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A Call to Repent

Devotions
On his deathbed, the nineteenth- century German writer Heinrich Heine supposedly quipped: “Of course God will forgive me. It’s his job.” Like Heine, many take a flippant view of God and His forgiveness. But a consistent theme of God’s prophets is that forgiveness is linked only with repentance.

The prophet Joel expressed this message with great zeal. His entire ministry was to call God’s people to repentance, to move from mere outward displays of religiosity to genuine inward change. Notice the emphasis on the heart: “Return to me with all your heart” (v. 12); “rend your heart and not your garments” (v. 13). Joel was not opposed to outward expressions of repentance: “fasting and weeping and mourning” (v. 12). But repentance is not simply a formula of outward actions; it must also include a genuine turning of the whole person back to God.

Notice that God’s attributes underlie the entire message. He is “gracious, compassionate . . . and abounding in love” (v. 13). God is not obligated to forgive. Yet because of His character, He promises forgiveness and mercy in response to our true repentance.

That picture of a gracious God who offers forgiveness in response to genuine repentance is what we see fulfilled in the person of Jesus. Rather than turn His back on sinful people, Jesus’ ministry was for their benefit: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:31–32). Moreover, Jesus’ parables repeatedly demonstrate that when we repent, God forgives joyfully: “There is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Luke 15:10). Praise God that Joel’s message of repentance has been made tangible in the person of Jesus!

Apply the Word

Jesus’ proclamation of forgiveness through repentance remains true today. As you continue your preparation for Christmas, take time to acknowledge your sin in a spirit of repentance before God. It can be painful to confess our failings to God, but take comfort in the words of Joel and Jesus: our gracious God joyfully forgives!

BY Bryan Stewart

Bryan A. Stewart is associate professor of religion at McMurry University in Abilene, Texas. His particular interests are the history of Christian thought and the way that early Christians interpreted the biblical canon. He is the editor of a volume on the Gospel of John in The Church’s Bible series (Eerdmans), and he has done extensive research on the ways that the early Church preached on this Gospel. He is an ordained minister. 

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