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Is My Repentance Good Enough?

Repentance–for a period of time this word struck an unbiblical terror in my heart that revealed a blurred vision of the cross. While my inner being saw the cross as delightful, sin still tainted my view of it. Instead of lifting my face to gaze upon its beauty; I’d often look down on the multitude of my sins. I felt unable to offer an adequate repentance so I created a subjective system of rules for how I would repent. I would spend hours crafting just the right words to say and I would make sure that I was on my knees in a specific place for a certain period of time that I deemed sufficient. I made sure that I hated my sin by continually recalling it and constantly checking my heart for wrongdoing. Still, I was never satisfied with my repentance. I was exhausted and exceedingly sorrowful. At times I felt that because of my poor repentance I would wind up in hell, but most of the time I feared God’s disposition toward me. The question I had was this: Is God angry with me because my repentance isn’t good enough?

I had three main concerns: I could never say quite the right words when repenting, I knew I should feel more grieved over my sin than I did and I knew that I had unknown sins that I hadn’t repented of. In a sense I was right, yet I was also terribly wrong in my approach to resolving these problems.

I know this struggle isn’t one I alone have experienced. I’ve heard other believers express similar concerns and I’ve read from two men who fought this same battle–Martin Luther, a German theologian who began the Protestant Reformation, and John Bunyan, an English Puritan preacher and writer who wrote one of the most well-known books, Pilgrims Progress. Luther was known to have spent hours in confession telling a priest every detail of his sin. When he heard of the righteousness of God he was terrified. He admitted that if it had not been for the Gospel he would have killed himself as he was tormented by his sin. Yet, he found immense hope as he studied the doctrine of imputed righteousness which he refered to as "passive righteousness". In his commentary on Galatians, he wrote extensively about this truth and explained how it helped Him overcome His terror of judgment. John Bunyan also wrote of his fears of hell and judgment in various journals. He described hearing a persistent voice in his his head that told him of his condemnation. On top of this, he had trouble reading Scripture as he felt damned by verses that spoke of God's wrath. He lived in fearful repentance and experienced long seasons of depression. After many years in this state, God brought about his healing by causing him to meditate on grace as he often preached the Gospel to himself. He also said to have found comfort in Christ being His righteousness.

For these men, studying Scripture was the means to their victory–not secular therapy that deemed them sinless and the Bible a foolish book that leads to depression. The Bible itself was their cure. They didn’t need to walk away from Scripture; instead, they needed a better understanding of Scripture. Still, I believe more can be said from Scripture when it comes to the imperfect repentance we bring before God.

So, what is the answer to our inadequate repentance? I found peace in these few truths–none of which affirmed my desire for perfection as they actually did quite the opposite. Of course, these truths are only true for genuine believers who bear the good fruit of salvation, yet still fall to sin.

We Are Not Saved By a Perfect Repentance–Our Words Will Fall Short.

I can recall many days in which I spent morning to evening trying to perfect a repentance that I felt was sufficient for the forgiveness of my sin. While I was focused on repenting of a particular sin I overlooked a plethora of other sins. I was actively neglecting the needs of others, discounting the work of Christ, and transgressing the command given in Matthew 6:7 which warns me against saying vain repetitions thinking that God will hear me for my many words. I knew my repentance was a result of Christ’s sacrifice but I lived as if it replaced the cross. I attempted to be the mediator between God and man.

Still, God was gracious to me. Through Scripture, He showed me that I was not saved by a perfect repentance, but by a perfect Savior. Though I was unable to thoroughly express every wicked motive of my heart Christ was interceding for me (Rom. 8:34). I learned this: Jesus makes our repentance a pleasing aroma. The Bible also tells us, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (Rom 8:26). Doesn’t our imperfect repentance reveal our weakness? And even in this, the Holy Spirit prays on our behalf. When we fail to say all the right words we need not fear because the Spirit knows all things and He works through the prayers of believers. Though we cannot accurately understand and communicate all of our sin, our Lord can and He is our intercessor.

In Our Flesh, We Will Never Hate Sin as We Ought

While genuine repentance is always accompanied by sorrow, and grief over sin, even the most condemning person fails to hate their sin to the degree God does. That's actually why Christians condemn–because they fail to see condemnation itself as a sin! While I was trying to hate my sin all the more by staring into the wickedness of my heart I forsook the cross and in my heart, I rejected the sufficiency of Christ. That is not how we grow in hatred of sin–that’s how we’re tempted to more sin (condemnation). We grow to hate sin by growing in love for Christ; as we hope in Him we become pure as He is pure (1 John 3:3).

It’s also important to remember that the Christian heart still contains wickedness that keeps us from hating sin as we ought. Yes, our hearts are made new, but we still fight the sting of sin. This is the struggle Paul admits to in Romans 7 where he expresses his desire to do good, but the inability to carry it out because sin wages war against his spirit. If we hated sin as God does we would be without sin, yet that is not the case. As Jeremiah says, “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9). The answer is simple–none but God. If we spent every second of our life examining our sinful hearts we would still lack the sorrow over sin that God feels. This is actually a grace. We cannot handle knowing the full weight of sin–if we did it’d kill us, and only Christ was able to bear that burden. So how does God require us to feel as we repent? This is the answer Scripture gives: “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” (Ps. 51:17). Our hearts can still be broken and contrite over our sin without being hopeless.

We Cannot Know the Depths of Our Sinful Hearts

Some of my most precious memories are from the early days of my Christian life when I had much zeal for God, yet such little knowledge of Scripture. Being raised in a Christian home, I understood the basics of theology and had a decent understanding of things that were sinful, but I still lacked conviction in many areas of my life. I remember feeling sorrow over the sins I was aware of, but when I first repented and believed I didn’t list all the sins I was guilty of (I wasn’t able to); instead, I just felt the weight of my sin and asked for the forgiveness of God. Now, I look back on the time I was saved and I feel that I was more wise than I had ever been pre-salvation and also more ignorant than a vast majority of believers. I had loads of sins that I was unaware of (including sins I didn’t even know were sins), yet God’s grace was sufficient for my spiritual immaturity, and it still is.

To this day, I have sins I’m unaware of, and I know this to be true because God promises to sanctify me. He promises to convict me of sin more and more throughout my life and make me more Christ-like. Because of God’s promises to sanctify us we can pray with the psalmist, “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” (Psalm 139:23-24).

My point is that we all have sins that are unknown to us and thus unrepented of. While it should be our goal to kill the sin that God reveals to us, we are not kept from eternal life because we do not understand the depths of the wickedness of our hearts.

Here is where unrepentant sin is a danger–if we see our sin and refuse to repent of it; if we can go on living in sin and being friends with it then we have cause to question the sincerity of our Christian faith. I’m not saying that this sort of unrepentant sin causes us to lose our salvation; rather, it may be proof that we never had any salvation.

But this is where I caution believers–we ought to beware of pride and fear in the assessment of our heart. I found that these two things were the drive of my desire to know the depths of my heart and offer a “perfect repentance”. Only the omniscient God can know all things and He forgives all the sins of believers–including the sins unknown to us.

I say all this to advocate for repentance, not the absence of it. Keeping these truths in mind when we repent guards us from further sin and deepens our love for God. If He desired the ten-step program of repentance that I established then He would have said so in His Word. Yet, I, Martin Luther, John Bunyan, and many other believers have found peace and answers to our troubles within Scripture. We have come to more deeply know the God who forgives our many sins. Our response isn’t, “Let us sin because grace abounds!”; instead, we say, “Because grace abounds I will kill the sin that lies within me.” Is there a love, mercy, and forgiveness greater than His? Of course not! Praise be to the God who lavishes His people with riches of grace.

“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”

Hebrews 4:15-16


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