“I’m so scared I might lose my job or my marriage. What would I do if others found out?”
“Fine, you’re right. I’m sorry. I promise I’ll never do it again.”
“What do I need to do to make it right to you? I’ll do anything. Will you be happy then?”
“I just can’t forgive myself.”
Repentance is essential for the Christian life, but as the above statements indicate, what we mean when we speak of repentance can differ. When someone truly repents from sin and turns to God by faith in Jesus, it is a beautiful display of His grace. When we distort repentance, the results can be devastating. However, it isn’t until we know what true repentance is according to Scripture that we can diagnose false repentance in our lives.
For even if I made you grieve with my letter, I do not regret it—though I did regret it, for I see that that letter grieved you, though only for a while. As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting. For you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no loss through us.
For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death. 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.
–2 Corinthians 7:8-11
With this passage in mind, consider the following three components to genuine repentance that Paul is describing:
- Godly sorrow. In verse 9, Paul encourages the Corinthian church for how they responded when confronted with their sin. They were grieved, but it was a grief that led to repentance. True repentance begins with godly sorrow that sees sin rightly. When we experience godly sorrow, we are grieved because of what our sin means before God and for how it affects others.
- Gospel faith. When we experience godly sorrow, we see our sin rightly, but we also see the beauty of the gospel. Paul says that godly sorrow “produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret” (2 Cor. 7:10). True repentance includes seeing the promises of the gospel and responding with renewed trust in Christ’s saving work.
- Genuine change. When we experience true grief for sin and look upon the hope of the gospel, we are called to move toward the Lord in the pursuit of godly change. This is what Paul describes in verse 11. The Corinthians were eager and willing to pursue godly change in response to their sorrow for sin and trust in the gospel.
True repentance includes all of the above elements. We can’t separate one from the other and claim to be walking in repentance. In contrast to this biblical definition of repentance, here are three ways we often get repentance wrong, as illustrated by the opening statements:
- Worldly sorrow. We see our actions and feel remorse for our sin, but experience no growth or change. We conclude that because we feel bad for our actions, we must be truly repentant. But as Thomas Watson noted in The Doctrine of Repentance, “It is one thing to be a terrified sinner and another to be a repenting sinner. Sense of guilt is enough to breed terror. Infusion of grace brings repentance.” Sorrow alone for sin is not true repentance because it is divorced from gospel faith and genuine change.
- Gospel-less faith. Sometimes we feel sorrow for our actions and make commitments to change, but that’s as far as we get. This is because we are not looking to the gospel by faith, considering what our sin represents before God and looking to Him for forgiveness. We say we will change, but without the conviction of godly sorrow, we drift back to the way we were.
- Forced obedience. We change our actions, but do so for selfish reasons, to please others or restore what we lost because of our sin. We fail to see how our sin reflects a heart out of sync with God’s. We may feel sorrow, but it is not the godly sorrow and gospel faith which lead to genuine change. Failing to look to Christ’s grace, we try to satisfy what we believe God is looking for out of our own strength. When we inevitably fail, it feels like a terminal diagnosis because our standard has become our own righteousness rather than Christ’s.
These three forms of false repentance can hamstring Christians as they strive toward true, godly repentance. Not only will they keep us from enjoying the fruit of repentance (the blessing of abiding in Christ), they lead to broken relationships and enduring enslavement to sin. Yet most sobering is the reality that unabated false repentance will result in spiritual death (2 Cor. 7:10).
However, what’s beautiful about God’s grace is that we can repent of our false repentance! Because of the Holy Spirit’s power, we can consider our sin and grieve what it reveals about our hearts. Because of Jesus’ work, we can look upon the cross and His resurrection and know that our sin has been dealt with. Because of God’s call to pursue gospel obedience, we can grow as we put sin to death and turn to His grace in Jesus again and again. When these three components of true repentance combine, something remarkable occurs: We grow in grace as we pursue Christ by faith.
Have you found yourself ensnared by false repentance? God, by His grace, can lead you to true repentance, as you turn away from sin and toward Him in faith.