The word of the day is “repent.” We usually think of repentance as a change of heart and mind. But repentance can be insincere, pretended, or done for the wrong reason. In today’s reading of Acts 8:18-25, we read the case of a man named Simon who seemed to repent. After Peter condemned his wickedness, Simon said, “Pray to the Lord for me, that none of the things which you have spoken may come upon me” (OSB vs. 24). This plea seemed to indicate that he had turned around from his sinful ways. However, if we read this passage carefully, we discover his contrition was not genuine. Thus, from this negative example, we learn about the nature of true repentance.
Our reading continues the story of the conversion of the Samaritans to Christ. When the apostles in Jerusalem heard that the many in Samaria had responded to the proclamation of the Gospel, they sent Peter and John to certify their faith. They laid their hands on the new believers, and they received the Holy Spirit.
Simon Offers Money to Profit From Spiritual Power
Now one of the believers was a sorcerer named Simon, a magician who so impressed the people that they called him “the great power of God” (OSB vs. 10). When Simon observed that the gift of the Holy Spirit was given by the laying on of hands, he offered to pay for the same power (OSB vs. 19).
Peter sternly rebuked him and urged him to repent of his “bitterness” and “iniquity” (OAB vs. 22). Simon’s reply appears to be an expression of repentance. However, if we consider his words carefully, we find that Simon does not pray to God as Peter urged. He asks Peter and John to pray for him. And what the apostles were supposed to pray was that Peter’s condemnation of Him and His money would not happen and that he and his money would not perish (OSB vs. 20).
Was Simon’s Repentance Genuine?
We might conclude from the way Luke tells the story that Simon’s plea fell short of true repentance. We can say this because Simon did not turn to God for forgiveness. He turned to the apostles to mediate to the Almighty for him. Moreover, he showed no remorse for his sin and no contrition for his sinfulness. He only voiced his fear of the consequences of his wickedness. Then too, we find no indication that Simon desired a remedy for the poison of his “bitterness and iniquity” that afflicted him.
Church tradition confirms this interpretation that Simon did not turn around from his evil ways. Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, among others, held that he continued his sorcery and became an archenemy of the church. Likewise, he is not remembered for his repentance but for the sin of “simony,” that is, the selling of the sacred things of God for profit.
By presenting its opposite, the case of Simon teaches us the nature of true repentance. Yes, this change of mind involves “turning around.” But repentance is not a self-improvement program. Its primary motive is not the fear of punishment, and its main purpose is not the removal of regret or shame. No, the focus of our change of heart and mind must be on our relationship with God.
The Primary Focus of True Repentance
God our Creator and Redeemer is not an impersonal force, not an intangible source of being, not an abstract concept, and not a projection of our imagination. God is a personal being who seeks a personal relationship with us, his creation. We are made in His image so that we might know, love, and worship Him. Therefore, in true repentance, we seek the Lord’s forgiveness. At the deepest level, our contrition is our sorrow that we have offended our Heavenly Father, who gives us life and every blessing. And our plea is that our loving God would pardon our affront against Him.
Repentance is a matter of the heart. Our fellow members may not know whether our change of mind and heart is sincere or insincere. But our Heavenly Father knows the state of our souls. He does not pardon insincerity but waits for us to come to him in unfeigned penitence. He waits for our true repentance so that He might forgive us and bring us back into the blessings of abiding in Him.