How do you know when someone is repentant? In his helpful little book Church Discipline, Jonathan Leeman offers some guidance:
“A few verses before Jesus’ instruction in Matthew 18 about church discipline, he provides us with help for determining whether an individual is characteristically repentant: would the person be willing to cut off a hand or tear out an eye rather than repeat the sin (Matt. 18:8-9)? That is to say, is he or she willing to do whatever it takes to fight against the sin? Repenting people, typically, are zealous about casting off their sin. That’s what God’s Spirit does inside of them. When this happens, one can expect to see a willingness to accept outside counsel. A willingness to inconvenience their schedules. A willingness to confess embarrassing things. A willingness to make financial sacrifices or lose friends or end relationships.” (p. 72)
These are good indicators, and I believe we can add a few more.
Here are 12 signs we have a genuinely repentant heart:
1. We name our sin as sin and do not spin it or excuse it, and further, we demonstrate “godly sorrow,” which is to say, a grief chiefly about the sin itself, not just a grief about being caught or having to deal with the consequences of sin.
2. We actually confessed before we were caught or the circumstantial consequences of our sin caught up with us.
3. If found out, we confess immediately or very soon after and “come clean,” rather than having to have the full truth coaxed out of us. Real repentance is typically accompanied by transparency.
4. We have a willingness and eagerness to make amends. We will do whatever it takes to make things right and to demonstrate we have changed.
5. We are patient with those we’ve hurt or victimized, spending as much time as is required listening to them without jumping to defend ourselves.
6. We are patient with those we’ve hurt or victimized as they process their hurt, and we don’t pressure them or “guilt” them into forgiving us.
7. We are willing to confess our sin even in the face of serious consequences (including undergoing church discipline, having to go to jail, or having a spouse leave us).
8. We may grieve the consequences of our sin but we do not bristle under them or resent them. We understand that sometimes our sin causes great damage to others that is not healed in the short term (or perhaps ever this side of heaven).
9. If our sin involves addiction or a pattern of behavior, we do not neglect to seek help with a counselor, a solid twelve-step program, or even a rehabilitation center.
10. We don’t resent gracious accountability, pastoral rebuke, or church discipline.
11. We seek our comfort in the grace of God in Jesus Christ, not simply in being free of the consequences of our sin.
12. We are humble and teachable.
As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting. For you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no loss through us. For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death. For see what earnestness this godly grief has produced in you, but also what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what longing, what zeal, what punishment! At every point you have proved yourselves innocent in the matter.
— 2 Corinthians 7:9-11
(I have put my signs in the first person plural not because it is always inappropriate to seek to gauge someone’s repentance, but because we should always be gauging our own first, and because the truly forgiving heart is interested in an offender’s repentance but isn’t inordinately set on holding up measuring sticks but holding out grace.)