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Whatever happened to the prayer of repentance?

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When Karl Menninger died, the New York Times devoted more than half a page to his life, describing him as “one of the foremost practitioners and advocates of psychiatry in the United States” (Karl Menninger, 96, Dies; Leader in U.S. Psychiatry – The New York Times). Among his many accomplishments, in 1974 Menninger wrote Whatever Became of Sin? In the book, he argued that the concept of sin as moral rebellion against God would eventually be replaced in the modern mind by psychological explanations for behavior. People would, therefore, prefer therapy over repentance and psychiatric treatment rather than spiritual conversion.

Obviously, sin is as popular as ever; but, as predicted in 1974, our culture has replaced the concept of sin with psychological explanations for our numerous “addictions” and “disorders.” Mental health challenges and addictions are real, of course; but they can’t explain every disobedience and sin. We still need repentance and forgiveness. Do we still believe that?

In the 21st century, the more relevant question may be: Whatever became of repentance? The truth is, Americans don’t repent much. In 2023, a national survey reported that 68% of American adults claim to be Christian, but only 50% acknowledge their sins and ask God’s forgiveness at least once a week (https://www.arizonachristian.edu/wp-content/uploads/2023/04/CRC_AWVI2023_Release_03.pdf). That means that almost 20% of self-identified Christians do not repent at least once a week. Combine that with another 30% of the country that never prays at all, and it looks like America has forgotten how to repent!

The problem is getting worse too, since just 3 years ago 54% of Americans repented at least once per week, compared to only 50% of us now. For most Americans, therefore, repentance is an infrequent or irrelevant issue in their lives. 

God, however, still demands it. For instance, the first message of Jesus after 40 days of prayer and fasting was, “…Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 4:17). He hasn’t changed. 

Repentance inevitably leads to different behavior, but it begins with a prayer of confession. Dick Eastman, in The Hour that Changes the World, wrote, “Confession is a heartfelt recognition of what we are.  It is important to God because it indicates that we take seriously our mistakes and failures.  Of course, God does not ask us to confess our sins because He needs to know we have sinned, but because He knows that we need to know we have sinned.” 

Fortunately, we are promised that “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). Confession is a prayer. 

Conditions

In both Greek and English, the first word of 1 John 1:9 is “If.” The verse begins, in other words, with a “conditional particle” – a word used to express action which hasn’t yet occurred and isn’t guaranteed. In other words, the possibility of confession precedes the possibility of forgiveness.

The word “confess” in verse 9 is a form of the verb that expresses an action of possibility rather than a certainty. We could translate the phrase literally as “If we might confess…”

This verse makes clear that our forgiveness is conditioned on our confession. God forgives confessed sin. A familiar Old Testament passage is similar.

“If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” (2 Chronicles 7:14). These verses confront us with the big “if” of repentance. Are we going to do it? It all begins with prayer.

A simple prayer of confession, therefore, is our responsibility; because while God promises to forgive our sin, He nowhere promises to confess our sin. We are personally accountable for the prayer of confession which, perhaps, explains why it is so infrequently done. 

Promises and practices

A prayer of repentance is also beneficial to our overall prayer life. The teaching of the entire Bible speaks to the importance of the prayer of confession. For example, the blessings of forgiveness and cleansing are obvious in 1 John; but King David also desired the same when he prayed:

 “Have mercy on me, O God,

       according to your steadfast love;

according to your abundant mercy

       blot out my transgressions. 

Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,

      and cleanse me from my sin” (Psalm 51:1-2)! 

The question is: How do we experience the blessings of forgiveness and cleansing in the context of our daily prayer life? Why not simply make a list of sins and confess them daily?

The habit of confession from a list has a long history among the faithful. For instance, one of the 4th century “Desert Fathers” (a group of monks who spent their lives in solitary prayer) is credited with creating a list of sins to pray about daily. In the 6th century it was organized into a compilation of seven sins by Pope Gregory 1. Then, in the 13th century Thomas Aquinas organized the seven deadly sins into the list we are familiar with today (How the Seven Deadly Sins Began as ‘Eight Evil Thoughts’ | HISTORY). In 1955 Billy Graham wrote the small book Freedom from the Seven Deadly Sins

Imagine what conviction God’s Spirit would awaken in our hearts if we were willing to include pride, envy, anger, lust, greed, gluttony, and laziness on our daily prayer list! We will, no doubt, want to include a few more specific sins too. But while our list might get longer; it probably won’t get shorter. 

Our culture doesn’t repent but we must. So, when you pray, repent. Because, as has been famously observed, “Every day we don’t repent is one more day to repent of and one less day to repent in.”

    About the Author

  • Kie Bowman

    Kie Bowman is senior pastor emeritus of Hyde Park Baptist Church and The Quarries Church in Austin, Texas and the SBC National Director of Prayer.

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