19 October 2010

Repentance: fake and real

by Dan Phillips

False repentance is worse than no repentance.

Scenario: a professed believer sins. (It happens, sadly.) Or he finds himself beset with strong temptation to sin (which also happens). Now what?

Problems. The course forward is dangerous, and riddled with booby-traps.

The big problem, of course, is the human heart. It's a slimy, "tricksy" con-artist (Jeremiah 17:9). It will fool us, in whichever of a dozen ways proves effective. There are enough traps and snares in our own hearts that we hardly need a crafty devil on the outside to be in peril — yet there is one, and he has designs on us.

What happens. Often the devil and our heart collude to convince us that, ahem, our sewage doesn't smell. That is, sin isn't so "sinny" when it's sinned by us. Sin out-there is a nasty, vicious, repugnant thing. Nobody should indulge in it. But sin in-here is noble, romantic, tragic, perhaps even heroic. (See this post, especially numbers 4-6, 12-14.)

It is okay with the world, the flesh, and the devil if you do anything about sin — except one thing.

What we will see, accordingly, is people who grant they "did wrong," in general and non-specific terms. They made a mistake. They erred. They did bad things... of some sort.

Or they will focus on the periphera of their sin, the leaves instead of the root.

Or they will make little of their responsibility, and much of others' contribution.

I saw this sort of thing once, many years ago. A married Christian friend committed adultery. His wife put him out, and he spent the night at my house.

He seemed chastened... but then he talked. How was he processing what he'd done, in his heart?

Wellsir, he told me that he thought maybe this whole thing was the Lord's will, because the other woman's marriage wasn't good, and his marriage wasn't great, and....

Just pause right there for a moment. This was a Baptist, evangelical Christian, going to a good, Bible-teaching church. He had committed adultery, a pretty unambiguous act, pretty unambiguously sinful. Yet he not only had a rationalization for it, but he ended up making it something that was pleasing to God, something that was of the Lord! Not only did the sewage not stink... it actually had a rather pleasant fragrance.

How could that happen?

But this poor soul is hardly singular. I have heard all sorts of folks talk about all sorts of plain, straightforward, primary-colored sins in wistful, longing tones, or in terms that end up making their bad not so bad after all. Some sins are bad, yes; but surely this sin is different. Surely my sin is different. It is a noble, brave, manly/assertive act. It is necessary, wise, even pleasing to God.

And even if we abstain from the act, we still cherish and protect the temptation. I've seen that as well. A man or woman is not (pursuing sexual immorality or perversion, sinning against their parents or spouse, etc.), true; but hear how (s)he talks about it. You get the impression that it isn't really that vile, after all. Let someone rip the mask off of marital treachery or sexual immorality or perversion, and watch how the "but-but-but" beast shows its head, how crucial it becomes to hear "the other side." We mustn't make (homosexuality, adultery, false doctrine, abusing one's spouse) look that bad.

What must happen: repentance. I said that sin's allies are fine with our doing anything about sin except one thing. What is that one thing?

Well, of course, in general terms, it's repentance.

Now that's a good Bible word. Most OT occurrence translate a term that actually means to turn around, to turn back. It depicts turning away from evil (cf. Ezekiel 14:6; 18:30), and turning back, returning to Yahweh (Zechariah 1:3).

Usually the NT word is a form of metanoeō. Though the definition has been abused, it does mean fundamentally to change one's mind. Our problem with that gloss, I think, is that we confuse changing one's mind with merely changing one's opinion about something, as if one were going to order a burger and instead goes for a club sandwich. We hear it as a light, shallow pivot — which repentance certainly is not.

Perhaps it would be better to explain metanoein as to transform one's mind. It envisions a root-to-branches paradigm-shift which always and necessarily issues in a change of behavior (Acts 26:20). If there is fruit that is appropriate to repentance (Matthew 3:8), then equally there must be fruit that is inappropriate to genuine repentance — such fruit as I briefly alluded to, above.

One would hope we would be in fundamental agreement thus far.

But there is a crucial element to repentance that I find missing in the thinking of many. And that element is...

...the topic of Thursday's post, Lord willing.

Dan Phillips's signature


Thomas Louw said...

Repentance always is a good thing.
But there are two aspects to it. We must turn away from something towards something else. Turn away from sin towards Christ. We must replace it with something far superior. Look to Christ, His beauty, we must exchange our desire for the sin with our desire for Christ.
That’s sometimes/always is no easy task (Rom7)
I’m not sure, it may be out of context, but it makes me think about the parable about the demon that’s thrown out of the house but when he comes back he finds the house empty and calls some friends to join him.
We must replace the bad with good or we’ll end up worse

B Barnes said...

"And that element is..."

Now that's just wrong. I feel like I'm reading a soap opera now.

Good stuff Dan!

Thomas Louw said...

Easton Dictionary
Got four elements.

"Evangelical repentance consists of (1) a true sense of one's own guilt and sinfulness; (2) an apprehension of God's mercy in Christ; (3) an actual hatred of sin (Psa_119:128; Job_42:5, Job_42:6; 2Co_7:10) and turning from it to God; and (4) a persistent endeavour after a holy life in a walking with God in the way of his commandments"

Paul said...

And that crucial element is...

the prayer of Jabez?

I'm looking forward to your post Thursday, so long as the answer doesn't cost three payments of $19.95! ;)

On a more serious note, your examples earlier in the post provide abundant reason for us to do community better, where we stop leaving investigation of our hearts to our own minds, but let others in there. But if we want to allow for the possibility of sin, we don't want anyone let in. Is community often poor because we all want to allow ourselves--at least possibility of--secret temptation/sin? Or is that more the result of the privatization of faith? Maybe those two aren't so different anyway.

JackW said...

"The heart of the problem is the problem of the heart."

Nice 500th Dan!

donsands said...

"..our sewage doesn't smell."

I have seen some rather nasty Christians. And what do they say about there prideful anger? "It's the way God made me."
And the same is true for me.

Very good word today. Thanks. I needed that.

As I read your post I thought of Peter weeping, bitterly, when he looked into Jesus' eyes, the night his Lord was taken.

I have had sorrow like this. But for the most part my sorrow is for myself, and not for what I have done to my Savior and Father.

Steve Berven said...

One of my favorite Bible teachers once told me:
Instead of fighting against sin, we should be fighting towards God, and sin will, of necessity, fall behind.

If you are fighting sin, which way are you facing?

The truth is, we can't defeat sin in our life. Only God can defeat it for us. Relying on anything else is doomed to failure.

Mike said...

Very well said! It is of vital importance for the church to understand true repentance. Puritan, Joseph Alleine wrote a book called "Alarm to the Unconverted" (get a free, .pdf copy of it at http://www.ntslibrary.com/PDF%20Books/An%20Alarm%20to%20the%20Unconverted.pdf . As far as I know, it's out of copyright, so it's legal.) It does a really good job of describing what Godly repentance looks like.

There are also those (I used to be one) who get a whiff of God's sovereignty and use it to alleviate their guilt. I used to say something like, "Well God used the sin of Joseph's brothers to position him to save two nations...no telling what he might use this for in my life! I just have to quit thinking about it, and trust him." That was a nice band-aid...until I realized what a bullet-wound sin actually was and what kind of brokenness true repentance brought with it.

DJP said...

JackW —


You're right. I guess this is the 500th, and I think you had kindly pointed that out to me. I remembered awhile, meant to make a big deal out of it, try to do a fancy-schmantzy post... and, obviously, it got crowded out.

So... thanks for noticing.


Robert said...

This is quite the timely post. As I have started to deal with some unrepented sin, I have found that the two biggest areas of focus are: 1) letting God develop a true hatred for my sin in my heart, and 2) actively turning to God every day and following Him. I'd even go so far as to say that I am trying to break down the hours and minutes each day and examine where I am tempted and finding the way out that God is providing.

The thing is that I know that it is easier while I am extremely sensitive to sin and how vile it is. I have to be careful to keep that sensitivity by staying focused on God and staying in the Word. My wife and I actually started to study Joel last night and I am thinking we might just study through the minor prophets for a while. I find that to be a good place to look at sin and how God works to turn the hearts of His people away from their sin (even when they refuse to do so). I find that God has worked through this to make me hate my own sin (all of it...although I don't do so enough) and to turn to Him both to praise Him and make my requests known to Him in prayer and supplication. Why should I turn anywhere else? Who else knows what I need?

I am anxious to read your post on Thursday, Lord willing.

Canyon Shearer, DMin said...

I am preparing Sunday's sermon on Zechariah 7, it has many things in common with your post and the comments that follow. I am concluding the thought of my absolute hatred of the sins which Bethel is committing with the admission that every sin I am angry at them for committing is one I have and/or am still committing today. When we come to a change of mind where we agree totally with God that he should crush sin and sinners where they stand, we judge ourselves rightly and see that God ought to send us to Hell immediately. It will lead directly into Christ's amazing grace in dying for us while we were still sinning.

I love the illustrations given for repentance, but I still feel the best ever given was Todd Friel's, here is my paraphrase from a middle school message,

Beloved, if you have zeal for God but not according to knowledge, you must repent. You may be running at full speed, but you’re running full speed away from God. Your sin has made a separation between you and God. Let me give you one last analogy. Say we all decide to skip school this week and go to Disney. We load on a shuttle and start driving, and I’m driving because I have a driver's license and you don't. As we start out you think I turn the wrong way on the freeway but you trust me that I know where I’m going, so you don’t say anything. I’m so zealous to get to Disney that I have that shuttle wound up going as fast as it possibly will, like 67 mph, the dotted lines in the middle of the road are practically a solid line, the trees are a blur. As we pass Cartersville you realize we’re going the wrong way, so you tell me, “Hey, we’re going the wrong way.” I say, “No, no we’re not” as I ease that shuttle up to 68 mph. A little while later and we see signs for Rock City, we’re definitely going the wrong way, but I’m adamant that in my zeal we will be in Disney soon. Then we pass a sign that says, “Welcome to Tennessee.” It is clear to me and everyone that I have gone the wrong way.

I need to repent. I need to do five things to set things right. First, I need to stop going the wrong way. If I just apologized but didn’t change my direction we would end up in Canada before too long, and there is no Disney in Canada. So I stop the shuttle. Now an apology is in order, I’m sorry for wasting your time by going in the wrong direction; I hope you’ll forgive me. Third, I need to turn around so I’m facing the right way. Fourth I need to start moving the right way. And fifth, I need to not stop until we get there.

This is true repentance, in our zeal we must stop running from God and misrepresenting his kingdom. We must apologize and ask for forgiveness. We must turn to him, and place our full hope and trust in Christ and his redeeming work. When this faith is genuine, it will last until the end.

Phil said...

I'm going to try and spoil it, my guess is that the key thing between a good change of mind and a bad is faith. "For whatever does not proceed" and all that.
Which is really interesting because that change of opinion even if away from sin without faith is still sin.

Enjoyed it, thanks Dan.

Cathy M. said...

Sometimes you put things in exactly the way I need to hear them. Like, "Often the devil and our heart collude to convince us that, ahem, our sewage doesn't smell."

GW said...

Are you saying that a "Guilty Pleasure" is really just a sin?

greglong said...

Sin isn't so 'sinny' when it's sinned by us.

Classic! What a great description of our attitude towards our own sin.

It is okay with the word, the flesh, and the devil if you do anything about sin — except one thing.

Do you perhaps mean "world" rather than "word"? Because I don't think it's OK with the Word if we choose not to genuinely repent of our sin.

DJP said...

Darn, is my email down again?

huauqui said...

Thank you!

nuf said

Larry Geiger said...

Steve B.

That's how it is for me. I sure can't fight it. Idle hands are the devil's workshop. If I'm not busy doing what I'm supposed to be doing, then I'm getting into trouble.

greglong said...

Dan, I was not aware that was your preferred method of feedback, as I thought I recalled other minor corrections offered in the meta on previous posts.

But your sarcastic exhortation has caused me to transform my mind concerning my former ways and I will strive to bring forth fruits meet for repentance by no longer suggesting corrections in the meta but instead sending them via email.

Great post!

DJP said...

Yes, Greg. Please, help me keep up the illusion.


Aaron said...

The problem I run into myself is that there are sins I hate but yet keep finding myself doing. Sometimes its rather depressing.

greglong said...

Sir Aaron,

You're not the only one.

Robert said...


I find myself in the same place many times. And it just makes me wonder why God shows me so much mercy and grace...I surely don't deserve it. And then I just find myself in awe of God and those are the times that I find myself hungering and thirsting for the Word of God the most. I am grateful for God working to humble me when I become so proud and rebellious as to pursue my sinful desires instead of Him.

Anonymous said...

Okay, I want to share this on facebook...

I would say it's so easy to do just what you're writing about. Any sin can be talked out of and made to look okay. And hearing it from another, inside I gasp and wonder if I should point to it instead of my active listening head nodding thing I do.
Of course, I wonder how many head nods I receive instead of the poking I need?

Stefan Ewing said...

Sir Aaron:

That's my problem, too. I have no illusions about my own sinfulness, but overcoming sin is turning out to be a lifelong process.

Rachael Starke said...

I think the essential element is agreeing with God about it - that it's earned both our deserving death, and Christ's death for it on our behalf. That agreement/acknowledgement should foster deep sorrow, but even when our feelings aren't complying, our actions still should. And that's the kicker - our actions will demonstrate how much we agree with God, not our tears or lack thereof.

Rachael Starke said...

And Aaron, my problem lately seems to be that I have certain sins that I just don't hate at all. I don't try to argue them away, or justify them. I just - live with them. That, I think, is worse.

And it seems that there waa a post here a couple weeks back that may have talked about that. Good thing I'm notsogood with the searching and the linking - I'm convicted enough by this post and its implications as it is. :)

RomansOne said...

"...our sewage doesn't smell." Vivid metaphor -- reminds me of when the neighborhood sewer got blocked in front of my house and starting coming up in my basement. You actually can get used to the smell -- until you get out in the fresh air and come back inside.

I think in a similar way I can get desensitized to my own sin -- it becomes that stench I get used to smelling. I need "fresh air" pumped into my spiritual life on a regular basis from the Scriptures. Forces me to notice the stink of my sin again.

Though whether or not I acknowledge the stink and repent is another issue.

donsands said...

Here's the prayer we pray at church service:

"Almighty God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who desireth not the death of a sinner, but rather that he may turn from his wickedness and live, hath given power, and commandment, to His Ministers, to declare and pronounce to his people, being penitent, the Absolution and Remission of their sins. He pardoneth and absolveth all those who truly repent, and unfeignedly believe his holy Gospel.

Wherefore let us beseech him to grant us true repentance, and his Holy Spirit, that those things that please him which we do at this present; and that the rest of our life hereafter may be pure and holy; so that at the last we may come to his eternal joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen."-(The Book of Common Prayer)

Of course some may say these words, and not mean it from the heart. Actually I don't read along so much, however I acknowledge these words, and say Amen to the Lord.

It's all about His grace upon grace in our hearts and lives really. If we are trusting in His grace, then His grace is indeed upon us.

James Joyce said...

"And that element is..."

Godly sorrow?

2 Corinthians 7:10

Eric said...

RomansOne said:

"I think in a similar way I can get desensitized to my own sin -- it becomes that stench I get used to smelling. I need "fresh air" pumped into my spiritual life on a regular basis from the Scriptures. Forces me to notice the stink of my sin again."

That's a great argument for the need for personal time in Scripture plus corporate time immersed in the Scriptures during Sunday worship.

We are creatures of decay, and if we are not reminded often of our sinful condition before God, we very soon begin to believe ourselves to be righteous on our own.

I can say personally that each and every Sunday I need to hear again of my sin and subsequently to rejoice in my salvation.

Death or Glory Toad said...

Change opinion: Expel a couple dozen cans of febreeze over the whole mess and we're covered. That's where therapeutic do-goodism comes in.

Change mind: Open wide the fire-hydrant and flood/flush the whole mess, replacing with freshness that is truly freshness, not a cover-up. That's where life-changing, saving faith comes in.

Repentance isn't concealing or forgetting what we are. There is no void (cuz that's eastern mysticism anyway). There is always something and we can either be immersed in Christ or maintain our original condition just under a different "new-and-improved" look.

Rob Bailey said...

David sure needed Nathan.

bp said...

Great post, Dan. This post made me think about how we (Christians included) tend to not only make light of, but even sometimes laugh when people talk about certain sins. For instance, I notice that if the subject of over-eating (gluttony) comes up, whether from a speaker or in casual conversation, there's a tendancy to giggle about it. Why do we do this?

Not too long ago, a co-worker (a Christian) and I were eating lunch together, and she proceeded to tell me in detail about the awful morning she had getting her kids ready for school and how she found herself out of control and yelling at them in the car. And even though she knew she'd done wrong and was expressing that, she told the story in a humorous way and I found myself giggling about it with her. Later I thought, WHY WAS I LAUGHING!?? It seemed humorous at the time, but in hind-sight it wasn't funny at all!

Merrilee Stevenson said...

My friend Rachael wrote this:

"...even when our feelings aren't complying, our actions still should."

True repentance is evident in the actions that take place from that point on. If a person it truly sorrowful and repentant, you can usually tell by what they do, not what they say. And the doing is important. I formerly was in the habit of doing such-and-such sin, and now that I have been convicted, made sorrowful, sought and granted forgiveness, I must begin replacing those old habits with new ones.

This made me think of the beautiful picture of marriage. Before I was married, I was formerly in the habit of meeting and befriending eligible males and spending time doing fun activities--I had a good number of male friends. But when my husband and I married, I promised to be in the present progressive continuing act of "forsaking all others." That meant that I had some habits to change. (Which I gladly did, but you know, it was an adjustment to not be so friendly with the young men in my daily life.) And forsaking all others, the man cleaves to his wife, and the two become one flesh. I think that certainly depicts repentance.

I'm really looking forward to Thursday's post.

Terry Lange said...

I have heard of either false or incomplete definitions of repentance over the last 23 years of being a believer. I have always understood the proper definition of repentance to be a change of one's intellect (how we think), one's emotion (Godly sorrow), and not necessarily a change of mind, but rather a change of the will. People misdefine repentance by saying it is just a change of mind. Dan, I agree with you and I am looking forward to reading the next post!

Jacob said...

Looking forward to Thursday's post. Thanks Dan.

Mary Elizabeth Tyler said...

On my visit to Boston many years ago, actually, I believe it was 1982; I visited many of the old churches in the downtown area. I was totally fascinated by the pews of some of these beautiful old, stately churches. At the ends of each pew (which these pews were very, very long), were small gates, so when anyone entered into the pews they were locked into place.

Then, on the corresponding wall, hung a very long, wooden pole, much like a pool stick only much longer, but this was no pool game. Some hand-picked parishioner, usually a churlish-faced, Amish-type person, who looked more warden-like than an angelic being sitting on a cloud, would summarily jab the offending person, with the pole, if they nodded off or if they were found daydreaming during the sermon. And sometimes these sermons lasted for hours upon hours. Imagine sitting there, on hard pews, with no air conditioning, suffocating under layers of cumbersome clothing, locked into place like a crash test dummy, listening to a sermon much like the sermon given by Jonathan Edwards, “Sinners in The Hands of An Angry God.”

Which brings me to wonder, do we have a shallow repentance because we have shallow sermons? Do we need the shock value of sermons like this, and hard wooden pews that force a posture of attentiveness to create in us a deep well of repentance? Are our sermons lackluster, causing us to cozy up to sin too much, do we need the hard-edged-truth more often to keep us vigilant and acutely aware of the God dishonoring sin in our lives?

Maybe more often than not we need to be pricked in our hearts, convicted in our souls, admonished by our brothers and sisters, and summarily jabbed with a pole, straight to the head, because life is not a game of pool. It is serious business, and our repentance should be one of deep, Godly sorrow, and never taken lightly.

Coram Deo said...

Good post, Dan.


To the point.


Well done.

However after reading through your missive I somehow doubt that "Repent like Ergun Caner" will make it into the evangelical lexicon as a synonym for deep, soul-searching, heartfelt, Spirit-wrought metanoein anytime soon.

This probably also means I shouldn't hold my breath for the arrival of my Ergun Caner ESV Study Bible. *sigh*

In Christ,

donsands said...

"..summarily jab the offending person, with the pole, if they nodded off or if they were found daydreaming during the sermon." Mary

I remember when a girl in my last church fell asleep in front of me. She was snoring too.

I saw another fellow begin to slightly lean over, little by little, until he finally dozed off.

jmb said...

This post touches something that's been on my mind lately: Confronting a brother or sister on his/her sin. I did a (fairly quick) search here and on your blog, and didn't find anything on this subject. If there is one, would you please link to it? I'm particularly interested in the possible pitfalls in applying Mt. 18:15-17. Also interested in a discussion on church discipline in general. Thanks.

Congrats on reaching 500.

Anonymous said...

Wow. Dan Philips is 500 posts old.

That's like 3,500 in dog posts!

Great post though Dan. I'm often surprised how I, among others, have a mouth that betrays me when I think I'm repenting. James 3 + Acts 26:20 = I'm not as good at repenting as I think I am.


trogdor said...

Is the missing piece "restitution"? I can see in our hyper-individualistic version of Christianity that it's easy to abuse David's "against God alone have I sinned" as an excuse not to reconcile with the offended brother, including doing what is necessary/possible to make it right. We can be confident about the sincerity of Zacchaeus's repentance because he didn't just say it, he made it right to his own hurt.

Patience said...

Is the crucial element election?

Word Verification: winglyze

You can nearly get Zwingli out of that :-P

THEOparadox said...


Thank you for this A+ article, it is edifying and challenging in a way that turns souls back from destruction.

Derek Ashton