When I’m considering my sins during prayers of confession, I sometimes wonder why God needs these prayers of repentance. Why doesn’t he just forgive my sins without me needing to repent and ask his forgiveness? After all, Jesus has paid for them through his death on the cross. Wouldn’t it be a more feel-good gospel without this negative bit – especially for those who are too proud to ask for forgiveness?
Actually, repentance is mentioned relatively little in the Bible, for the same reason that the Bible doesn’t try to prove God’s existence: nobody disputed it in biblical times. There were hardly any atheists and everyone understood that a moral God required repentance.
In fact ordinary Jews understood one aspect of repentance better than most Christian theologians. We tend to emphasise that we should confess to God and ask him for forgiveness, but Jews know that before repenting to God, we should repent to those whom we have hurt and ask for their forgiveness.
On the Jewish Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur, a day devoted to repentance) they followed an ancient Jewish rule: “For transgressions between a man and God, the Day of Atonement atones. But for transgressions between a man and his fellow, the Day of Atonement does not atone, until he seeks pardon from his fellow” (Mishnah Yoma 8.9).
Jesus’ teaching agreed with this, though he thought that repenting to someone you’d hurt was too important to wait until the Day of Atonement. In fact, it was even more urgent than worshipping God: “If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24). God didn’t want you to repent to him until you’d repented to others.
It seems that we’ve forgotten this important doctrine today. Perhaps one reason is that we misunderstand Psalm 51, where David is confessing his adultery with Bathsheba. He says to God: “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight” (v4). We realise that David had also sinned against Bathsheba and against her husband, whom he had sent to the frontline knowing he’d be killed, so we conclude that sins against God are much more important than sins against people, and that repenting to people is unimportant compared to repenting to God. But in the light of the teaching that we should first repent to our victims, we should conclude that David wouldn’t have dared ask for God’s forgiveness if he had not already asked Bathsheba, because God would know that he wasn’t yet truly repentant.
Relationship, not transaction
On the Day of Atonement, every Jew repented to God (preferably with tears), begging him to forgive them for the past year’s sins. But they knew that God wouldn’t listen unless they’d already tried equally hard to be forgiven by the people they’d wronged. Paradoxically, this gave a powerful weapon to the victim, because they knew the person who had wronged them would plead for their forgiveness. So Jesus, who knew the nastiness of the human heart, emphasised the flip side, saying that you must forgive those who repent if you want God to forgive you. He came back to this many times, and even included it in his daily prayer template (Matthew 6:12,14; 18:1535; Luke 6:37; 11:4; 17:3-4).
The loss of this doctrine, that we should ask forgiveness from people first, explains some of our misunderstandings about God’s forgiveness. When people ask why God doesn’t simply forgive our sin instead of waiting for us to repent, we’re inclined to answer: God cannot forgive sin until we have accepted the payment for our sins, as a gift. This is true, but it can give the impression that God is a bureaucrat waiting for a transaction to be carried out properly. We can understand this much better, however, when we consider how forgiveness works between humans.
Repentance demonstrates something of the depth of god’s infinite love for us
The barrier of sin
Imagine you regularly give a friend a lift in your car, and you notice that your stash of parking-meter coins often diminishes during these trips. One day you try to prompt him by saying, “That’s funny, I thought I had more coins than that.” The friend shrugs and says nothing. From then on, there’s a barrier between the two of you: you don’t trust them, and they feel guilty. If only your friend would say: “I’m sorry – I took some money from your car to buy coffee.” You’d say: “That’s fine – but please ask in future” and it would all be over; your relationship would be back to normal. But until that happens, an invisible wall separates you.
Now we see why God can’t just forgive us without our repentance; there’s an invisible wall – a barrier of sin between us. He wants a relationship with us, but a broken relationship can’t be fixed by only one side. It isn’t that God is like a legalistic accountant who can’t ignore a debt; and God isn’t subject to some kind of law of sin that he can’t avoid. The reason he can’t simply ignore our sin is that it has broken our relationship and both parties have to fix this. God has already done his part: he has sent his Son to deal with the consequences of sin and has offered to forgive us. But unless we do our part – unless we repent – it won't be a relationship, it would be merely a transaction.
Seen this way, the call to repentance tells us that God is our Father, who doesn’t want to be our judge. Of course, if we don’t repent, we will end up being judged by God, but actually he wants something else: a loving friendship. And repentance is the missing ingredient for healing our broken relationship. We teach children to “say sorry and mean it”, and in the end the gospel comes down to the same thing.
Repentance doesn’t limit the good news of the gospel. Instead, it demonstrates something of the depth of God’s infinite love for us, a love that is like the warmest human relationships. And that really is a gospel that feels good.
David Instone-Brewer is senior research fellow in Rabbinics and New Testament at Tyndale House, Cambridge