Doctrine Ch.25 - Repentance

In Jewish theology we must ask forgiveness from those we have hurt before God will accept our repentance. This explains how repentance works in the Bible and why God demands it before forgiving us.

Why doesn’t God just forgive our sins without our needing to repent and ask his forgiveness? After all, Jesus has paid for them through his death on the cross. Wouldn’t more people come into the kingdom without this negative aspect—especially those who are too proud to ask for forgiveness?

       Repentance is easy to ignore because it is mentioned relatively little in the Bible. This is for the same reason that the Bible doesn’t spend time giving proofs for God’s existence: nobody disputed it in those 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 emphasize that we should repent 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 annual Day of Atonement (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.”1 If we understood this better, we’d see why repentance is not just an obligation but essential for our relationships with God and other people.

5-minute summary

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Repentance is urgent

Jesus’ teaching agrees with this traditional Jewish teaching, though he thought that repenting to someone you had hurt was too important to wait until the Day of Atonement. In fact, it was even more urgent than worshiping 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” (Matt 5:23-24). God doesn’t want you to repent to him until you’ve 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” (v. 4). We realize that David had also sinned against Bathsheba and against her husband, whom he had sent to the front line knowing he’d be killed, and yet David seemed to think he had only sinned against God. So we conclude that sins against God are much more important than sins against people and that repenting to people is unimportant compared with repenting to God. But this is backwards in the light of the traditional Jewish teaching that you should first repent to people you have sinned against. We should instead conclude that David wouldn’t have dared ask for God’s forgiveness if he had not already begged forgiveness from Bathsheba. If he had not done this, God would know that he wasn’t yet truly repentant.

       On the Day of Atonement all Jews 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 those whose forgiveness was being sought, because they could withhold this from the person who was now pleading for it. So Jesus, who knows the nastiness of the human heart, emphasized the flip side, saying that you must forgive those who come to you repenting for the wrong they did to you. To further press this point home, he said that if you don’t forgive that person, then God won’t forgive you for your wrongs. He came back to this many times and even included it in his template for daily prayer (Matt 6:12, 14; 18:15-35; Luke 6:37; 11:4; 17:3-4).

Say sorry to each other

The loss of this aspect of the doctrine of repentance—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 that Jesus has paid 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 get a much better understanding of why he requires our repentance if we consider the way in which Jesus’ parables illustrate it as forgiveness between humans.

       Imagine you regularly give a friend a lift in your car, and you notice that your collection of parking-meter coins often diminishes during these trips. One day you try to prompt him to admit he’s helping himself by saying, “That’s funny, I thought I had more coins than that.” But your friend simply shrugs and says nothing. From then on, there’s a barrier between the two of you: you don’t trust him, and he feels guilty. If only he’d say: “I’m sorry—I sometimes take a few coins for the coffee machine.” Then you’d probably say something like: “That’s fine—but please ask in the future,” and it would all be over; your relationship would be back to normal. Until that happens, however, 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 circumvent. The reason he can’t simply ignore our sin is that it has broken our relationship, and both parties need 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 wouldn’t be a relationship; it would be merely a transaction.

       Seen this way, the call to repentance tells us that God wants to be our Father, rather than our judge. Of course, if we don’t repent, we will end up being judged by him for those unforgiven sins, but he doesn’t want it to come to that. Actually, he wants something else: he wants to restore a loving friendship. And repentance is the missing ingredient for healing our broken relationship. We teach children “Just say sorry and mean it,” and in the end the gospel comes down to the same thing.

1^ Mishnah Yoma 8:9 (

This was previously published in a similar form in Christianity magazine

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