The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.
This verse answers the question churchgoers sometimes ask, “Will God still judge the people in some third world country or in the deepest, darkest jungles far away from civilization who have never even heard of Jesus?” Contextually, Paul was talking to the polytheistic Epicurean and Stoic philosophers of ancient Athens who had never even heard of the one true God of Judeo-Christianity. Passing through their city, he had found “an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god’” (17:23). Seeing the opportunity to do the best kind of good which is sharing the gospel (Galatians 6:10; Mark 16:15), Paul told them, “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.” He then proceeded to tell them about the true God and the good news of his Son, Jesus. While doing so, he told them that God had overlooked ignorance of his existence and ignorance of his will in the past – that past specifically being in the time before Paul preached this to the Athenians two thousand years ago – but from the days of Jesus and Paul going all the way up to today and until Christ comes again God no longer overlooks ignorance.
“…now he commands all people everywhere to repent.”
There’s a reason Jesus gave the commands, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation” (Mark 16:15). Christ wants all people everywhere to repent of their sins and turn their lives over to him. If that were not the case, why did he give these commands? Not only that, but why bother to share the gospel with one’s next door neighbor, much less make the attempt to reach someone on the other side of the planet? The truth is that God shows no partiality (Romans 2:11). If he requires you and me to believe in his Son, repent of our sins, and be immersed in water for forgiveness of sins – and he does (Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38-39) – then he requires the same of every soul on this planet.
God wants us all to repent…but what does that mean? The word itself literally means in the original language “to change one’s mind.” Let me give a completely secular example. Say you’re with a friend and say, “You hungry? What are you in the mood for?” He says, “Taco Bell.” You reply, “Taco Bell sounds good.” So you both get in the car and are almost to Taco Bell. Suddenly you both see Chick-Fil-A. “Hey, you know what?” you say, “I’m kinda in the mood for some waffle fries and a chicken sandwich.” “Yeah, me too,” says your friend. So you drive right past Taco Bell and pull into Chick-Fil-A for some chicken and waffle fry goodness (with maybe a lemonade or a sweet tea too).
Guess what you guys did? You repented of Taco Bell. You literally changed your mind about Taco Bell, and that led to a change of action on your part. You turned away from Taco Bell and replaced it with Chick-Fil-A.
God wants us to change our minds about our sin. If we do that, if we stop glorying in our sin, then we will turn away from our sin and replace it with living for Jesus according to his will as revealed in the New Testament. This in turn will lead to salvation.
The apostle put it this way: “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death. For see what earnestness this godly grief has produced in you, but also what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what longing, what zeal, what punishment! At every point you have proved yourselves innocent in the matter” (2 Corinthians 7:10-11).
Godly grief or sorrow is having the same kind of grief or sorrow over your sin that God has over your sin. This is what motivates you to change your mind about your sin, which in turn leads to salvation when you do so out of whole-hearted faith and subsequently wash your sins away in baptism (Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38; 22:16). Worldly grief or sorrow over your sins is being like the thief who isn’t sorry he stole but is terribly sorry he’s in jail. Godly grief that produces repentance leads to the kind of actions described in verse 11: earnestness, eagerness to right the wrong, indignation over one’s wrongdoing, fear of God, longing and zeal to do what’s right, willingness to take whatever punishment is necessary, and doing what it takes to prove one to now be innocent. In other words, real repentance produces actions which speak louder than words.
God wants us all to repent. Are you repenting of your sins?