‘Being Real’ Without Real Repentance Isn’t Real At All

Like many people, I suspect, I long resisted the idea that the word “holy” could be rightly applied to the people of God, much less the church. Forget about me. We’re all such a mess. I can see it so clearly in my own life and the lives of others. How can we possibly be holy?

In fact, I can recall specific instances when I’ve attempted to take the moral high ground in a situation, only to have a friend, family member or other loved one put me in my place by using the phrase “holier than thou” as a critique: “Come on, man…lighten up on this a bit, will ya? Stop trying to be holier than thou.” I know many other Christians who have been on the receiving end of this type of put-down.

The implied message – that we might be trying to behave in a more God-honoring manner than our lives would normally justify – often is a powerful discouragement to many of us to pursue holiness. This sort of response has the effect of reminding us yet again of how sinful we are and driving home the notion that we will never be able to perfectly live out what we say we believe.

But as we resist the idea that we can live lives of holiness in spite of the presence of indwelling sin, we effectively deny that the gospel of Jesus has any power to change outward behavior. John the Baptist seemed to think otherwise (Luke 3:10-14).

It would take a lot of time and the writings of a dedicated, thoughtful Christian like Jerry Bridges for me to finally accept at the lived-out level that we, as Christians, are in fact called to be holy, just as God Himself is holy (Matthew 5:48) and while we obviously won’t ever “arrive,” we must nonetheless take this command seriously.

As someone who lived as “a happy pagan” for much of his adult life, I can attest to the fact that turning your life around and following Christ can be incredibly painful. People generally don’t enjoy it when you set aside one set of values – especially those values they still embrace – to follow hard after Jesus. Renouncing your own personal sinfulness is very often perceived (however unconsciously) as a judgment against the ongoing sinfulness of your friends, regardless of how well your might conduct yourself around them, expressing sincere love and acceptance. Your decision to renounce personal ungodly behavior is offensive, plain and simple (2 Corinthians 2:14-17).

Because latecomers to Christ often experience a decent amount of sarcasm and derision – I have been called everything from “Reverend” to “God Boy” by my friends – there is a huge temptation to “dampen our light” somewhat. Talking about our sinful past as some sort of bizarre badge of honor in an attempt to appear authentic to our unbelieving friends is one way we try to “ride the fence,” so to speak, and allow those still living in sin to feel somewhat better about the fact that they have yet to accept Jesus as their Lord.

This sort of “authenticity,” however, is not authentic at all.

In my limited experience, no one is brought to repentance when “authenticity” is allowed to steal the spotlight from the difficult work that God has been doing in our lives.

Repentant believers need to set the evidence of their sanctification on the table, in full view, and simply allow those still living in sin to feel whatever discomfort the Spirit of God might be pleased to bring. Acknowledging former sins in some situations can be helpful, yes, to provide “an immediate point of access” with others who are struggling with the same sins (and thereby encourage a heart-to-heart dialog), but at no time should we ever descend into a “back in the good ole days” perspective when revisiting our ungodly past.

I recently read an article by a young journalist, Brett McCracken. His article dated Jan. 27, 2014, for The Gospel Coalition blog – Has ‘Authenticity’ Trumped Holiness? – is a great read for anyone who finds themselves uneasy over the current focus given to “sins confessed” over “sins renounced.” McCracken (I believe rightly) calls our attention to the fact that there is a huge difference:

We’ve become too comfortable with our sin, to the point that it’s how we identify ourselves and relate to others. But shouldn’t we find connection over Christ, rather than over our depravity?

Our notion of authenticity should not primarily be about affirming each other in our struggles – patting each other on the back as we share about porn struggles while enjoying a second round of beers at the local pub Bible study. Rather, authenticity comes when we collectively push each other, by grace, in the direction of Christ-likeness…To overcome our “authenticity” confusion, evangelicals must see themselves differently. Rather than focusing on our brokenness, we should look to Christ and those who model Christ-likeness. We should move in that direction, by grace and through the power of the Holy Spirit.

As someone who has worked part-time in recovery ministries for only a few years, I have already lost count of the number of times that I have heard Christians confess to sinful behavior only to continue right along with it. “After all, I’ve freely confessed my sin. I’ve prayed about it. Jesus loves me, and He accepts me. I know I can’t lose my salvation.” When hearing solid biblical truth like this twisted such that it allows one to remain comfortable with the ongoing presence of sin, it serves as a sharp reminder that Satan and his demons have a perfect Christology…but it does nothing to change their hearts (James 2:19).

“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” First John 1:9 should be an anchor in the life of anyone who struggles with ongoing sin – in other words, all of us. Yes, we must all confess sin to God and to one another. And yes, we must then embrace the forgiveness that comes to us by the grace and mercy of God through His Son, Jesus Christ. But we simply cannot stop there. We must not be satisfied that we are right with God and therefore there’s no need (or at least no critical need) to engage in a serious battle against indwelling sin. Jesus told the woman caught in adultery that her sins were forgiven (John 8:1-11) but then he followed up this extraordinary gift of grace with the directive to “sin no more.”

After happily accepting for myself all that Christ went through to cleanse me from my sin, do I really want to ignore His call to battle the ongoing presence of that sin in my life? Can I really accept His tortuous crucifixion on my behalf and yet live contentedly beside the sins that made His gruesome death necessary?

Ephesians 4:17-24
So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, and they are full of greed. That, however, is not the way of life you learned when you heard about Christ and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.

Hebrews 12:14
Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.

Leave a Reply