and seeking guidance from God. Think of the early church in Acts 13 commissioning Paul and Barnabas for the work of evangelism.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “When you fast…” He didn’t say, “if you fast.” When I fast, it shows that the nourishment of my spirit is more important that the nourishment of my body. In the midst of his miserable condition Job said, “I have valued His words more than my necessary food.”
And then, weeping. Weeping is an overflow of our emotions. We weep tears of sorrow, tears of remorse and regret, tears of joy, and tears of laughter. In the context of repentance, tears are a sign of brokenness. They’re a sign that we are sorry that our sin has offended God and damaged our relationships with other people.
Even secular researchers acknowledge the value and importance of tears. Tears of emotion provide a cleansing effect by releasing stress and other toxins from our systems. Crying releases endorphins, feel-good chemicals that help ease both physical and emotional pain. I know from personal experience that tears have a cleansing effect on the soul.
The third evidence of genuine repentance is mourning or grief. Grief and mourning are often associated with death. We realize that someone or something has been lost and we are powerless to change it. Mourning and grief are symbols of humility. They serve as a sign of a critical decision being made. If God’s people humble themselves before Him and seek His face, He will pardon their sins completely.
One of the demonstrations of deep grief and mourning was the tearing of one’s clothing. But God says to the people of Judah, “don’t tear your clothing in grief and despair, instead tear your hearts.” What does that mean? How do we follow this command today?
The first observation we can make is that an outward display of repentance is worthless if there is no genuine repentance in our heart. The word for “rend” in the original Hebrew means “to split, tear to pieces, rip, burst, separate abruptly or with violence.” To rend one’s garment was an ancient custom that signaled intense grief, repentance, or holy zeal.
To “rend your heart” in repentance is to acknowledge your brokenness and need for God’s forgiveness and restoration. Psalm 34:18 reminds us, “The Lord is near to those who have a broken heart and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” And Psalm 51:17, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and a contrite heart. These, O God, You will not despise.”
Charles Spurgeon wrote, “Heart-rending is divinely wrought and solemnly felt. It is a secret grief which is personally experienced, not in mere form, but as a deep, soul-moving work of the Holy Spirit upon the inmost heart of each believer. It is not a matter to be merely talked of and believed in, but keenly and sensitively felt in every living child of the living God. It is powerfully humiliating, and completely sin purging; but then it is sweetly preparative for those gracious consolations which proud unhumbled spirits are unable to receive; and it is distinctly discriminating, for it belongs to the elect of God, and to them alone.
The text commands us to rend our hearts, but they are naturally hard as marble: how, then, can this be done? We must take them to Calvary: a dying Savior’s voice rent the rocks once, and it is as powerful now. O blessed Spirit, let us hear the death cries of Jesus, and our hearts shall be rent even as men rend their vestures in the day of lamentation.” (end of quote).
The prophet continues, “return to the Lord your God.” Why should they return? Because the Lord is gracious, merciful, slow to anger and of great kindness. According to the words of the Lord in Ezekiel 33:11, “’As I live,’ says the Lord God, ‘I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live. Turn, turn from your evil ways! For why should you die, O house of Israel?’” After Jonah preached to the people of Nineveh we read, “Then God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God relented from the disaster that He had said He would bring upon them, and He did not do it,” Jonah 3:10.
In Deuteronomy 30:19 and 20 Moses pled with the children of Israel; “I call heaven and earth as witnesses today against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both you and your descendants may live; that you may love the Lord your God, that you may obey His voice, and that you may cling to Him, for He is your life and the length of your days…”
Over and over again throughout the Scriptures we see this gracious and merciful God who is open to the entreaty of His people. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve come to God agreeing with Him about my sin and accepting the forgiveness He offers so freely in Jesus. We must realize however, that although God is always ready to forgive His people, His actions are not dependent upon man’s actions. God is never transactional; His favor cannot be purchased. God is God, “He does whatever He pleases” (Psalm 115:3b).
In verse 14 the prophet asks, “who knows if He will turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind Him – a grain offering and a drink offering for the Lord your God?” In light of the coming events, these offerings would be impossible unless the effects of the locust plague were miraculously reversed. And God, the creator of earth and everything in it, could do that. The grain offering and the drink offering would signify the restoration of true worship. Joel’s message was clear; judgment is certain, but repentance may defer it.
Today, just like He did for the people in Joel’s day, God is issuing the invitation, “turn to me with all your heart.” How will you and I respond?