In recent years, we’ve sadly seen some popular Christians fall into ministry-disqualifying sins. Often, the revelation of a double life is followed by a public statement of regret.
It’s hard not to be cynical about the purity of the motives behind such acts of repentance. After all, wouldn’t a truly repentant Christian confess the truth about their sin before being caught? But if we’re honest, I wonder whether what unsettles us most on these occasions is how familiar it all feels — offering rushed apologies in an effort to mitigate sin’s consequences. It’s one of the most worn pages in our own playbook.
Is true repentance even possible when we’ve been caught in the act?
“A repentant sinner pleads guilty to all charges, trusting Jesus Christ the advocate to secure our forgiveness.”
Though we might be jaded by our contemporary experiences, a survey of Scripture finds numerous examples where true repentance followed a sudden exposure of sin. Only after Abigail’s courageous public confrontation did David realize he had let pride nearly drive him to murder (1 Samuel 25:23–35). Later, David remained blinded to his heinous crimes against Bathsheba and Uriah her husband until Nathan raised a pointed finger and pronounced, “You are the man” (2 Samuel 12:7). Both exposures are followed by David’s sincere repentance. Likewise, the city of Nineveh expressed sorrow only after God sent Jonah to bring public outcry against her sin, yet her repentance is lauded by Jesus himself (Matthew 12:41).
Although repentance after the humiliation of uncovered sin may appear contrived, the fact remains that one of God’s patterns in Scripture is to use human agents to expose sin and bring about repentance. The question, then, is not whether true repentance after being caught is possible, but what this true repentance looks like.
True repentance accepts full responsibility.
Repentance is a matter of the heart, and a truly repentant heart turns away from sin not in part but in full. Consider this question: When you have been confronted about sin, do you try to admit the least amount possible, or do you confess it all? In his first epistle, John writes, “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). When a brother begins to shine a light in a dark corner of your life, is your impulse to confess quickly to get him to turn off the flashlight? Or do you realize it’s all or nothing? A repentant heart will seize the moment to step completely into the light.
Often, the temptation in confrontation is to play the lawyer. We justify ourselves by trying to share the blame with others. For instance, when Samuel confronted Saul for disobeying God’s command to destroy the entire camp of the Amalekites, Saul kicks into blame-shift mode: “I have obeyed the voice of the Lord. . . . But the people took of the spoil, sheep and oxen” (1 Samuel 15:20–21).
“The sin God is seeking to root out and destroy in us is the same sin that drove nails through his Son.”
When we try to defend ourselves, we betray a disbelief in the truth of the gospel. “If anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (1 John 2:1). In the courtroom of God, sinners try to plead their own case on the basis of technicalities, comparison to others, or self-righteousness. However, a repentant sinner pleads guilty to all charges, trusting Jesus Christ the advocate to secure our forgiveness on the basis of his righteousness — not ours. He also admits that his sin has harmed others, and pleads with Christ for mercy and healing for those offended.
When you are confronted about sin in your life, is your response, “Yes, I did it,” or is it, “Yeah, but . . .”? You’ll know immediately if you are willing to take full responsibility.
True repentance relinquishes control.
An unrepentant heart is a savvy politician; it wants to get out in front of the issue so it can control the narrative. Panic, embarrassment, shame, and guilt can cloud our judgment. The pride that blinded us to the dangers of sin is the same pride that wants to remain in control through the repentance process.
This is why true repentance demonstrates a willingness to let go and admit the truth: I do not get to choose the consequences of my sin. We see this attitude modeled once again in David, who, after hearing the consequences of his sin from the prophet Nathan, did not try to negotiate, but simply acknowledged, “I have sinned against the Lord” (2 Samuel 12:13).
Often, we want to manage our sanctification, but that’s not how it works. The sin God is seeking to root out and destroy in us is the same sin that drove nails through his Son. It’s deadly stuff. When God brings a spouse, friend, or church member into your sin, it may be because you don’t take your sin as seriously as you should. You need help. In that moment, true repentance says, “You know what, you are right. I have sinned. What do you think I should do?”
Sanctification is a team effort. Oh the depth of God’s mercy and the liberty of Christ’s love to be able to entrust the care of our souls to others — and not to disinterested parties but to brothers and sisters who seek to love us unconditionally! God is going to use others to root the old man out, if we are willing to relinquish control.
True repentance treasures discipline.
A third sign of repentance in a believer is a proper understanding of God’s discipline. We are reminded in the Scriptures, “The Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives” (Hebrews 12:6). The brokenhearted believer will not seek to escape the discipline of the Lord, but will treasure it as a gift from the Father.
“The brokenhearted believer will not seek to escape the discipline of the Lord.”
The author of Hebrews pulls no punches; discipline “seems painful rather than pleasant” in the moment (Hebrews 12:11). However, a repentant heart trusts that “later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11). Depending on the seriousness of sinful behavior, discipline may mean the loss of a relationship, a career, or a pastorate. It may even involve prison time. The repentant heart receives even these painful consequences as from the merciful hand of God, who by his very discipline spares us from eternal wrath (1 Corinthians 11:32).
Discipline certainly means restitution for past wrongs, but it can also mean training for future righteousness. This means enlisting the help of brothers and sisters who have been solemnly charged to “see to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God” (Hebrew 12:15). A local church, spouse, and friends are essential in helping to take concrete steps to prevent sin’s temptation in the future. Once again, this may mean difficult life changes or drastic measures. For instance, a convicted sex offender may never be able to walk onto church property without being escorted by a fellow church member, but a repentant believer will receive this discipline as a gift from God.
The Spirit works in this way to cultivate humility, interdependence, and unity in the body of Christ. While you may be helping a brother in one area of weakness, he is helping you in another. While he is confronting you about your sin today, you may be the one confronting him about his tomorrow. In this way, the Spirit empowers the church through true repentance to “[build] itself up in love” as we “bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Ephesians 4:16; Galatians 6:1).