Worldly Sorrow…or Godly Sorrow?

“Have you come to this point in your life because you grieved the heart of God…or because you got caught?” Whether this exceedingly-blunt sentiment is spoken aloud or not, I have lost count of the number of times that I have been part of a conversation that sought to determine whether or not someone else professing repentance over past misdeeds was truly seeking to be forgiven by God and cleansed of all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9) or simply trying to patch up things with a spouse, get his or her driver’s license reinstated or (more often) “Get so-and-so off my back.”

The Return of the Prodigal Son by Rembrandt

People sometimes come to repentance before they get caught or otherwise suffer earthly consequences. Whenever someone steps forward out of crushing guilt – and ahead of the onset of worldly pain – it’s a strong bet that this person truly wants to be forgiven and cleansed. But many others express repentance in the days and weeks after their sin has been exposed to people they love. How do we “categorize” the repentance of an individual who has already begun to incur social, financial, marital and/or relational pain as a result of “getting busted?”

Well, quite simply, we can’t. Not with anything approaching real certainty, because we cannot see into the hearts of those around us. What we can do, however, is use Scripture and ongoing behavioral clues to set about making a more informed decision as to the wisdom of full-on reconciliation. Our greatest ally in this discernment process is time; no one can keep up a phony front indefinitely, and God is faithful to reveal those who “honor” Him only with their lips.

As Christians, of course, we are absolutely commanded – over and over again! – to forgive those who have wronged us, but biblical wisdom does not demand that we necessarily restore the relationship to the state we enjoyed prior to the rupture. God’s Word tells us we must work to forgive, but it does not say we are always called to restore everything that has been lost.

Our sinful human hearts being what they are, it’s natural to begin reading these points thinking of someone else. Instead, I found it immensely helpful to start out by thinking about my own repentance (or, as it happened, the lack thereof). I’d like to gently suggest that you think less about “other people” and more about yourself as you initially work your way through Elliff’s twelve points. You can always “work the list” for someone else later, right?

I am deeply indebted to my friend Keith Roth for sharing this simple, thoroughly-biblical set of bullet points with me. Keith originally got this list from “The Unrepenting Repenter,” written by Jim Elliff and posted to the Christian Communicators Worldwide website. These twelve points are strongly worded; I imagine that’s 100% “intentional” on Elliff’s part. Were I to write something similar, I might perhaps be a bit slower to make statements about whether or not the individuals named are currently in hell, but that “minor point” does not dilute in the least the force of Elliff’s biblical discourse.

What Are the Substitutes for True Repentance?

  1. You may reform in the actions without repenting in the heart (Psalm 51:16-17; Joel 2:13). This is a great deception, for the love of sin remains (1 John 2:15-17; Acts 8:9-24). At this the Pharisees were experts (Mark 7:1-23). The heart of a man is his problem. A man may appear perfect in his actions but be damned for his heart. His actions are at best self-serving and hypocritical. What comes from a bad heart is never good. “Does a spring send forth fresh water and bitter from the same opening? Can a fig tree, my brethren, bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Thus no spring yields both salt water and fresh.” (James 3:11-12).
  2. You may experience the emotion of repentance without the effect of it. Here is a kind of amnesia. You see the awful specter of sin in the mirror and flinch out of horror yet immediately forget what kind of person you saw (James 1:23-24). It is true, repentance includes sincere emotion, an affection for God and a disaffection for sin. Torrents of sorrow may flood the repenter’s heart, and properly so (James 4:8-10). But there is such a thing as a temporary emotion in the mere semblance of repentance; this emotion has very weak legs and cannot carry the behavior in the long walk of obedience. Your sorrow may even be prolonged. Yet if it does not arrive at repentance, it is of the world and is a living death – and maybe more (2 Corinthians 7:10). It is an old deceiver. Judas had such remorse but “went and hanged himself” (Matthew 27:3-5).
  3. You may confess the words of a true repenter and never repent (Matthew 21:28-32; 1 John 2:4; 4:20). Confession by itself is not repentance. Confession moves the lips; repentance moves the heart. Naming an act as evil before God is not the same as leaving it. Though your confession may be honest and emotional, it is not enough unless it expresses a true change of heart. There are those who confess only for the show of it, whose so-called repentance may be theatrical but not actual. If you express repentance to appear successful, you will not be successful at repenting. You will speak humbly but sin arrogantly. Saul gave the model confession (1 Samuel 15:24-26) and later went to hell. Repentance “from the teeth out” is no repentance.
  4. You may repent for the fear of reprisal alone and not for the hatred of sin. Any man will stop sinning when caught or relatively sure he will be, unless there is insufficient punishment or shame attached (1 Timothy 1:8-11). When there are losses great enough to get his attention, he will reform. If this is the entire motive of his repentance, he has not repented at all. It is the work of law, but not grace. Men can be controlled by fear, but what is required is a change of heart. Achan admitted his sin after being caught but would not have otherwise. Find his bones in the Valley of Achor, and his soul, most likely, in hell (Joshua 7:16-26).
  5. You may talk against sin in public like a true repenter but never repent in private (Matthew 23:1-3). The exercise of the mouth cannot change the heart. Your sin is like a prostitute. You are speaking against your lover in public but embracing her in the bedroom. She is not particular about being run down in public if she can have your full attention in private. “Adulterers and adulteresses! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God?” (James 4:4).
  6. You may repent primarily for temporal gains rather than the glory of God. There are gains for the repenter, but the final motivation for repenting cannot be selfish. Self is a dead, stinking carcass to be discarded. We are to repent because God is worthy and is our respected authority, even if we gain nothing. Indeed, our repenting may appear to lose us more than our sin had gained (Matthew 16:24-26; Philippians 3:7-8). And this is a test of true repentance.
  7. You may repent of lesser sins for the purpose of continuing in the greater sins (Luke 11:42). We try to salve our nagging conscience by some minor exercise of repentance, which is really no repentance at all. The whole heart is changed in the believer. The half repenter is a divided man: part against sin and part for it; part against Christ, part for Him. But one or the other must win out, for man cannot serve God and mammon (or any other idol); he must love the one and hate the other (Matthew 6:24).
  8. You may repent so generally that you never repent of any specific sin at all. The man who repents in too great a generality is likely covering his sins (Proverbs 28:13). If there are no particular changes, there is no repenting. Sin has many heads, like the mythological Hydra. It cannot be dealt with in general, but its heads must be cut off one by one.
  9. You may repent for the love of friends and religious leaders and not repent for the love of God (Isaiah 1:10-17). A man talked into repentance may reform for the love of friends or the respect of the spiritually minded, yet do nothing substantial. If a man turns from sin without turning to God, he will find his sin has only changed its name and is hidden behind his pride. Now it will be harder to rout for its subterfuge. You have loved others but not God. And you have loved yourself most of all. Lot’s wife left the city of sin at the insistence of an angel and for the love of her family, but turned back. She had left her heart. “Remember Lot’s wife” (Genesis 19:12-26; Luke 17:32).
  10. You may confess the finished action of sin and not repent from the continuing habit of sin. If a man is honest, he is a good man in human terms; but he is not a repenting man until the sin is stabbed to death. He must be a murderer if he would be God’s: “For if you live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Romans 8:13). God knows what you have done; what He wants is obedience (Luke 6:46).
  11. You may attempt repentance of your sin while consciously leaving open the door of its opportunity. A man who says “I repent” but will not leave the source or environment of that sin is suspect. Though some situations which invite temptation cannot be changed, most can. A man who will not flee the setting of his temptation when he is able still loves his sin. A mouse is foolish to build his nest under the cat’s bed. “But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfill its lusts” (Romans 13:14).
  12. You may make an effort to repent of some sins without repenting of all the sin you know. The businessman learns to show concern for the needs of his clients, yet he batters his wife through neglect. Another gives his money in the offering plate weekly but steals time from his employer daily. Every man boasts of some sins conquered, but true repentance is a repulsion of sin as a whole. The repenter hates all sin, though he fails more readily in some than in others. He may not know all his sins, but what he knows he spurns. Repentance is universal in the believer; the spirit is willing even when the flesh is weak (Matthew 26:41).

Merciful Father in Heaven,
Thank You for giving me the gift of repentance.
May I have more of it, regardless of the cost attached?
My heart betrays my own desire for “stuff” in exchange for feigning sorrow;
do not allow me to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes.
Expose my sin; bring conviction to my heart by Your Spirit.
I can’t make myself care enough about the offense I have done to You,
so I ask that You help me to truly care about grieving Your righteousness,
rather than restoring my marriage, my job, my reputation or my arrest record.
Thank you for causing pain to let me know that something is out of whack.
I am grateful that circumstances have brought my sickness to light.
Help me, I pray, to stop manipulating others to make my life easier.
Walk with me on the hard road of authentic repentance.
Let me trust You to restore my earthly life as You see fit.
Don’t allow me to be proven unworthy of Your grace and mercy,
by constantly looking over my shoulder as I drag my cross behind you.
My heart rebels against the pain and scourge of the Calvary Road;
without You to lead the way and hold me close, I am surely lost.
Be merciful to me, Lord Jesus, a convicted-yet-conniving sinner.

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