Let me explain to you what repentance is and is not. For some of you, this will be completely new, you’ve never heard this. For others of you, this will be information that you’ve got bits and pieces of throughout the course of your life. For some of you, this will be revisiting things that I’ve taught you before, but maybe you still need to do. And for the rest of you, maybe you do know and practice repentance, and this will help clarify your ability to counsel others. I want you to pay attention, this is really important stuff. If you don’t know what to do with sin, you’ll ruin your life, and destroy anyone who is connected to you. It’s that big of a deal.
1. Religious Repentance
So, true repentance is not religious repentance. Religious repentance is this: “I see your sin, not my own. I confess your sin, not my own. I’m really unhappy with your sin, but I’m not really troubled by my own.” It’s because religious people tend to think that they are self-righteous, and pious, and holy, and better than everyone else. The result is that they think they are good, and everyone else is bad. And religious people like to busybody, and gossip, and neatnik, and nitpick, and just be a perennial pain in the Levi’s. That’s what religious people do. And the way this works is they’re always glad to talk about all the things you’ve done wrong, but they never say things like, “It was my fault. I’m sorry. I was wrong.” Some of you are married to that person; I apologize.
Jesus gives a story of two people going into the temple, the Old Testament equivalent of the church, and one prays with haughty eyes and head held high, full of pride. “God, thank you that I’m not like other men. Thank you that I’m better than they are. Thank you that I don’t do all these horrible things.” He’s confessing someone else’s sin.
A second man in the story goes in, and he’s not filled with pride, he’s filled with grief. And he looks to the ground. He can’t even raise his eyes, and he simply declares, “God, have mercy on me. I’m a sinner.” He’s dealing with his own sin, not anyone else’s sin. He’s filled with humility and not pride. And Jesus says, “I tell you the truth, this man, and not the other, left justified, declared righteous in the sight of God.” Religious people are notorious for overlooking their own sin, and talking about everyone else’s, sometimes couching it in the form of a prayer request, so that it looks particularly holy when it’s not.
2. Pagan Repentance
Real repentance is not pagan repentance, and I tell you these false forms because there are many counterfeits of repentance. One of the aspects that distinguishes paganism from Christianity is the Bible says that God is good, and we don’t need to make God be good. He just is.
Paganism assumes that God isn’t good, and we have to manipulate God, as if we could, to make God be good. And so paganism and pagan repentance is, “So if I tell God I’m sorry, then he has to do something for me.” Examples would be, “I know I shouldn’t be dating this person, but if I tell God I’m sorry, then he’s obligated to save them, and make it all better. I know that I’ve done a bad thing, but if I tell God I’m sorry, then he’s obligated to cover for me, and not let my sin get caught and found out. If I tell God I’m sorry, then he has to heal me. If I tell God I’m sorry, then he has to bless me. If I tell God I’m sorry, then he has to prosper me.” God is sovereign, and free, and good. God cannot be manipulated, and God is not obligated to anyone.
3. Worldly Sorrow
Additionally, true repentance is not worldly sorrow. Paul tells this to the Corinthians. He says, “I perceive that you have worldly sorrow,” or some of your translations will say, “worldly grief,” and that is because non-Christians can feel bad. I talked to a guy not long ago. He said, “I feel bad. Why is that?” Answer: you’re bad. You feel bad because you’re bad.
Now it all makes sense, doesn’t it? Don’t need to dig for some deep psychological investigation. You feel bad because you’re bad. God gave you a conscience. We’re his image bearers. It’s a moral rudder. We can grieve, quench, and resist the Holy Spirit, but the Holy Spirit works through our conscience, as Jesus promised he would, to convict us of sin. We also know of our sin from the Bible, and Bible teaching, and godly friends.
And what happens in worldly sorrow, or grief, is we feel bad, but we don’t change. You just feel bad. And what can even happen in culture is that we set up this false religion, with false prophets, and pastors, and priests, and priestesses, and what happens then is we present a false gospel.
Not to pick on him, but to pick on him, I’ll give you an example from Tiger Woods. What happened in the Tiger Woods scenario is something that happens fairly frequently. First of all, someone doesn’t repent, and they get caught. The opposite of repenting is getting caught, and that is that you didn’t come forward and say, “I’ve said or done a bad thing, or failed to say or do a good thing, I got caught,” which means “I wasn’t gonna stop unless you made me.” You get caught. And then you have to present worldly sorrow. You have to say, “I am really sorry. I did a horrible thing. I feel really bad.” “Ideally,” your PR rep will tell you, “you should probably cry, because that will help. It shows that you’re really, really sad about what you’ve done.”
And then we get basically a cultural equivalent of pagan Catholicism. Let me unpack all of this. I grew up as a Catholic boy, went to Catholic school, and was an altar boy for some years. And the way it would work in Catholicism is you would go into the confessional with the priest. You would say, “Bless me, father, for I have sinned. It’s been so long since my last confession.” And then you would tell the priest what you did, and then the priest would say, “I declare you forgiven. I forgive you. Go say this many ‘Hail Marys,’ or ‘Acts of Contrition,’ or ‘Our Fathers’, or go do these good deeds, and then you’ll make it up to God, and everything will be okay,” something like that.
So what happens in culture is someone has worldly sorrow. They know they’ve done wrong, so they need to find someone who’s in the cultural position of a priest. And just so you know, I don’t believe in any of this. Jesus is my great high priest. A priest can’t forgive me. The psalmist says, “Against you only, Lord God, have I sinned.” So I don’t go to a priest, I go to the great high priest, Jesus.
But what happens in our culture then, we’ve gotta find someone to play that morally superior role, so we get Barbara Walters, or Larry King, or Oprah, or Dr. Phil. We go get somebody to set up their stage for their show, their set, like a confessional. And the person who has sinned walks in looking very sad, and very scared, and says, “I’m really sorry for what I’ve done.” And then the person in the position of moral, spiritual authority, the priest of culture says, “Tell us about what you’ve done, and how you feel.” And then you cry, and you say the things that your PR rep told you to say.
But your sins are not yet forgiven, because you need to go to purgatory and pay back, and so you go to rehab. Rehab is our cultural version of purgatory. Everybody has to go to rehab. If you’ve done something bad, you’ve gotta go to rehab, drug rehab, sex rehab, alcohol rehab, “My dad didn’t hug me” rehab, gambling rehab, whatever rehab it is. And you go to rehab for a while. It’s like purgatory, you go there and you pay your dues.
And then later you get out, and you go back, and you meet with the high priest or priestess. You say, “You know what? I’m really, really sad, and I did a very bad thing, but I feel like I paid it off, and I went to rehab. And now I’ve kind of been born-again. I’m a whole new person, and I’m going to give lots of money to women, children, or animals. Anything cute, I will give money to, to show that I have sorrow.”
And then all of this is told to the population, the public, the culture, and they decide whether or not you’re forgiven. They’re in the position of God. “Oh, you said you were sorry, you went to rehab, you wrote a big check for people in need. We forgive you. You can golf again. Go and sin no more.”
That’s worldly sorrow. The whole culture we live in is built on that, and people don’t change, not at the heart level. There’s no atonement, there’s no penalty paid for sin. There’s no Jesus, there’s no Savior. There’s no new life in Christ, there’s none of that, just a bunch of counterfeits—worldly sorrow. But I tell you that, not just to pick on a man, but to say that we’re all prone toward that, and our culture has this desire for something like a high priest, who forgives our sins and gives us new life. But without Jesus, we end up with a lot of impotent counterfeits.
4. Mere Confession
True repentance is also not mere confession. Mere confession is very confusing, particularly for Christians, because it is when someone sins, and you confront, or rebuke them, call them to repentance as John does. You say, “That was really wrong.” And they say, “You know what? You’re right, that was terrible.” You say, “Oh good, I’m glad you recognized that. Let me hug you, and we’re all better now.”
And then they do it again. You say, “I thought you were sorry.” “Oh, I was. I’m sorry again, and I’ll be sorry next week, and the week after that. I’m sorry a lot. And every time I do it, at least I’m not a hypocrite, I’m authentic, I’m honest, I’m real, I’m true. And I’ll just tell you how bad I am, and I’m gonna keep being bad.” Some of you are dating that person. Run, run, run, run Forrest run, run for your life. And they confuse you, because you’ll say, “Hey, you shouldn’t have said or done that.” “You’re right, that was wrong,” and they keep doing it. Mere confession is an acknowledgment of sin, without a repentance of sin.
5. Blame Shifting
Additionally, real repentance is not blame-shifting, which is, “Yeah, something bad happened, but it’s their fault.” This goes all the way back to the garden. Adam sins, says, “God, you made a woman. She’s defective. The two of you need to sort this out.” Eve says, “Oh, don’t look at me, the devil made me do it.” She was charismatic. And the truth is that they both were morally responsible for their own transgression. We can do this. “Yes, I lost my temper, but they made me very angry.” Oh well, it’s obviously their fault. “Yes, I stole from my boss, but after all, they weren’t paying me enough.” “I did cheat on my spouse, but they weren’t meeting my needs.” Oh, you poor victim. Blame someone else.
Real repentance is also not minimizing. What happens is you sin, someone calls you to repent, and the first thing you do is you find someone who’s done something worse. “At least I didn’t kill someone.” Oh, duckie for you, we’ll put a gold star on your “No Murder” chart, another whole day. You find someone worse than you. “You’re a terrible spouse.” “Well, at least you’re not married to so and so.”
And if all else fails, hit the Hitler button, that’s what you do. Just hit the Hitler button, which is, “At least I’m not a Nazi.” Oh, that’s true. And you put yourself next to Hitler, and you’re like, “See, I look pretty good.” Yeah, compared to Hitler, everyone does. That’s not really moral high ground, but that’s what people do. It’s minimizing. “Oh, it’s not a big deal. You’re freaking out. You’re overreacting. Why do you have to get so emotional?”
7. Excuse Making
Additionally, real repentance is not excuse making. “Yeah, I did it, but I had a rough upbringing. You know, I didn’t get a good education. My dad didn’t hug me. I’m genetically predisposed. My personality type is J-E-R-K. You know, there’s just— P-E-R-V, you know, my personality type is that way.”