Israel’s first king, Saul, had such promise at the beginning of his life. But read through to the end of 1 Samuel, and you’ll see a gruesome and devastating end. The prophet Samuel may have warned Israel (and Saul), but Saul’s downfall still shocked many of them.
They should have seen it coming. After all, they sought a king in the first place because they didn’t trust God to meet their needs. The result was God granting their desires and giving them Saul. Saul turned out to be a self-seeking coward who consulted demons in a time of trouble. And in the end, he was a king who couldn’t defeat the Philistines, their biggest enemy.
The end of Saul’s life is horrific. Defeated in battle, his last act was to watch his own sons die, then take his own life. Adding to this dishonor, the Philistines stripped his dead body of its armor, displaying his corpse as a testimony to Philistine strength. His body was fastened on the wall of a Philistine city to hang there in shame until the birds ate away his flesh. (At least, this was the goal: A silver lining of this story is the valiant recovery of Saul’s body by some brave and faithful Israelite soldiers; cf. 1 Samuel 31:11–13.)
For a careful reader of 1 Samuel, this ending should actually sound familiar. When 1 Samuel opens, Israel’s corrupt leader, Eli, and his sons die in a battle against the Philistines because of Eli’s corruption. The parallel makes the message clear: All attempts to be our own king will leave us worse off than when we started. And being religious is different than being repentant.
Saul was very religious. He led Israel to victory several times, purged the land of witches and wizards, gave to the temple, and prayed to God when he was in trouble. If he were alive today, he’d likely be a respected member and leader of the church and successful in his career. But he’d still be lost because while he did a lot of religious things, he never really repented.
Here are four ways to know if you’ve substituted religion for repentance:
1. You rationalize your sin.
You rarely think about your sin in terms of rebellion against God. You only think about how you compare to others. You might say, He or she did it, too or Look at all the good things I’ve done for you, God!
2. Your behavior remains unchanged.
With your mouth you say that Jesus is King, but with your life you say something different. Repentance that does not change you in life won’t save you in death, either. And if there’s a difference between them, God accepts the testimony of your life.
3. You have worldly sorrow, not godly sorrow.
Many confuse worldly sorrow with repentance. In 2 Corinthians 7:10, Paul says, “For godly sorrow produces a repentance that leads to salvation … whereas worldly sorrow produces death” (ESV).
Worldly sorrow is not repentance. Maybe you’re moved to tears over the embarrassment of being caught, self-condemnation, or fear of punishment, but that doesn’t mean you’ve repented.
Similarly, confessing your sin is not repentance. You might just be trying to relieve your guilt or get something off your chest.
Only one thing shows genuine repentance: a changed life. The Greek word for repentance is metanoia, which means a change of mind. To repent means that you change your mind about the kingship of Jesus—which is shown in how you adjust your life accordingly.
4. You are only partially compliant.
You start obeying God in one area but not all. Repentance is one of those things that has to be total or it is meaningless. You are either surrendered to Jesus or you’re not; he’s either Lord of all or not Lord at all. Yes, we will struggle with sin for the rest of our earthly lives, but when we’re surrendered to Jesus, there is nothing we willingly hold back from him.
Jesus warned about the dangers of religiosity without repentance in Matthew 7. Many, Jesus says, who were active in his church would know the verses and pray the prayers, but they wouldn’t know him. They would end up like Saul.
Are you going to be in that number?