What a difference one letter makes! Repentance is one “t” away from wholesale gospel distortion. Without its “t” repentance is re-penance, which is often what we consider repentance to be. However, repentance is not repeated penance, but one’s change of mind toward sin and its empty promise of life eternal.
What we often demand from others in the name of repentance is really acts of penance that prove they’ve overcome their sin. We want proof they’ll not offend us again. We want sufficient evidence they’ve paid for their sin(s) against us. We care less about Christ being enjoyed by the offender than we being made “whole” by their so-called repentance. Repentance means repayment . . . re-penance.
While a lifestyle of repentance is definitely part-and-parcel of the Christian life, we can weight it so heavily we focus more on sin than on Christ. We gauge spiritual maturity by how much sin one is repenting from. This is not to say there are no particular sins from which we should be repenting (for example, see Eph 4.29-31; Col 3.9), but when the yoke of repentance becomes heavier than the yoke of Christ (Mt 11.28-30)we’ve tipped the scales of grace.
Our men’s discipleship group is reading Charles Spurgeon’s All of Grace, in which the “prince of preachers” wrote:
Remember that the man who truly repents is never satisfied with his own repentance. We can no more repent perfectly than we can live perfectly. However pure our tears, there will always be some dirt in them; there will be something to be repented of even in our best repentance. But listen! To repent is to change your mind about sin and Christ and all the great things of God. There is sorrow implied in this, but the main point is the turning from the heart from sin to Christ. If there is this turning, you have the essence of of true repentance even though no alarm and no despair should ever have cast their shadow on your mind (All of Grace, Whitaker House, 1983: 74).
Spurgeon later comments:
Repentance will not make you see Christ, but to see Christ will give you repentance. You may not make a Christ out of your repentance, but you must look for repentance to Christ . . . Look away, then, from the effect to the cause, from your own repenting to the Lord Jesus, who is exalted on high to give repentance (Ibid., 76).
“You may not make a Christ out of your repentance.” And yet that precisely what we do when measuring one’s Christianity by how much sin one is repenting of. The truly godly, the true Christian, is one always going about weighed down by sin and the demand for repentance. Rather than applying the balm of God’s grace in Christ to wounds, we salt them with the sting of so-called repentance testing how strong one is to endure God’s discipline as God’s child.
There is a godly sorrow which marks God’s children (2 Cor 7.8-10). But that sorrow leads to a repentance without regret (v10). As necessary as godly sorrow is, we do not live in it. It is a means to end. It is one vehicle among many by which we’re led to greater faith in and enjoyment of Christ. We can so enforce repentance on everyone such that we care more about how bad they feel about their sin than how much they love and apply Christ. We simply want others (namely, those who’ve offended us) to feel as bad as possible about offending us rather than enjoying Christ’s work to forgive them. Like the older brother (dare we say, “progidal” himself) in Luke 15.11-32, we don’t like grace lavished on sinners. We want sorrow, and lots of it.
Let’s be honest. We will never repent from every single sin we’ve ever committed. One reason for that is because we don’t know every sin we’ve committed. We’ve assuredly committed more sins we don’t know about than those we do know about! So repentance cannot be the lifelong making-up-for every sin we’ve ever committed. Repentance is the lifelong change-of-mind toward our sin. We hate it and by God’s grace will never consider it a means of God’s blessing or eternal life. Once converted, we’ll never think of the sins we commit affectionately or lovingly. We commit it again and again (1 Jn 1.10), but we do not return to it as a means of salvation or of quenching our soul’s thirst. We will never abandon the narrow road for the wide road. Our sin will always be heinous to us and Christ will always be the One to whom we run for comfort. We will always return to Christ.
There will be victory over particular sins and others will nag us to death. In the end, our repentance is always tethered to our faith in Jesus Christ alone for righteousness. Sure, I commit sins. And how do I know I’m repenting of those sins? I refuse to return to the “city of destruction” but press on toward the Celestial City. I take my sins to the cross where they’re forgiven and ultimately defeated. Christ will not let me “sin unto death” (1 Jn 5.16-18) but will see to it Satan’s plan to squash my saving faith fails again and again and again.
Laying aside every encumbrance and entangling sin (Heb 12.1) is not stopping the race to untangle sin’s web. It is to fix our eyes on Jesus and our entangling sin will be loosened by the power of the gospel (Heb 12.2). Too often we demand that those in sin get themselves untangled before they continue the race. They must prove again and again that they are indeed qualified contestants. But its continuing the race, with eyes fixed on Christ, that is the essence of repentance.
How do I know I’m repenting from sin? It’s not how much I mope around about it or how many hoops I jump through to restore fellowship. The proof of repentance is my continuing the fight. I get up from the mat and keep swinging. I keep seeing my sin in the shadow of the cross. And I refuse to leave my Jesus who bought me. The fruits of repentance will blossom from the soil fertilized by the gospel, not from superficially imposed acts of penance.
We don’t live the Christian life together by trying to help one another become perfect. We don’t go about making sure everyone is making sufficient restitution for their sin (re-penance). We live such that we help one another pursue the Perfect One. When someone stumbles we don’t kick them to the curb until they can get untangled. We lift their heads to Christ and keep them churning with the power of the gospel.