We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws… And there is no health in us. —The Book of Common Prayer (1552)
Where the heart is changed, the life and actions will be changed too. —Matthew Henry, Commentary (c. 1710)
A House of Prayer for All Nations
The people stood hushed as Solomon finished his prayer of dedication (2 Chron. 7). Then fire fell from heaven and consumed the sacrifices on the Temple altar. The glory of God filled the Temple. The people bowed in worship. The Levitical orchestra, complete with trumpets, broke out into anthems of praise. A new age had come. Yahweh seemed to have taken up residence in His earthly palace.
But as Solomon himself had observed, God doesn’t dwell in temples made with hands; the heaven of heavens—indeed, the whole of created reality—can’t contain God (2 Chron. 6:18ff). The Temple’s function was sacramental. It was a promise embodied in gold and stone. God promised to hear the prayers directed towards the earthly Temple Solomon had built. But there was a condition. Those praying had to approach God with penitent hearts. God summed up that requirement with these familiar words:
If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land (2 Chron. 7:14).
The Breadth of the Promise
This verse often gets a lot of play just before national elections in the United States. To many, these elections seem appropriate occasions for changing American policy, reforming American political institutions, and kicking the bad guys out of office. Talk of repentance and divine intervention sparks hope in the faithful.
But is this a proper application of the promise? In general, yes. The original words were cast in the context of the Temple, Israel, and the Promised Land. Their immediate application was to God’s people under the Davidic Covenant. But Yahweh is the God of the whole Earth, and He is just and merciful to all. The writings of the prophets brim with threats of divine judgment against the Gentile nations round about Israel. And yet God said this through Jeremiah:
At what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, and to pull down, and to destroy it; if that nation, against whom I have pronounced, turn from their evil, I will repent of the evil that I thought to do unto them (Jer. 18:7-8).
The best example of this promise is Nineveh, the capital of ancient Assyria. Jonah prophesied its destruction: “Forty days,” he told them, “and Nineveh will be destroyed.” However, the king of Nineveh led his people in serious repentance and God stayed His hand (Jon. 3-4). God spared Nineveh and its people.
God hasn’t changed. Even in the twenty-first century, God will show mercy to a nation that calls on Him in true repentance. But what exactly does true repentance look like?
The Nature of Real Repentance
The church in Corinth had been faced with a moral and spiritual crisis. One of their members was living in incest with his stepmother (1 Cor. 5). At first the church was slow to deal with the problem. Some even boasted of how gracious and tolerant they all were. Eventually the apostle Paul wrote a letter to the church and ordered its leaders to excommunicate the man, to cut him off from the life and fellowship of the church. The Corinthians listened, repented of their spiritual pride and laxness, and did what Paul said. The excommunication had its intended effect. In a short time, the offender repented as well. In a second letter, Paul was able to commend the Corinthians for their godly repentance and to sketch its character with these words:
For behold this selfsame thing, that ye sorrowed after a godly sort, what carefulness it wrought in you, yea, what clearing of yourselves, yea, what indignation, yea, what fear, yea, what vehement desire, yea, what zeal, yea, what revenge! In all things ye have approved yourselves to be clear in this matter (2 Cor. 7:11).
The language of the older version is difficult here, but neither the NKJV nor the ESV makes the meaning much clearer. Paul’s terms probably require some explanation.
Carefulness (“diligence,” NKJV; “earnestness,” ESV)
Repentance sets us to diligently and earnestly deal with sin, both in ourselves and in others. It leads us to exercise great carefulness where our hearts are concerned: great care to avoid sin and to please God. This, as opposed to spiritual “drowsiness or carelessness,” to use Calvin’s phrase. Repentance takes sin seriously.
Clearing of yourselves (“what eagerness to clear yourselves,” ESV)
The Greek word here is apologia, a formal defense. Paul’s intent is not to praise excuse making, but to encourage full confession and rejection of the sin in question. Repentance brings us to acknowledge our spiritual carelessness and neglect and to recommit ourselves to dealing with sin biblically and whole-heartedly. Repentance demands change in terms of God’s law.
Repentance leaves us indignant at sin and ourselves, for we understand at last that we have offended God. The repentant soul is angry with sin, particularly his own.
Fear “not of hell and damnation,” John Gill writes, “but of God…and lest the corruption should spread in the church.” Matthew Henry speaks of “an awful fear of God, a cautious fear of sin, and a jealous fear” of ourselves. He speaks of reverence towards God, watchfulness towards sin, and distrust of ourselves. Sin ought to scare us.
Vehement desire (“longing,” ESV)
Repentance includes a desperate desire “for a thorough reformation of what had been amiss, and of reconciliation with God” (Henry). The repentant soul earnestly wants to change, to be kept from evil, and to live a life that honors God. True repentance can never be lukewarm.
Matthew Henry calls this “a mixture of love and anger, a zeal for duty, and against sin.” John Gill speaks of a zeal “for God and his glory; for restoring the discipline of the church: for the doctrines of the Gospel; for the ordinances of Christ’s house….” Zeal is desire on fire: an “intensity of desire,” Calvin says. Real repentance can’t be slow or apathetic. It can’t be bought off or toned down.
Revenge (“vindication,” NKJV; “punishment,” ESV)
According to Vincent, the Greek word means “meeting out of justice; doing justice to all parties” (Word Studies). Repentance works diligently to see that justice has been done; that wrongs have been righted; that all just claims have been properly satisfied. This may mean public humiliation, open confession, financial restitution, and submission to civil penalties. True repentance kisses the rod; it submits to God’s discipline and acknowledges God’s judgment.
This is godly sorrow and godly repentance. The Heidelberg Catechism, in faithfulness to Scripture, summarizes repentance as “[h]eartfelt sorrow for sin, causing us to hate and turn from it always more and more” (Q&A 89). The Westminster Confession says that the repentant sinner “grieves for and hates his sins, as to turn from them all unto God, purposing and endeavoring to walk with Him in all the ways of His commandments” (Ch. XV:ii). Such repentance is costly: it means a changed life.
Some Suggestions for National Repentance
If we, as a people, are going to call on God to “forgive our sins and heal our land,” we need to change some things. Here are some rather obvious suggestions—starting points for repentance.
First, we need to radically alter our own priorities and values. We need to jettison our false gods of power, sex, and affluence, and submit our thinking, our laws, and our morality to the word of God. We need to die to self. We need to believe the gospel and commit ourselves to Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. Nothing less will do.
Second, we need to repent as families. We need to conform the life and structure of our families to the law of God. Pornography has to go. Adultery and fornication must stop. Fathers need to take up the spiritual leadership in the home (Eph. 6:4). Everyone needs to be in church on the Lord’s Day (Heb. 10:25; Ex. 20:8). The children’s education must be redesigned to center around the word of God (Deut. 6:6-9). Jesus Christ must become the Lord of our families: He must set our priorities and family values.
Third, we need to repent as churches. We need to return to biblical worship. We need to insist that our pastors reject the common liturgies of entertainment and the gospel of pop psychology, and preach instead the word of God—the whole word of God. We must tithe. We must deal honestly and bluntly with sin. We must preach the justice and wrath of God. We must call men to repentance and faith—and to discipleship in and through the word of God. That’s what Jesus commanded (Matt. 28:18-20).
Finally, we need to repent as a nation. We must confess that socialism is theft, that abortion is murder, and that the State school system is a prophet of secular humanism. We must abandon all schemes that enthrone the federal government as our savior, and place our trust in Jesus Christ as Lord of the nations and Lord of our nation (Ps. 2; 72; 110). We must listen to the law of God (Isa. 2:3).
What we’re talking about can’t and won’t be won by political elections or orchestrated by men, however godly and well intentioned. And it won’t come in a day or a week. This sort of repentance is heaven-sent, long-term, and runs extremely deep culturally. But when it comes, it will transform our society and its culture. But it will begin in the privacy of human hearts, like yours and mine. Before kingdoms change… men must change.