Did you know that this phrase is not in the Bible? Jesus told the man healed in John 5 to “Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you,” and he told the woman caught in adultery to “Go and sin no more” (John 8:11). Jesus never told anyone to “repent and sin no more.”
However, Jesus did use the word repent with a far different word in Mark 1:15, “The kingdom of God is near, repent and believe the gospel.” Not just repent, but repent and believe. Both are in the present imperative, active, 2nd person plural. In other words, it was a command to do these things continuously: “You all out there, continue to repent and continue to believe the gospel!”
Just as we cannot imagine a follower of Jesus without faith, so we should not imagine the same follower without the continuing character of repentance. We should not just call ourselves Believers but also Repenters, for we will not stop repenting until we stop sinning. Unfortunately, this continual character of repentance is sadly lacking in our churches, in our Christian colleges and graduate schools, in our interpersonal relationships and in our marriages, where we readily admit to our brokenness but when it comes to repentance, we act as if other people need to repent, but not us.
I would like to clarify what repentance is because I think many people are often confused as to the meaning of the word. So over the next few blogs let me unpack the biblical concept of repentance by describing it in 3 different ways:
- Repentance is not penance [see last week’s blog]
- Repentance is without regret (remorse)
- Repentance is without excuse
Second, Repentance Is Without Regret
Good Friday is the proper context for examining another misunderstanding of repentance. The Gospel of Matthew sets in juxtaposition the dastardly deeds of two of Jesus’ intimates. It tells of Peter’s three-time denial of Christ that drove him out to weep bitterly. (Matthew 26:75) It also tells of the betrayal by Judas who actually did penance by his confession, contrition, and making amends by returning the money he received for betraying innocent blood. Then “he departed, and he went and hanged himself.” (Matthew 27:5) So, if you did not know the end of the story, who would you say seemed more repentant?
We often make the mistake of equating repentance with deep sorrow and remorse. While there is a place for sorrow, the danger is that a person may be filled with a self-centered regret, but not be truly repentant. We have examples of those in public office or church ministry who have been “caught” and responded with great sorrow and tears. We ourselves know of the remorse and regret experienced when we see the messes we have made. I have had some friends and parishioners who have been so ashamed that they have taken their own lives. Surely, both Peter and Judas were terribly sorry for what they did. On the surface, Judas looked even more repentant, but was he?
In 2 Corinthians 7, Paul recognized that he had sent a harsh letter to the church which caused them great sorrow. Yet, at the same time, he did not regret it because it produced in them a godly sorrow. “For godly sorrow produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly sorrow produces death.” (v. 10) So what is the difference between worldly sorrow and godly sorrow?
CH Spurgeon’s message (1881) entitled “Sorrow and Sorrow”: Some persons seem to think that mere sorrow of mind in reference to sin is repentance; but it is not. Read the text…”Godly sorrow worketh repentance.” Therefore, it is not itself repentance. It is an agent employed in producing repentance, but it is not itself repentance.
He goes on to give examples of how there are many people who get caught in a sin and are filled with sorrow and despair—not because of their sin, but because they got caught and are in a heap of trouble. In fact, they are probably just as fond of the sin they committed as they ever were. And they quite possibly continue to desire what the world offers, but will wait until the consequences of getting caught blow over. This kind of sorrow is not repentance nor does it lead to repentance.
Spurgeon continued: Next, do not fall into the other mistake, and imagine that there can be such a thing as repentance without sorrow for sin, for there can never be such a thing… [Repentance] is an entire and total change of mind, a turning of the mind right round, so that it hates what once it loved and loves what once it hated… If there is no such sorrow as that in your heart, one of the things necessary to a genuine repentance is absent.
Once again, true sorrow is not a self-centered sorrow which produces regret or remorse because of the painful consequences of sin and which yields the fruit of our discouragement and despair. Rather, it is a God-centered sorrow that produces in us a heart-felt grief over our sin and always drives us to God and not away from Him. It is always laced with hope and leads us to a decisive about-face in our attitude and behavior; it yields the fruit of righteousness.
These two kinds of sorrows are exemplified, on the one hand, Esau who could not find repentance though he sought it with tears (Heb. 12:17) and, on the other hand, by David who acknowledged his guilt before God and cried, “Against You and You alone have I sinned…” (Ps 51:12).
Thus if you are in despair over your sin, is it driving you away from Christ? Has your penitence turned into penance and you are striving to earn back God’s favor? If so, you are not experiencing godly sorrow nor will you find true repentance. Come back to the cross and believe the gospel. Come clean with the Lord, and lean into the same same unchanging grace and forgiveness that you appropriated when you first believed. Don’t rely on your own fixes, but trust Him by His indwelling Spirit to change your heart and your behavior. Be a Peter and not a Judas; a David, not an Esau.