05 March 2012

How Can We Tell If Our Repentance Is Deep Enough?

by Phil Johnson

I recently received an e-mail from a gentleman who described his faith as fragile. He said the first time he heard the gospel (from some people doing street witnessing!) the immediate emotional impact was profound. There in the open air he acknowledged his guilt; he trusted Christ for forgiveness; he was later baptized; and he has ministered in his church ever since in a behind-the-scenes servant's role.

But now, some six years after his conversion, he said his sense of contrition feels as if it has diminished somewhat. When he sins, he isn't always moved by the same profound sense of sorrow he felt at the first. He wonders if he has taken the promise of forgiveness too much for granted. Could it be that he was never truly saved? Questions such as those were keeping him awake nights, and he asked for my candid opinion.

This was my response:

t's impossible to judge the depth of someone's conviction or the genuineness of a believer's penitence based on the potency of an emotional reaction alone. If the question is whether your repentance is genuine or not, I personally think what you "feel" emotionally has very little significance. Judas wept bitterly; Esau shed many tears. Neither of them truly repented. By contrast, the thief on the cross seemed almost stoically resigned to his fate. But there was enough genuine repentance in his dying plea that Jesus assured him of salvation on the spot.

It's faith, not tears, that proves the reality of repentance. David, a man after God's own heart, did sometimes weep over his sin, but not always. In that notorious instance when he sinned with Bath-Sheba, he tried for nearly a year to cover his sin without any evidence of remorse. What marked David as a man after God's own heart was his faith, not the quality or depth of emotion associated with his repentance; not even the speed of his repentance.

Few people are genuinely and perpetually sodden with the sorrow of remorse all the time. And that is a good thing. As Christians we are commanded to be joyful and always rejoicing. The very thing David prayed for at the end of that year-long rebellion was that God would restore to him the joy of his salvation. There is a legitimate joy in salvation that in the usual circumstances of life overwhelms and overshadows the sorrow of repentance. That joy is a better gauge of your spiritual health than the feelings you get when you ponder how sinful you are.

As believers, we confess that in and of ourselves we are utterly wretched, so it is fitting that we should have sorrow (James 4:9). In fact, we will never be completely finished grieving over our sin and its destructive consequences until God Himself wipes away our tears in heaven. There certainly is "a time to weep . . . a time to mourn" (Ecclesiastes 3:4).

But that same text says there is "a time to laugh" and "a time to dance" as well. We don't have to wallow perpetually in the shame of self-reproach in order to prove our repentance is real. "Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted" (Matthew 5:4). After all, God's "anger is but for a moment, and his favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning" (Psalm 30:5).

If you hate sin and love Christ and confess before Him that you are indeed a helpless sinner, then I wouldn't be over-analytical about the emotions you feel when you confess your sins. That kind of introspection will make you a fruitless Christian. Did you ever notice that qualities like regret and misery are missing from the characteristics of the fruit of the Spirit?

"But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law" (Gal 2:22-23).

Scripture says, "Examine yourself to see whether you are in the faith"—not, "Dissect how you express your repentance to see if you have been piteous enough."

My advice to you is to cultivate faith, not an emotional response. Emotions by definition rise and fall. They are neither the instrumental cause nor the evidence, much less the ground, of our justification. Faith is the instrument of justification, and the work of Christ is the ground of it. Focus on that, and your faith will grow, your joy will increase, and your emotions will take care of themselves.

Phil's signature

PS: Here's a sermon on Psalm 51 that examines David's repentance and observes the true marks of genuine repentance. It's a more thorough answer to questions about how to distinguish true repentance from mere remorse.


Call to Die said...

Praise the Lord for this post: it is an awesome, soul-nourishing word.

Robert Warren said...


I heard you preach on Psalm 51 several years ago at our church and have had a number of occasions since to remind myself of it and refer it to others. Thanks.

donsands said...

"My advice to you is to cultivate faith..."


I was blessed to do some excellent "cultivating" today in church. God's grace comes like the waves come upon the shore: "grace upon grace" Jn 1:16.

I have been going through a depression of sorts, and I have come to see Christ in a greater light in my darkness. I can be in a deep funk, and yet God has quite a grip upon my inner man.

We can trust Him, all the way home.

Thanks for the encouraging--strengthening word.

Ebeth said...

Amen! I spent years wondering and finally concluded that I had to just take God at His glorious word and walk in it, adding all that Peter admonished us to in his second letter, first chapter. How great is our God!

Sonja said...

God bless the man that asked you that question, one that can be heavy on so many of us. Bless you Phil for your answer to so many of us.

Mary Elizabeth Tyler said...

What a beautiful answer!!!!! I am so glad I found this blog!!! You need to write more posts like this, Phil. Really you do!

If you truly hate your sin, love God's holiness, love Jesus/God, love the brethren, love God's Word, practice righteousness...you can be assured you are a Christian. (Provided you get the gospel right, of course!) :)

Donsands: praying for you!

Ronnell said...

Thank you for writing this, Phil. :) -Nell

Tyrone said...

Brilliant, talk about a "word in season". May the Lord continue to richly bless your ministry Phil.

Mandi said...

Love this post. Thank you for it.

Anonymous said...

I was thinking about this very thing this weekend, in relation to me...

Very helpful post, I'll be listening to the sermon this morning.

Unknown said...


Excellent post, brother. And your sermon on Psalm 51 has been an encouragement to me on more than one occasion.

Hope to see you at the Shepherd's Conference.

Mr. Fosi said...


Mary Elizabeth Tyler said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mary Elizabeth Tyler said...

I hope everyone listens to Phil’s sermon on repentance. What makes these types of posts/sermons so "special" is that we love God’s truth so dearly, and can strongly identify with the deep repentance of King David; and are so thankful, beyond expression, for the absolution given to us by a loving, and holy God.

These types of sermons and posts are precious to souls who endeavor to walk before God with a clear conscience. After listening to this sermon, I came away refreshed, uplifted, and with a renewed sense to worship God in a deeper more profound sense because of what He has done for us in Jesus Christ.

What a sermon! What a post! What a blessing! To God be the glory!!!

I know it will have that same affect on all who listen to it!

Will Pyro be selling decoder glasses for those folks who cannot decode googles scribbling? I agree with Frank on this one!

Eric said...


Thanks for the edifying post.

Jim Pemberton said...

I've always said regarding things like having enough faith or repentance, "If you're worried about it, then you have nothing to worry about."

We're often bothered by the sin that we know about. It's a matter of grace that we are not made aware of all of our sin because we couldn't bear it. Sanctification is being able to bear knowing more sin that we have had for years that we haven't previously known to repent of.

donsands said...

"No condemnation now I dread;
Jesus, and all in Him, is mine;
Alive in Him, my living Head,
And clothed in righteousness divine,
Bold I approach th’eternal throne,
And claim the crown, through Christ my own.
Bold I approach th’eternal throne,
And claim the crown, through Christ my own.

Amazing love! How can it be,
That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?"-Charles Wesley

PS Thank you Mary. I know He hears you.


Merrilee Stevenson said...

Just wanted to say thank you! We received our free copy of the series (Worship in a Minor Key) just yesterday, even though I've been listening online to them. I think they'll make a great addition to our church's library, so more people can benefit from your ministry. I'm especially enjoying the one you link to on this post (Psalm 51). Thanks again!

Zimmerman Family I & M said...

This is very good. I have been wrestling with this question for myself these last 2 years, especialy these last 2 months. I continue to feel like I am holding something between me and God. I wonder,,, is it that I dont Trust God with 100% of my life? My mom fought cancer from when I was 5 till she died when I was 21 and I wonder if I decided that God loves me but that He wants me to take care of my "end" of things ? I so want to trust God with ALL OF ME but I am afraid to ,, will I feel this sepperation till the day I somehow succeed in ACTUALY giving all my SELF PROTECTIVE MEASURES to God and fear not in sickness , fear not in loss of work ,, TILL I CARE NOT FOR THIS LIFE ?? Ivan Ray Zimmerman