In this post, I want to explore the second of three questions previously raised from a story in Luke 18:9-14. Jesus told a parable, ‘to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous…’ (Lk. 18:9). Jesus’ purpose in telling the story was to contrast a Pharisee boasting in his self-righteousness and a tax collector confessing his sins and acknowledging his need for God’s mercy.
In the previous post we explored the first questions, ‘should Christians struggle with and be convicted of sin? In this post will explore the question,
Should Christians continue to repent of sin?
Short Answer: Yes
Medium: Yes. Yet we need to clarify what is meant by repentance. I suspect much of the pushback to ongoing repentance for the believer is due to a misunderstanding of understanding of what is meant by repentance.
Long Answer: Let’s read some words from Martin Luther, Spurgeon, Jesus, Paul, John and James.
It must be stated at the outset that we should absolutely celebrate and rejoice in the victory Christ has won for us with regard to sin. As Christians, we are forgiven and this is a reality we experience here and now. If you are not a Christian, you can experience this incredible gift of being forgiven by a holy God and living with a completely free conscience. All that is required is for you to repent, like that of the Tax Collector, and ask God for mercy and he will give it.
While God’s mercy is sufficient to forgive all past, present and future sin, the Bible teaches that Christians are to continue to live with a lifestyle of repentance. Martin Luther put it this way in the first of his 95 theses nailed to the Wittenberg Castle Church door,
- When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.
Martin Luther was obviously responding to the sacrament of penance taught by the Roman Catholic Church. Yet his conviction was based on what scripture taught. That is, to be a Christian, one must repent and believe, and to live as a Christian and experience all the benefits of Christ’s work, one must continue to repent of sin and place their faith in Christ. For Luther repentance and faith were two sides of the same coin. When we repent we turn away from sin and we turn to Christ. Repentance and faith go hand in hand. Faith in Jesus is not a one-off moment. It is an ongoing turning to Jesus, trusting and believing in him. And therefore it is a constant turning away from, no longer trusting in or believing in something else. Luther reference made reference to Matt. 4:17
17 From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Matt. 4:17
Mark’s account states it slightly different adding, ‘repent and believe’.
“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” Mark 1:5
God’s kingdom is entered into through repentance and faith and God’s people live a life filled with repentance and faith.
I have been reading through Charles Spurgeon preaching library again recently. If you’re not familiar with Charles Spurgeon, you need to be. The Spurge, known as the Prince of Preachers, was an incredible gift. In light of this current topic, I thought I’d read what he had to say on repentance. And boy did he have much to say. What is interesting is that Spurgeon was engaged in a somewhat similar conversation with the Wesleyans. Many within the denomination believed it to be possible to be sinless in this life and that ongoing repentance was unnecessary for the forgiven Christian. Spurgeon knew that many who held to these views did so with a genuine desire for holiness and because of the negative view of repentance they had heard taught. Therefore in many of his sermons, he sought to clarify a biblical view of repentance.
In his sermon (sermon 2743) preached on April 20th 1879 title ‘Mistaken Notions About Repentance’ Spurgeon says this,
“Many persons have MISTAKEN IDEAS OF WHAT REPENTANCE IS. Some confuse it with morbid self-accusation… Do not call yourself, “the chief of sinners,” if you are not. And do not suppose that repentance means the exaggeration of your evil life into something more evil than it really was. It is enough for you to go and confess the truth and to be sorrowful that you have once forgotten your God—that your thoughts have been turned away from the true center—that you have lived for yourself and hence have been an enemy of the Most High. Go and confess that to the Lord, but do not bring against yourself a morbid self-accusation which is not true in God’s sight…But a sense of God’s wrath against sin is not repentance! It generally goes with it, it frequently attends it—but repentance is a change of mind with regard to sin—with regard to everything and it is a consciousness that sin is sin—that you have committed it. It is a sorrow to you that you have committed it and a resolve, in God’s strength, that you will escape from it—a holy desire and longing to be rid of sin which has done you so much mischief. In the words of the child’s hymn— “Repentance is to leave The sins we loved before, And show that we in earnest grieve By doing so no more.” And there is very much of real repentance which is not accompanied by a dread of hell at all. It is sweetened by a sense of love rather than embittered by a dread of vengeance.”
“Do not, therefore, confuse things that differ. A very gross mistake is made by some who imagine that unbelief, despondency and despair are repentance. These things are wide as the poles asunder! No doubt there are many who ultimately come to Christ who, for a time, think they are too great sinners to be saved. Do I commend them for thinking so? Far from it! They imagine a lie! And how can it be right for us to believe that which is untrue? No doubt many who come to Christ do, for a while, despair of ever being saved—but is it necessary that you and I should do so? By no means, for to despair of being saved is to give the lie to God’s own truth—and that can never be the right thing for anyone to do! God is true and He has declared that whoever will trust His Son shall be saved. If I turn round and say, “I cannot be saved and I cannot trust Christ,” I do, as far as in me lies, pour indignity upon God! I insult Him, for I doubt His Word and I distrust His Son, who is worthy of all confidence! That sort of thing cannot be repentance—on the contrary, it is something that needs to be repented of! If you have no such doubts and no such despair, be glad you have not, for they are not of God—they are evil! To come like a little child and say, “I know that I have done wrong, and I am very sorry for it, and I wish to be set right. I find that Christ can set me right, and I trust Him to do it”—that is the way to repent of sin and trust the Savior! And he who does so is accepted of the Father.”
Stop and just read that again. No I’m serious. Read it again.
There is so much that is helpful here. Notice that Spurgeon likewise views repentance and faith as two sides of the same coin. Repentance is not battering your self with guilt and shame. It is not dwelling on your sin all day long. God does not want to rub our noses in our mess; he wants to free us from it. Repentance is an acceptance that sin is sin, which we have committed but as Spurgeon said, ‘It is sweetened by a sense of love rather than embittered by a dread of vengeance.’
In other words repentance is simply turning from our sin and turning to our saviour in faith. And this is a good thing
In what is often labelled ‘The Lord’s Prayer’, Jesus taught his disciples, the first Christians, a model of daily prayer. One important aspect of this model of prayer is seeking forgiveness of sin. To be sure, repentance is more than asking for forgiveness, but it is not less than. Jesus anticipated that believing Christians would at times sin. He modelled to us what to do with that sin – repent and ask for forgiveness – DAILY!
Matthew 6:12 – Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
While it is true that at the point of faith, we receive forgiveness from all our sin, , Jesus tells us to continue to seek forgiveness. Why? Because divine forgiveness has two main aspects. The first is judicial. That is, God is a judge, and as the judge, he grants us a pardon. The penalty for our wrong is dealt with. There no longer remains a threat of eternal punishment, condemnation or penalty. The judge gas declared his verdict – NOT GUILTY. We are free, forever. The second is parental. Jesus taught that God was not only a judge but also a Father. When we sin we grieve him as our Father and we hurt ourselves further through hiding and cowering in shame and guilt like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (Gen 3:8-10).
As a dad of four children, I sometimes have to discipline my kids. I don’t enjoy it but its necessary and I do my best to discipline appropriately in love. What I have learnt and continue to learn is that one of the most important elements of correction is affection. My kids need to know they are forgiven and that I love them despite their behaviour. They need to feel it. They need me to hold them and reassure them of my love and affection for them.
Sin stains. It brings shame and guilt to our conscience. It is why the Bible ties being cleansed so closely to confession and forgiveness (Jms. 5:16; 1 Jn. 1:8). Repentance, for the believing Christian, is less about ‘being’ forgiven and more about feeling it. Repentance brings us out from behind the proverbial tree of shameful hiding and sits us in the Father’s arms that remind us of his unrelenting love and endless fountain of mercy. And thereby our conscious is cleansed; our souls washed clean once again. We feel free. The judicial aspect of God’s forgiveness deals with sins penalty, whereas the parental deals with the consequences, namely our shame and guilt. Repentance is turning, not only from our sin but also from our hiding in shame and guilt and turning to our great Father in order to be reassured of his love, goodness, grace and mercy towards us, which are new every morning (Lam. 3:22-23). Jesus calls us to repent (Matt. 6:12; Rev. 2:5) not to heap shame upon us, but in order that we can be free from it. REPENTANCE IS A GIFT.
In 2 Corinthians 7 Paul rejoices over the church at Corinth because they are repenting.
2 Corinthians 7:9 – As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting. For you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no loss through us.
Paul had previously written strongly to them about sin in their midst and knew that it would strike hard (grieve them 2 Cor 7:8). Yet he desired that they would be convicted of this sin and deal with it (repent). In verse 9 here he is encouraging them that they are on the right track. But again I want you to notice the motivation for repentance.
Chapter 7 is one big fat encouragement to ‘KEEP REPENTING!!! Keep it up this is good for you’. At the beginning of the chapter, he states
2 Corinthians 7:1 – Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God.
He is encouraging them to continue to pursue holiness but notice he started with, ‘Since we have these promises’. What are God’s promises? You have to go to the end of chapter 6. There you will see that God has promised to “make my dwelling among them and walk with them, and I will be their God and they shall be my people” (6:16) and “I will be a father to you and you shall be sons and daughters to me” (6:18). Paul exhorts the church at Corinth, ‘in light of God’s promises to you, pursue holiness and rid sin from your midst through continual repentance.’ Again we see this connection between our relationship with God our Father and repentance.
The Apostle John wrote 1 John to Christians across Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) with the backdrop of gnostic false teachers spreading false doctrine about Jesus and sin.
John addresses numerous aspects related to sin throughout.
- First of all he addresses professing Christians that make a habit on ongoing unrepentant sin.
1 John 1:6 If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. 7 But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.
9 No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him; and he cannot keep on sinning, because he has been born of God. 10 By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother. 1 Jn. 3:9-10
Key Point: a genuine regenerate Christian practices righteousness not sinfulness. If you continue to walk in sin, love sin and live under the dominion of sin then you should check to make sure you are genuinely saved (2 Cor. 13:5; 2Pet. 1:10) because it is possible you may not be.
- Second he addresses the professing Christians that believe they no longer sin.
8 If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
Many of the Gnostic false teachers were teaching Christians that redemption is found through affirming the divine light already in the human soul. They taught that through spiritual enlightenment, special revelatory knowledge and pious effort, they had rid themselves of sin. Repentance was unnecessary for the Gnostics because they no longer struggled. People were simply buying into this teaching and were being deceived about having no sin.
Therefore John addressed this belief head on. It’s important to note that that every single verb in this verse is written in the present tense, including to claim to ‘have no sin’. Simply put this is Gnosticism and John calls the person who believes this to be deceived. John states that rather than denying their sin they should ‘confess their sin remembering that God is faithful to forgive to cleanse, (Greek: katharizó), which is also in the present tense, them from all unrighteousness. Notice again the connection between confession, forgiveness and cleansing.
Key Point: As Christians, knowing God’s faithfulness, we confess our sins, Jesus forgives and cleanses us, not to restore salvation, but to restore intimacy and joy (see Psalm 51:10-12).
- Third he addresses the professing Christians that believe they have never sinned.
10 If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.
2:1 My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.
‘Have not sinned’ is past tense. Again Gnosticism sought to point people to the divine light within. The false teachers believed that every person was inherently good and righteous. Unlike the previous claim of Verse 8, some even extrapolated that there was no such thing as guilt before God. John calls this person a liar. What I find interesting is that John says that he is challenging these false doctrines in order that the Christian ‘may not sin’. In other words, those who are deceived by these falsities, actually sin even more. The way out of sin, the way to sin less, and to practice truth and walk in the light (1:6-7), is not to downplay sin, not to deny sin, but to freely confess is and repent of it, knowing that Jesus is our advocate with the Father (2:1).
Key Point: Christians are called to live a life of repentance and faith. While sin no longer has dominion over the Christian, sin is still real and present. While the judge has pardoned us, our Father is wanting us to turn away from our sin (repent) and turn to him (faith), knowing his grace is sufficient, his love is secure and his work in us is ongoing.
Or as James put it,
James 5:16 – Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.
Healing does not come from a denial of sin, but through confession and repentance of sin.
With all this in mind how should a Christian identify? As a sinner? Or a saint? That’s up next.