Regret vs. Repentance

An earlier Fish Hooks touched on the story of Judas.  A reader asked whether Judas might have been saved, despite his betrayal of Jesus, because he obviously regretted his actions:

“Then when Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he changed his mind and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders, saying, ‘I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.’ They said, ‘What is that to us? See to it yourself.’  And throwing down the pieces of silver into the temple, he departed, and he went and hanged himself.” (Matthew 27: 3-5)

The Bible teaches us that God will never reject a repentant heart.  But ‘repentance’ is not the same thing as ‘regret.’   Regret is simply an internal state of mind – an emotion we feel when we wish things would have turned out differently.  Repentance, on the other hand, always involves remorse – an admission of guilt – and the intent to change.

The meaning of repentance involves ‘turning’.   This is usually understood as turning away from wrongdoing, but more importantly, it involves what we turn toward.   Judas wanted to undo his sin when he tried to return the money – in effect he tried to turn away from, to distance himself, from the awful deed he had done.  But his fatal mistake is that he then didn’t know where to turn towards and thus he saw his only option as ending his life.

Satan is the master of lies.  We don’t know what lies Satan whispered in Judas’ ear to make him do what he did.   People have speculated for centuries.  Was he disappointed with Jesus and trying to take revenge for some imagined slight?  Did he think he was going to prod Jesus into displaying His powers and launching a revolution?  These and many other theories have been offered. Whatever his reasons there is nothing defensible about betraying the Son of God.  But Judas was not the only one who betrayed Jesus that fateful night.  Peter cravenly denied Him three times – a betrayal he had sworn was impossible.  In reality, it’s probably easier to think of face saving-alibis for Judas than it is for Peter.  So one clear lesson we should take away is that faced with the full force of Satan’s deceptions even the most committed followers of Jesus can be taken in.  That’s not letting us off the hook – just recognizing reality.  But Satan’s ultimate and most potent lie is that our guilt is then too great to be forgiven.  Instead of turning to Jesus for forgiveness (as Peter did) Judas turned into himself and there he saw only the horror of his actions.

Regret is cheap.  Only the most ego-obsessed of people go through life without pangs of regret for aspects of their life and behavior.  That’s a normal part of the human experience.  And it’s also normal to react like Judas – to try to expunge the guilt by ourselves.  Repentance is saving when it turns to Jesus, the only antidote for our guilt.  But repentance is also costly because it requires us to turn away from our own sinful inclinations.  That’s not possible for the human will – only God can change hearts – but He longs to do so if we only turn to Him and ask!

As Christians, we talk a lot about “saving faith.”  That isn’t just a matter of believing in God, or believing the Biblical accounts of what Jesus did.  The most critical and most difficult act of faith for any Christian is to believe the “impossible” fact that Jesus has looked into the full depth of our being, seen all the filth and weakness and self-centeredness, and STILL loves and forgives us.  That was what Judas apparently couldn’t bring himself to believe, and that’s the ultimate tragedy of his story.

The simple fact is that NO ONE has ever been damned for the magnitude of their sin.  But numberless people have damned themselves because they were too proud or too filled with despair to turn to the Cross for redemption.

“ … Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love;..” (Joel 2:13)

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