"Unless You Repent..."
I have always been taught that repentance is a gift from the hand of a ever-loving G-d. I have heard it often said that "repentance is a gift of G-d, not something manufactured by the heart of sinful man." Acts 5:31 and Romans 2:4 are cited as supporting Scripture to substantiate this statement. However, I would like to suggest a different perspective.
First, let's look at the verses used to uphold this view, starting with the text from the book of Acts.
G-d has exalted this man at his right hand as Ruler and Savior, in order to enable (give) Israel to do t'shuvah (repentance) and have her sins forgiven. (Acts 5:31, Complete Jewish Bible)The words 'in order to enable', or 'give' in other translations, could be interpreted that the LORD is giving it as a gift, as if sinful man has no way to repent otherwise. However, on a closer look, I believe that in this passage Peter and the apostles are saying that because the Messiah is exalted at G-d's right hand, having completed the atoning work at Calvary, Israel now has the opportunity to repent and actually have her sins forgiven unlike before. Not that she could not repent before, but that repentance now can result in forgiveness through Messiah.
In Romans 2, we read the words of Paul rebuking those who chose to judge others. The bold text is used to support this idea that repentance is a divine gift:
Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, passing judgment; for when you judge someone else, you are passing judgment against yourself; since you who are judging do the same things he does. 2 We know that G-d's judgment lands impartially on those who do such things; 3 do you think that you, a mere man passing judgment on others who do such things, yet doing them yourself, will escape the judgment of G-d? 4 Or perhaps you despise the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience; because you don't realize that G-d's kindness is intended to lead you to turn (repent) from your sins. 5 But by your stubbornness, by your unrepentant heart, you are storing up anger for yourself on the Day of Anger, when G-d's righteous judgment will be revealed; 6 for he will pay back each one according to his deeds. 7 To those who seek glory, honor and immortality by perseverance in doing good, he will pay back eternal life. 8 But to those who are self-seeking, who disobey the truth and obey evil, he will pay back wrath and anger. 9 Yes, he will pay back misery and anguish to every human being who does evil, to the Jew first, then to the Gentile; (Romans 2:1-9, Complete Jewish Bible)To paraphrase, Paul is suggesting that this person passing judgment must be hating the attributes of G-d because he actually doesn't know that G-d, in His love for us, intends us to repent of our sins.
Now, I'm no scholar, and I never claimed to be, but these two proof texts don't seal the deal for me as far as saying definitively that repentance is a gift from the hand of our Master. What I would like to suggest, however, is that repentance is a character trait of a true and humble believer. Repentance is not a gift, but an immediate and voluntary response to revealed sin. Calling repentance a gift gives the sinner a complete pass if they don't repent, due to the fact that it's up to G-d whether they get the 'gift' or not. I'd like to put forth that repentance is a character trait, thus putting all the responsibility upon the sinner to come forward, confess and repent of revealed sin. I believe I may be able to make a good argument supporting repentance as a character trait from Scripture.
Let's start with 1 Kings, chapter 8:
44 "If your people go out to battle against their enemy, by whatever way you shall send them, and they pray to the LORD toward the city that you have chosen and the house that I have built for your name, 45 then hear in heaven their prayer and their plea, and maintain their cause. 46 "If they sin against you--for there is no one who does not sin--and you are angry with them and give them to an enemy, so that they are carried away captive to the land of the enemy, far off or near, 47 yet if they turn their heart in the land to which they have been carried captive, and repent and plead with you in the land of their captors, saying, 'We have sinned and have acted perversely and wickedly,' 48 if they repent with all their mind and with all their heart in the land of their enemies, who carried them captive, and pray to you toward their land, which you gave to their fathers, the city that you have chosen, and the house that I have built for your name, 49 then hear in heaven your dwelling place their prayer and their plea, and maintain their cause 50 and forgive your people who have sinned against you, and all their transgressions that they have committed against you, and grant them compassion in the sight of those who carried them captive, that they may have compassion on them 51 (for they are your people, and your heritage, which you brought out of Egypt, from the midst of the iron furnace). 52 Let your eyes be open to the plea of your servant and to the plea of your people Israel, giving ear to them whenever they call to you. (ESV)This passage certainly doesn't sound like they need to wait for a gift from the LORD. This text clearly states that Israel needs to turn her heart towards HaShem and repent of the sin that caused her captivity.
Here's another passage from Psalm 7 referring to repentance:
...My shield is with G-d, who saves the upright in heart. 11 G-d is a righteous judge, and a G-d who feels indignation every day. 12 If a man does not repent, G-d will whet his sword; he has bent and readied his bow; 13 he has prepared for him his deadly weapons, making his arrows fiery shafts. (ESV)Again, this does not sound like man waiting for the gift of repentance, but that it is incumbent upon man to bow humbly in repentance. In fact, if he doesn't, the LORD has prepared for him awful things; this sounds to me as if believers are to repent every time they sin, which would become or be part of their character, their regular behavior. If we agree that G-d is good and all He does is good, then He would not be a trickster and reserve repentance as a gift only to withhold it from those from which he requires it.
OK, let's keep going. In the book of Jeremiah, the prophet speaks of Jerusalem:
O LORD, do not your eyes look for truth? You have struck them down, but they felt no anguish; you have consumed them, but they refused to take correction. They have made their faces harder than rock; they have refused to repent. (Jeremiah 5:3 ESV)Had Jerusalem refused to repent because they did not receive the gift of repentance? I say no; it is clear that they made their faces harder than rock, refusing to repent. I say again, repentance is a character trait of believers, followers of the Most High G-d who are constantly seeking to listen, obey and please Him.
And now for words from the Messiah Himself:
From that time Yeshua (Jesus) began to preach, saying, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." (Matthew 4:17)
Then he began to denounce the cities where most of his mighty works had been done, because they did not repent. (Matthew 11:20)
No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. (Luke 13:3)Now, you could say that it is a gift of HaShem to have the Ruach (Holy Spirit) living in believers, and that it is the Ruach who shows us our sin which causes us to repent, thus making our repentance a result of the gift of the Ruach. That is a little more complicated than just saying 'repentance is a gift'. I completely agree that the Ruach is a gift of the Almighty to believers; however, the conscious act of repentance is a character trait, a voluntary result of the acknowledgement of sin, common to all true believers.
John the Baptist must have thought the same, or else he wouldn't have called for people to repent (Matthew 3:1). Peter must have agreed:
And Peter said to them, "Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Yeshua haMashiach (Jesus Christ) for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. (Acts 2:38 ESV)The fact is that in my puny, human mind I cannot fathom our loving G-d telling us to repent over and over throughout Scripture, yet withholding that repentance from some and gifting it to others. Repentance is a command - we are expected to repent of our sin. To me, that means within us we must have the ability to bow before our G-d to confess and repent. And then comes the real gift.
Yes. Forgiveness is the gift that we receive from the hand and heart of our LORD. He longs to draw us unto Himself. We love Him because He first loved us...He first loved us. Yes, He loves us and requires that we repent of our sin to commune with the thrice Holy G-d. He forgives us our sin as far as the east is from the west. Our LORD is our salvation and that salvation is forgiveness through the atoning work of our Messiah Yeshua, who paid our debt for sin (which is the death penalty, by the way). We stand holy before Him, because of Him, having proclaimed the Name of Yeshua as LORD. A gift...the gift of forgiveness.
Repentance - that's up to us.
Forgiveness - that's the true gift of our LORD.
And, if I may go one step further; we are to give that gift of forgiveness to others, as well. Our forgiveness of others, however, is not dependent upon their confession, apology, or repentance. We are to give forgiveness to those who sin against us in the same way the Father grants us forgiveness. Freely and lovingly. But perhaps that's a topic for another day...
"Cause us to return to you, Adonai,
and we shall return.
(from the Shabbat liturgy)
Cause us to return to you, O LORD, by revealing to us our sin and receiving our repentance before You. Make clear our transgressions against You and others and then hear our heartfelt repentance clearly and quickly. May we never allow unrepentant sin to grow into resentment and bitterness; we ask You to prompt us to humbly repent of our sins. We thank You for Your forgiveness, a precious gift for which we could never deserve.