(We are continuing the series on how to identify true sorrow and repentance. If you haven’t already, you may want to read the first, second, and third parts of this series.)
With true repentance and faith, there is also a genuine change of heart. Because the heart is the vehicle of worship, any turning from a sin idol toward Christ will necessarily involve a turning of the heart. The person’s affections are transformed from loving sin to loving God and other people. This change of heart is manifested in the object of one’s sorrow. The repentant person has sorrow over his offense against God, while the unrepentant person has sorrow for himself. The outward turning from sin toward God is a reflection of the inward change of heart.
We find an example in the life of David. In Psalm 51, he makes no mention of the consequences of his sin, but is concerned only with reconciliation with God, as he prays in v10, Create in me a clean heart. Paul understood this change to be the object of his teaching in 1Tim 1:5: the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.
Joel 2:12-13a shows that it is this inward heart change that God desires rather than outward ritual: “Yet even now,” declares the LORD, “Return to Me with all your heart, and with fasting, weeping and mourning; and rend your heart and not your garments.” And yet the unrepentant person, because there has been no turning to Christ in faith, has no true heart change in regard to his sin. His change will amount only to the outward rending of his garments. His worship will resemble that of Israel, of whom God said in Isa 29:13b, “[They] honor Me with their lip service, but they remove their hearts far from Me, and their reverence for Me consists of tradition learned by rote.”
It is important to note the since we cannot see the human heart, the only evidence we will have of a person's repentance will be the fruit of his life. It is only from a changed heart that obedience springs forth in the form of fruit in keeping with repentance.
Fruit in Keeping with Repentance
John the Baptist challenged the Pharisees and Sadducees in Matt 3:8 to “bear fruit in keeping with repentance.” It is impossible for a person to be truly repentant and not show any signs of fruit. In true repentance the Holy Spirit always effects change.
This fruit will be seen in both a negative and a positive change in behavior. The negative change comes in the form of the ceasing of the sinful activity of which the person repented. This is a function of putting off the sin, putting on Christ, and “making no provision for the flesh in regard to its lusts” (Rom 13:14). A repentant person will be eager to engage in the radical amputation spoken of in Matt 5:29-30. He will desire to cut off all sources of temptation in his pursuit of Christ.
The positive change will come in the form of the cultivation of Christ-like attributes, as found in Gal 5:22-23: The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. These virtues will be the direct result of having put on Christ. A person who has truly repented of gluttony should manifest the fruit of self-control. A person who has truly repented of anger should manifest the fruit of patience and kindness. The presence or absence of such fruit will be the most telling indication of whether or not someone has experienced the godly sorrow that leads to repentance.
On the other hand, a person of worldly sorrow, because he has not yielded to Christ in faith and therefore experienced a genuine change of heart, will exhibit no such fruit. He will be relegated to his own man-made outward acts of false piety. This is the essence of penance, spoken of in Col 2:23, These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence. Not only will there be no positive change in the form of Christ-like fruit, but there will be no negative change in the form of the permanent turning from sin. The person most likely will be hesitant to make significant changes in order to make no provision for the flesh. He will repeatedly fall back into the sin that precipitated his worldly form of sorrow.
The ability to recognize true sorrow and repentance is a vital thing for your own life. If you are dealing with a sin that you just can’t seem to overcome, reread this series of posts with that sin in mind. Could it be that you have never truly repented? The sorrow that you feel for your sin – is it sorrow over how you have offended our holy God or is it sorrow over the consequences? Have you turned away from the sin and toward Christ in faith? Or are you simply trying through your own flesh to stop sinning? Scripture has given us truths that will allow us to examine our own hearts. I encourage you to do so.
Recognizing true sorrow and repentance is also important in our efforts to help each other battle sin. Whether you are meeting with an accountability partner who is seeking help with a particular sin or you are engaged in a church discipline situation, using these truths, you will be able to assist those fellow believers in understanding the essence of repentance. May the Lord impress upon us the importance of dealing with our sin and returning to fellowship with Him.