Last time, we saw that one of the reasons so many men in the church perpetually live in some level of lust or sexual sin—with the misery and shame that brings, is because they aren’t fighting where the battle is pitched—on the front our desires. Now, we want to talk about another leading reason men fail to gain victory over sexual sin—lust and any other. That is–most believers really don’t have a Biblical understanding of one crucial element of the Christian life that is absolutely essential to walk in the joy of the Lord. That is—repentance.
Without repentance, there can be no victory over any sin, certainly habitual sins like sexual sin. And where there is no victory, there’s no joy. What many don’t realize about repentance is–the key that opens the door to understanding repentance is seeing it in light of what Paul writes in Romans 1:16. “16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” How on earth does that relate to repentance? Let’s see.
Paul says the gospel is “the power of God for salvation.” When Paul or other New Testament writers use this word translated “salvation,” they’re not just talking about what happened in the past when a person was converted. Salvation in the New Testament certainly includes our past conversion experience, but it also includes the ongoing, day-to-day process of being made more like Jesus as we increasingly learn to love him and trust him–sanctification.
In Philippians 2:12, Paul is talking to believers when he commands them to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” At our conversion, we WERE saved. But in the present tense—we ARE BEING saved because, however slowly, genuine believers are gradually being more conformed to the image of Christ. Finally, in the New Testament, salvation is also what will happen IN THE FUTURE to believers when, in heaven, they WILL BE finally and completely “saved” when they see Christ and are fully conformed to his image.
ALL of that is salvation for Paul and he says the power for all of that salvation is the gospel—the truth that Jesus Christ came into this world to save sinners by offering his perfect life as a substitute for our very imperfect ones and offering his undeserved death as a substitute for the death we very much deserve. We WERE saved by the power of God for salvation in the gospel; we ARE BEING saved by the power of God for salvation in the gospel and WE WILL BE saved by the power of God for salvation in the gospel.
What this has to do with repentance is this: repentance is an indispensable piece of this ongoing part of our salvation—”working out our salvation.” We are being saved and a huge part of being saved—present tense—is repentance from sin. That means that the gospel must also be the power of God for our repentance. Think about it. The gospel is the power of salvation—repentance is part of our ongoing salvation—therefore, the gospel is what empowers our repentance. The truth that undergirds everything else here is: We can experience genuine repentance only when, through the gospel–the power of God for salvation is released in our lives by faith.
For the next few minutes we’re going to briefly look at five truths that help us understand all that. First is the priority of repentance—how important it is, next, the blessings of repentance—what it produces in our lives. Third, common misunderstandings about repentance; fourth, elements of repentance—what it looks like and fifth, the motivation for repentance.
First, let’s look at the PRIORITY of repentance. God must believe it’s very important for us to have a good grasp of repentance because it’s such a HUGE theme in the New Testament. Matthew write in 3:1, “1 In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, 2 “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Repentance was the central theme of John’s ministry, but a chapter later, in Matthew’s first recorded words of Jesus’ ministry he says, “17 From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Repentance is also at the center of Jesus’ ministry. In the preaching of “the greatest man born of woman” as well as the Savior of the world, both made repentance a central theme. That should tell us that if we are going to be healthy believers, we’d best have a very thorough understanding and practice of repentance.
Jesus says in Luke chapter 24, “…Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” A huge piece of the proclamation of the church is to preach repentance. When we look at church history, it too reflects this priority of repentance.
One of the most famous document of church history is the 95 theses Luther nailed to his door in Wittenberg. And the very first thesis Luther argues is: “…the whole life of believers should be repentance.” Again, that reflects New Testament teaching. The point in all this is—if repentance is essential to the gospel, there’s no way we can know the joy that rightfully belongs to a believer if we don’t understand and aren’t living in ongoing repentance.
Now, let’s look at the BLESSINGS of repentance and perhaps the central blessing is joy in the Lord. Repentance brings joy because when you repent, by God’s grace we’re removing one of the soul-crushing idols of our hearts with its place being taken by Jesus. Repentance releases joy into the life of a believer. This is different than the conception many believers have of repentance.
For many in church, the notion of repentance carries a negative connotation. It’s like in that movie “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” where Charlton Heston plays John the Baptist. At one point, the Roman soldiers hike out to the river Jordan to arrest him, but he refuses to go with them. When they wade into the river to apprehend him, Heston—who at that time was a big, strapping guy, after calling all of them “heathen,” grabs the soldiers by the tops of their heads and begins violently dunking them, angrily screaming at them, “Repent, Repent!” I think that image of an angry God screaming at us to repent is what many believers think of when they hear the word, “repent.”
That’s simply not what the bible teaches. Paul is talking to believers when he writes in Second Corinthians 7:10, “10 For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret...” “Salvation” (again, we see “salvation” used as a present tense experience for the believer) and “no regret.” How many of you are living with no regret toward God? That’s what repentance brings to the believer. All believers want to continue to grow in their salvation and live without regret. That means the command for us to “repent!” is a good command.
Paul says in Romans 2:4, “4 Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” Again, many believers seek to repent because they believe that God is angry at them and they better stop sinning or else! Very few believers do what Paul implies here. That is–repent in response to the kindness of God. And yet, — if we don’t, our repentance will be shallow, short-lived and instead of experiencing joy, it will bring frustration. If, as a child of God, your relationship with God is not marked by an ongoing experience of his kindness to you, not his anger or disappointment or disgust, you cannot live in repentance. More on that, later.
Third, let’s talk about some other common MISUNDERSTANDINGS about repentance. For many believers, the way their prayers of repentance sound is something like this— “God, I’m so sorry I did that—I’ll try to do better next time, Lord.” As we’ll see, the reason that’s absolutely mistaken is because that’s not a grace—impelled, gospel-motivated response to God—it’s a guilt-motivated resolution to God and guilt-motivated resolutions never bring about heart transformation! This is because they are not about GOD and what he can do in your heart. Those resolutions are about what YOU are going to do for God. Although too many believers live like it, guilt is NOT the power of salvation, the gospel is! It’s ONLY by the grace of God in the gospel that the Spirit of God transforms us from the inside-out.
Another very common misunderstanding about repentance is—Repentance involves a change from sinful actions to righteous ones. Not true. The Greek word for repentance is “metanoia” which simply means a “change of mind.” Repenting means to change your mind or your mindset or attitude about a particular sin. Don’t misunderstand, by a change of mind, we don’t mean, “I used to think that sinful attitude, desire or action was ok, but now I know it’s sinful—I’ve changed my mind about it.” No! Most of us know the difference between sinful and right attitudes, desires and actions. The truth is–repentance results in a change of behavior, but is itself NOT a change in behavior. Now that may sound like splitting hairs, but it’s actually very important.
The actual change in a person’s behavior is in what the Bible called “the fruit of repentance.” When John the Baptist was preaching repentance, his call was to “8 Bear fruit in keeping with repentance.” In Luke 3:8, Jesus says, “8 Bear fruits in keeping with repentance…” In Acts, Paul is preaching to King Agrippa in chapter 26 and says of the Gentiles “… they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds in keeping with their repentance.” Repentance is not itself a change in behavior; it LEADS TO a change in behavior.
Here’s an illustration I’ve used before to help us understand this change-of-mind that leads to a change of behavior. If you’ve ever walked into an enclosed sewage treatment plant or a meat processing plant—a slaughter house, you know your first reaction to that environment is to recoil because the stench is so hideous. That’s a fitting illustration for our sin because the Bible frequently compares our sin to a stench in God’s nostrils. To carry forth the illustration–to be trapped in sin is (spiritually speaking) to be surrounded by the sewage of sin, but when we’re trapped in sin, it’s stench either doesn’t bother you enough to cause you to turn away from it– or worse still, you’ve come to actually enjoy the aroma of something you once found absolutely repulsive.
Oh, probably you know it’s wrong intellectually—that it isn’t pleasing to God, but it’s not bad enough to motivate you to get it out of your life. That gradual shift in our perception about our sin occurs because–part of what the power of sin does is to harden our hearts over time. Part of having a hardening heart is–a horribly distorted spiritual sense of smell so that what once smelled terrible, either doesn’t bother us all that much, or it may even smell good to us. For instance, people trapped in sexual sin can have hearts that are so hard that they wrongly come to see it as something liberating when Scripture teaches that it enslaves our souls.
When God, by the Holy Spirit, works in our lives to bring repentance, he changes our mind about it. That is–he restores a newly sensitized spiritual sense of smell toward the sin so that we’re once again repulsed by it. As we’ll see more later, that’s a miraculous act of grace worked in us by the Holy Spirit through the power of the gospel. We must know something very important: We can’t independently change how we think about or otherwise respond to our sin—God must do that work of freshly revealing to our souls how awful it is. The result or the fruit of having this new sense of smell toward our sin is, we do whatever is necessary to extract ourselves from that wretched condition.
Its at THIS point when the words of Jesus about what we do about lust and sexual sin are possible. As we said last night, he says in Matthew 5:27-30, 27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.”
Many guys who feel really bad and guilty about their sexual sin read this and think, “That’s what I need to do. I’m ditching my smart phone, tossing my tv, getting rid of my ipad and laptop and anything where I have accessed pornography.” For those men without very strong wills, they never follow through with those things which may very well be called for from this text. One reason they don’t is because, a big part of them still loves their sin. And if you love your sin, you wont do these kind of “running out of the sewer” behaviors. For those very few who actually in a moment of strong resolve, DO get rid of those things in the power of their will only, that’s going to be a costly decision. Because they still love their sin, sooner or later, they will buy a new tablet or tv or whatever because that’s what they WANT to do.
The biblical order is first, we repent or, by God’s grace, regain our spiritual sense of smell—or, change our mind about our sin. Second, the fruit produced by that change of mind is—we run out of our sewer plant of our sin. We “tear out our eyes” so to speak. Here’s one very important implication of that. I hope you hear that –if you genuinely repent of a sin, this is not ultimately dependent on your will—though decisions need to be made. Neither will there be any regret over leaving the sin behind because the biggest part of your heart WANTED to stop sinning. Though many believers wrongly think so, repentance is NOT fundamentally a coercing of our will as we feel some external pressure like guilt to conform.
Repentance is NOT surrendering our will to our conscience to do something we really don’t want to do very much. No—it’s a natural—even a joyful response to our newly acquired spiritual sense of smell. A big part of our growth in holiness—our ongoing “salvation” is a process where we’re day-to-day gaining a keener sense of spiritual smell toward our sins and leaving them behind because we can’t stand them anymore. That’s what Luther means when he says all of life is repentance and repentance occurs in a person as a result of the gospel grace of God.
Sadly, some believers turn themselves inside-out wondering if they’ve “repented” sincerely enough–as if their repentance is the basis of their forgiveness. That’s a trap because if you must attain a certain level of sorrow over your sin to be forgiven, you’ll never know for certain if you’ve reached it. One scholar says it well. “… according to Scripture it is not our tears but Christ’s blood that satisfies God’s judgment and establishes peace with God.” As we’ll see more in a moment, it’s as we trust, NOT in our feelings of sorrow, but instead in the promises of the gospel-that CHRIST alone paid for our sins that we can really repent and be free to live in the joy of the Lord.
A third and final mistaken idea about repentance is one we’ve already mentioned: repentance is ultimately dependent on me, not God. This is so common, but the Bible teaches that repentance is not fundamentally an act we exercise through a new decision—it’s a GIFT FROM GOD! Peter is preaching to the Jewish leaders in Acts 5:31 and says of Jesus, “31 God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.”
In Second Timothy 2:24 Paul tells Timothy, “24 And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, 25 correcting his opponents with gentleness that God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth,” It is GOD who grants repentance. Many of us know God is the source of our forgiveness, but we don’t live as if he’s also the only source of our repentance. “God freely forgives, but repentance is my responsibility alone.” Think about it. If repentance is part of our ongoing salvation and salvation is a free gift of God, then repentance must also be a gift from God.
For some of you, this is the very first time you’ve heard this about repentance and as a result–you aren’t living out of the gospel. You haven’t thought through how the gospel relates to sin and repentance. Repentance is part of our salvation that God gives/provides us through the gospel.
But what does that free gift look like when it comes to repentance? Here are some ELEMENTS of repentance. Thomas Watson, a Puritan preacher has helped me here. Remember, these elements are not fundamentally what we must DO in order to repent—they’re what IT LOOKS LIKE when the saving power of the gospel is active in our lives bringing us to repentance. It’s not, “I have to do these four things in order to repent.” NO! These elements are simply present when God gives genuine repentance.
First, genuine repentance is marked by seeing your lust/sexual sin for what it is. Again, using our sewer plant illustration—seeing your sin for what it is–is like that moment when your spiritual sense of smell is renewed, and you respond to the stench by sorrowing over it. It’s not just a mistake. It’s not just breaking a rule. It’s not just a poor choice or a bad decision. It’s not just stupid or foolish or careless or reckless. It’s much, much deeper than that. When, by God’s grace, he reveals to your heart what your sin really is to him at its core— (and we’ll look at that in just a moment), repentance always follows. This is because you see that it is so black, wicked, evil, repulsive that only a sick person would want to do something like that.
A second mark of a repentant heart is similar— being humbly transparent about our lust. If you make excuses or work to diminish the evil of your sin—you’re not repentant. A repentant heart makes confessions that sound like this: “I placed my desire for sexual pleasure about you, God and a very large part of me LOVES my sin.” Or, “I used my wife in bed—I treated her like a prostitute–I didn’t love her.” Or, “I have given my heart over to lust.” Or, “I am intentionally allowing the direction of my life to be controlled, not by You, but by my glands.” Or, “Lord, I know with absolute certainty that I can’t stop doing this without your miracle-working gospel power in my life.” That level of humility that manifests in being completely honest and vulnerable before God and other believers is what a repentant heart looks like.
Third, repentance involves sorrowing over your lust. Again, Second Corinthians 7:10 tells us, “10 For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death. 11 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!” Part of God’s gift of repentance involves sorrowing over our sin—feeling terrible about it. Now, whenever we say that the Bible tells us we will feel a certain emotion, we need to get specific about what’s behind that emotion because it’s possible to feel badly in ways that are not repentant and many believers have only seldom experienced the right kind of sorrow over their sin.
For instance, many of us feel badly about our sin out of self-pity and mistake that for godly sorrow. That self-pity can take at least three forms. First, we feel sorry for ourselves because we’re tired of failing. We’re sad because we feel like absolute losers because we can’t stop looking at porn (or whatever) that we know for certain is wrong. We feel like serial/continual spiritual failures and we often respond to that feeling through self-condemnation or self-hatred that does nothing to stop our sin long-term. Another reason for this self-pity over our sin is because the consequences are painful—that’s not godly sorrow.
Sin DOES bring bad consequences—wives feel betrayed and become infuriated over their husband’s sexual sin, but those kinds of consequences are intended by God to get our attention –to wake us up out of our sin-induced stupor so that we’ll wake up to the reality that something is seriously wrong with our lives. But feeling badly about the consequences of our sin isn’t “godly sorrow” and it doesn’t bring repentance.
Closely related to that, we can also, in our self-pity feel sad about our sin because we got caught—somehow our sin went viral and others know about it. That’s painful because it’s humiliating and that makes us sad out of our shame and embarrassment. Those expressions of “grief” are NOT godly sorrow and they can never bring repentance. Those are some counterfeit motives for repenting.
As we close, let’s focus in on the proper MOTIVATION for repentance and this is where the gospel is so crucial. We feel godly sorrow that brings repentance when our grief over our sin is because it is my personal betrayal of the triune God who created me and redeemed me—and who told me it was wrong at the time by the Spirit. That means that my sin was throwing back into the face of Jesus his precious blood—it was telling him I don’t want his sin-cleansing, sin-defeating blood. It’s a cosmic betrayal of my eternally loving and infinitely kind FATHER.
Now, we can think those things (in our heads) without the Holy Spirit. But only the Spirit of God can convince our hearts of those truths and cause us to grieve deeply and rightly over them. Earlier, we said that repentance is not simply a change in behavior. Repentance is fundamentally a change within our relationship with God and this is where the power of the gospel brings repentance.
A gospel-centered repentance sounds more like this: “I want to stop grieving my Father who sent Jesus to die for me and defeat the power of this sin in my life.” Or, “I want to stop this sin because God adopted me as his child and he delivered me out of the kingdom of darkness where sin reigns and placed me into the kingdom of his Son where his holiness-inciting grace reigns.” When those kinds of gospel-driven truths hit home, Paul calls that “godly sorrow” because the sorrow is directed toward GOD not ourselves. It’s a God-centered sorrow, not a self-centered sorrow.
It’s not feeling condemned or feeling sorry for ourselves. It’s not about whether we feel sorry enough for our sin—as if our tears could pacify God. It’s God in his grace supernaturally revealing to our hearts our sin for what it really is. That is—a personal betrayal of our kind and loving God who gave his very best for us when sacrificed his Son for us and sent his Spirit to live in us. It’s when we process our sin that way that we, by God’s grace, can experience godly sorrow.
When we understand our sins in the light of his great kindness toward us—we feel godly sorrow. When a woman who’s having an affair thinks about the great love her husband has for her—when she’s willing to see her sin as a personal betrayal of this man who’s been so good to her—she’ll feel a deep grief that can bring her back to faithfulness to him. This is one way the gospel brings salvation to us in repentance. Living by the gospel doesn’t mean we don’t still have to battle against sin—it rages on fiercely till we die. Living by the gospel simply means that we’re fighting against our sin God’s way—with the power of the Holy Spirit unleashed through faith in the gospel.
Beloved, any genuinely mature believer is constantly reminding him/herself of the glorious gospel. That gospel that teaches us that the only reason we have the freedom to turn away from the stench of our sin and live in the joy of repentance is because Christ leaned into the stench of our sin that mercilessly clung to him, bringing him immeasurable despair on the cross. Thinking about that—allowing the gospel to more deeply penetrate our hearts is the means of grace that God uses to transform our hearts.
We need to meditate on the fact that when the Father placed our sins on Jesus, he became to the Father the most disgusting creature imaginable. On the cross, the spiritual stench that my sin brought upon him Father was so repulsive that the Father turned away from his beloved Son, utterly disgusted with him.
Beloved, never forget that it’s only because Jesus took on the stench of our sin, that we by his gospel grace can turn away from it. The only reason our lives as sinners can ascend to the Father as a pleasing aroma is because Jesus chose to be unbearably putrid to his Father—bearing our sin upon himself. If those saving truths increasingly embed deeply into our hearts, we’ll find the repentance we’ve described today to be more and more a way of life for you.
You’ll turn from your sin because the more you meditate on the cross, the more clearly you’ll see how much God loves you in Jesus. John tells us that the only reason we love God is because “he first loved us.” As we allow the gospel to teach us—again and again of his amazing love for us—having the right motivation for repentance… will not be a problem. Let’s pray.