The What and Why of Repentance (Part 2 of 2)

This is a conclusion of a two-part message I had the pleasure of delivering to the youth of Lake Hills Community Church. The first part is here.

ast time, we looked at the word "repentance" and some of the ways it is used in the Bible. We saw that it is an essential component of salvation: one believes in Christ in order to be saved, but the result of a genuine renewal of the Spirit is a repentant heart. Therefore, anyone who has not repented of their sin is not a child of God. Furthermore, a redeemed, repentant soul would continually want to confess and put away sin in order to become more like Christ.

However, there are misuses of the term "repentance," and we must examine some negations. Some of these misuses can even damage the Gospel, though the individual may be using Gospel-language. What's more, if you don't understand what repentance is not, you may have practiced a deed to earn salvation that God did not honor.

What Repentance is Not
MacArthur writes,
It is true that sorrow from sin is not repentance. Judas felt remorse, but he didn’t repent (Matt. 27:3). Repentance is not just a resolve to do better; everyone who has ever made New Year’s resolutions knows how easily human determination can be broken. Repentance certainly is not penance, an activity performed to try to atone for one’s own sins. [12]
There are three denials here: repentance is not sorrow, resolve, or penance.

First, folks can feel really sorry about something but never really repent. For instance, MacArthur brought up Judas’ grief over sin. Second Corinthians 7:8–10 provides us with a contrast of this worldly sorrow to that which leads to true repentance. There, Paul notes that he felt temporary regret over writing to the Corinthians so sternly. He didn't want to hurt them. But, he does not retract that letter, for it needed to be written. Their grief would only be for a moment, and then they could deal with their grief by repenting. Though Judas felt grief after betraying Christ, he didn't do this, and thus remained unrepentant.

We sometimes feel sorry that we sinned. Perhaps we are ashamed if other people have caught us in a sin. Or, we know we deserve discipline because of the sin. Or, we see the sin as some kind of personal (spiritual) flaw that we should have conquered long ago, and we feel shame and grief.

Nonetheless, none of these feelings are repentance.

Read what the Apostle says: "For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death" (2 Cor 7:10). If you have only felt sorry over your sins, and have not fallen on your knees (literally or figuratively) before the Holy God and plead for Christ's blood to cover and cleanse you, then you are probably not saved. Those who have a repentance leading unto salvation, however, forsake themselves, forsake their lives, and forsake their sins while they enjoy their fellowship with God and with other genuine believers (see also 1 John 1:5–10).

Consider how the repentant Corinthians reacted:
For see what earnestness this godly grief has produced in you, but also what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what longing, what zeal, what punishment! At every point you have proved yourselves innocent in the matter. (v. 11)
Far from being sorry, they tore themselves up over their sin. And then they confessed it. And then they sought every means possible to make it right. Their repentance bore fruit (which keeps with Christ's command, see Matt 3:8).

Of course, there are different kinds of sins, and different responses we should have to our sins. The point here is not that we beat our heads against walls until our blood proves we are sorry. Nor is the point that we walk around for the rest of our lives with a cloud of despair raining upon us, never again to feel joy. Remember what Paul said of the grief in verse 8: "only for a while."

Think of Esau, who despised his birthright. He could not win it back with his tears (Heb 12:17). Repentance, then, is not simply doing something that demonstrates sorrow (we'll speak more about that when we talk about penance, below). Cain plead for mercy from God, but obtained only the smallest respite (Gen 4:10–15). Neither Essa nor Cain repented, though they did the things we sometimes do to demonstrate our sorrow.

We can surmise from all these examples that it is not external responses or ongoing internal turmoil God seeks any more than a parent enjoys a flat "sorry" when he tells his child to apologize for a misdeed. He wants us to turn from sin and seek Him.

Furthermore, repentance is not an pledge put into action on January 1. While repentance can be accompanied by works (e.g., Matt 3:11; Luke 3:3; Mark 1:4; Acts 13:24; 19:4 all speak of baptism because of repentance), there is no evidence that doing something is called “repenting.” That would fall more into the category of penance, anyway. As such, simply resolving to do better is a noble step, but it is not repenting.

Indeed, some may bribe their consciences by saying, "Yes, I'll sin this last time, but I won't do it ever again!" Or, they may say, "Wow, I cannot allow myself to do that again" but never confess and forsake that sin before God.

In other words, resolve can be without repentance, and many making resolutions can be without a relationship with Christ. Therefore, we must not deceive ourselves into thinking that mere determination to do better has done anything toward deepening our fellowship with the Father. Besides, is that not attempting to make oneself more righteous outside of the power of the Spirit, anyway?

Which brings us to our third denial—repentance is not penance. Penance is probably most familiar to those who come from a Roman Catholic background. The issue we have with the Catholic understanding of penance is that the sinner atones for the his own sin. This is the Roman Catholic teaching on purgatory, that fictitious state of the afterlife in which people must endure pain to purge themselves of sin. Catholic penance, similarly, is some form of self-inflicted or church-prescribed punishment for sin one endures to achieve a greater holiness.

Because the idea is Catholic, there is virtually no talk of penance within Protestant churches. However, this does not stop Protestant believers from seeking to earn favor with God by paying Him back somehow and atoning for one's own misdeeds. It is here we meet back with the first part of this study—those who do things for God to try to obtain either further forgiveness or blessing from God.

An interesting article entitled “Christians & Superstition” may help explain this. While it may not be common to associate penance and superstition, there is a great deal of synonymy between the concepts. As Benson wrote, “Superstition baits God. It is putting control in our hands so that we can get God to protect us, bless us, forgive us, heal us or make us successful.[13] Observing communion, answering the altar call, ending prayers with “In Jesus’ name,” repetitious prayers, saying grace before each meal, and giving offerings [14] all may illustrate this. We may add other acts, such as listening or watching only Christian programming, following Bible-reading schedules, or signing purity covenants that forbid some immorality, association, or kind of food or drink.

These things may all be noble, but if they are attempts to “bait” God, they not only avoid repentance but are the superstitious acts of man-centered religion. Benson concludes his article on superstition with these words: “The opposite of superstition is faith. Although some people clump them together, they couldn’t be further apart. Where superstition attempts to force God’s hands to do our will, faith rests in God’s hands and waits for him[15].

People seek penance to feel better about themselves. That is, they wish to bribe their consciences for known wrongs, and have trophies to which they can point and say, “See, I am a decent person!” In such instances, it is not sin but guilt that is the enemy, a hurdle to overcome in order to reach feelings of peace and happiness. The contrast between such attitudes and repentant hearts is clear.

Perhaps Paul Tripp has the best words to sum up this section on what repentance is not:
Repentance is presented in Scripture as a radical change of heart that results in a radically different way of living. As the heart turns and moves in a different direction , the life does as well. Anything short of this is simply not repentance. Many people come to counseling with the goal of self-atonement, though they may not realize it. They want support for what they are doing. They want to feel good about themselves, and they find that they do feel better after the counseling sessions, so they continue. But they have not submitted to God’s radical call to repentance.[16]
The Results of True Repentance in Christian Living
There are only two approaches Christians can take to the Gospel of Scripture. First, one may reformat it to meet felt needs (desperate as those needs may seem). Such preaching has been called “therapeutic” by David Powlison, for its sole purpose is to provide salve to wounded egos.
In this new gospel, the great evils to be redressed do not call for any fundamental change of direction in the human heart. Instead, the problem lies in my sense of rejection from others; in my corrosive experience of life’s vanity; in my nervous sense of self-condemnation and diffidence; in the immediate threat of boredom if my music is turned off; in my fussy complaints when a long, hard road lies ahead. These are today’s significant felt needs that the gospel is bent to serve. Jesus and the church exist to make you feel loved, significant, validated, entertained, and charged up. This gospel ameliorates distressing symptoms. It makes you feel better. The logic of this therapeutic gospel is a jesus-for-Me who meets individual desires and assuages psychic aches.[17]
The result of trusting in a therapeutic gospel is a Jesus who demands no repentance. However, save extreme antinomians (people who basically say it doesn't matter if we sin because God loves us), few would believe that God requires no good work in return. Thus, penance enters into Christianity as a substitute for the Gospel’s call to repent. Our faith becomes a religion of moralistic, therapeutic platitudes (feed the poor, love your fellow man, and you can have your best life now).

The better approach to the Gospel is to seek it as it is for continual renewal. When Paul says the Gospel is the power of God in Romans 1:16, he uses the present active particle πιστεύοντι—it is power to those currently “believing” it. As such, the Gospel’s call is one of daily repentance, not penance. Yes, we must forsake sin and do the good, but this comes properly through the filter of repentance and Gospel-trusting.

The Spirit’s work in the life of the believer is the granting of the ability to struggle with sin as sin. While the unbeliever (and the unrepentant Christian) struggles only with “bad habits,” believers should know “our sinful words, thoughts, and deeds as sin against God[18] and deal with them as such. The Holy Spirit, then, creates a desire for God that is unique in the believer, and focusing on that desire will cause it, as well as a repulsion toward sin, to grow.

This holy focus will require us to “put off” the deeds of the old unregenerate self and “put on” the new self (Eph 4:22-24) as one does a garment. We should take off and cast aside “what is earthly,” which includes sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, covetousness (which is idolatry), anger, wrath, malice, slander, obscene talk and lies (Col 3:3-9). We must put on compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, forgiveness, thankfulness, and love (above all), allowing the “peace of Christ” reign in our hearts and His word to richly indwell (Col 3:12-16). In a word, we must repent daily.

To sum up this teaching, then, repentant living is obedience to the Gospel. Obviously, this has implications for how we present the Gospel to unbelievers, but the need for Gospel-living does not stop at regeneration. Repentance is needed to counter the remaining effects of sin within our lives.

Christian repentance will involve “a desperate dependence on Christ for the power to do these things, for we cannot grow by our own strength.”[19] At this desperate dependence we can finally speak of spiritual disciplines such as “reading Scripture, praying, and regularly fellowshipping with other believers,”[20] will cause one to know sin, to know God, to grow into the image of Christ, and to have opportunity for the Spirit to speak.

In other words, the believer can finally experience the relationship he so longs for, soaring (if we may use a biblical image out of context) with the wings of eagles. This only happens when our focus is removed from ourselves and placed on Another.

[12] MacArthur, Faith Works, 77.
[13] Ron Benson, “Christians & Superstition.” Plain Truth, (January/February 2007), 7.
[15] Ibid, 8.
Paul David Tripp, Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands: People in Need of Change Helping People in Need of Change. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2002), 287.
David Powlison, The Journal of Biblical Counseling, Summer 2007, 3. pp.2-7.
[18] Bridges. “Gospel-Driven Sanctification.”

Calvin, Jean; Beveridge, Henry: Institutes of the Christian Religion, elec. ed. Oak Harbor, WA : Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997, S. III, iii, 3-4; IV, xix, 14–17
Benson, Ron. “Christians & Superstition.” Plain Truth. (January/February 2007), pp. 6–8.
Bridges, Jerry. “Gospel-Driven Sanctification.” Modern Reformation 12, no. 3 (May/June 2003) 13-16. (Accessed 26 July, 2006).
Keller, Tim. “The Centrality of the Gospel.” (Accessed 26 July, 2007).
Kittel, Gerhard; Friedrich, Gerhard; Bromiley, Geoffrey William. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, elec. ed. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995, c1985.
MacArthur, John. Colossians & Philemon, MNTC. Chicago: Moody Press, 1992.
MacArthur Jr, John. Faith Works: The Gospel According to Apostles. Dallas: Word Publishing, 1993.
Mayhue, Richard L. “Cultivating a Biblical Mind-set.” Think Biblically: Recovering a Christian Worldview. John Macarthur, ed. Wheaton: Crossway, 2003, pp. 55-84.
Powlison, David. “The Therapeutic Gospel.” The Journal of Biblical Counseling. (Summer 2007), pp.2–7
Riddlebarger, Kim. “Biblical Conversion and the Modern Church.” Modern Reformation. (Jan/ Feb 1992 Vol. 1 No. 1): 5-6.
Swanson, James. Dictionary of Biblical Languages With Semantic Domains: Aramaic (Old Testament), elec. ed. Oak Harbor : Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997.
Tripp, Paul David. Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands: People in Need of Change Helping People in Need of Change. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2002.
Von Hagel, Thomas. “A Preaching of Repentance,” Homiletic. (31 no 1 Sum 2006), pp. 1–10.
Wiersbe, Warren W. The Bible Exposition Commentary, elec. ed. Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1996, c1989.

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