Did You Repent...Or Make an Empty Resolution?
Biblical counselor Ed Buch contrasts the power of true repentance with powerless resolutions to change and gives a clear definition of what the process of repentance looks like.
We want to talk about why repentance has the power to change someone who is struggling with sexual sin when just making a resolution doesn't. But can you start by explaining why repentance is so important biblically?
I'd love to try and answer that question, because repentance isn't important just in terms of overcoming sexual sin; it is critical in terms of our faith and in terms of whether or not we're actually saved. The Bible says that we either repent or we perish. One of the places that we can see that clearly is in 2 Peter 3:9, which says, "God is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance." In other words, it's not God's desire that anyone should perish, but he warns us that anyone who does not repent will, in fact perish—meaning that person parishes with the unsaved souls and is doomed to eternal torment in hell. So I don't think it would even be possible to overemphasize the importance of repentance; it's the critical dividing line between the saved and the unsaved.
And you'll see that all throughout scripture, especially in the New Testament, where right at the beginning of his ministry John the Baptist preached, "Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand." And in a chapter later, in Matthew 4, Jesus opens his ministry with those exact same words, "Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand." And when the disciples were sent out two by two, Mark 6 records that they preached repentance. When the church was birthed on the Day of Pentecost and the crowd asked Peter, "What shall we do?" his first statement to them was, "Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins." And Paul even testified before Agrippa later in his life about his early years of ministry and said, "I declared first to those in Damascus and in Jerusalem and throughout all the region of Judea and then to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God and do works fitting for repentance." So there's simply no way around this biblical truth that repentance is an essential component of true salvation.
As we seek to understand repentance, can you first talk about what repentance is not?
A little while back, I did a Google search on repentance, and what you see as the top result is that repentance is "sincere regret or remorse." But regret is really just self-oriented. It's feeling sorry for yourself and the consequences that you're experiencing. And remorse is focused on feeling bad—maybe about what I've done to other people, but it's really still a feeling that's being emphasized. So remorse might be a step in the right direction, but regret and remorse will both fall short of biblical repentance.In fact, we have to really guard against the common mistake of defining repentance in terms of feelings—feeling sorry, feeling regret, feeling remorse, or even feeling guilty about something that we've done.
What is the basic difference between just making a resolution and truly experiencing repentance?
A resolution originates in a person's will. Maybe even sometimes it originates merely in our emotions, but most of the time there's a determination to carry out a change. But the person is just aiming to accomplish this resolution through sheer determination and self-effort. Repentance is a spiritual act; it comes out of our spirit. Overcoming sin—especially when that sin has held dominion over you for a period of time, like sexual sin often has—requires a power outside yourself. No one is going to be able to repent apart from the power of the Holy Spirit. So resolutions are the work of a person's natural man, while repentance is the work of a person's spiritual man.
If repentance is a spiritual reality, then what can we observe outwardly in a person that would help us determine when they've repented?
Good question. Repentance can be hard to detect outwardly, but one of the things that the counseling staff at Pure Life Ministries would look for, first of all, would be indications of brokenness. They are consumed, at least at first, with who they are, the reality of what they've done, and taking responsibility. And it kind of leaves them broken, and it shows up in their countenance; their countenance softens. And their interactions with others take on a gentler approach; they now have a better sight of who they are. You see it in their face, quite often, when it's real. When it's not, that's when you can really tell, because there's a flatness, a deadness, and an emptiness. They say all the right words, perhaps, but there's no substance in what they're saying—no life coming across from that person.
Another thing you would see in someone who's coming into repentance is a willingness to admit they're wrong—not just about the thing that originally started them down this path of repentance. But they're starting to see other things in their life, and they're quicker—much quicker—to say, "I'm wrong," and to ask others to forgive them.
Let's get right down to it. Can you give us a simple, working definition of repentance?
The King James Dictionary, for example, says, "To change one's mind and purpose; to have regret." In addition, scriptural repentance is always combined with the notion of turning—turning away from sin and turning toward God. So, if you really want to keep it simple, here's the simplest definition I know to give you: repentance is a gift from God...to change your heart...to turn from your sin...and to turn back to God.
For those who are ready to repent, what are the initial steps in that process?
You start with prayer—coming before the Lord and acknowledging my sin without making any excuses for it. The prodigal son and David's prayer of repentance in Psalm 51 are great examples. In fact, whenever I'm counseling someone who seems to really need to get a handle on coming into repentance, I encourage them to just pray over Psalm 51—to make it their prayer to God. At other times, I encourage them to picture the cross and maybe even seen Jesus hanging on the cross, and then I encourage them to look at him face-to-face and confess what they've done and ask Jesus if he would take the penalty for their sin. There's a brokenness that comes over you in that situation.
But it can’t stop there; there's always fruit. That's why sometimes it's difficult to tell at first whether someone's repented, but in a fairly short period of time—and I'm talking weeks or months at the most—you will know, because there will be a change that is bearing godly fruit now in their life, and they no longer do that thing that had them bound before. So when I counsel people about repentance and the fruit of repentance, I try and keep it really simple and focused on 3 things.
First, I encourage them to think about turning their eyes toward godly things and away from their sins and the "worthless things," as the psalmist puts it. Second, I'll talk to them about turning our feet, and by feet I'm really referring to our walk—the direction we're headed and where we're going. We can't let our feet carry us into unholy territory anymore; we need to learn God's ways and walk in those ways. Third, and even more important, our heart absolutely must be redirected toward the Lord. Our affections and the things that we take pleasure in have to be directed toward God and His kingdom. Most of the time we're in that battle because we're discovering just how much of our heart is set on self—the things that I want. But many of those things are in direct opposition to the Word of God and the things of God. So we have to turn our heart away from those things and turn it toward God.
Summing some of this up, you can see that repentance is much more than just a one-time response at an altar or a one-time thing that a person has done in their life. Repentance is really a lifestyle; we're constantly needing to pay attention to where our eyes are going, where our feet are going, and where our heart and affections are. And if we really understand the fact that we're in repentance for the rest of our lives, then we can see that no one has gone too far; no one is in such a bad position or condition that they can't repent. We can always repent as long as we're still alive on this earth. We have the option, the possibility of repenting. And that's what God wants for us; he wants us to turn away from sin and turn back to him, and he really does have the power and the ability to change our heart.
This excerpt is from our podcast episode, “Vital Steps for Seeking Victory This Year”, Episode #329.
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