Clear thinking about repentance

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”
Mark 1:15

Repentance is one of those old words. It doesn’t get used a lot in everyday conversation. It isn’t a word that trends on Twitter or show up in the titles of the latest bestsellers. But it’s a significant word and more importantly a crucial concept. That’s why I was intrigued by the article, “Are you repenting the wrong way?” by Jon Snyder. He leads a ministry that has counseled thousands of people but he says that at the outset all of them are struggling with the wrong kind of repentance. And the problem is that “not only is this wrong repentance extremely emotionally unhealthy, but it actually produces more death and more sin. The damage this mentality does to your soul and your intimacy with God is far worse that [sic] the consequences of your sin itself, so in His wisdom, God will not help you overcome your sin if it means it affirms this mentality.” Got your attention yet?
The right and wrong ways to repent that he reminds us of are taken from 2 Corinthians 7:10.

For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.

Feeling badly about sin, what Paul calls here “worldly grief” can be confused with repentance. It’s like the alcoholic or the abusive husband who with tears professes how badly he feels about what he’s done. There’s so much regret that you think, ‘Surely this time he’ll change.’ But he doesn’t. It’s the sorrow of Esau when he saw that his father’s blessing had gone to another in Genesis 27:34, “As soon as Esau heard the words of his father, he cried out with an exceedingly great and bitter cry.” There's sadness and frustration but no change. It’s the regret of Judas who realized he had sinned and in Matthew 27:5 “went and hanged himself.” In each of these cases there’s regret over the sin, but there’s no Gospel and no grace, there’s no turning to God and His resources, there’s no turning to people for help and encouragement, and there’s no plan to change at a fundamental level.
I think that Christians can confuse repentance with just feeling badly. We can even look to a Sunday sermon as what one person has called ‘a spiritual spanking,’ thinking that if someone can make us feel guilty enough about how we live, we’ll somehow magically change. And even if we don’t, at least we felt badly about it, ‘And surely that’s got to count for something,’ we tell ourselves. That mindset is what Paul calls worldly grief, and it “produces death;” it makes us worse not better.
Listen to how Eugene Peterson paraphrases 2 Corinthians 7:8-12 in The Message:

I know I distressed you greatly with my letter. Although I felt awful at the time, I don’t feel at all bad now that I see how it turned out. The letter upset you, but only for a while. Now I’m glad—not that you were upset, but that you were jarred into turning things around. You let the distress bring you to God, not drive you from him. The result was all gain, no loss. Distress that drives us to God does that. It turns us around. It gets us back in the way of salvation. We never regret that kind of pain. But those who let distress drive them away from God are full of regrets, end up on a deathbed of regrets.

I love the phrases he uses to get at the heart of true repentance. He talks of being “jarred into turning things around,” and letting the distress “bring you to God, not drive you from him,” and get “back in the way of salvation.”
Whenever I teach I try to allow the Word of God to expose sin in our lives. The goal is that we would see ourselves in light of Scripture and be moved to change. We need to change our minds at a fundamental level and make plans to change. But I try to never leave the message with just our sin. Instead my goal is to point us to Jesus who is our hope, strength, righteousness, forgiveness, cleansing and peace. Without bringing Jesus into our sin and failure, we’re left with a religion of self-effort, defeat or pride.
Are you repenting the wrong way? Give Jon’s article a read. And let’s give repentance the place in our lives it deserves and start talking to God and each other about areas in our lives we need to change, and lay hold of the Saviour through whom we declare, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
Read Jon Snyder’s article here:

If you have a Kindle you might also check out the free download entitled “What is Repentance” from R.C. Sproul as part of his Crucial Questions series. It’s available here:
In awe of Him,