I have no idea where your mind goes when you think of repentance. Maybe you think about a confession, or the words “I’m sorry.” Maybe you think about King David and his repentance.
Most of us think of repentance as an apology or confession, with a promise to not offend again. The offender is given the benefit of the doubt and the time needed to “prove” his/her repentance. Even in cases where there has been serious sexual sin/crimes committed against women and children, repentance is painted as a vague confession with a promise to do better.
But is this really what repentance is and how it works?
Going straight to the Bible for the definition opened my eyes to the reality that my understanding of repentance was, at best, flawed.
The Biblical definition of repentance comes from a Greek word that means “to think differently”. It is a change of mind and heart. In other words, when repentance happens, it will be obvious. It is a heart change that is expressed by actions. Luke 3:8 makes this very clear: “Therefore, produce fruit that is worthy of [and consistent with your] repentance [that is, live changed lives, turn from sin and seek God and His righteousness].”
Anyone can articulate a well-worded apology, never offend again, and still be unrepentant. On the contrary, when repentance has taken place, everyone will know – the attitudes, thought process, and actions of the offender will be radically different than before.
Consider the story of the Prodical Son in Luke 15. After he found himself with nothing to eat, he remembered his father’s house. Listen to his thought process here:
And when he came to himself, he said, How many hired servants of my father’s have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, And am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants.
Sounds pretty good, right? But is he repentant or is he simply going back because he got “stuck”? Is he remorseful because he sinned, or because he doesn’t have any food?
Listen to what he actually tells his father upon meeting him:
And the son said unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son.
Do you see the difference? He acknowledges his sin without demanding anything in return. He has hit “rock bottom” and does not even ask to be a hired servant so he can at least have food. He just says, “I’m sorry. I have sinned.”
We all love redemption stories. We want to hear how God turns lives around and makes something beautiful out of the ugly. But in some cases, we overlook the fact that repentance is different than an apology. We prefer a fast “fix” and as little messiness as possible. Consequently, we don’t look for fruits of repentance.
Can we know if someone is repentant by how they act when confronted with sin? Can we know if an offender has godly sorrow?
I think there are some clues as to where the offender’s heart is if we are willing to look for the fruits of repentance. Here are a few of them:
Complete Acknowledgment of Sin
One of the most important aspects about repentance is truth. The truth must be told in its entirety. Unless there is full acknowledgment of sin and wrongdoing, there is no repentance.
Along with the acknowledgment of sin, there must be no excuses for why the offender sinned. If the offender’s confession has excuses in it, it is questionable whether the confession is genuine or if the it was only done to “save face”.
No Minimization of the Action or Damage the Action Caused
Any kind of minimization should give us a bunch of red flags. When the offender says things like, “What I did made him/her feel hurt…” that is minimizing the damage. The survivor doesn’t just feel hurt; they were hurt. If a sexual offender describes his/her sin using terms such as “moral failure” instead of “I raped her” or “I molested him”, there is a problem. Repentance never sugar-coats truth.
Acceptance of all Consequences (including civil consequences)
If the offender isn’t willing to accept consequences for the sin, then there likely hasn’t been repentance. Repentance understands the “sowing and reaping” principle. An offender who “confesses” but is not willing to pay the consequences of his/her sin, is not repentant. Repentance is far more than a well-worded apology. A repentant offender will willingly turn himself/herself in to civil authorities for the crimes committed.
No Forced “Forgiveness” or a “Get over it” Attitude
If an offender tries to “make everything all better” by begging or forcing the survivor, the survivor’s family or their church family to “forgive” (which is often used by offenders to get people to “shut up” and forget), it’s safe to assume there hasn’t been repentance. A repentant offender understands the depravity of his/her own heart and the damage his/her actions caused – enough to realized he/she doesn’t deserve forgiveness or mercy.
By the way, the survivor’s forgiveness doesn’t wipe consequences away for the offender. But that subject is for another day.
Respectful Obedience of the Boundaries set up by the Offended
A repentant heart will welcome boundaries and respect them. Repentance says, “I hurt you deeply and I understand why you can’t trust me. If you never want to see me again, I understand. If you need space, I get that.” When an offender violates even small boundaries set up by the survivor, their “repentance” needs to be questioned.
Attitude of “Godly Sorrow”
Any time there’s repentance, there will always be Godly sorrow. There’s a big difference between being sorry because you got caught OR being sorry because of the pain you’ve caused the offended and your own family. An offender who has godly sorrow grieves for the hurt and pain that he/she caused, while a sorrow of being caught is focused on escaping consequences and polishing a fasade of godliness.
In repentance, the truth about the action and the pain that action caused is held up and valued highly. Truth is key. In unrepentance, truth is discouraged and even actively hidden. When there is deception instead of truth, repentance hasn’t taken place. When there is an effort to “make” the offended forgive or trust the offender, the “repentance” of the offender needs to be questioned. When an effort is made to keep a good “Christian” reputation intact, there has not been repentance. Repentance kicks self-preservation in the face. When there is no acceptance of consequences and boundaries, the fruits of repentance are not there.
”By their fruits, ye shall know them,” Jesus once said.
In other words, when there is repentance, you will know it.
It’s that simple.
Note: If you wish to study Repentance for yourself, compare Saul’s confession with David’s confession. Ask yourself why God accepted David’s and not Sauls.