Repentance Is Not A Get Out Of Jail Free Card
Too many people today seem confused about what repentance and forgiveness actually entail.
So often, our current culture says that simply saying “I’m sorry” and “I’ve changed” is enough. “Let bygones be bygones” is thrown around as an expectation.
I’ve heard it used again and again. It seems like, to be a good person, you’re supposed to act as if nothing bad happened as long as the person says I’m sorry. People use “I’m sorry” and “I’ve been born again” as if it’s a get out of jail free card.
However, that’s not how the Bible treats repentance and forgiveness. The people in the scriptures who repented never took the ‘let bygones be bygones attitude’.
Now, some people might feel that I’m going against scripture is saying this. Some would point out the verses such as Hebrews 8:12 “For I will remember their sins no more”. There are other verses that say the same thing but more indirectly such as the verses that speak of us being covered by Christ’s blood. So, people state that since God does not remember our sins then others should not.
There are several problems with this.
One is that God knows when repentance is genuine and when it is not. God only forgets our sins when the repentance is genuine. If repentance is not genuine, the sins remain on our souls and in God’s sight. Unfortunately, we do not have God’s sight so how can we know which sins are forgotten and which sins are not only blatantly on the soul but have been joined by the sin of lying and deceit?
Two is that God may not remember our sins, letting those sins be covered by His Son’s blood...but that doesn’t mean He forgot our weaknesses and tendencies that led to that sin. God knows our strengths and weaknesses. Our being covered by His Son’s blood doesn’t blind Him to our problems and issues. Just because He’s forgiven us doesn’t mean He’s forgotten the issues we have that brought about the sin to begin with, the type of person we are. Honestly, we don’t want Him to forget those weaknesses. I would be terrified if God forgot my weaknesses along with my sin because that would make life immeasurably harder. God stated that we are not tempted beyond what we can withstand. (1 Corinthians 10:13) If God did not remember our weaknesses...then how would He help protect us from them? And if God remembers the type of person we are, the weaknesses we have then how we expect other humans to forget.
Three is that the examples in the Bible of remorse and people seeking forgiveness do not show a “let bygones be bygones attitude.” Don’t believe me?
Zacchaeus is a well known example of a man who repented. As Jesus passed through Jericho, Zacchaeus was so desperate to see Jesus, he climbed a tree. When Jesus told Zacchaeus that Jesus was coming to stay at the man’s home, Zacchaeus did more than joyfully receive him. Zacchaeus declared “The half of my goods I give to the poor and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” Note, Zacchaeus didn’t just show remorse and say I’m sorry and that was it. Zacchaeus actively tried to make things right, to correct any pain he had caused in the past. He didn’t deny his mistakes and say they weren’t a problem anymore because he was a changed man. He acknowledged them and promised to make amends.
Philemon holds another example of remorse and forgiveness including reparations. Paul wrote to Phliemon to accept Onesimus as a brother in Christ. Paul wanted Philemon to forgive Onesimus for actions the man had taken against Philemon and rebellion against Philemon. But, again, Paul didn’t say “Just forgive and forget”. Paul stated in Philemon 1:18, “If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account.” Paul acknowledged that reparation should be made to Philemon for any harm Onesimus had committed against him. He wanted Philemon to forgive and welcome Onesimus but Paul wasn’t saying that Philemon should forget previous harm. Even though Onesimus was a changed man, so changed that Paul said Onesimus was like a son to him, Paul still acknowledged that the pain caused to Philomen in the past deserved not only acknowledgement but an effort to put it right. I do think that Paul hoped Philemon would forgive Onesimus any debts owed but Paul didn’t demand it, did not make it a requirement.
Please understand that I am not advocating seeking revenge and I’m not saying that you can only forgive if you get payback. This is not a discussion about forgiveness but about actual repentance and remorse.
As humans, the only way we can know the sincerity of another is through actions. Just saying you’re sorry is not an action and it’s not enough. Even with God, it’s not enough. When God calls people to repentance it’s not just repentance. God expects actions to go along with that repentance. Repent and be baptized. Repent and sin no more. In other words, repent and then show that you are truly sorry that you are trying to be a better person by doing something to make that happen whether it’s trying to make up for previous harm done or going into therapy if it’s a problem of repeated behavior. Show that you are trying to not do that harm again.
If God expects true repentance to be accompanied by actions then how can we say that just an “I’m sorry” gets you off the hook for the consequences of your actions.
True remorse means admitting what you have done, acknowledging that you hurt someone and doing your best not to repeat that action in the future. Otherwise, if you keep doing the same thing over and over and over without taking steps to change yourself, change your life, change the circumstances that are causing your problem...then you’re not really sorry, are you?
Sometimes you can’t make it right. Sometimes, you have to continue to pay for that mistake because it’s earned you a label. But you don’t get to be mad about that. You earned those negative emotions from others and the only way to change those is by showing you are a different person. That you acknowledge what you were and the harm you have done and are committed to doing better.
It can be done. Paul did it.
Paul, as Saul, was a nightmare to the Christian community. When Paul was first converted, he began to preach about Christ in Damascus. People were confused. “Is this not the man who made havoc in Jerusalem of those who called upon this name? And has he not come here for this purpose to bring them bound before the chief priests?” (Acts 9:21) Paul didn’t bother denying it. How could he? He didn’t even argue that he was a changed man. He just kept showing people he had changed. “But Saul increased all the more in strength and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Christ.” (Acts 9:22). He eventually went to Jerusalem and even there people were afraid of him. “And when he had come to Jerusalem, he attempted to join the disciples. And the were all afraid of him for the did not believe that he was a disciple.” (Acts 9:26). It took two acts for him to be accepted. One is that Barnabus brought him to the apostles and told them about Paul’s conversion. Two is that Paul continued to preach. He didn’t preach at the Christians that they should be more accepting. He preached to the Jews and disputed with the Hellenists. He preached Christ until the religious leaders in Jerusalem were ready to kill him. Even in his letters, Paul admits to what he was in order to show anyone can turn their life around and be welcomed by God.
But, he never rails at the people who did not immediately accept his conversion. He doesn’t preach that they should have just taken him at his word that he had changed. His response to suspicions that he had not changed was basically, “Watch what I do.” It didn’t matter if the people around him believed he had changed. He had and he went about doing what was right.
So, if you’re really sorry, then you need to show it and you need to accept that it will take people some time to believe you have changed.
If you are asked to forgive someone...well forgiving them doesn’t mean you have to act as if what had happened before never happened. By their actions, they will show if the “I’m sorry” was sincere or not.
God doesn’t ask us to put ourselves in danger just on another human’s say so. God doesn’t expect us to be blind and believe an alcoholic will never drink again or an abuser will never hit again just because they say they’re sorry. We are to forgive them for our own good because carrying hate inside us is toxic but we don’t have to trust them. We don’t have to “cast our pearls before swine.”
So, make a note of this, repentance doesn’t give you a blank slate with other humans. It doesn’t give you a get out of jail free card. Repentance doesn’t mean you don’t have to deal with the consequences of your actions. Repentance means making an inner commitment to do better and then taking actions make sure you do better and to correct the harm, if possible. If you can’t mend the harm, then just use that to remind yourself why you need to try harder in the future.