Repentance is a big deal. You’ve probably heard that. It’s a motif in Scripture that you absolutely cannot avoid. We often create terminology, systems, or routines that help to motivate and remind us to regularly repent because we see its importance. This surely isn’t bad. However, complicated theological definitions and white-knuckled systems often lead to a dry, mechanical, lifeless interaction with God. This, of course, is bad.
The most common definition of repentance that I have heard is to turn from your sin and to Jesus. This is a helpful definition, but if we let a definition drive our repentance, it isn’t really repentance. So, what drives repentance? What type of repentance is truly biblical? The scope of this question is deep and wide, but there are four foundational aspects of biblical repentance: biblical repentance is from God, centered on God, produces life-giving joy, and should be sought in community.
1. Biblical Repentance Is from God
If we look at Psalm 130, we see the Psalmist waiting, seeking, and needing God. It seems as if, without God, there is no hope. Biblical repentance starts with God. The Psalmist later cries out in the midst of repentance saying, “Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me” (Ps. 51:11). David knows that there is no hope for repentance outside of the Holy Spirit’s leading. He is petitioning God to grant him forgiveness. We also witness Paul encourage Timothy to correct his opponents with gentleness, so that “God may perhaps grant them repentance” (2 Tim. 2:25).
Biblical repentance is initiated by God. How is this helpful? If God grants repentance, then we have no need to fake it. That doesn’t mean we give ourselves over to sin while we wait for God to grant repentance. Surely if your heart heads in that direction, there is cause for concern. But, the truth that God grants repentance should drive us to seek him earnestly. Instead of settling for going through some routine, we ask the God of the universe to brake our hearts over our sin. Scripture also encourages us to “draw near to the throne of grace with confidence” (Heb. 4:16). God is willing and able not only to respond, but to give generously.
Why does appealing to God often feel difficult? Perhaps it’s because we want God to zap us from a distance rather than seek him in the midst of disobedience. Our mechanical, humdrum repentance is dry because we don’t want to be intimate with God. We have blown it, perhaps for the thousandth time, and facing the most offended Person is unbelievably humbling. But in this, we have forgotten another aspect of biblical repentance. We are told that not only should we approach God with confidence, but that “God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance” (Rom 2:4).
We don’t seek God for repentance because we are good, but because he is good. David’s opening cry in Psalm 51 rings with desperation, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgression.” David bases his plea on God’s mercy.
Jesus’s words remind us ever-so-clearly that we need God’s mercy. Consider the parable to those who trusted in themselves that they were righteous while treating others with contempt:
“Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14)
We tend resemble the tax collector at times when things go badly. But does the rhythm of our lives consistently communicate the same need for mercy? Do you more often resemble the Pharisee, bartering with God based on your own deeds? You go to church, tithe, read Christian blogs, and even share the gospel at times. Those these things are right and good, they do not necessarily mirror a heart seeking after the God who grants forgiveness.
Entitlement to grace creeps into our life subtly. It's an insidious disease. One way entitlement manifests in our lives is blaming God for our sin. Have you ever said, “God I do all of this stuff for you, why have you not saved me from ______ sin.” Maybe we don’t say it in those words, but we know that God has the power to help overcome any sin, and yet he hasn’t. Entitlement rears its ugly head.
We must remember that our repentance will be maturing until we go on to glory. Holy Spirit led, God-centered, life-giving, joyful repentance is a gift you continue to discover for the rest of your life. And the good news is that God wants to give it to you.
2. Biblical Repentance Is God-Centered
In Psalm 51, David also laments, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment” (Ps. 51:4).
At times, our repentance can be centered on everything but God. If we were to think of repentance as a play, then God is the main character while sin, ourselves, and others play supporting roles. However, we are often grieved over our sin because we are tired of being the guy that struggles with porn or the mom that blows up at her kids. Sometimes we don’t like when relationships are off or that our workplace or church has issues. Our response is to try and make everything right again, but this will get us nowhere.
In these situations, we should join in with David, recalling that our sin can only be called sin because God himself declares what is holy and what is not. People are affected, no doubt, but God is always the most offended. In repentance, we have the obligation to going before the most offended party and acknowledging our guilt without excuse. If repentance isn’t God-centered, we can give him a token apology while avoiding facing the depth of our sin. Unfortunately, this causes us to miss enjoying the most abundant, heavenly pardon ever offered: our sin for the Son’s perfect righteousness. Jesus righteousness feels most undeserved when we are aware of our sin, and our heart rejoices most deeply when God is at the center of our repentance. Our joy in repentance is intimately intertwined with God’s work to crush sin for the glory of his name. He reminds us in Isaiah:
“For my name's sake I defer my anger, for the sake of my praise I restrain it for you, that I may not cut you off. Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver; I have tried you in the furnace of affliction. For my own sake, for my own sake, I do it, for how should my name be profaned? My glory I will not give to another.” (Is. 48:9-11)
3. Biblical Repentance Leads to Life-Giving Joy
Repentance should lead to joy, as Scripture often reminds us. For example:
“For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death” (2 Cor. 7:10).
“Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have broken rejoice” (Ps. 51:8).
“Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit” (Ps. 51:12).
Taking our sin seriously and experiencing the joy of repentance can and should come in many forms. Surely we have had times where our brokenness over sin has led to genuine godly grief and tears have flowed. But there are often times genuine repentance takes place in the midst of ordinary life.
Here is a brief personal vignette:
I have some friends that raise chickens. One night, they were telling us about the death of a chicken and my buddy mentioned that chickens will often pluck the eyes out of their dead counterparts. He even said as a joke that if you lied down out there, they would pluck your eyes out. My young son, Wyatt, loves the chickens.
I was at work remembering the conversation with my friend and realizing my son was over at their house. I had the ridiculous picture of my son lying down near the chickens and getting his eyes plucked out. I realize this sounds quite silly, but it caused real anxiety in me. I called my wife and couldn’t get in touch with her. I was going to have her check on Wyatt’s eyes. Then the Lord brought to mind a struggle of mine.
I have realized more and more that I struggle to trust God with my kids. I often feel the need to over-control situations because, frankly, I don’t trust God. I happen to be dwelling on Psalm 130 that week, and I remembered the Psalmist exhortation at the end: “O Israel, hope in the Lord!” I then began tell myself, “Jake, hope in the Lord!” A sweet joy came over my heart as I ventured from lies to truth, sinful disobedience to Spirit-led obedience.
This is a picture of repentance in the everyday rhythm of life. If we are to be more consistent and genuine in our repentance, we must realize God grants this gift in many different forms, although the substance is the same. Whether at church, at home, at work, or anywhere else, joy can be had if we simply focus on the One who offers it to us.
4. Biblical Repentance Is Sought in Community
It’s important to note that these three aspects of repentance should not be sought alone. There is great joy in seeing a sister who has been asking God to mold her into the image of his Son come to the place of repentance. Joy abounds. It’s beautiful to be a part of a community where people don’t just talk about some abstract theology of repentance, but who actually point each other to the God who grants repentance. As with most things, it is hard to be a pointer if you aren’t a practitioner. But as you swim in the abundant grace available for you in repentance, your spirit will be renewed.
As we walk through the highs and lows of life with others, we shouldn’t feel a heavy burden to “fix” them our make sure they “get it.” We continually walk humbly with them, trusting them to the only One who is able to save. The Psalms are very helpful in this regard. We see men experiencing and interacting with God. We don’t merely want people to see their sin; we want them to see their sin in relationship to a holy, forgiving God.
Repentance is not simply an individual affair. Repentance experienced in community allows us to share in each other’s joy and marvel at God’s good grace. So take heart, and seek him for the gift of repentance. May the Spirit blow a fresh wind into your soul. And may you have the courage to share it with others.