Voices: Lessons on repentance from Nehemiah

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Confession and repentance of sin are two of Christianity’s most fundamental elements (Mark 1:15; 1 John 1:9).

Of course, confession and repentance are not methods by which we earn God’s grace, but are the fruit of God’s grace, which precedes and empowers our confession and repentance (for example, 2 Timothy 2:25). And it is Christ’s death on the cross that earns our salvation, which we receive by faith; our good works—including confession and repentance—flow from that (Ephesians 2:8-10).

But what do confession and repentance look like in practice? I believe Nehemiah 9-10 provide an excellent paradigm for how Christians can practice confession and repentance today.

After returning from the Babylonian exile, the people of Israel gathered in the remains of Jerusalem under Ezra’s spiritual leadership to deal with their sins. Their story provides four lessons for us.

Repentance is corporate.

Nehemiah specifies the people of Israel assembled together (9:1). The actions the people were about to undertake were corporate, not merely individual. While the individual Israelites in the assembly certainly had personal sins of their own, their situation transcended a collection of individual transgressions.

Israel’s sin was a collective problem, a matter in which they were implicated as a group. As such, they needed to act as a group. It would not be enough for each of them to go home and go before God privately. This collectivism carries through the rest of the passage.

Modern individualism has warped many Christians’ view of sin somewhat, turning sin into a strictly private affair. “That’s between me and God,” you might hear an American believer say. To be sure, individual responsibility is a key part of Christian faith (Ezekiel 18:20). No one can be saved apart from personal faith in Christ.

But it is easy to let this biblical principle turn into unbiblical individualism. When it comes to sin, group accountability and corporate action are necessary (Galatians 6:1-2). Nehemiah reminds us there are times when believers must confess and repent as a group, whether as a local church, a denomination, etc.

Repentance is historical.

As we read Nehemiah’s account, one of the early details that might strike us as odd is the statement that the Israelites “confessed their sins and the wrongdoings of their fathers” (9:2 NASB, emphasis added).

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How do you confess—let alone repent of—the sins of your ancestors? Most of chapter 9 is a summary of Israel’s history, and verses 16 to 37 provide an unflinching look at the rebellion of the Israelites’ ancestors, leading all the way up to the present day. These historic patterns of sin stand in sharp contrast to the historic grace of God the text also describes.

This passage is not teaching the otherwise innocent contemporary Israelites must be punished for sins committed by others long ago. Rather, the people of Israel recognized the sins of their ancestors set the stage for the Israelites’ current situation. Sins in the past do not stay in the past; they have ongoing, cumulative effects in the present.

The Israelites realized if they wanted to deal properly with their present sin problem, they must reckon honestly with their own history. Modern Christians would be wise to follow their example. Our sins do not spring up from nowhere; they stem from a long legacy of historic problems. Proper repentance requires recognizing how history has shaped us.

Repentance is concrete.

In verse 38 and into chapter 10, the Israelites began to discuss what they would do in response to the sin they just confessed. They knew they could not simply say: “This is what we did, God. Sorry.” No, they needed to make changes. That’s what makes repentance different from feeling bad; you change something, or at least strive to do so.

After a list of covenant signatories in 10:1-27, the rest of the chapter (10:28-39) details precisely what the Israelites committed to doing. The Israelites’ commitments were not vague or generic. Rather, the people were specific about what they would and would not do. And these concrete instructions were part of a binding, sacred covenant—a sort of “contract.”

Sometimes, being specific and concrete in our repentance is straightforward. For example: “I will stop sleeping with people other than my spouse.” But in many cases, especially when dealing with corporate sin rather than individual sin, the process requires more attention and work.

Consider the problems of racial justice and racial reconciliation in our churches today. It is not enough simply to say, “We will fight racism,” or, “We will stop being racist.” What does that look like in practice? What specific actions can and should we take? The Israelites had that figured out. How, exactly? Well, that leads into our fourth and final lesson.

Repentance is biblical.

The specific actions the Israelites prescribed for themselves were not pulled from thin air. The people did not make up a list of ideas after brainstorming. Rather, their commitments came straight from the law of Moses.

Compare Nehemiah 10:28-39 with the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and, especially, Deuteronomy. In Nehemiah 8, immediately before the passage we are considering, Ezra the scribe and his assistants publicly read from the law of Moses and explained it in front of the gathered people of Israel. These actions are what lead directly to the events of chapters 9 and 10.

When we modern Christians strive to determine what concrete steps of repentance we can take, we must let Scripture serve as our highest authority. God has spoken through Scripture, and the Bible serves as our final rule in all matters of faith and practice.

While the greater risk may be avoiding confession and repentance entirely, there also is another risk—going beyond or against Scripture in our response to sin. As Christians, we must let the Bible both prompt and norm our repentance. To do otherwise will restart the cycle of sin and destruction.

Joshua Sharp is a writer and Bible teacher living in Waco. He holds a Master of Divinity degree from Truett Theological Seminary. The views expressed are those solely of the author.

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