Repenting means exchanging our idols for God. Before it’s a change in behavior, it must be a change in worship. How different that is from how we often think of repentance.

Too often we treat repentance as a call to clean up our lives. We do good to make up for the bad. We try to even the scale, or even push it back to the positive side. Sometimes we talk about repentance as if it were a really serious, religious New Year’s resolution:

  • “I’m not going to blow up at my kids anymore.”
  • “I’m not going to look at pornography ever again.”
  • “I’m never going to cheat on my hours at work.”
  • “I’m going to stop talking about my boss behind his back.”

False Repentance

But even if we clean up our behavior in one area or another, our hearts can still be devoted to our idols. The Pharisees illustrate this problem. They were the best-behaved people in Palestine, the kind of people you would have wanted for a neighbor. They never let their kids throw their bikes in your yard. They didn’t throw raucous parties and leave cigarette butts in your flowerbed. They always picked up after their dogs. They were upstanding people. But Jesus called them white-washed tombs: clean on the outside, corrupt on the inside (Matt. 23:27). The point is that it’s not just bad people who are idolaters. Good, moral, even religious people are idolaters too. Repentance isn’t the same thing as moral resolve.

Sometimes we talk about repentance as if it’s feeling bad or guilty about our behavior. We feel guilty if we’re caught. We feel guilty if we’re not caught. We feel guilty if we’ve let someone down, or let ourselves down. There’s no question that repentance requires us to be convinced of our guilt. But you can feel guilty and still love the sin you’re guilty of. Anyone who’s given in to the pull of lust can tell you that. “Like a dog that returns to his vomit is a fool who repeats his folly” (Prov. 26:11). Repentance isn’t a feeling.

Real Repentance

Real repentance is a new worship. It looks like a changed life, but that changed behavior results from a change of worship, not the other way around.

Repentance is being convicted by the Holy Spirit of the sinfulness of our sin—not the badness of our deeds but the treachery of our hearts toward God.

Repentance means hating what we formerly loved and served—our idols—and turning away from them.

Repentance means turning to love God, whom we formerly hated, and serving him instead. It’s the new deepest loyalty of our hearts.

If repentance really is a change of worship, then our churches must not pressure people to make hasty, ill-considered “decisions” for Jesus, and then offer them quick assurance. Instead, we must call people to repent. When we separate repentance from conversion, either because we think it can come later or we fear scaring people off, we reduce conversion to bad feelings or moral resolve. Worse, we risk assuring a “convert” that he’s right with God when in fact he isn’t. It’s almost like giving someone a vaccine against the gospel.

You know how a vaccine works. It uses a defective agent to fool the body into thinking it’s been infected so that it will produce antibodies. Then, when the real infection shows up, the body is prepared to fight it off. Likewise, calling people to “make a decision” without calling them to repent not only risks creating a false convert, it also risks vaccinating a person against the real gospel. They think they already have Christianity! Then we double down by saying, “Once saved, always saved.”

What does a false convert look like? Often, it’s someone who

  • is excited about heaven, but bored by Christians and the local church;
  • thinks heaven will be great, whether God is there or not;
  • likes Jesus, but didn’t sign up for the rest—obedience, holiness, discipleship, suffering;
  • can’t tell the difference between obedience motivated by love and legalism;
  • is bothered by other people’s sins more than his or her own;
  • holds grace cheap and his own comfort costly.

But how does the New Testament describe a genuine Christian? According to 1 John, the genuine Christian is someone who

  • loves fellow Christians and the local church because he or she loves God (1 John 5:1);
  • desires fellowship with God, and not just ease in heaven (1 John 1:6–7; 5:1);
  • understands that following Jesus means discipleship (1 John 1:6);
  • obeys God out of love for God (1 John 5:2–3);
  • is eager to confess and turn away from his or her sin (1 John 1:9);
  • holds grace costly and his own desires cheap (1 John 1:7, 10).

To become a Christian is to take up a life of repentance. Jesus described it as taking up our cross and following him. It begins at a point in time, but it continues in a life of service and love to God. Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it well when he said, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”

Editors’ note: This is an adapted excerpt from Michael Lawrence’s new book, Conversion: How God Creates a People (Crossway, 2017).

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