The repentance of conversion is definitive. It is the 180 degrees radical change of heart-attitude and heart-orientation away from lies and deceit toward Jesus Christ and his sure promises. The repentance of sanctification is an ongoing process. The Christian yearns for a deeper, more sincere, more authentic repentance. We want to be more aware of the holiness of God and the heinousness of sin. We want a more passionate worship of God and more ongoing, constant prayers. We want to be men and women of uprightness, purity, and integrity. We want to unswervingly love incredibly difficult people. I know I sure want this.
Allow me to confess a personal sin to help make a point. When I feel overwhelmed by commitments and promises that I haven’t kept, particularly ones that I haven’t kept out of irresponsible time management and less-than-hearty work ethic, I sometimes curse at myself. I’ll be brushing my teeth, going over my day to come or summarizing in my mind what I haven’t accomplished throughout the week, and then from the overflow of my mess of a heart through my mouth I will blurt out a profanity.
And it feels doubly depressing when I then listen to myself having said such a thing, feeling convicted on the one hand for having been less than fully productive, and now feeling convicted by the ugliness of my mouth and the more serious heart-issue behind it. Out of the overflow of the heart comes the words of my mouth. I then have to ask myself: Who am I? What is in that messy, conflicted, swirl of desires I call my heart? Am I characterized by this? Does it define me?
I remember talking to a friend across the country who left the Mormon church and entered into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. The change was by no means simple for her, but there were some definite things that one could point to. She had an old identity and a new one. There was the old self apart from Christ and the new self in Christ. There was a new overflow from her heart into her mouth of a confession of Jesus as her personal Lord and savior, as the one who has always been God and the one who had given her eternal life by faith. A lot of the church structure and community (she was still searching for a new local church fellowship) and theology that had once so easily kept her from certain addictions was now gone. She no longer was kept ultra busy in her local ward activities and callings. She no longer had to fear whether or not she was going to be “worthy” to partake of the Lord’s supper or pass a temple recommend interview. Jesus now was her temple recommend, and she was the temple, indwelt by the Holy Spirit.
Whether she gave again into her old addictions became more acutely a heart-issue. In one sense it was harder to fight these addictions, because the artificial restraints were gone. But now was the first time to focus on the root of the sin.
The same gospel truths I preach to a person like her are the same gospel-truths I have to preach to myself. The gospel never really gets old.
Aaron, that is your old self. Put on your new self in Christ. You have been raised with Christ and seated with him in the heavenly realms so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward you (Ephesians 2:6-7). Set your mind on the things above. If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God (Colossians 3:1).
Sometimes the post-Mormon Christian lady would call me, feeling depressed over having given into an old addiction. I knew her well enough to know she was not diving head-first into the pool of iniquity. She was in a battle with the self, doing what she didn’t want to do, and not doing what she wanted to do (Romans 7). She was a new creation in Christ. But that didn’t mean things like this wouldn’t happen. Instead of having her question the authenticity of her conversion (something I would have anyone do if they persisted in unrepentant sin) I encouraged her with something far more powerful than a self-help book or a list of rules: I reminded her of her new identity.
That is your old identity. That is your old self. That is in the past. You are now in Christ. He is now your friend and your savior. He is the husband to his bride, the church. He is preparing his bride with a beautiful wedding gown. Be who you already are in Christ. He justified you and redeemed you. You belong to him now. Lean on him. Confess your sins, and he is faithful and just to forgive and cleanse you (1 John 1:9).
A Christian strives for holiness because of the holiness of the one to whom we have been forever sealed. We are obedient not in order to be forgiven, but because we have been forgiven. When we fall into sin, we come back to him with our weak, imperfect, and incomplete repentance. Fellowship is restored. Faith and repentance look away from the weakness and sin and incompleteness of the self to the strength and perfection and completeness of Christ.
Is our sorrow over our sin a perfect and complete sorrow? No. But it is a real ache, a real heart-cry toward God.
Is our faith a valiant and perfectly strong faith? No, but it looks to Christ. Our hearts struggle with sinful doubts, but at the end of the day we know the one whom we trust.
Have we forever abandoned the sin we have repented of? Who knows?! Yeah, maybe we will do it someday again. But that sure isn’t the resolve of our heart. Oh, how we hate sin!
Are we keeping all the commandments? Knowing the holiness of God and the seriousness of the command to love him with absolutely everything in us and the comprehensiveness of purity required we dare not affirm this.
We bear fruit in keeping with repentance (Matthew 3:8). It is a necessary, inevitable overflow. But our fruit—fleshed out obedience—should never be considered a part of repentance itself, especially when defining the kind of repentance which God views as a prerequisite for forgiveness.
When I was born again and united to Christ and adopted by the Father my life permanently changed. There was a marked difference and direction and orientation my life took. One of the most surprising and most significant evidences of this for me was the fact that I found myself, by God’s grace, loving the most difficult people in my life, even my enemies. It was a natural overflow of realizing that I—dirty ol’ sinful me—was taken into the household of Christ and given a seat at the banquet table of the kingdom of God. I was raised and seated with Christ above in the heavenly realms. He who is forgiven much loves much. “But he who is forgiven little, loves little” (Luke 7:47).
So when I find myself having uttered such horrible words in the bathroom I feel like I am contradicting who I am and always will be in Christ. When my old self rears its ugly head I want to kill it (cf. Romans 8:12-15). But my weapon is no inner, grand, divine, god-in-embryo center of self-governing power. It is the sure promises of Christ that I believe in with my empty-handed, broken-hearted, desperate, growing but weak faith. My repentance sometimes is just a whimper from the core of my being. My heart often has no tears to gush out in the deepest of remorse. But the humiliation leaves me no room for self-pity or pride. Like a beggar all I can do is show up again at God’s spiritual welfare office for another free check of grace. Or even more fitting, empty my cup of excuses and self-effort and lift it up, asking, “More grace, please?” In the bathroom, whether I am brushing my teeth or shaving, I find myself stopping and closing my eyes, asking again for the bazillionth time to God,
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin! For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. (Psalm 51:1-3)