Some people are experts at repentance — they know just how to do it. They can cry a river of tears at the flip of a switch, so everyone will know just how sorry they are.
If a repentance expert is famous (a politician or preacher?), he might get on television (where emotion rules and facts are disposable) for his tearful apology. He’ll be praised for “vulnerability” or “transparency” — and he knows where “vulnerability” lovers hang out. He’s not only good at repentance, he’s good at choosing his repentance audience.
But there’s always the uncomfortable questions: did anything really change? Why do I get the feeling you are trying to gain sympathy? Why are you working so hard to make us “understand”? Why did you choose that venue? Why don’t you choose accountability with someone who would actually be tough enough to hold you accountable?
Feeling Sorry is not Repentance
II Corinthians 7:8-10
8 For though I made you sorry with a letter, I do not repent, though I did repent: for I perceive that the same epistle hath made you sorry, though it were but for a season.
9 Now I rejoice, not that ye were made sorry, but that ye sorrowed to repentance: for ye were made sorry after a godly manner, that ye might receive damage by us in nothing.
10 For godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of: but the sorrow of the world worketh death.
In this passage, Paul tells the church at Corinth that there is a difference between sorrow and repentance. Sorrow over sin can lead to repentance (note verse 9), but sorrow and repentance are not the same thing.
We’ve all seen people say they are sorry, and wondered if they were sorry for the wrong, or merely sorry that they got caught. We’ve all seen people say they are sorry, but nothing changed. Apologies are useless if there is nothing behind them. Feeling sorry, and saying you are sorry, are good things, and are usually very important things — but they aren’t repentance.
If someone does wrong, they were thinking wrongly. They were almost certainly thinking one or more wrong thoughts like these:
- What I’m doing isn’t wrong.
- What I’m doing is wrong, but I can’t help it.
- What I’m doing is wrong, but it isn’t THAT bad.
- What I’m doing is wrong, but I can get away with it.
- What I’m doing is wrong, but my circumstances are special.
- What I’m doing is wrong, but God will let me off because of other good stuff I’ve done.
- What I’m doing is wrong, but God doesn’t care because He loves me.
- What I’m doing is wrong, but I want to do it anyway, so I’m going to.
- What I’m doing is wrong, but no one can tell me what to do.
This kind of thinking always lies behind sinful actions. A person may not consciously be thinking these things, but these are the kind of thoughts that drive sinful behaviour.
The New Testament Greek word translated “repentance” is metanoia, from meta (after) and nous (mind) or noeo (to think). If we look at the root words, then, the idea is to think again afterwards. Biblically, this would mean that, after the fact of our sin, we “think again,” thinking about our sin the way God thinks about it. It means we put aside all those wrong thoughts I mentioned above, and any other wrong thoughts, and adopt God’s way of thinking about our sin.
I John 1:9
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
Confession is to tell the truth about our sin. It’s not just that we admit we did it — God knew that already, you aren’t giving Him a news report. It is to jettison the excuses, call it for what it is, to admit it is what God says it is and that it shouldn’t have been done.
Someone once said to me, “How can you confess to God? You can’t tell Him you didn’t mean it. He KNOWS you meant it.” For him, confession had always meant saying, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it.” He knew he couldn’t try that nonsense with God. Confession is telling the truth, not making silly excuses that wouldn’t fool anyone else, let alone God.
Repentance is bringing our thinking into line with God’s thinking about our sin. Confession is putting our repentance, our changed thinking, into words. It is acknowledging that we have done wrong, that it is not acceptable, that we are accountable to God, that we need His forgiveness, and that we can’t earn that forgiveness but depend entirely on His mercy. That is the truth about our sin — confession is saying it.
Advice for Fake Repenters
1 In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judaea,
2 And saying, Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.
John preached a message of repentance to the people of Israel, and some of these expert / fake repenters showed up.
7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees come to his baptism, he said unto them, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?
8 Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance:
John told these religious leaders not to just talk about repentance, but to bring forth fruits “meet” / fitting / appropriate for repentance.
This is where the apology comes in. An apology is not repentance, but it is one of those appropriate results of repentance. Expressing an awareness of how much harm our wrong has done to others is also appropriate. But these are not all the fruits that repentance brings. Some other products of repentance:
- If we have damaged someone financially, we should try to make that right, and we shouldn’t stint — it is better to pay too much than not pay enough, where possible.
- If we have damaged someone else’s reputation, we should do all we can to restore it.
- Our apologies should extend at least as broadly as our wrong. If we’ve hurt a group of people, we should try to make sure that all of them hear our apology.
- If we lied to someone, or even inadvertently told them something that wasn’t true, we should set the record straight.
- We should be prepared to ask the wronged person if there is anything else we can do to make things right, and humbly seek to do that which they ask if it is appropriate.
- Often, it makes sense to ask a pastor for advice about ways to make things right.
- We should never minimise the seriousness of what we’ve done. If confession to the Lord calls for honesty, so also does confession to other people. Call it straight. Ditch any excuses that lessen the wrong or might make you look better to the other person.
There are other “fruits meet for repentance” — but these are a good start. Christians should not be “good at repentance” — we should truly repent, changing our thinking about what we have done to bring it into line with God’s truth, changing our thinking so thoroughly that it brings fruits / actions / words which are fitting to changed thinking. It is not our tears or eloquence in apologising / repenting that pleases God, but changed thinking resulting in changed actions.
Some people apologise but never change their thinking / behaviour. Some change, but never apologise — they forget, or neglect it for some other reason. We should do both, for both are fruits of repentance. But if someone only does one, I’d prefer change. Change is itself a form of apology, an implied admission that prior behaviour was wrong. We should be very patient with those who change, even if they never apologise. That change is more “meet for repentance” than an empty apology, no matter how many tears are shed, no matter how vulnerable or transparent a person makes himself look.