There is a repentance that does not count

Here is a lesson from James Montgomery Boice, the preacher and theologian from the mid-century last century. He is teaching from Hosea 6. The sermon is titled The Repentance That Does Not Count. In this lesson, Boice is teaching about the elements of untrue repentance, and true repentance, as national Israel seems to be repenting but is not. Their lips speak words but their heart is far from the LORD.

By the way, if you want great preaching on the actual texts of the Old Testament prophets, Boice is a wonderful resource. I just finished listening to his series from Daniel. Now he is on to Hosea. You can find him on Expositor.FM, or

Here is Hosea 6:1-3

Israel and Judah Are Unrepentant

1“Come, let us return to the LORD;
for he has torn us, that he may heal us;
he has struck us down, and he will bind us up.
2After two days he will revive us;
on the third day he will raise us up,
that we may live before him.
3Let us know; let us press on to know the LORD;
his going out is sure as the dawn;
he will come to us as the showers,
as the spring rains that water the earth.”

These verses are not really a genuine repentance, Dr Boice said. Can you detect what's wrong? They seem to have the right vocabulary, like the words "return", a great Hebrew word, the very thing that God had been calling Israel to do. Or in verse 3 the word acknowledge or "know". It's the very thing God had accused them of not having, knowledge. So, doesn't it sound good and proper? Doesn't it sound orthodox? asked Dr Boice.

It does sound orthodox, but it doesn't sound genuine. Two things are missing. First of all, there is no mention of sin. That's the obvious one. There is not one phrase within this confession that lets us know the people are aware they're sinners. They want to return, they want to be healed, they want to acknowledge, they want to be revived- all those things. But they make not the slightest indication at any point that they have done wrong. This is not the prayer from the publican that Jesus extolled, Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner. (Luke 18:13).

At this point Dr Boice comments that there is a practical application that can be made in the present day. He preached this sermon sometime around 1976, a time when Newsweek (then, an influential weekly magazine) declared 1976 The Year of the Evangelical. President Jimmy Carter's convictions were highlighted, and there seemed to be a resulting great deal of religious interest, yet without an awareness of sin. There has never been a movement of the Spirit of God in history without an awareness of sin on a profound personal and cultural level as well. Consequently, when there's been a revival when this element has been present there has been a turning from sin to God and there has been something like national renewal. We don't see any of that in our time.

The second thing that's missing is harder to detect than the lack of mention of sin. What's missing is any truly personal relationship with God. The only time we become aware of our sin is when we become aware of God. When we become aware of God we become aware of our need for rescue from sin. When we become aware of our sin, we become aware of God in His greatness, Boice explained. Without those elements, it reduces religion to simply an equation. The Israelites figured, if they just get the equation right with all its proper elements in the right place, God would be gracious to them, just the same as if you threw the right number of chemicals into a vat with a spark then there's an explosion. God doesn't work that way. He is not impersonal. He won't be used, which is precisely what this implies. God is faithful to His nature and what He wants is a genuine repentance which these verses do not contain.

So what should be done? The answer is simply not to repent in inadequate terms but offer a genuine repentance, which is not in Hosea chapter 6 or 7 or 8 or any chapter until you get to the end, chapter 14. There is a repentance that counts.


Here from the MacArthur Study Bible, we read the invitation from the LORD to Israel, to return to Him in genuine repentance-

Return, O Israel, to the LORD your God, for you have stumbled because of your iniquity. 2Take with you words and return to the LORD; say to him, “Take away all iniquity; accept what is good, and we will pay with bulls the vows of our lips. 3Assyria shall not save us; we will not ride on horses; and we will say no more, ‘Our God,’ to the work of our hands. In you the orphan finds mercy.” (Hosea 14:1-2).

Israel was invited to return, bringing words of repentance accompanied by obedience, repaying God's gracious acceptance of them with "vows of our lips," explains MacArthur.

Israel will express genuine repentance, at the end of the Great Tribulation (Zechariah 12:10-14). Their repentance will be accompanied by mourning, fitly so. It will be accompanied by an acknowledgement at long last of who Jesus is. Israel's sorrow will be national and personal, every family throughout national Israel will mourn and cry out to the Lord. As Boice mentioned above, there has never been a movement of the Spirit of God in history without an awareness of sin on a profound personal and cultural level as well. Israel will demonstrate that in the end. And because the Lord is true to His nature, Hosea records the result of their repentance:

I will heal their apostasy; I will love them freely, for my anger has turned from them. 5I will be like the dew to Israel; he shall blossom like the lily; he shall take root like the trees of Lebanon; 6his shoots shall spread out; his beauty shall be like the olive, and his fragrance like Lebanon. 7They shall return and dwell beneath my shadow; they shall flourish like the grain; they shall blossom like the vine; their fame shall be like the wine of Lebanon. (Hosea 14:4-7)

Repentance that DOES count includes those elements, which are a profound sorrow for sin, and acknowledging who God is. As David said when he mourned his sin with Bathsheba-

Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment. (Psalm 51:4)

As Hosea recorded, genuine repentance includes vows too, these would be vows of obedience to God.

We all sin, sadly. Paul said "O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?" (Romans 7:24) and I have cried that myself more than once this week alone. Yet Jesus is forgiving- when we express genuine repentance, mourning our sin, (2 Corinthians 7:10) acknowledgment of who He is, and vowing obedience and actually then obeying. (Matthew 3:8) we are genuinely pleasing the Lord with our attitude.

Insincere repentance is what we often see today, among those who claim Christianity but are only displaying a religious interest yet without an awareness of sin. And when sin is mentioned, we are told we are judgmental, intolerant, and just plain mean. The same elements must be present in a genuine repentance that were commanded in Hosea's day, 2,700 years ago, are required now.

But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ (Luke 18:13)
The tax collector's humility is notable in everything about his posture and behavior. Here was a man who had been made to face the reality of his own sin, and his only response was abject humility and repentance. God be merciful...he had no hope but the mercy of God. The is the point to which the Law aims to bring every sinner. ~MacArthur Study Bible
For in Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life has set you free from the law of sin and death. (Romans 8:2)

Therefore bless the Lord Jesus; mighty Victor, gentle Shepherd, merciful Father.

Further Reading

John MacArthur: Is Repentance from Sin Essential for Salvation?