True repentance is both oxygen and honey for the Christian, leading to spiritual life and sweetness. Charles Spurgeon once told the following story:
The teacher put the following question to her pupils: “What is the sweetest emotion?” As soon as the children comprehended the question, they took their slates and wrote their answers. One girl in a moment wrote down “Joy.” As soon as the teacher saw it, she expected that all would write the same. But another girl, more thoughtful, . . . wrote “Hope.” . . . The next one, when she brought up her slate, had written “Gratitude.” . . . Another, . . . “Love.” . . . But there was one other who had written in large characters—and as she brought up her slate the tear was in her eye, showing she had written what she felt—“Repentance is the sweetest emotion.” And I think she was right.
Biblical repentance is sweet because it leads to life (Acts 11:18), joy (Luke 15:4–7), refreshment (Acts 3:19–20), cleansing (1 John 1:9), fruit (Matt. 3:8), forgiveness (Luke 3:3), and fellowship with God and one another (1 John 1:7). Yet there’s a common misunderstanding of repentance that is neither biblical nor sweet, but bitter. This version of repentance does not lead to life and freedom, instead leading to death and slavery.
Turn, Turn, Turn!
When we think about repentance, many of us rightly think about the phrase “to turn away.” That is, in fact, the definition of the biblical words we translate as “repent.” Repentance involves turning away (or back) from something and toward something else.
This is where we often go wrong. Repentance is turning away from _____ and turning to _____. How would you fill in these blanks? Many Christians understand that we’re to turn away from sin, but we misunderstand what we’re to turn toward.
Up until recently, I would’ve said that repentance is turning away from sin and turning to righteousness. But a brother in Christ recently reminded me of a truth that has deepened my hope and joy in repentance. He told me, “Repentance is not primarily about turning away from sin and turning to righteousness; repentance is primarily about turning away from sin and turning to Christ” (Luke 1:16; 1 Thess. 1:9).
This is a subtle yet incalculably important nuance. One version of repentance leads to death. The other leads to life. One version leads to slavery, the other to freedom.
Subtle Difference, Enormous Implications
Believing repentance is primarily about turning to righteousness can perpetuate and deepen our commitment to legalism. If we think the chief end of repentance is new behavior, not communion with the person of Christ, then we’re reinforcing an anti-gospel hope in our own ability to “do better” next time.
Consider the vastly different outcomes of these two versions of repentance. If our response after we sin is, “God, I promise I will do better!” then our hope is in ourselves. This is a fast track to despair (Rom. 7:18–24). But if our response after we sin is, “God, I need you. Give me a fresh measure of Christ and all his benefits!” then our hope is in our perfectly faithful God, and that puts us on the path to joy, peace, and growth in holiness (Rom. 7:24–8:6).
What About Holy Living?
If you’re sensitive to antinomianism (as we should be), you may be suspicious of this notion of repentance. By making turning away from sin and turning to Christ the primary mark of repentance, do we throw out the importance of pursuing obedience? By no means (Rom. 6:1–4)! In fact, just the opposite.
See how the Westminster Shorter Catechism defines repentance that leads to life:
Repentance leading to life is a saving grace, by which a sinner having truly realized his sin and grasped the mercy of God in Christ, turns from his sin with grief and hatred and turns to God with full resolve and effort after new obedience.
So, repentance is not turning away from sin and turning to righteousness; repentance is turning away from sin with grief and hatred of it and turning to Christ with a resolve and effort after a new obedience.
Believing repentance is primarily about turning to righteousness can perpetuate and deepen our commitment to legalism.
The difference between the two definitions of repentance is not that one includes a pursuit of righteous living and the other does not. Rather, the difference is that one makes righteous living the primary focus and the other makes knowing Christ the primary focus.
Fixate on the Savior, Not on Your Sin
Ironically, when we make sinning less our primary goal in repentance, we can achieve the opposite. We tend to overanalyze, get caught up in despair, and fall flat on our faces. But when we make fleeing to Christ our primary goal in repentance, we get caught up in his beauty and find ourselves bearing the fruit of sanctification (John 15:4–5).
Believer, repentance is sweet when it’s centered on the Savior. God has fully taken care of your sin in Christ. You are free to take your own performance off the throne of your heart and to allow Christ to have his proper place. As Robert Murray M’Cheyne put it, “For every look at yourself, take ten looks at Christ.” May this be our pursuit in every arena of our lives—repentance included.