A Broken and Contrite Spirit
When sin invades the human personality it never hangs “around the fringes,” but goes immediately to the spiritual vitals. It is, by nature, a disease of the heart and can only survive when it has captured the absolute high ground. Every atom of the sinner’s being is corrupted by it. Not the tiniest citadel of body, soul, or spirit will remain unbreached. When sin comes in, it comes in all the way. This is true because sin is not just a thought or an act; it is a mindset and an attitude (Romans 8:5-8). Every lost sinner is a rebel against God. The war may be waged on a battlefield that is narrow or broad, but the decision to disobey the Almighty about anything, large or small, has to be made at the profoundest level. “For out of the heart come forth evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, railings …” (Matthew ).
It is for this very reason that repentance from sin must be like the sin itself, profound and all-encompassing. Grief for our transgressions must do more than stir the emotions; it must seize the heart and galvanize the will. Every thought must be brought “into captivity to the obedience of Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5). For there is no such thing as selective repentance. To repent of one sin is to repent of all sin – to repent of it because it is wickedness, a willful violation of God’s righteousness and an inexcusable act of contempt for His longsuffering love.
In making an absolute change of heart a condition of forgiveness (Luke 13:3; Acts ), God has not been arbitrary. Repentance is not a trial by humiliation. He has simply invited all His prodigals to come home, and the only way to come home is to come home. We don’t arrive back at the Father’s house by remaining in the pig pen. Repentance is a part of our homecoming. The Son of God brings us no more pain than is necessary to bring us back to Him, but sin has invaded us deeply and our contrition must be deeper still. As we left with our whole heart, so must we return. “And ye shall seek me, and find me, when ye shall search for me with all your heart” (Jeremiah 29:13).
The possibility of such a cleansing change of heart has been greatly reduced in our times by social and religious processes which have trivialized sin. The sinner is not seen as a willful transgressor but as a victim of circumstances and his own self-doubt. In this environment we have lost our sense of the genuine horror of sin and with it the capacity for true remorse and a sweeping change of heart. This loss is revealed not only in the unbeliever who is indifferent to his ungodliness, but in the believer who deals with his sins against God not with heartbreak but with a mechanical matter-of-factness.
Repentance is a racking experience. It demands the humbling of our proud spirit before God and men. It requires us to accept full responsibility for our own iniquity. It necessitates the painful unlearning of all that stubbornness, selfishness and lust in which long habit has trained us. In short, it means killing part of ourselves (Colossians 3:3-5; Romans ). There is no way to make it easy.
But repentance is also a liberating and life-giving experience. It is not only a turning from sin, but a turning to God. It is not merely the renunciation of the past, but the affirmation of the future. We have been assured in Christ that God will receive with gladness the returning prodigal (Luke -32). We ought to be deeply ashamed of our sin, but never of the “weakness” that causes us to confess and correct it. God receives the “broken spirit” and the “contrite heart” (Psalm 51:17) because it is only the broken spirit which can be molded and shaped to “the glory of the children of God” (Romans ). He will make the bones that He has broken to rejoice (Psalm 51:8). We humble ourselves only to be exalted (James ). We become fools in order to become wise (1 Corinthians ). We die that we may live (2 Timothy ).