Growing up as a church kid, I didn’t see repentance as a good thing. Like flu medication, it was commendable to take when you were sick, but it was better to stay well. Avoiding sin was better than needing to repent.
Goody-two-shoes that I was, this was great news. You see, I was pretty good at obedience and following the rulebook.
Sometime during those churchgoing years, I got a glimpse of God in his Word: his character, his beauty, his holiness. Rule-following lost its luster as knowing God became the driving force in my life. But knowing him came with a painful price: exposure. The closer I drew to him, the more layers of makeup were removed from my heart. The more clearly I saw his beauty, the more evident it was I had none.
This devastated me. For years I thought I was pretty good, but I’d been decorating the interior of my heart with a flashlight. From what I could see it looked fine, but the bright light of God’s presence revealed the heart I’d worked so hard to beautify was covered in black mold.
To behold God is to behold yourself with painful clarity. Isaiah sees God seated on the throne, and then notices his unclean lips. In visions, Daniel understood dominion and glory belonged to the Son of Man; in prayer and fasting, he understood shame and sin belong to him. When Josiah finds God’s law, he tears his clothes and weeps. After Peter watches Jesus sink his boat with a miraculous catch of fish, his own sin sinks him down at Jesus’s feet, ashamed.
To know the living God is to be exposed as a hopeless sinner. And to be a hopeless sinner before the living God is to take up the posture of repentance: turning from sin by embracing him.
My Lousy Soil
Being exposed before a holy God wasn’t a one-time thing—it’s now a daily rhythm as I walk with him. Drawing near exposes any false hopes I have in my own righteousness. As my self-absorbed, be-good-on-my-own sin nature comes into focus, a choice emerges: Will I cling to self or cling to him?
Unfortunately, I really like myself. Part of me is convinced that if I tried hard enough, I could produce some pretty stellar fruit from my own soil. The problem is Jesus keeps pulling out my soil and replacing it with his. He plants things in my life, he waters them, and he grows them. And it’s beautiful.
I love his fruit and enjoy it. But sometimes, I pull up one of those Jesus-grown plants and bring it to what remains of my soil. I replant it in the ground of my self-sufficiency and dream of how big it will get. How wonderful it will be to know I grew this. That my soil made it possible.
To my dismay, not only does the plant wither and die, but big, ugly, thorny weeds quickly grow. They choke out the plant, and threaten to overtake the whole garden.
Turning to self-sufficiency always backfires because I have no good of my own. All my soil is bad. Though I know this, seeing Jesus produce fruit in my life sometimes gives my flesh false hope, that maybe all my fruitfulness has something to do with me. Surely this is a sign that I’m good at this Christian thing, right? But the presence of good fruit isn’t a statement about me, but a sign that the Holy Spirit is present in me. It’s his fruit, not mine. Apart from him, I can do nothing.
Posture Before Action
Knowing God exposes my lingering depravity. And therefore, knowing God requires repentance.
Repentance is more than an action; it’s a posture. In my youth-group days, I saw repentance as the required antidote when I willfully sinned. But now it’s clear I don’t have a problem just with sinful actions, but with my whole ingrown, self-loving sin nature—whether it acts out or not. God has exposed my permanent brokenness apart from him and offers me repentance as the highway back to himself. “For thus the LORD God, the Holy One of Israel, has said: ‘In repentance and rest you will be saved, in quietness and trust is your strength’” (Isa. 30:15).
Repentance isn’t primarily about what you’re fleeing from but whom you’re fleeing to. What good is it to run from sin if you’re running to your own resources?
The greatest threat to true repentance in my life is my tendency to trust in myself. If I’m not actively clinging to God, I’ll surely be clinging to self. Even in the context of growing in holiness, to choose self as the means to grow is sin. This was the Pharisees’ problem: they preferred their own efforts at righteousness over the perfect righteousness of Jesus, offered as a gift. It’s also my problem. But Galatians 5:4 warns that to trust my own ability to produce holiness is to sever myself from Christ and fall from grace. Ouch.
Even when the motive is sin-removal, self-trust is still sin. Self-sufficiency, no matter what the reason, is the essence of sin.
This is the battle I fight every day. Will I cling to myself or to my Savior? Will I recognize Christ as most reliable, or will I prefer my own abilities? Will I turn from wallowing in my brokenness to rejoicing in his righteousness? If I’m not actively, persistently, and daily clinging to God in repentance, I am clinging to my own strength.
But like I said, I’ve tasted the goodness of God and can’t go back. The profound pleasure of knowing him through his Word and prayer is irresistible. Therefore, repentance is the only acceptable posture for me, because it’s through repentance alone I can truly know him.
May we hold tightly to him today, the author and perfecter of our faith. He alone is able to slay our sin, to put it to death through his Spirit who lives in us. Let’s turn from ourselves and cling to him, that we may know the fullness of joy found in his presence alone.
Editors’ note: A version of this article appeared at Stonegate Church.