What then is repentance? One thing that repentance is not. Repentance is NOT feeling bad. You are living in a way that is contrary to the will of God, you know what you are doing is not right, but you feel bad. That’s not enough. That’s not repentance. That is just someone who is interested in Christianity.
Repentance is NOT simply cleaning up our external behavior. There are many religious people who have nice polished exteriors. They never drink, they never smoke, they never swear, they are generous with their money, they are the first to serve, they are always on time. But the Spirit of God is not living in them. This highlights the fact that religious, moral living cannot save us. In fact, one of the greatest obstacles to genuine salvation is religion. Many people just settle for religion because it’s easier than truly following Jesus.
Related to that, repentance is not the same thing as what we commonly think of as fruit. We often think that fruit is some visible change in a person. According to this definition, fruit is a sign of repentance or an evidence of salvation. Fruit gives us assurance of salvation. This is true in some cases. Fruit of visible change is one way that we can have assurance of our salvation. Which means, if you made a decision long ago and there is zero change, you have to wonder, did I ever repent? Am I really saved?
At the same time, you cannot just make a formula and say, fruit = repentance, or fruit = salvation. Because fruit in the Bible are things that flow from the inside out. It’s not outside in. It’s inside out. Things like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control–these are the fruit of the Spirit. And if you have such fruit, if you have this kind of spiritual activity and transformation on the inside, then the outward actions will follow.
Consider the recipients of this letter. Paul wrote to believers in the church of Corinth. Believers. In chapter 1, Paul makes it clear that these guys were born again. Their testimonies were confirmed. There was genuine repentance and fruit of changed lives in the beginning. But you look at those same believers now and there is no trace of repentance, no evidence of God’s presence and activity in their lives.
So Paul in v11 is reminding these believers of their status as believers.
11 And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.
Those sins listed in the earlier verses defined you before you were saved. But no more. You are no longer slaves to sin. You have been freed. Living under these sins was something of the past. That is what some of you WERE. Past tense. Now, things are different. You are living under the guidance of the Spirit to bear fruit for God’s glory.
I can understand how Catholics would take a passage like this and conclude that it is possible to lose one’s salvation. They acknowledge that most sins are venial sins, or sins of a less serious nature. We all sin and even if you commit one of these less serious, venial sins and die, you will still inherit the kingdom of God. However, Catholics also believe certain mortal sins like murder or sex before marriage, if you commit one of these mortal sins and you don’t repent and you die, then you can lose your salvation. After all, it says, if you are sexually immoral, you won’t inherit the kingdom of God.
Protestants, we don’t believe that you can lose your salvation because once you are saved, you are always saved. But we would say that if there is a persistent pattern of unrepentant sin, then no matter how genuine you think your salvation was, no matter how much you cried, no matter how sincere you were at the time, no matter how clear your articulation of the gospel is at present, if sin is present for a long time and there is a lack of repentance, then based on Scripture, we would conclude, perhaps, that person never really was saved to begin with.
The key is–when sin is pointed out, is there repentance? It doesn’t have to be immediate, but eventually, does the person in sin repent? Because if the Holy Spirit is dwelling in that person, then he or she will be convicted of their sins sooner or later. They may resist, they might deny the sin, they might disobey, but eventually, if the gospel seed was planted and it was a living seed, fruit will be born. But before we talk about fruit as being synonymous with visible change, we have to talk about the fruit of repentance.
Repentance is really important. When I am interviewing prospective members of this church, I always ask for their testimony. Because I feel this might be the only time in their lives that they have an opportunity to check their salvation. And always, I am looking to see if there is some sign of repentance. Repentance is critical. Why? Because there is no salvation apart from repentance. Period. If you give me a gospel message and there is no mention of sin and our need to repent, then that’s not a gospel message. Repentance is a prerequisite for salvation.
Repentance is an uncomfortable topic so people want to gloss over it and jump to talking about faith in Christ and the grace that we have in Christ and following Jesus. Those are positive sounding. But repentance is so negative. Repentance is too important to gloss over. I know I am not God and I can’t guarantee anyone’s salvation, nor can I question anyone’s salvation. Yet, I feel it is the responsibility of the church to do our best to discern, does this person understand that they are a sinner in need of a Savior before they are ready to claim Jesus as their Lord.
A discussion about repentance and sin is never easy because many times, it is not so black and white. I was black before Christ and look at how white I am now in Christ. No, there are many shades of gray even after conversion.
Take for example two Christians who were alcoholics before they met Christ. While drinking is not a sin, drunkenness is clearly a sin. The first Christian repents of their drunkenness and overnight, he is transformed by the gospel and the power of the Holy Spirit. The second Christian, on the other hand, repents, but every time he sees someone drinking a beer or sipping a glass of red wine over a nice meal, he struggles.
Who is better off? Who is more spiritual? The first one is a story of victory. If she were a member of this church, I would be like, get that person ready to share her testimony next Sunday so that everyone will be amazed at how powerful Christ is in breaking the bondage of sin. The second person is not so clear. But he struggles with his addiction each and every day. He relies on God for help every moment. He leans on his brothers at church for prayer and accountability. He confesses when he stumbles. He repents often, but there is no change. He falls. But there is a growing humility and dependence on God.
Who is better off? It’s not so easy to tell. It’s not just a matter of being victorious over our sins, although it would be great if God overcame all of our sins and transformed us into mini-Apostle Pauls overnight.
Repentance over our core sins is like running a marathon. You got to keep at it. One foot in front of the other. It’s not a sprint. This type of repentance is an invitation for God under the guidance of the Holy Spirit to do a deeper, inner work of transformation in our hearts over the long haul. Some core sins we will be repenting and struggling over until the day we die.
How did Jesus lead people to repentance during his ministry?
The Samaritan woman in John 4 is one example. When Jesus was talking to the Samaritan woman and she was converted, Jesus commanded her to leave her life of sin. The Samaritan woman had been married several times and after a few failed attempts, she gave up entirely on marriage and was just living with her boyfriend. So to the woman, Jesus expected her to do something about that situation right away. Break it off or marry the guy, but don’t just remain as you are. Does that mean that she was transformed and never longed for a guy? Does that mean on Valentines Day that she never felt lonely? Perhaps, it’s possible. But maybe not. The inside out transformation of our hearts often takes longer. Because it requires the deeper work of the Spirit.
Zacchaeus is another example. He was a tax collector in Luke 19 who had gotten rich by cheating people out of their money. But when he was converted, he gave away his wealth and repaid those whom he had wronged? Does that mean that he never struggled with greed from that point on? Perhaps, but I bet there were days, like Black Friday, when he wished he had a little extra spending cash. There were immediate external actions, or signs of genuine repentance–give away the wealth, stop cheating people, these are things that he could change right away. But there is also letting the Spirit do the inner work of transformation in terms of his thoughts and attitudes and motives.
What’s the principle? There are some immediate changes that we can and should make when confronted with our sin, but there is also the deeper work that the Spirit has to do to transform us from the inside out.
How do we apply this? Some of us are very disciplined. We have a great deal of self-control. We can wake up at 5am and run several miles. You are just wired this way. If you are in this category, then a sin like adultery is unthinkable. You would never even put yourself in a situation to fall into a sin like that.
And because we don’t do the big, blatant stuff, we think we are such saintly people. For those in this category, I caution you against spiritual pride and blindness. Pay attention to the other sins in this list. Like greed. Wanting more and more. Wanting to buy more stuff. Never being content. Or slander. You might have great self-control when it comes to time management and waking up in the morning, but you have zero control over your tongue. Whenever you get together with your friends, negative words of criticism about someone just spew forth. According to these verses, greed and slander are just as serious as adultery.
Sin is serious. God is a Holy God. He hates sin, all of it. He can’t tolerate sin. While God hates sin, He loves sinners. That is the gospel in a nutshell. Even though we were sinful through and through, God made a way for sinners like us to inherit the kingdom of God, to be saved, through Jesus coming and dying on a cross to pay the penalty of sins. This is the gospel. It is the greatest news that sinners could ever hear.
How can you and I be saved? Repentance and faith. You have to repent. There has to be repentance. There is no salvation without repentance. Not just feeling bad, but living out Hebrews 12:4.
4 In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.
Whatever sin the Holy Spirit is bringing to your attention heart right now, commit to struggle against that sin this coming week, to the point of shedding your blood. With intensity. With intentionality. With constant prayer. Confess your sin with a fellow brother and sister and let’s struggle together as a body of Christ.