Real repentance?

A confession up front – I am having a difficult time with what I am seeing as I look at repentance. I think the following is what the Bible says, but it is a lot harder than what we generally think and believe. Personally, this is the standard I have tried to hold myself to, while holding others to a lower standard. Going to have to pray and think about that.

REPENT! sign © Ben Sutherland |

Does no change in behaviour mean there has been no repentance? Does committing the same sin repeatedly mean true repentance has not occurred?

Am I suggesting we must be perfect to have repented? NO! Consider this difficult passage:

No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him. Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous. Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God. By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother.” [1-john 3:6-10 ESV]

There is no way I can live up to that passage if how it reads is what it means! The key to this, according to a great sermon I heard from a wise pastor years ago, is that bolded part “No one born of God makes a practice of sinning“. Yes, we sin, but we do not make a practice of sinning. We hate it, we fight it, and with His help, we make progress over our sin.

So how does this play out in marriage? If my wife keeps “repenting” of the same sin over, and over, and over, has she really repented? I cannot know her heart, but if she does not show “fruits worthy of repentance” (Mt 3:8) there is reason to question her repentance. If I keep committing the same sin repeatedly, have I “changed my mind for better, heartily to amend with abhorrence of my past sins?” (see yesterday’s post

I am not comfortable with much of what could be taken from this, but I will say this much – if you keep committing the same sin, repeatedly “repenting” to your spouse becomes a useless thing. If you keep committing the same sin and demand you be forgiven or treated as if you have changed, you will cause problems. If you want to be treated as if you have changed, you probably need to actually change.

By the way – change does not mean perfection. If you are committing a sin less often, or stop sooner, you are showing signs of change. As long as you make progress, even three steps forward and two steps back kind of progress, I think you show a repentant heart.

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9 Comments on “Real repentance?

  1. As you say, this is a difficult one, but, especially as someone who makes struggling with guilt an art-form, I would read it alongside Romans 7: “The trouble is with me, for I am all too human, a slave to sin. I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate. But if I know that what I am doing is wrong, this shows that I agree that the law is good. So I am not the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it.” and more. Isn’t part of the problem that we’re not (purely) born of God? We’re reborn of God, but we have, as Paul puts it “the sin living in us” that we were also born with.

    But in terms of marital repentance, I would suggest that, in all these things, communication is the key. Let’s take an example of say, nudity on the internet. If our wife hears us regularly confessing and repenting of clicking on a link we know we shouldn’t have done, for example, that may sound like no progress, no change, and you described this as “useless repentance”. But on the other hand, if it’s a struggle, your wife knows its a struggle then surely communicating success as well as failure matters. That way, your wife not only sees the regular “repentance” that sounds hollow because it’s so frequent, but also realises that, whereas last month you resisted temptation 10 times before that one you fell (and it is a fall, often a painful one, after being pushed really hard) and had to repent, whereas this time you failed after 20-30 successfully resisted temptations. No, that doesn’t excuse the fail, but it does show that the repentance was real, and that there was change and progress; change and progress which is easier with a wife’s support, congratulation and encouragement which will only come if you “confess” the times you overcame temptation as well as the times you failed.

    (NB, timing matters. I know my wife sometimes finds it frustrating when I talk about battles I’ve had during the day, shortly before we’re hoping to do stuff; it makes her feel under pressure and so on. Be sensitive!)

    • Phil – Romans is my personal favourite book of the Bible – especially chapters 7&8. I so resonate with Paul’s “O retched man that I am”!

      You are most correct that good communication is a must if our spouse is to see the battle clearly and thus be able to see the victories. I suspect many don’t do this because they don’t want to admit to how often they fail, and how often they come close to fainting. This results in a one sided view where only failures are seen.

  2. Hi Paul, my name is Eli Brayley and I’ve been following your posts for about a year now, and have really enjoyed your insights in marriage and relationship with our wives. Thank you for your dedication and faithful service, brother.

    On this post I thought I’d comment because this is a topic I have given much attention to, and I believe it’s a topic that the Church has been fuzzy on. I am a pastor in Logan, Utah, and most of my time is spent is with former Mormons who became Christians, and the people I share the gospel with are Mormons. I’m not originally from Utah, but moved here in 2007, so I know what it’s like to be in this culture and out of it. Being around Mormonism has opened my eyes to many surprising this: I have got a greater idea of what the world of the New Testament was like for the early Church, since Christianity began, not in pagan society, nor among the indifferent, irreligious crowd, but rather among a highly religious and legalistic culture, much like the Mormon culture. The area that I live in is about 100,000 in population, and 90% Latter-Day Saint. The issues that the New Testament is dealing with relate to moralistic legalism far more than they do to immoral paganism.

    Secondly, I have come to see that much of traditional Christianity is virtually identical with much of legalistic Mormonism, though we would not like to admit it. I am not talking about the strange metaphysical doctrines of Mormonism, but their moral doctrines. Mormonism is all about personal works and effort, and the evangelical teaching of righteousness through faith has zero place in their worldview. That central doctrine is supposed to inform and illuminate everything that we as Christians believe; but unfortunately, for much of traditional Christianity, it doesn’t, and we end up sounding like Mormons who know nothing about righteousness through faith in Christ apart from works.

    Mormons are seeking to establish their own righteousness through their own works, and since no one is sinless, they constantly are asking the same question: how much sin can I commit and still be truly “repentant”? What does it mean to “repent”? What happens if I repeat the sin over again? Their answer is: as long as you are trying, fighting, struggling against sin, you are repentant. Sounds familiar. There is a serious problem with this way of thinking, and not just because it is the same as Mormonism. First, I submit that nowhere in the Bible do the inspired writers ever talk like this (including in 1 John); and secondly, the apostles did not know of any righteousness other than the righteousness is by faith. That’s the whole point of Romans and Galatians, etc. that the Christian Church has always seen, isn’t it? That’s the essence of the gospel message: no one will be righteous by works, because righteousness requires sinless (not struggle against sin, but actual sinlessness), and therefore we can only be righteous through faith in the finished work of Jesus Christ, who by His death takes away our sins for us. If our traditional reasoning about 1 John 3 is valid, that our struggling against sin = righteousness (see 1 John 2:29 and 3:7, where righteousness is clearly what this is all about), and that if it is true that there is such a thing as righteousness by struggling against sin, why cannot the Mormon then apply that same logic in their gospel? They say the same thing: “I am righteous before God, not because I’m perfect, but because I struggle against sin and therefore am doing what is required. Thus I am saved by works.” As Christians, we apply this terrible logic to sanctification, but Mormons apply to justification – and why shouldn’t they if such logic is true? We cannot have it both ways. We cannot say that righteousness is through struggling against sin in sanctification, and yet that this very same logic is false in the case in justification.

    I think because many Christians have lived in a pagan culture for too long that they have forgotten that born-again Christians aren’t the only people who strive against sin. Jews have always sought righteousness (by works), and so do Mormons, and Muslims, and other religious folk. If we judge whether a person is repentant and saved based on their struggle against sin then we ought to conclude that all these people are saved. But we know that this is not the case, and that the issue really ISN’T about struggling against sin, but faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is through faith, not our effort against sin, that makes us righteous before God – or in the words of John the apostle: that “does righteousness.”

    I just want to tease you a bit with this comment, and throw this out there as food for thought. I don’t believe John is saying what you have suggested, but that he is speaking at a much deeper level about righteousness, the gospel and faith. For more on this, please check out these links below which will take you to a few articles I’ve written on my blog, and a sermon on 1 John 3 preached at our church in Logan. I’d like to hear your feedback.

    Thanks again, Paul.
    Your brother in the good fight,

  3. Eli – Thanks for the thoughts – great stuff!

    I certainly agree that faith alone is what makes us righteous, and yes there are others who struggle against sin.

    On the other hand we have the balance of of faith and works that James talks about. The works don’t save us, or earn us forgiveness, but they do SHOW our faith in a practical way that others can see. That is what I am trying to get across here – that real repentance will be seen by the fruits of repentance.

    That said, your discussion of John 3:4-9 makes a lot of sense. I am short of hacker on Greek, but I don’t see in the Greek justification for the “habitual” sin explanation that I shared. More study to do – thanks!

    • Hi Paul,

      I find the subject thread of salvation, repentance and sanctification that you have been discussing for the last few days more than theologically fascinating. For me, an incredibly huge paradigm shift began happening to me at the beginning of 2012 and it is still knocking me over like a freight train right at this very moment as I write. I totally concur with Eli’s observations about the similarities in mindsets between Mormons and contemporary Christians. There is so much I could say, but I have a burning curiousity and question for you: Have you ever listened to Joseph Prince, senior pastor of New Creation Church in Singapore on television or read either of his books, Destined to Reign or Unmerited Favor?

      If you haven’t, I would highly urge that you read both of his books, especially Unmerited Favor. Because of his strong, unadulterated teaching on the New Covenant, I feel like I have stepped out of some Christian Matrix — a deep, dense religious fog that kept me more conscious of myself all the time instead of the loveliness, power and majesty of our Lord Jesus Christ. The most obvious change for me is that I have fallen in love with Jesus with an intensity that I have never experienced before — not because I love Him — but because He loved me first with an intensity that I could never match in a trillion years. As Joseph likes to say, “right believing always leads to right living and wrong believing always leads to wrong living”. Personal holiness is the fruit of salvation — not the root of salvation. The fruit of repentance often happens almost effortlessly by gazing and focusing on someone lovelier and more beautiful than ourselves — our High Priest Jesus — and by meditating on His great love and mercy towards for us regardless of whether we are at our best or our worst.

  4. This is great stuff, Paul. Two of your comments at the end really resonated with me:

    “If you want to be treated as if you have changed, you probably need to actually change.”

    “As long as you make progress, even three steps forward and two steps back kind of progress, I think it shows a repentant heart.”

    Having to fight the battle against perfectionism, it is helpful to be reminded that repentance does not mean perfection. It means turning (and returning) to the Lord.

    • Mark – Thanks! The first of the two you mention is the one I finally “got”. I wanted to be treated based on how I thought I had changed, without have had any time to prove that change to anyone – including myself!

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