Planned Repentance

by Cloyce Sutton

Several years ago I met a man who was planning to repent. He had been a Christian for some time, but worked a job that prevented him from attending services virtually all of the time. Eventually he quit trying at all, and fell away altogether. At the time he was part of a class-action lawsuit against his employer and was awaiting the outcome of the case. If the plaintiffs prevailed, they would receive a handsome sum of money, and then be released from their job duties to pursue other careers. He explained that whenever this lawsuit was settled, he would find a different job that would permit him to resume his relationship with the local church.

When I asked him if he had considered finding another line of work, he said, "No. I'm going to see this through." I asked if it occurred to him that he might die before his plans were realized, and he said, "That's the chance I'll just have to take." He was planning, some day, to repent.

His version of repentance and the biblical version are two different things. When Peter urged his audience to "repent and be baptized" (Acts 2:38), he was not addressing men and women who were in some vague way contemplating the remote possibility of a commitment of some sort in the indeterminate future. They saw the urgency of their spiritual crisis and begged, "What shall we do?" (Acts 2:37). On that day, 3000 obeyed Jesus as Lord. They did not plan to repent; they responded according to their convictions and the need of the moment.

The repentance of the Corinthians was marked by earnestness, vindication, fear, longing, and zeal (II Corinthians 8:11). They had wronged a fellow Christian and were anxious to make the necessary corrections and to prove themselves "innocent in the matter." Theirs was not "the sorrow of the world" that "produces death," but the "sorrow according to the will of God" that produced "repentance without regret." They could no more delay their repentance than they could delay their breathing.

When John the Baptist preached repentance, his audiences demanded, "What shall we do?" (Luke 3:10, 12, 14). Luke's account tells us that they came to him and repeatedly questioned him (Luke 3:10-14). They wanted to know how to fix their spiritual breakdown. They were deadly serious about solving the problem of sin in their lives. Repentance was urgent enough that they could not stop thinking about it.

The counterpoint to these examples of true repentance is Felix, the Roman procurator of Judea. When Paul appeared before Felix and his wife Drusilla, he took aim at Felix's self-serving, wicked heart when he spoke of "righteousness, self-control, and the judgment to come" (Acts 24:25). Paul's powerful message brought Felix to the brink of repentance. Felix held in his hands the keys to the kingdom, but, instead, closed the door. He planned on repenting (Acts 24:25), and continued to plan for another two years (Acts 24:27). After this, he was recalled to Rome, where he died soon afterward. I suspect he was still planning to repent.

The problem with planned repentance is not that our plans may not work out the way we intend. That is true enough. You might plan to repent in September, but die in August. You may plan to repent when you retire, but never get around to retiring. You may plan to repent "someday" — but when "someday" arrives, you may be just as indifferent as you are now.

No, the real problem with planned repentance is that we put our relationship to God on our own terms, not on His terms. Planned repentance is nothing more than excuse-making for the sake of disobedience: "Lord, I will repent, but first let me..." Our Lord's response is plain: "If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow me" (Luke 9:23). Whatever planned repentance may be, it is certainly not what Jesus wants.

Are you planning to repent? Can you so easily undo months or years of neglect, indifference, or rebellion? Why will some other time, some other place, or some other circumstance be better than today? Do you think that continuing in habitual sin will make repentance easier? Now is the time to repent!