We in the church tend to speak of repentance as a moment, one decision point, one clear turning point that we make in our lives – at least that is how I have heard it emphasized. I do not think we are wrong to speak of it that way. Many people can point to a specific moment of repentance when they first came to see their sin as sin and chose to turn from it to forgiveness in Jesus. In Acts 2:27-39 Peter, after preaching at Pentecost tells the people who have been convicted to REPENT!

37 Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” 38 And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.”

We see Jesus also preaching this same way, telling people to “repent for the kingdom of God is at hand.” (Matthew 4:17)

So, we can see in Scripture this concept of repentance being a decision we are called to make. However, there is more to be understood about repentance that I believe can help us in how we view and seek for repentance in our own lives and how we minister to other who need repentance and change in their life.

For today I just want to offer three points that I pray will help you think through this important topic.

  1. Repentance is more than a one-time decision it is also a process that includes the practice of confession.

Once a person comes to salvation we soon realize that our repentance is not over but rather has just begun- we enter into a lifestyle of repentance and confession.

I see repentance and confession as slightly different things:

We repent when God reveals to us a sin we had not previously been aware of, or a sin we HAVE been at least partially aware of but have not yet -in whole or in part – turned from. When God brings us to both the realization and the contriteness of heart over our sin, we then respond with moments of repentance and a purposing in our hearts to stop or put off sinning.

Repentance is then followed by weekly, daily, hourly, sometimes minute by minute confession of our sin which is part of how we start that process of actually turning from the sin we have repented from.

For me this has been a helpful distinction to think through and a framework with which to understand how turning from sin actually works and how we know we have truly repented even when it feels like our sin is still sticking with us.

John teaches us how this works in I John 1:5-2:6

This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.  If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth.  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.  If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.  If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.  If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.

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. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.  And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him,  but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him:  whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.” (ESV)

I love this passage because it so clearly shows us the process of the Christian life and the messiness of it. We see in this passage both the expectation of pursuing holiness and the fact that it is a process that includes continual realization and acknowledgement of sin, followed by confession- and in this process Jesus covers all the sin and imperfections along this pathway of repentance and confession.

I wrote out my story a few years ago and I want to share a portion of it with you that might help you understand why understanding the process part of repentance was so key for me.

Just to give you some context, I had spent two years at one Bible school during which I had taken the step to confess my struggles to the leadership. What followed was a mix of good and bad, but I truly believe that everyone there had good intentions for me. When I left that Bible school it didn’t take me long to fall flat on my face again. After a year of being out of Bible school I entered another, different, Bible school and in this excerpt I am explaining why I decided to not tell anyone about my SSA at that point.

I made the decision to not tell anyone about my SSA this time around. I don’t know if that was the right decision I just didn’t trust that it would do much good. I felt the shame brought to me would be too overwhelming and I would be paralyzed to focus on anything but the shame. Shame clouds everything for me, it paralyzes me to even be able to speak at times. I saw that happening at the previous institution I had been a part of. It clouded my whole time there. I did have to eventually deal with my shame but dealing with it before a God who I knew loved me, cared for me, knew me, and took that shame upon himself had a different effect than being summoned to an office and expected to lay my soul bare at the prodding of someone who didn’t ever really care to know me as a whole person or develop a real relationship with me. I also felt that I was at the constant threat of being sent home in shame if I did not repent. That threat was never verbalized directly to me, but it was verbalized before the school as a whole, multiple times throughout the year, “if you confess you stay, if you get caught you go home.” I also just felt like more Bible verses would be thrown at me at the exclusion of actually talking to me and having a conversation about my SSA and how to understand it beyond the obvious, “it’s sin. Stop!” I wanted the freedom to really look inside.”

As I re-read this portion of my story and reflected on it, I would sum up part of my reasoning for not sharing my struggle and finding help for it in this way: “I didn’t trust that I would be allowed the process of repentance.” I knew that if I shared my sin, I would have to quickly stuff away most of what was there, say that I had repented and was now good; no more same sex attraction, lust totally taken care of, no more confusion or wayward desires, and above all absolutely no more actual attraction towards my existing friends! I had a lot of fear of being isolated and never being given an actual chance of working through, understanding, and truly learning how to put off any real attractions that came up in my life. I felt that what would be expected of me was going to be a repentance that automatically took me from point A to point B overnight, and that that was the test of true repentance. That’s what I assumed, based on how I had heard repentance taught. That’s what true repentance must look like and if that didn’t fit that mold you must not really be repentant and therefore you must not really be following Jesus, and if you aren’t following Jesus, you don’t belong here with us and are not welcome here.

As I continued writing my story I wrote about the process that God so graciously and patiently took me through those next two years of Bible school and in this next section I speak of how my changing and deepening view of repentance was part of how I came to finding true change and how I stepped into this life-long process of repentance, confession, and change.

I also shifted in my view of repentance. I began to realize that repentance was both a command but also impossible without God’s work. I did more of seeking God and asking for him to work real repentance in my heart, rather than simply trying really hard to want what I knew I was supposed to want and stop wanting what I didn’t want to want. It literally was a… “I want to want what you want but it’s not what I naturally want!”

This brought me to my knees like nothing had before. I was no longer just trying hard to un-choose something I had no memory of choosing or measuring the genuineness of my repentance by my ability to change my heart or attractions. This was not an excuse to inactivity, this was freedom to exercise the practical side of repentance. Part of the practical side of my repentance was refusing to deny, ignore or just stuff my SSA when it very painful to face, but it was the process of bringing it into the light, of picking it apart, of trying to get to the root sins that manifested as SSA….

I started verbalizing to God what I felt; exactly how I felt it-holding nothing back. When I was lonely for the arms of a women, I just told him. I confessed it, I told him I was sorry for desiring these things, I did my best to give the desire to him, to tell him of my loneliness and to find comfort in God and in his grace.”

I hope you can see the connection here between having a robust and complete understanding of repentance as a process and the freedom it brings to rest in the inexhaustible grace of God, while at the same time working hard to search out, understand, confess our sins with honesty and a true understand of them, seek to kill our sin by the power of the Spirit, and find meaningful practical ways to make no provision for the flesh but rather put on true love for our neighbor and friends. All of this takes time, all of this is a process and God’s grace both fuels, guides, and covers it all.

2. Repentance begins, continues, and ends with God and his work.

When does repentance start? We usually think of repentance as starting at the moment we realize and turn from our sin, but repentance begins when God starts his work in us often years before we actually turn from our sin and often completely unbeknownst to us at the time. When we turn around and look back and tell our stories, we can often see the hand of God slowly softening and convicting our hearts.

Once God brings a heart to turn from their sin to Jesus he continues this process throughout our whole Christians life. Its part of how he keeps us, and he promises to do this in us because we are now His precious children and He will not lose any of his own. And not only will God continue this work in us throughout our life but he will one day bring it to completion.

Philippians 1:3-11

I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus. And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, 10 so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, 11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.

I John 3:1-3

See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.

I Thessalonians 5:14-25

14 And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. 15 See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone. 16 Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 19 Do not quench the Spirit. 20 Do not despise prophecies, 21 but test everything; hold fast what is good. 22 Abstain from every form of evil.

23 Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24 He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.

25 Brothers, pray for us.

3. God leads us to repentance by the promise of grace and relationship in his Kingdom.

God calls us to repentance by the offer of grace. So often in our minds we connect the call to repentance with the threat of wrath and hell- or if you are a believer the call to repentance looks like, “repent so God will not be disappointed or displeased with you anymore.”

I want to make it clear, I do believe in hell, I do believe that if we do not repent of our sins and find salvation in Jesus we will rightly go to hell. I am not suggesting that we take hell and wrath out of the gospel or out of our conversations. So please don’t hear me saying those things.

However, so often we reduce the call to repentance as a call to escape hell and wrath. And it is an anemic call. If you go back up and read the passages in Acts and Matthew where Peter and Jesus are both calling people to repentance, neither of them seeks to threaten people into repentance through the teaching of wrath and hell.

Peter says, repent and calls them to it with the promise of forgiveness and the Holy Spirit. Jesus calls people to repent…not because his wrath is at hand…but because the kingdom is at hand! Come repent because there is something BETTER than your sin and building  YOUR OWN kingdom. The Kingdom of GOD is at hand! Come be a part of it!

Calvin, in describing the preaching of Jesus and John the Baptist says, “do they not both deduce repentance comes as a consequence of the offer of grace and promised salvation?”

When Jesus DOES speak of his wrath to come in Matthew 11, he does it in the context of speaking to or about those who have decisively rejected his call to himself and the kingdom. However, he rarely if ever when calling people to repentance, uses his wrath as the main motivation for that call, instead he uses himself and relationship with the Father as the main motivation- he uses grace and mercy. I hope you see the nuance in this because I really think its an important one to wrestle with.

My hope in sharing my thoughts is not just to be critical, my hope is simply that we take some time to evaluate our own teaching surrounding the topic of repentance and simply make sure it a robust, complete, teaching. My prayer is that we seek to understand where the people we are ministering to are at in this process of repentance and seek to discern what God is doing in their lives, and join him in it. This takes time, and discernment, and patience, and a purposeful refusal to rush the process of sanctification because we are uncomfortable with a person’s particular sin and struggles.

The call to repentance is an irresistible call to those whom God is working repentance in. It is an irresistible call to the Kingdom of Christ, to relationship with him, to life abundant, to meaning, to joy, to freedom, to a home and meaningful relationships found in the church, to a God full of mercy and compassion and grace.

So, let’s call people! Let’s call people to repentance out of their sin, and into a kingdom and relationship in which there is “fullness of joy” and “pleasures forevermore.” (ps. 16:11).

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