There is something you must know about the nature of repentance that has the potential to change your life forever. Despite the obvious — that it is a turning away from sin — there is another dimension to biblical repentance that is critically important. Believe it or not, how you practice repentance could actually be the very thing that causes you to keep sinning. So in this post, I am going to teach you how to repent better, using biblical steps to attain the freedom you desire.
A quick note: We are not just talking about receiving God’s forgiveness here. We are talking about moving forward in freedom. For anyone who has godly sorrow over their sin, I believe it will be a refreshing word.
The Vicious Cycle of Sin-Confession-Repentance
I would guess that you have been caught once or twice in the seemingly never-ending cycle of sin-confession-repentance-sin-confession-repentance. There is hardly anything more frustrating and discouraging than to sincerely turn away from a particular sin, determined to follow Christ, only to fall back into the same old patterns again and again and again. We know that repentance is necessary, yet for some reason, it doesn’t always appear to accomplish its ultimate goal — freedom. (At least that’s how it was for me for years until I learned about the finished work of Christ.)
What gives? Did we not repent enough? Did we not really mean it, even though it felt like sincere repentance at the time? Or is there just more that we need to do in addition to our repentance to attain the freedom we desire (i.e. prayer, Bible reading, accountability groups, etc.)?
Well, I hope to encourage you when I say that, in all likelihood, none of these are the root of the issue. The root of it, again, is the way you think of repentance. The only way to be free is to start thinking differently.
Repent means to change the way you think
Before we get into it, let’s address a very important thing. The literal meaning of repent (Greek: μετανοέω, metanoeo) is to “change’s one mind.” Sure, this could mean that you decide to pursue x instead of y, Christ instead of sin. That is a great first step. But if you’re reading this blog, then it’s quite likely that you have already made that step, and you do not need to keep making it. You have a repentant heart. Your will isn’t the issue anymore; your mind is.
If repentance as you’ve always known it has left you enslaved to your wicked ways, then you simply have not understood the meaning of true repentance. There are still other ways in which you must continue to “change your mind”. Or the expression I like better is to “change the way you think“. After all, you are “transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Romans 12:2, ESV).
What does the Word of God say about true repentance?
There is a particular passage of Scripture that I find very insightful in teaching us how to repent. In 2 Corinthians 7:8-13, the Apostle Paul is writing to the church about something they had done wrong, which he had already addressed in a previous letter (possibly in 1 Corinthians 5), and which they had now apparently repented from. In other words, they made an error, they were held accountable, and they were grieved into repentance (see 2 Corinthians 7:9).
So far, it may not seem like anything too interesting, but then he tells them how he views their repentance:
“At every point you have proved yourselves innocent in the matter.” (2 Corinthians 7:11, ESV)
Pause for a moment and think about this remark. “You have proved yourselves innocent in the matter.” If you didn’t know the context, you might assume that, first, they were wrongly accused, and then, that they made a compelling argument for their innocence. But as we know, this isn’t the context. They weren’t wrongly accused; they actually committed the wrong that Paul said they did. And they didn’t form any defense for their innocence; they took ownership of their wrongdoing and genuinely repented.
So then how is it possible that they were innocent in the matter? Isn’t the fact that they repented from something in the first place the very proof that they were guilty of sinful behavior? Forgiven, sure. But innocent? Never! At least not by the world’s standards. And here is where we must change our thinking, for we are not to conform to this world (see Romans 12:2).
Repentance is proof of our innocence, not our guilt
Paul is not overlooking or diminishing the fact that they did, in fact, sin. What he is doing is giving them a proper perspective from which to go on living. He is showing them how he interprets these events, and, implicitly, how they should, too.
His main point? Their sin does not prove they are sinners. Their repentance proves they are saints. They are not merely forgiven, yet still guilty. They are forgiven and not guilty. Their repentance is actually the evidence of their heart’s true desires, which are holy because they are new creatures in Christ (see 2 Corinthians 5:17).
The only reason they sinned is that they were not living with a proper perspective of who they truly are in Christ. They were deceived. And the only reason Paul called them to repentance in the first place is so that they could see for themselves this wonderful truth that is inside of them (which he says in the very next verse, 2 Corinthians 7:12).
Therefore, repentance is not so much an admission of one’s guilt as it is proof of one’s innocence. We must continually confess/acknowledge our sins, of course. But if we have been born again, we must not identify with our sins. Instead, we must identify with Christ and his righteousness (see 1 John 3:7). This is a major distinction.
The good news is that we must only acknowledge our wickedness once
Most Christians view repentance as an inherent admission of guilt. To repent, we believe, requires us to come to terms with how awful and wicked we are. But the truth is, we only need to acknowledge our wickedness once — when we give our lives to Jesus.
Then the moment that we believe and are baptized into him, we die and are born again. We do not only receive God’s forgiveness. we also receive his Holy Spirit. The old man dies; the new man is born. And Christ becomes our whole life and identity. This is the fuller meaning of God’s grace.
Thus, as we move forward, our repentance should look different. We should never acknowledge our wickedness again. You must “put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life… and… be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and… put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:22-24, ESV).
To repent effectively, we must begin living from this New Testament perspective, as opposed to the Old Testament perspective. We must start thinking about ourselves differently, thanking God for who he has caused us to be through the Holy Spirit within us. This is how we “put on Christ”.
We are not unrepentant sinners but repentant saints. It is no longer accurate or helpful to call ourselves wicked, unrighteous, unholy, or guilty, even after we just sinned. For God’s word something else about us.
True repentance is believing truth over lies
In the moments after you’ve come to grips with your sin, you may feel an intense urge to think of yourself as guilty and unholy. And while this may seem like the obvious truth, it is actually the lie that will perpetuate your sinful behavior. It feels as if you are humbling yourself before God and renouncing the sin. But actually, you are pridefully believing something in direct contradiction to his Word. And consequently, you are keeping yourself enslaved to the sin which you have “renounced”.
In these moments, you are actually identifying with the flesh (which is not you), rather than the Holy Spirit (with whom you are one). You are failing to “consider yourselves dead to sin” (Romans 6:11, ESV) and to believe that “[i]t is no longer [you] who live, but Christ who lives in [you]” (Galatians 2:20, ESV). You are thinking of yourself wrongly — as a sinner who chose to disobey, rather than a saint who is choosing to repent; the slave who defied their Master, rather than the child who shares their Father’s nature.
Make no mistake. You are not both of these people — a little bit of one, a little bit of the other. The latter is you, the former is not. Thus, you are not constantly vacillating between good and bad, but between truth and lies about who you really are. These lies are what have caused you to continue sinning, so effective repentance entails fighting to believe Truth despite what you see and feel. This is called faith.
The questions you must answer after you’ve sinned
I have come to believe that one of the most opportunistic times to grow is the time immediately following sin when you are still carrying the weight that it has left on you, still troubled by the stain that remains on your conscience. (Please note, I am not saying that we should go and sin in order to create these moments. But I am saying that if/when they happen, we need to learn to take advantage of them.) The reason is that there is no other time that challenges your identity as these times do. Sin forces you to find your identity in the unseen reality as opposed to what you observe in your flesh.
Let’s say you’ve been wanting to overcome some particular sin, and you’ve had a period of relative success. You’re feeling good about it, thinking something is really changing in you. And then out of the blue, you receive a test that you didn’t expect (pop quiz), and you fail. You break your clean streak and end up doing it just like you used to. You feel awful, gross, disappointed, guilty.
This is the moment of truth. What will you believe? Or in other words, how will you repent (i.e. change your thinking)? The questions below are questions you will need to answer.
- Did you want to sin, or do you want to stop?
- Is the sinful desire your flesh’s desire, or is it your heart’s desire?
- What does the Holy Spirit within you say that you want?
- Did Jesus give you a pure heart, or did he leave a little bit of sin left in there?
- Is your mind good and your heart still needing to be renewed, or is your heart good and your mind still needing to be renewed?
- Who are you — the one who sinned, or the one who is now putting on righteousness?
- Is Jesus your identity (see 1 Corinthians 6:17, Galatians 2:20, Colossians 3:11, etc.), or does your past define you?
Believing the right answer to these questions are the battles you must fight. And if you conquer in faith, they hold boundless potential to ground you deeper in Christ and set you free from sin.
Learn how God sees you. Holy Spirit is not your accuser.
It may feel like everything in you testifies to the bleaker reality, but then you just haven’t heard the Spirit within you who is giving a better witness. Never forget that Satan is your accuser, not God. If you want to know what Holy Spirit is saying, then you need to know God’s word. Go to your bible, ground yourself in his Word, and you will find nothing but hope, encouragement, and righteousness.
And besides just the word of God, you need to talk to God about your sin, but what will you even say to him? Or perhaps the better question is, what will he say to you?
Is he harsh, or is he gentle (see Matthew 11:29)? Is he disappointed or encouraging? Does he keep a record of your wrongdoing (see 1 Corinthians 13:5), or has he already forgotten about your sin (see Hebrews 10:17)? Does he demand that you prove how sorry you are, or does he wish for you to boldly step into his grace (see Hebrews 4:16), heart “sprinkled clean from an evil conscience” (Hebrews 10:22)?
Come to God as he says he is, and you will find mercy and tenderness. But just as importantly, come to God as he says you are, and you will find freedom (see John 8:32).
Whether your sin is a distant memory or it still weighs heavily on your heart, the truth which you must believe remains the same. In Christ, you are as innocent as he is, all by faith in his finished work.
If you would like to learn more about the things you’re reading in this blog, check out my (and my friend Marcus’) new podcast. It is available on all of the primary podcasting services. We just released the first two episodes and will continue to release one episode every couple of weeks. If you’d like to support our work, you can donate here.
Love you all!