Is there joy in repentance?

Is there joy in repentance? Repentance definitely brings grief, and rightfully so, because sin is serious. Sin is an assault against God and we must mourn it. Remorse should be expected from any believer who understands the gravity of sin - and what sin does to us and to our relationship with God and others. But is joy an appropriate response as well?

One of the key marks of the East African revival in the 1920s and 1930s was the thoroughness with which they handled holiness. Sin was gravely loathed. Every service or fellowship of believers began by an intense time of deep repentance and wailing over sin. Yes, wailing! Brothers and sisters would openly confess their sins in what they called ‘walking in the light’ and genuine, deep remorse was expected in such moments. This practice continues today, especially in the rural areas among the elderly on whom the East African revival still has a profound effect. But there is often little joy in repentance there.

In 2005, when I was in High School, a big repentance movement began in Kenya, later to be called ‘Repentance and Holiness Ministry’. The self-proclaimed prophet, Dr Owuor, a Kenyan who had been living overseas, returned to Kenya claiming that he had been sent by God to call the nation to repent. With serious warnings and foretellings of doom should the nation not repent, the church in Kenya and the nation was alarmed. Dr Owuor’s call for national and individual repentance was well received by everyone for a time. This repentance was usually accompanied by great expressions of remorse: several days of fasting, wearing of sackcloth, covering oneself with ashes and open confession of sin void of wisdom. With this approach to repentance and loathing of sin, many sincere Christians have been drawn to the movement at a time when secularism, the Prosperity Gospel and general complacency is creeping into the church. But again, this kind of repentance elicits only grief.

It seems to me from scripture that repentance produces both joy and grief. In both Psalms 32 and Psalms 51 - the two psalms I often go to for this subject - joy is an expectation in repentance in the same way that Easter is longed for on Good Friday. So if we are going to exercise true biblical repentance, joy will spring forth. All for one reason: the gospel of Christ.

You see, the sins we repent of are already forgiven. When Jesus went to the cross, the most significant thing he dealt with is our sin and in our efforts not to cheapen grace, we must also continue to celebrate that fact. That Christ has dealt with our sin - past, present and future - is a glorious truth we must hold on to. And this truth gives us assurance and consequently joy. Repentance is not a difficult burden we bear and hope that God may forgive us depending on how remorsefully we present ourselves to him. It is more than just sorrow for sin. Repentance is actually a change of mind and heart about our sins. I often say to students that repentance is a 180⁰ turn rather than a 360⁰ turn. This is possible only because of the liberating truths of the gospel.

As soon as there is true repentance, there must be assurance and hope. Sin must be loathed, and I think among evangelical Christians in Kenya this is very well understood. In fact, so well that the hyper-grace movement (that teaches an over-stretched sense of grace that permits lawlessness) has not been very successful here. But there is still a need to preach the gospel fully and clearly.  

Could it actually be that where repentance is not taught as part of the gospel that sin still holds Christians captive? There is a joy-bringing liberation from the claws of sin that comes when the gospel is fully reflected upon. Sin deserves our deepest remorse, but the understanding that the cross has dealt with it must bring us a hope which results in biblical joy, even as we bemoan the sin remaining in us.

Written by Daniel Odhiambo