Real repentance: often imitated, never duplicated.
Sometimes we approach sharing the gospel as if it were door-to-door sales. I did door-to-door sales for a short time in the late eighties. I remember the dress-shirt-and-tie combo, the big fake alligator bag full of products, and ninety-degree heat. I hated hitting the street.
At each house, I had to disarm the awkwardness of the moment, overcome the home owner’s reluctance to let me inside, then overcome their objection to my product, persuade them to give me cash or credit card, and finally convince them to give me the names and phone numbers of their friends.
In that line of work if you failed, you’d want to slink home and watch television. If you succeeded, you’d be tempted to beat it back to the office for an atta-boy session in front of the rest of the sales force. But win or lose, it was all about your power of persuasion.
Where a lot of Christians are concerned, that’s what evangelism is all about.
But real repentance, the inward turn from the old life to Jesus Christ, is not the result of your persuasive ability. It is a miracle of the Holy Spirit.
For instance, the aftermath of Jonah’s preaching strongly implied something was happening above and beyond what was natural: “And the people of Nineveh believed God” (3:5). This reaction began with the common folk—the blacksmiths, the merchants, the homemakers, the farmers, the soldiers. They believed without coercion; it was a grassroots movement, starting at the bottom.
Furthermore, they were “the people of Nineveh,” not a city steeped in the law of Moses, rather, one completely non-Jewish, with no special love of Jewish things. It was unlikely that repentance related to a Jewish prophet and a Jewish God would ever come from them.
“And the people believed God.” They didn’t believe in God, as to believe in His existence. They believed God, that is, they believed what He said. They believed His warning about overthrowing the city in forty days.
Truly, it is not until a person believes the judgments of God that he or she has truly believed. This is further proof of a miracle, for the ancient world was dominated by gods and goddesses of all kinds. The Ninevites could easily have dismissed Jonah’s words as the ranting of a strange man, and no more authoritative than any other religious teaching floating around. Again, the odds were against repentance naturally arising.
Further indications of the miraculous: the people “called for a fast” (v. 5), meaning they lost their appetite for anything else. They also were so humbled they put on sackcloth, an expression of humility that did away with ornate, showy fashions characteristic of a proud city on top of the global food chain.
Once you put all these together—humility, loss of appetite, dread of God’s judgment, this could only have been a repentance according to a miracle of the Holy Spirit.
But we wonder, did this work for everyone? What about the intelligent and accomplished, the powerful and the privileged? Such people are virtually impenetrable. But in the verses, this repentance was shared “from the greatest of them to the least of them.”
We also know some people who are so simple they’re unreachable, because they are absolutely occupied with the trivia of life. But repentance reached “from the greatest of them to the least of them.” They were all beyond the reach of a natural change of mind, but not beyond the reach of the Holy Spirit.
And the Holy Spirit has the longest reach of all. The Bible says that “the word reached the king” (v. 6), and in stating it this way, probably means it wasn’t Jonah himself who reached him. The word must have gotten to the palace through the reports of others, likely through a chain of people. This shows us that the power of the message didn’t rely upon one specially anointed individual. The message has power in itself, and it is not diluted when passed from person to person. The Holy Spirit used the unique position of each individual to transmit the word, and it ended up going to people who were well beyond the reach of Jonah.
As long as the accuracy of the message doesn’t change, the power of the message won’t dilute, even if it is transmitted over ten thousand lifetimes. That’s why you never need to give the gospel any power, ever. The message is powerful beyond us because it is backed by the convicting work of the Holy Spirit.
This reaching word was so powerful the king himself “arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes” (v. 7). He was a tyrant of the ancient world whose greatest god was actually his own ego—the proudest person in the proudest city in the world, which made him the proudest man on earth. And his repentance came not through direct contact with Jonah, but through nobodies who relayed a prophetic word.
In fact, repentant people take their place in this chain and become part of the reaching effort. Just look at the king, who issued and published a continuation of Jonah’s message:
“By the decree of the king and his nobles: Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything. Let them not feed or drink water, 8 but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them call out mightily to God. Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. 9 Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.” 10 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it.
What began with the preaching of a Hebrew prophet, ended with the preaching of a repentant Assyrian King. That is the power of God.
Evangelism does not rely on one human being’s ability to convince another to buy into something. That’s becoming harder and harder to do, anyway. With all the anti-religion, anti-church, anti-christian sentiment floating around, it really does require a miracle for somebody to repent of their views and opinions today. Not knowing what to do about this, Christians doing evangelism have for a long time progressively lowered the bar, appealing to what sinners will find reasonable. Repentance has often been replaced with logic, negotiations, and shortcuts. It’s no longer a matter of miracle. It’s all about sales.
I’ve fallen into this more times than I care to confess. For instance, the “Pray after me” short-cut of getting someone saved. I ran into a fellow one day asking for change, so I gave him some, and then preached the gospel to him. At the end, I coached him into prayer. “Just repeat my words,” I said. He did. When we were finished, I bobbed up and down saying, “Praise the Lord, you’re saved!” but he just looked at me, bewildered, and said, “No I’m not.” I insisted, so he told me, “Look, as soon as I’m done here with you, I’m going to go do the same things I’ve always done.”
“But. You’re. Saved,” I said in a voice becoming less bold by the second. The truth is, he wasn’t saved. Belief and repentance don’t come by getting people to repeat magic words. Or arguing someone into submission. It comes through the prompting of the Holy Spirit.
Thankfully, I’ve seen the real thing happen as well. One night we were in a home meeting, studying the gospel of Luke. There was a man in attendance who was new, somewhat intimidating, basically the Hulk. He seemed brooding and skeptical. Guarded. But then he saw in the verses the interaction between the thief on the cross, and Jesus–how the thief had mocked Jesus, but then changed his mind and said, “Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
When we read this account that night, the big fellow’s eyes welled up with tears, and he said, “That’s me, that’s me. I want to change my mind about Jesus, too!” He wasn’t ashamed to cry in front of everyone, or to get baptized. Nobody coached him, nor did anyone need to. He simply obeyed the prod of the Holy Spirit that came along with the Word. As the person leading that study, I felt no exertion, because the effort hadn’t come from me.
That is why we must not only speak, but pray for those we’re reaching.
I’ve introduced a practice into our church other Christian groups have used called ‘5 for 5.’ Essentially it means to
pray for five names,
five minutes a day,
five days a week,
for five weeks.
We’re not praying for these people to merely go to church (because unrepentant people attend church all the time), or to stop a bad habit (because plenty of unrepentant people don’t smoke or swear). No, instead we want to go for the gusto and pray for the miracle of repentance, complete with belief in God’s Word, sackcloth, ashes, fasting, and calling on the name of God.
Five names, five miracles.