A podcast listener named Doug in Ohio writes us with a very common and important question. We see it all the time in the inbox, and for good reason. Here it is: If my repentance is genuine, why do I keep confessing the same sin? Here’s how Doug put it. “Dear Pastor John, hello and thank you for APJ. Your biblical responses have helped me in times when I needed guidance with handling circumstances in my life. My own question has to do with repentance. Does true repentance mean that we never ask for God’s forgiveness for the same sin twice? Numerous are the times that I have had to ask for forgiveness for all manner of sin. But how can I say that I have repented if I commit the same types of sin over and over? This question plagues me to such a degree that I am sometimes seized by depression when I think of it.”
Doug’s question is one of the most common questions that an honest and serious Christian has to ask, especially in light of the demands of the New Testament for holiness, along with its warnings:
- Faith without a changed life is dead. (James 2:17)
- There is a holiness without which we will not see the Lord. (Hebrews 12:14)
- “If you love me,” Jesus said, “you will keep my commandments.” (John 14:15)
- Many will say to Jesus at the last day, “Lord, Lord.” He’ll say, “I never knew you because you didn’t do what I said.” (see Matthew 7:22–23)
- How can you still walk in your sins if you have died with Christ? (Romans 6:2)
This is an urgent and common, rightly common, question amongst serious, honest Christians.
Daily Dealing with Sin
Let me start with a clarification of how to even pose the question in language that I think is perhaps more consistent with the way the New Testament speaks than the way Doug set it up. Doug uses the word repent to pose the question that he has. He says, “Does true repentance mean that we never ask God’s forgiveness for the same sin twice? How can I say that I have repented if I commit the same types of sin over and over?” I would suggest that we not use the word repent for the way we respond to daily sinning as Christians. That may surprise people, but let me try to explain.
“Sin is a condition of the heart that is bent away from God in preference for other things.”
Yes, I do assume that Christians sin every day because Jesus said alongside “Give us this day our daily bread,” “Forgive us our debts” (Matthew 6:11–12). I take it for granted, then, that he wouldn’t have said that if there weren’t a need for daily forgiveness of our sins, our debt to God. Of course, I’m giving a very radical, New Testament definition of sin when I say that. Here’s my definition: any thought, any attitude, any word, any facial expression, any gesture, any action that does not flow from a treasuring of Jesus is sin.
Sin is not just big, bad deeds like murder or stealing or adultery, or even more regular sins like dishonesty or foul language or impatience. Sin is a condition of the heart that is bent away from God in preference for other things, and sin is any expression of that preference in our mind or attitude or behavior. Sin will be with us — yes, it will, sadly, and it breaks our heart. Sin will be with us until that inner condition is wholly obliterated in the presence of Christ.
And I’m saying that the New Testament does not encourage us to use the word repent for the daily activity of acknowledging those sins, and bringing them to God, and expressing our sorrow, and hating them, and turning afresh to walk in the light. Rather, the word repentance in the New Testament refers to a more basic, fundamental change of mind, the kind we experience at the beginning of our Christian life, and that we may have to experience if our life takes a terrible turn into a path of destruction from which we need to be called back — as in the churches in the first chapters of Revelation, which were all called to repent, because they’re going to be destroyed; their candlesticks are going to be removed if they don’t repent and turn back from that pattern of life they’ve been living.
But the New Testament doesn’t use the word repentance for the daily habit of dealing with our indwelling, recurrent sin. Rather, I would suggest that 1 John 1:8–9 proposes the word confession: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
Two Kinds of Confession
What about sins, then, that we commit more than once — indeed, so often that they are threatening to destroy our assurance of being a Christian? Here’s the way I would put it: there are two kinds of confession, and there are two kinds of sin, so test yourself now as to which you are doing.
First, there is confession that, at one level, is expressing guilt and sorrow for sinning, but underneath there is the quiet assumption that this sin is going to happen again, probably before the week is out.
- I’m going to look at nudity in a movie or at some website again (or worse).
- I’m going to overdo it with alcohol again, probably this weekend.
- I’m going to laugh at those demeaning jokes at work again tomorrow.
- I’m going to avoid confronting my colleague’s dishonesty again.
- I’m going to respond in a belittling way to my wife when she looks that way at me again, probably two days from now.
In other words, this kind of confession is very superficial. It’s a cloak for fatalism about your besetting sins. You feel bad about them, but you have surrendered to their inevitability. That’s one kind of confession.
The other kind of confession is that you express guilt and sorrow for sinning, just like with the first kind, but your hatred of the sin is so real that you have every intention as you confess of making war on that sin tonight, this weekend. You aim, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to defeat it. You are going to seek out whatever ways are going to help you put this sin to death. You are going to rob it of its power. That’s the plan — no hypocrisy. Now, those are the two ways of confessing sin.
Two Sorts of Sin
The two kinds of sin that I’m referring to are, first, the kind of sin that blindsides you. It’s not premeditated or planned, and there is scarcely any battle in the moment when it happens. Before you realize what you’re doing, it’s done. In my own experience, I would illustrate with certain kinds of sinful anger that come over me, and almost instantly I can tell it’s over the top — it’s not holy; it’s not righteous. Or maybe spontaneous unkind words that just pop out of my mouth, and I’m ashamed of them as soon as I say them. Or there could be a reflexive sexual fantasy owing to some decades-old experience or a recent advertisement that you saw while you were looking at the news or whatever.
I’m not excusing these things; they’re sin. They’re sin. They show something about my heart. I’m calling them sin, even though they are more or less spontaneous and not premeditated.
Here’s the other kind of sin that I’m referring to; namely, it is premeditated. You actually sit there or stand there weighing whether to do it or not — whether to look at the pornography or not, whether to stay and listen to the dirty jokes or not, whether to call out the injustice at work or not, whether to be dishonest on your tax returns or not. You take ten seconds or ten minutes or ten hours wrestling, and then you do the sin.
Path to Destruction
Now, I think it’s possible for a Christian to commit both kinds of sins and get into patterns of both kinds of confession for a season. But I would say that the confession that cloaks fatalism, hopelessness, peace with sin, and the sin that is premeditated are more dangerous to our souls. Both are dangerous. Don’t get me wrong; both are dangerous. But the confession bordering on hypocrisy and the sin bordering on planned unrighteousness are more dangerous.
“Sin will be with us until that inner condition is wholly obliterated in the presence of Christ.”
Paul acknowledges in Romans 7:16–19, as I understand it, “I do what I do not want, and I do not do the good I want.” He cries out, “Wretched man that I am!” (Romans 7:24). Then he flies to Christ for cleansing. As much as I would like it for my own soul, I don’t think we can provide a list of sins or a number for the frequency with which you can sin and get away with it. I don’t think we can do that in a way that answers the question, How much sinning proves that I’m not a Christian?
Instead, I would say this: to the degree that your confessing of sin has made a kind of fatalistic peace with sin’s inevitability, and to the degree that your sin falls into the category of premeditated unrighteousness, to that degree, you should be frightened that you are on a path that may well lead to destruction. I think that’s what we can say.
Faithful to Forgive
The book in the New Testament — interestingly enough, paradoxically enough — that is perhaps the hardest on Christians sinning is the same book that warns most explicitly about the dangers of perfectionism. Let me close by reading that paradoxical section from 1 John 1:8–10. This is the way the Bible chooses to talk about this paradox.
If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.
That’s the warning against perfectionism. Then he continues,
If we confess our sins . . .
And that confession right there, I think, means real confession.
. . . he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
Then he goes back to the warning.
If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.