True and False Repentance

Then Saul said to Samuel, ‘I have sinned, for I have disobeyed what the Lord commanded and your words as well. For I was afraid of the army, and I obeyed their voice. Now please forgive my sin! Go back with me so I can worship the Lord.’

Samuel said to Saul, ‘I will not go back with you, for you have rejected the Lord’s orders, and the Lord has rejected you from being king over Israel.’

... Saul again replied, ‘I have sinned. But please honor me before the elders of my people and before Israel. Go back with me so I may worship the Lord your God.’ 1 Samuel 15.24-26a, 30

When we read through 1 Samuel, this passage in chapter 15 is quite the story. There are many different angles we could observe, but for today, we can consider Saul, his sin, the consequence of his sin, and his repentance (or non-repentance). Saul had disobeyed God and he had disobeyed Samuel, God’s prophet. Instead of destroying the Amalekites, he had kept the best of their possessions for himself and kept the king alive. This was contrary to the word of the Lord, and it revealed that Saul was not devoted to God but to himself and his position as king.

But Samuel would have none of it. He knew (as God knew) that Saul disobeyed God’s command. The consequence of this sin was to have his kingdom torn from him. His children wouldn’t rule Israel like every other hereditary monarchy. This was a huge consequence for sin, and Saul knew it, so he pleads for forgiveness from Samuel. It is interesting to note that it seems like Saul’s confession was not from the heart. Any person can say I have sinned, but many people who admit their sin only do it to preserve their position, and the author of 1 Samuel seems to tell us that Saul is only admitting his sin to preserve his status in the sight of the people. In verse 30, Saul again admits his sin with a condition. ‘I have sinned, but please honor me before the elders of my people and before Israel. Go back so I may worship the Lord your God.’ Now we see how Saul’s confession was really just his way of still being honored before the people. We will see how the rest of his life plays out in the book of Samuel, and it is apparent that he is not truly repentant. He is set on destroying the Lord’s anointed (the messiah) David who will rule after him. Martin Luther’s first thesis is important in this regard for Saul, and for us as we consider this story. ‘When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’ he called for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.’ Saul’s life, however, was not an entire life of repentance. Instead, it was a life of apologizing, it seems, to cover his tracks and to get his way just a little bit. He was not a man after God’s heart.

This is in contrast to King David who would rule Judah (and eventually all Israel) after him. He was a man after God’s own heart, according to God’s choice, precisely as he sought to live a repentant life. He was far from perfect, but when he did sin, he showed true repentance. So when he murdered a man and committed adultery, Psalm 51 chronicles his heart of repentance, and it stands in stark contrast to Saul. Instead of asking for honor before the elders and the people of Israel, he acknowledges his sin is ultimately against God. ‘Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.’

We must look at ourselves and consider how much our repentance comes from the heart versus it coming from a desire to preserve our honor or the status quo. As a child, we learn repentance by rote. We seek to develop the habits of repentance in children so that one day when their hearts are renewed through the reviving work of God’s Holy Spirit, the habit of repentance hopefully will more truly come from the heart. But we will often fall back on that rote habit of repentance without considering our hearts. If we actually consider our apologies, how often do they include a condition? ‘I’m sorry, it was just that I was trying to…’ Or ‘I’m sorry, but you were doing…’ How often do we veil our apologies with excuses? True repentance is a work of the spirit of God in our lives. So as we look at ourselves and see our broken way of repentance, we should ask for repentant hearts from our Lord and God. It is a gift from him. Secondly, we ought to see how our sin against one another is actually against our God. Saul didn’t obey the prophet Samuel, but the sin was ultimately against God. David murdered a man and committed the terrible act of adultery. In our day, we would also say he took advantage of his authority as king, but even given how terrible each of these things was, his sin was greatest against God. David acknowledges this. So may we also see how our sin is great against our brothers and sisters but even greater against our God. The wonderful and sometimes even shocking message as we consider all of this is that for those who confess their sins, God is faithful to forgive. We who live repentant lives are a forgiven people. Let us draw near to God and worship him for this.

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