The Sweet Grief of Repentance
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. (Psalm 51:17)
I can still see the moment clearly in my mind. At a Christian conference, a friend whom I had been studying the Bible with that semester shared with our group that he was ready to follow Jesus. He broke down in tears. We were football players. We didn’t cry. I honestly couldn’t believe it. He not only accepted my invitation to attend the conference, but he even repented of sin and believed upon Christ for the forgiveness of sins. I sat watching it unfold in absolute awe.
Afterward, I talked with the campus minister about how amazing my friend’s conversion had been. The minister, an older man, shared that he had witnessed many such conversions — and that not all had lasted. I didn’t have categories at the time for what the minister said.
Had the minister not been there? My friend spoke, “I want to follow Jesus,” so clearly; no doubt he felt some truths deeply; he soon sung hymns so sweetly, as the crowd sang with him. But time proved that repentance was not his truest praise. The talk, the tears, the newfound happiness soon led to a crossroad. A sinful relationship with a girl proved harder to give up, for him, than Jesus.
Fruit of Lifelong Repentance
If someone’s conversion to God is true, lifelong repentance will follow. The mouth of one not born again can say true things for a time. Unchanged eyes can cry. A dead tongue can sincerely sing worship songs for a season. And turning away from Christ, repenting of him, can prove it all was false.
“Christians sin, and at times sin grievously. But they do not make a lifestyle of sinning.”
This is what the minister had seen time and time again. He witnessed seed fall on rocky soil — someone who received the word “with joy,” yet because they had no root, they fell away eventually (Matthew 13:20–21). Though they seemed to experience the Spirit’s transformation and fellowship with other believers, they finally “were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us” (1 John 2:19). And the pain of watching them leave us can be unbearable.
True repentance, then, is lifelong. Martin Luther, in the first of his ninety-five theses, began, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’ he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” Luther is capturing what Scripture attests to, for example, when John the Baptist instructs, “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:8). The wringing of our hearts over our sins, the sighs and groans of remaining corruption, our turning away from sin and looking to Christ will follow us to the grave — if we’re true.
Saints Still Sin
Now, do not misunderstand: Christians sin, and at times sin grievously. But they do not make a lifestyle of sinning. It is impossible to do so. “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” (1 John 3:9). Those with the Spirit repent of sin and turn away from it, encouraged by the discipline of a loving Father.
Repentance, we learn in Scripture, is not figuring out the secret passwords to get into heaven. We do not begin an immoral relationship, get confronted in our sin, and continue on in that immoral relationship. We confess our wrongness before God, understand how we’ve conspired against him, and prayerfully cast the sin into the fire, like Paul cast away the poisonous viper fastened to his hand on the island of Patmos (Acts 28:3).
Have you continued in a life of repentance? Have you continued in true contrition over sin, accompanied with a true impulse to renounce that sin? Have you continued to wonder how you could so offend your dearest Friend, grieve his indwelling Spirit, and dishonor your heavenly Father? Have you asked, How could I indulge the sin that Christ died to redeem me from?
Contrition Draws God Near
If you have persisted in repentance, do not forget that your God does not despise this brokenness: “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Psalm 51:17). He does not stand in heaven cross-armed, scowling. Contrition draws him near. As with the Prodigal Son, we do not need to bring our mere promises to do better next time; we bring bended knees and lowly hearts. We ask him to cover our disgrace and lavish us with fresh mercy flowing from the cross of his beloved Son who died to take away our sins.
This is an immovable part of our praise to God: agreeing with him that our sin is horrible, that we deserve punishment for it, but that Christ died for our forgiveness, and gave us his Spirit to put it to death. We vow to turn from it, yes, but only in the strength, forgiveness, and acceptance that he provides through grace alone.
Having seen more men walk away after sin, having witnessed the painful sights the minister has seen, I plead with you: Continue to offer God this truest, deepest, and sweetest of praises to God. “Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord” (Acts 3:19–20).