Repentance is a common theme in the Bible. No one disputes that.
However, in our day of words taking on new meaning, what repentance actually is, is somewhat debated and, I think greatly misunderstood.
It is not uncommon for me to hear someone say they’ve “repented” of some particular sin. What they mean by that is they have felt sorry for it. Either for acting sinfully, or in the aftermath of having suffered the consequences of it – felt bad about it.
But this not how the Bible defines repentance.
Yes, repentance includes a realization that what one was doing is wrong in the sight of God, and feeling the pangs of distress that God has been offended, but there is more. It is also to change one’s understanding, belief and attitude toward sinful things, so as to alter one’s behavior.
If there is not a pursuit of renewed behavior, one has not repented. They’ve only gone ½ of the way.
Perhaps the most full bodied description of what true repentance looks like is found in 2 Corinthians 7:10–11
“For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death. 11 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.” (ESV)
Irrespective of the particular sin cited in this passage, the pattern is remarkably clear.
- Godly grief. Grief at having offend God, not mere regret at having been caught or suffering the consequences of the sin.
- Earnestness in taking a new course.
- Eagerness to be clear of it in the future – to distance oneself from having countenanced the sin in the first place.
- Indignation that you allowed yourself to go that route at all.
- Fear of what continuing along that course would bring as opposed to the former brazenness.
- What longing after change in inward desires. To bless and serve God rather than to walk in contrariness.
- Zeal to put away the old and pursue the new.
- Willingness to accept right punishment. No attempt to confess and accept guilt as a tactic to escape what might be a just result. For example, the thief wants to let his or her responsibility go at saying “I’m sorry” while expecting to be exempted from having to make restitution. True repentance seeks to make things right among men if it in any way can, while knowing that making all things right with God is the exclusive province of the atonement of Christ. But it does not confuse the categories. It does not imagine that the free grace we can enjoy in Christ in no way destroys our responsibility toward those humanly whom we may have offended.
While each of these could be teased out and examined in deeper detail, for our purposes today, I think you get the point: Biblical repentance is far more than feeling bad about sin. It had a requisite aspect of changing course.
And that brings us to the real point of this short article. This displays what repentance looks like after sin. But we want to examine what repentance looks like – before the sin which has come to us in the germ of temptation brings forth its deadly fruit.
Here is the issue: As our model of sin becomes more and more “medical”, repentance loses its place altogether.
In other words, when we treat our sins as conditions or problems or defects to be treated, failing to accept the full weight of moral responsibility for them – we no longer repent. We say “I’m sorry”, to God and men (if other humans are included in the sin), but it ends there.
What takes the place of repentance? Helpless complaining. A fruitless and endless whining about how bad one feels about the sin, but a disinterest or half-hearted attempt at actually changing one’s thoughts, attitudes or actions.
The end result is a sullen Christian on an endless up and down sin-cycle, tainted with hopelessness.
What then is the answer? True repentance.
What does that look like?
- It takes a brutal, unwavering commitment to expose their sin to God every time it lures, coupled with a conscious reliance upon the indwelling Spirit of Christ to walk away.
The moment one senses their temptation stirring inwardly (and if you’ve been caught in a besetting sin for very long, you can see temptation on the horizon well before it becomes fully formed) praying. But the prayer must be as open and honest and graphic as possible. Something like “Father, you see what my heart wants right now. I want to __________. I know it is wrong, I know it is sin, I know it is an offense against you in the worst way, but I confess that I want it, and I will pursue it apart from the empowering of your Spirit. I am helpless against sin myself but bring to you right now. I really WANT this sin in myself, but am asking you for your gift of repentance through your Spirit’s work in me. Grant me grace to overcome.”
It is in the honesty of confessing our sin, owning our responsibility for it, and asking for the Spirit’s work to produce in us the likeness of Christ and the power to deny ourselves that we find Him supplying. Not bemoaning our failure in the aftermath but in fleeing to Him in them in full honesty before they become actions. Conscious, constant, deliberate dependence upon the Holy Spirit. Nothing else will do.
Sometimes, one will be praying like that 10, 20, 100, 1000 times a day. But this I know from God’s Word, that when we run to Christ in our helplessness, ripping off the mask of any self-righteousness and self-reliance – He answers. “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” (James 4:6, 1 Pet. 5:5)
- It takes a willingness to identify the seemingly harmless precursors to actual sin, the things, places, people, attitudes, thoughts, etc. that through our repeated having fallen into sin are now familiar to us – and pleading for repentance then.
So there may be very legitimate things, things not sinful in and of themselves, but for you personally, you know to be gateways to certain sins, that you will need to avoid.
And I know the way sin argues. “But this is OK, there’s nothing wrong with it. Lots of other Christians do it all the time and with no problem.”
Yup. So what? You know that for you, this inevitably leads to something else that is sin.
Maybe it is entertaining criticism of others, which they may be deserving of, but for you ends up opening the floodgates of judgmentalism. Maybe it is a magazine or TV program that for you, soon blazes into lust. Maybe it is window shopping, which soon leaves you awash in a torrent of covetousness. Or the office pool that incites a deeper involvement in the thrill of habitual gambling with its lure of “just one more and I know I’ll strike it big!” Perhaps while ill, a little pampering by others feels so good, that the seeds of self-pity grow into a full crop that leads to the bottomless pit of depression. Or the joy of dabbling in politics that soon mushrooms into the sin of gripping anxiety over the state of affairs and plunges you deeper into despondency and other sinful heart states.
What we need is repentance. A heart that turns from those things, to find our needs met in Christ. To know ourselves well enough, honestly enough to recognize what easily leads into sinful paths, and to run to Christ at the first glimpse of them. To plead in our weakness, and to be willing to makes the changes we can make, so as prevent our presuming upon by grace, by plunging ourselves into temptation, and then complaining that we got soiled in the process.
- An increased delight in, and pursuit of those things which militate against sin arising in the heart.
One cannot cease from sin in a vacuum. If the heart does not take time to investigate, drink in, revel in, fill the heart and mind with the wonders, goodness, truth and blessings of God, one makes themselves an easy target for sin.
The more one is familiar with the highest and purest of things, the less they are satisfied with the lesser and more faulty. One who cultivates an eye and taste for fine art, loses their appreciation for velvet Elvises. The better things spoil you for the poorer. And the more you grow in the wonders of God’s truth and beauty, the less you will be tantalized by those things which are infinitely much less.
Repentance. Turning. Looking to Christ. Refusing the legitimate things that sometimes lead us there. And growing in the good things that truly nourish the soul.
Beloved, don’t treat your sins and sinful habits like disorders that just need the right medication or accommodation. Fight them – by seeking for true repentance from the Giver of repentance. He delights to bless His own.