The Role of Repentance in the Life of the Believer

As always, getting the biblical balance right is utterly crucial – not only so that we may believe correctly, but that we may live correctly as well. For two millennia the Christian church has had to guard against various unbiblical extremes and excesses which can do great damage to the gospel.

I have dealt with many of these over the years, and one such error which I have been quite busy dealing with of late is that which has done great damage to the wonderful biblical doctrine of grace. As always, the more wonderful a biblical teaching is, the more it will be attacked, misused and abused.

That has certainly been the case with our understanding of grace. From all sorts of doctrinal and theological camps, the concept of grace has been mistreated and misrepresented. Obviously the hyper-grace crowd does this big time. Leading Christian pastors such as Singapore’s Joseph Prince have made a career out of mangling and distorting the biblical doctrine of grace, and corollary beliefs.

repentance 5He of course is not alone in this, and I have had to start a whole new section on my website concerning this damaging error:

But other groups also mangle the teaching on grace. Those who doggedly oppose what they call Lordship theology are another example of this. I have dealt with them before, as in this two–part article:

But many otherwise sound evangelicals and/or those within the Reformed camp can also become guilty of an unhelpful and unbiblical understanding of grace. For example, they want to rightly emphasise that we are saved by grace through faith, over against those who they see as distorting this teaching, whether Roman Catholics or Arminians, or whoever.

But in seeking to defend a text like Eph. 2:8-9 (mentioned just above) they can go way overboard, condemning as heretics anyone who dares to emphasise the whole of salvation, including progressive sanctification. As but one example, I recently had a guy claiming an article I had written on repentance was pushing nothing more than “dead works of self righteousness”.

Sadly he seems not to have been able to grasp the basic Bible 101 distinction between justification and sanctification. I have written on this often. See here for example:

Of course the initial act of salvation is a one-off affair based on grace through faith. That is what is known as justification. But that is just the start. A life without progressive sanctification is a proof of a life without justification. The two always go together and can never be separated, even though they are two distinct aspects of the salvation process.

Yes we get right with God and our standing becomes one of being declared righteous because of what Christ has done for us (justification). But our actual state is an ongoing process whereby we seek to be conformed into His likeness (sanctification). Sure, this is enabled by the Holy Spirit, but we have a genuine role to play in it. See some of the articles linked to above for more details on this.

Thus longing for holiness is NOT works’ based righteousness; sorrow for sin in the believer’s life is NOT works’ based righteousness; seeking to be more Christlike and less full of self is NOT works’ based righteousness; seeking after holiness in every area of life is NOT works’ based righteousness; repenting of known sin is NOT works’ based righteousness; etc.

I simply do not buy the hyper-grace error regardless of what form it comes in and where it comes from. As to the issue of ongoing repentance, this is of course both the clear teaching of Scripture and of all the great believers of the past. Scripture makes it clear that believers – not just pagans – need to repent. For example James wrote this to believers (4:7-10):

Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.

Or think of the seven churches and the repeated calls for them to repent in Revelation 2-3. These were Christian congregations, not pagan ones. And Paul was talking to Christians – not unsaved pagans – in 2 Corinthians 7 when he wrote about his great joy concerning the church’s repentance. As he wrote in 7:8-11:

Even if I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it. Though I did regret it – I see that my letter hurt you, but only for a little while – yet now I am happy, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance. For you became sorrowful as God intended and so were not harmed in any way by us. Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done. At every point you have proved yourselves to be innocent in this matter.

One could also point out the numerous calls for repentance by the prophets as they spoke to God’s chosen people. Yes they also even told pagan nations and rulers to repent, but primarily the prophets preached repentance to those who were already part of God’s family – those who were already saved if you will.

Thus there is nothing heretical about affirming the ongoing role of repentance in the believer’s life. It is fully biblical, and so many of the great Christian leaders of the past have said as much. I will side with these champions of the faith any day of the week when it comes to a holy life marked by godly and Spirit-led repentance.

Consider just a few relevant quotes:

“Evangelical repentance is that which carries the believing soul through all his failures, infirmities, and sins. He is not able to live one day without the constant exercise of it. It is as necessary unto the continuance of spiritual life as faith is. It is that continual, habitual, self-abasement which arises from a sense of the majesty and holiness of God, and the consciousness of our miserable failures.” John Owen

“The Christian who has stopped repenting has stopped growing.” A.W. Pink

“Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ … willed that the whole life of believers should be repentance.” Martin Luther

“Some people do not like to hear much of repentance; but I think it is so necessary that if I should die in the pulpit, I would desire to die preaching repentance, and if out of the pulpit I would desire to die practicing it.” Matthew Henry

“Repentance is as much a mark of a Christian, as faith is. A very little sin, as the world calls it, is a very great sin to a true Christian.” C.H. Spurgeon

“A Christian must never leave off repenting, for I fear he never leaves off sinning.” C.H. Spurgeon

“It is impossible to follow Christ without repentance. How could it be otherwise? Jesus is the holy, sinless Son of God. He has never taken one step in any sinful direction. He has never had a single sinful thought. Anyone who is following him, therefore, must by definition turn his back to sin and set his face toward righteousness. Christians do sin, but when they do, they must confess their sin and turn from it, being restored to fellowship again. Anyone who thinks he or she can follow Christ without renouncing sin is at best badly confused. At the worst, this person is not a true Christian.” James Montgomery Boice

“True repentance is not a transient act, as if a sigh or a pang of sorrow for sin amounted to it. No, these may indeed be acts of true repentance, while they issue from a heart sincerely penitent: but repentance itself, instead of being a passing act, is an abiding principle, a lasting disposition of soul, a gracious principle lying deep in the heart, disposing a man at all times to mourn for and turn from sin (Zech. 12:10). The waters of godly sorrow for sin in the renewed heart will continue to spring up there while sin is there…” John Colquhoun

“The visible neglect of repentance in the professors of this age has brought a reproach upon the doctrine of faith, and caused it to be evil spoken of. That faith that does not sanctify will never justify, and without repentance there can be no sanctification. Not that we make repentance any meritorious cause or pardon, or that it is to be rested in as any satisfaction for sin. Only we affirm that justifying faith always works repentance. . . . We should repent as often as there is a new matter for repentance.” Thomas Cole

“The evidence … the raw-bone, biblical evidence that there was one time in your life that you repented unto salvation, is that you continue repenting until today and continue growing in repentance.” Paul Washer

Yes, a life of repentance is an indication of a life made right with God through Christ. Sure, the ongoing repentance does not save us, but it is a clear indication of our salvation. Justification is a monergistic work (the work of God alone), but sanctification is a synergistic work (the cooperative efforts of God and man).

As R. C. Sproul put it:

The work of the Christian life is synergistic, not monergistic. Our regeneration, our rebirth, was the work of one Person, God. It was not a joint venture; but from the moment we take our first breath of regenerated spiritual life, it becomes a joint effort. That is why the apostle elsewhere says, ‘Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure’ (Phil. 2:12b-13). God is working, and we have to work.

And active, ongoing repentance is fully a part of the sanctification process. As Sinclair Ferguson has written:

Repentance is a characteristic of the whole life, not the action of a single moment. Salvation is a gift, received only in Christ, only by grace, only in faith. But it is salvation, and salvation means we are actually being saved. Otherwise we cannot have come to know Christ as Savior….
Salvation is salvation from sin. That means more than forgiveness; it includes sanctification, a transformed life. It involves those who are saved in a turning away from sin. That turning away is repentance. There can be no salvation if we continue in sin (Rom. 6:1-4; 1 John 3:9).

Allowing the Holy Spirit to convict us of sin, leading where necessary to godly sorrow, confession of sin, and heartfelt repentance, is a key aspect of sanctification. Let me conclude by mentioning Richard Owen Roberts. His 350-page volume Repentance (Crossway Books, 2002) is superb, but let me quote from a recent article of his in which he deals with “Seven Myths of Repentance”. Here is myth number six:

Repentance is a single act. A person comes to a conference like this, or to his church on a Sunday morning, where the Spirit is using the Word of God like a very sharp sword. His heart is pierced; his sin is apparent. He determines then and there to repent and so he makes some overt action against that sin. He turns from it.
Someone comes to me and says, “I want you to understand that twelve years ago I repented” or “Two nights ago I repented.” It’s never enough to say, “I repented.” I must be able to say, “I am repentant–day in, day out, year after year, unceasingly, I live in the spirit of repentance.”
Our churches are loaded down with people who can testify to the occasion in which they repented, and yet sin has shot through their lives. They are utterly worthless as witnesses of the grace of God. They do vast damage in the church because they think that repentance is something that occurs in a point of time.
No, repentance is an ongoing spirit and attitude. We live consistently in repentance, just as we must live consistently in faith. Oh, the pity of the millions in America who can tell you the day and the hour they accepted Christ, and yet they have no ongoing faith. Both faith and repentance are continual. They must not cease. It is only a myth when one clings to something in the past.

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4 Replies to “The Role of Repentance in the Life of the Believer”

  1. Repentance means to look at the big picture; to consider what is beyond. There is sorrow that leads to repentance but we need to know that these are different things. Paul puts it:-

    Rom 8:3 For what the Law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the flesh, God did. By sending his own Son in the form of humanity, he condemned sin by being incarnate,
    Rom 8:4 so that the righteous requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not live according to human nature but according to the Spirit.
    Rom 8:5 For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit.
    Rom 8:6 To focus our minds on the human nature leads to death, but to focus our minds on the Spirit leads to life and peace. (ISV)

    … and …

    Luk 9:62 Jesus told him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

    This is how the New Testament works – by setting our minds on Jesus and the kingdom we do not even consider sin and so do not do it. If we are continually repenting of the same sins we are not doing it right because, to do that, we must be allowing our mind to refocus on the sin.

    Paul wrote:-

    2Co 7:9 Now I am happy, not because you had such sorrow, but because your sorrow led you to repent. For you were sorry in a godly way, and so you were not hurt by us in any way.
    2Co 7:10 For having sorrow in a godly way results in repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regrets. But the sorrow of the world produces death. (ISV)

    Here we see how sorrow leads to repentance but in repentance there is victory and no regrets. This is why true repentance should be celebrated as it is the means by which we gain victory over sin. Once we have repented we need to leave the sin behind and forget it and focus on what lays ahead i.e. consider what is currently beyond. This is the only way we can fulfill the law.

  2. A good word, Bill. Keep it up.

    By the way, if you’re thinking of getting Foxtel, Joseph Prince is on high rotation on one of the Christian channels, which is rather unfortunate.

  3. Thanks Bill for a such a clear article on the need for repentance in our Christian walk.

  4. It is sad that we need to keep going over this area which is basic Sunday School stuff. It is the basis of living in victory which is why the devil is out to deceive as many as possible into throwing it aside in favour of a false gospel that is easier on the flesh. True ongoing repentance breeds humility. Denying the need to repent comes from pride.

    Some of the arguments that I have encountered are based on trying to say that God’s repentance in the OT is the same as what is called for in the NT, when the actual words translated as repent or repented are not only from two different languages, but have an important difference in actual meaning. There is a big difference between having regret about a past act and recognizing that you have offended a holy God and need to change your ways from henceforth.

    Unfortunately most of the times that I have tried to make that point, those that don’t want to hear it run from the discussion. A fear of hearing what the Bible says on that area shows where they are at. This is a growing area of concern.

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