Nobody likes the feeling of knowing you’re in the wrong.
It first hits you with a gnawing feeling inside your heart, and before you know it, it’s the works: Shame, humiliation, regret and maybe even a dash of despair.
I shouldn’t have done that. Why couldn’t I stop myself? I really should have known better.
So you feel sorry, perhaps apologise to anyone you’ve hurt, tell God you don’t want to do this ever again and all’s good until… You do it again.
If I sin again and again, does this mean I have not truly repented?
And maybe you’ve asked yourself this: Am I getting this whole repentance thing wrong? Why do I keep messing up? Will I ever be free from this sin – is there some reason God isn’t taking it away?
I mean, the whole Christian faith hinges upon repentance. It’s in the very first step of the sinner’s prayer. We repent of our sins. We ask for forgiveness by the blood of Jesus shed for us (Matthew 26:28). We acknowledge that it’s only by His perfect blood that we are cleansed of our wrongdoings and made right again before God.
But if I sin again and again, does this mean I have not truly repented?
In the spirit of Easter, I’d like to share something I’ve learnt over the course of my repeated sin and constantly being at the mercy of my own fallenness as a human being. I also picked up some good notes from listening to Josh McDowell when he was in Singapore for a series of conferences last month.
THE ROAD TO REPENTANCE
1. You have to change your mind
The most common translation for the biblical word “repent” is “turn” or “return”. This denotes a turning from evil, and turning to good. It’s a changing of your mind. That requires acknowledging the sin for what it is: Something that has turned you away from God.
“You have to call it sin,” McDowell explained when people asked him how to break free from addiction. “If you do not call it sin, it’s very difficult to succeed.” How do you change your mind if you’re still wrestling with deciding if a particular behaviour or thought is even wrong?
“Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord.” (Acts 3:19)
Generic repentance is like taking panadol for cancer.
You can only turn from a fixed point. If we’re careless with pointing out for ourselves that something is sinful, we’re setting ourselves up for relapse. Generic repentance is like taking panadol for cancer. Specific repentance allows us to call the specific sin out and declare that we’ve changed our minds – we don’t want it in our lives anymore.
2. You have to confess your sin
Keeping us away from the Father through the shame and guilt of our sin is one of the devil’s most devious schemes.
- Surely God cannot forgive you this time.
- Surely God is disappointed with you.
- Surely you can exercise a little self-control next time and redeem yourself.
And so we stay silent about our sin, hoping to deal with it on our own before we come before God a little less blemished than before. I know I’m inclined to do that, even with earthly authority. Fix it before you own up to it so it doesn’t look as bad!
But here’s a spoiler: It doesn’t work that way; it only makes things worse. Unconfessed sin snowballs. The only and immediate response to sin is this: Confess it and claim God’s promised forgiveness (1 John 1:9).
It might sound humiliating to specifically confess what you’ve done but take heart: God isn’t ashamed of us. He was right there with us when we were in the sin! We can face Him bravely because He is on our side in this. He wants us to be free, not hiding from Him the way Adam did in the Garden of Eden.
3. You have to release and receive forgiveness
When we come to God in confession of our brokenness, we’re allowing the Holy Spirit to do His work in the areas of our life long closed to our consciousness and care.
This is the power of the purification He promises us in 1 John 1:9 – His renewal of our minds and hearts is thorough. He’s not here just for surface work. He’s working towards purity and restoration all the way through.
The sins that show up in our lives are often symptoms of deeper brokenness. And we’re all broken in different ways. These cracks may lead back to childhood for some of us or specific incidents that were more stressful on our souls than we recall. Someone might have said something that mortally wounded us. Or something happened to us that locked us into a certain perspective or pattern of thought.
The sins that show up in our lives are often symptoms of deeper brokenness.
“For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” (Matthew 6:14-15)
As God revealed the deeper brokenness in me that was starting to spill into my relationships, words and actions – things that I did declare in prayer that I wanted to repent of – I was brought to an eventual reckoning where I knew I had to release forgiveness over others and receive forgiveness even from myself.
The leaks may run deeper than we can see, but forgiveness mends fissures more than we know.
4. You have to desire to live rightly
Matthew 3:8 and Luke 3:8 say the same thing: Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.
If we’ve decided that we’re done with the old ways, and have come to God for forgiveness and experienced His deep inner work in us and the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2), it will and must show on the outside – in how we now choose to live.
I always say this, but ask yourself the tough questions.
- Does my heart really desire purity?
- Do I really want to live rightly before God and man?
- Do I treasure holiness?
McDowell pointed us to an example in a young Daniel, who made up his mind that he would not defile himself in the service of a pagan king (Daniel 1:8).
“Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.” (1 Corinthians 10:12 ESV)
This means that we will do whatever it takes to steer clear of the snares and temptations that entice us to return to sin. We may have dealt with the root issues, but it’s foolish to assume we are immune to familiar triggers. We take heed. We take precautions.
Remember the long way you’ve just come: It’s too costly to fall back into old sin and work our way out again.
5. You have to depend on the Holy Spirit
Just as you cannot pay for your own sins, you cannot fight sin on your own.
Desiring to live rightly and sin no more is one thing; to acknowledge the human bent towards sinfulness is another. Don’t forget that the Apostle Paul himself lamented that he had “the desire to do what is good”, but he could not carry it out because of the sin living in him (Romans 7:18-20) – he would do what he did not want to do instead.
Oh the frustration! Here lies another scheme of the devil: When Satan gets you to live rightly by your own strength, you’re doomed to fail. And in the frustration and tension between wanting to do good but falling short over and over – we give up. We resign ourselves to fallenness.
“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9)
That is why we must recognise that we can only make it out of the cycle of sin by grace. The same grace that forgives you for the past is the grace that will keep you pure in the present, and promises to take you into a victorious future. In the lure of compromise, we cannot flee temptation, resist and overcome without the sustaining grace of the Holy Spirit.
Repentance is always two-fold: Turning away from sin, and turning towards God.
That feeling that rises up within you whenever you realise you’ve done wrong is never meant to turn you away from Him – but towards Him. That feeling is the conviction of the Holy Spirit to lead you back to the Father.
This is a quote I love: “Religion says, ‘I’ve messed up, my dad is going to kill me.’ But sonship says, ‘I’ve messed up, I need to call my dad.'”
With our loving Father, there’s always more repentance, more healing, more power, and more freedom. Maybe it’s time to stop standing outside His presence being sorry, and like the prodigal, come back in to be a son.
THINK + TALK
- What are some areas of compromise in your life? Look to God to renew your mind.
- Are you holding on to unforgiveness? Give grace as God has given you grace.
- Is there something you need to repent of? Nothing can separate you from God’s love.