There are fewer deceptions that are more confounding than that of false repentance. When someone pretends to confess and turn away from sin, but in the depths of his heart means only to appease anger and escape consequences, it leaves in its wake an especially sensitive kind of confusion and pain.
“Do they really mean it?” is a question that I’m asked frequently. My response is that I do not know for sure, and I am vulnerable to deception. However, genuine repentance tends to be more like mountains on the horizon than a pit on the path — that is, it tends to be easily discernible and not something for which you have to be on the lookout. The more you feel like you have to go find it, the less likely it is authentic.
Why Do We Repent?
“My bad.” Those words got me out of more trouble as a young man than any other two-word combination I can imagine. Guys especially have a tendency to think that repentance almost solely consists of admitting a fault. Once the fault has been admitted, even if in the most lexically concise way possible, the assumption is that everyone should just get over it and move on.
However, when repentance is given the short shrift, so is the relationship that is supposed to be repaired. Our repenting of sin is the first step toward rebuilding trust with those whom our sin has harmed or affected. If we seem irritated or rash in our repentance, then the wound which that sin created can stay open and become infected with bitterness.
More than that, the reason that we prioritize repentance is because our Lord and Savior tells us to (1 John 1:9). The gospel is on full display when we repent. Its light shines forth for us as we perceive our moment-to-moment need of a gracious Savior, and it penetrates into the painful darkness of others as it illuminates the route to restoration grounded in the good news of a holy God. As Tertullian once said, “I was born for no other end but to repent.”
The famous seventeenth century pastor Thomas Watson wrote a treatise on repentance with six “ingredients” to show us what genuine repentance looks like.
1. Sight of Sin
By this, Watson means that we rightly perceive ourselves as sinners. How often have you heard the phrase, “I know I’m not perfect but . . . ” which in nearly every circumstance means, “when it comes to this, I’m perfect!” Genuine repentance starts with the understanding that we are desperate sinners whose sin touches nearly everything we do (Romans 3:10). It means that we should not be surprised when we find it necessary to repent, nor should that exercise undo us.
2. Sorrow over Sin
This ingredient is the element of lament for our sin as we see its effect on ourselves, on others, and on God. As David cries, “The sacrifices of God are . . . a broken and contrite heart” (Psalm 51:17). This is the element which is most easily observed and therefore most often counterfeited. As Watson observes some are sorrowful “not because sin is sinful, but because it is painful.”
3. Confession of Sin
Again Watson writes, “Sorrow is such a vehement passion that it must vent. It vents itself at the eyes by weeping and at the tongue by confession.” Confession should focus on oneself and one’s own sin. It should not look to mitigate, excuse, rationalize, or blame. Genuine repentance takes ownership of the pain that our sin has caused both in its particulars and generalities.
While preferred that confession is always voluntary on the part of the penitent, it is not uncommon for confession to flow from the fact that the Lord has graciously let us be caught in our sinful ways. However, if confession results only from the times that we are involuntarily caught in our sin, then this is no repentance at all.
I cannot count the number of philanders, gossips, addicts, and gamblers whose confessions became a serial event — always confessing to exactly what they’d been caught doing and no more. Our confessions, while they do not have to go into exacting detail, must not leave grand portions of our sin concealed.
4. Shame of Sin
“Blushing is the color of virtue,” says Watson. All sin makes us guilty, and that guilt is only removed at the cost of the blood of God himself, who voluntarily took on flesh and lived a perfect life never once ceding to temptation, though tempted by the prince of lies himself. He voluntarily clothed himself in that very sin and took on the wrath of God — hell itself! — at Calvary. If that does not make us ashamed when we sin, nothing will! May there be in our communities of faith more blushing and less boasting when it comes to sin (Ezra 9:6).
5. Hatred of Sin
“Christ is never loved till sin is loathed.” Genuine repentance reflects something of God’s wrath. God’s anger burns at sin, and for those who do not trust in Christ alone for salvation, they will experience this firsthand upon death. It is not just a historical anger but an eternal one.
When we get angry at our own sin, we are reflecting something of God’s holiness and purity to those around. This hatred of sin in oneself, when genuine, is never too far from the surface. It usually only takes a little agitation to yield significant expression. When someone’s anger is focused primarily on others’ sins and not his own, it’s typically a sign that repentance is a mere performance.
6. Turning from Sin
Repentance means little if it does not result in reformation. This is the ingredient of repentance that takes the longest and can be the most excruciating for all involved. Will you raise your voice again in anger? Will you look at something inappropriate when no one else is around? Will you talk again about someone else’s flaws just so you can feel accepted?
Scripture tells us that we must not only repent but that we must also actively turn from the sins we commit (Ezekiel 14:6). If we repent without a sincere desire to keep from engaging in that same sin in the future, then one or more of the ingredients above are missing. That said, if we turn from sin in our own strength, we will fail. We will lose both the motivation and the energy for the fight that the conflict against sin requires of us. Instead, if we turn not to our own efforts but to God, we will find ourselves more and more refreshed by his grace and have the catalyst to see sin beaten.
Repentance is a key part of the Christian life. It never feels good — and if it does, you’re doing it wrong — but it is necessary. It’s what reminds us of our need for grace while displaying our growth in grace to the world around.