REPENTANCE How can I know when it is genuine?

How can I know when repentance is genuine?

The Importance of this question

A young pastor contacted me recently to seek advice about a problem that had occurred among his leaders. He really knew what to do, but he needed some support from outside his situation to move forward.  We will call him “Luke” but that is not his real name.

Luke had been successful in winning people to Christ and he had faithfully discipled them. Most of them had no Church background at all. Over a period of years, Luke developed a good leadership team. But somehow, the dynamics within the team were not healthy. Luke prayed about his situation. Eventually he discovered that the behaviour of one of his co-leaders was the cause of serious disruption within the team and perhaps also the Church. This is when Luke contacted me.

Luke knew that it was his responsibility to address his co-leader’s disruptive behaviour.  He fully expected that the other leader would be convicted and admit that he had done wrong within the team. Luke was concerned to know what should happen after the sin had been confessed. We talked about the Biblical sequence of events that should follow – Repentance, Restitution and then Restoration. Here was Luke’s problem. How could he know that his brother-in-Christ was truly repentant so that he could help him to move through restitution and into restoration?

I thought of my own experiences in seeking to restore fallen leaders and quickly realized that those who were truly repentant were free to move forward in their leadership roles.  Those who eventually fell out of their ministry role did so because they had never gotten victory over their sin.

Luke’s question was very relevant and extremely important!  I will try to give some Biblical answers to Luke’s question and some guidelines that I hope will prove to be helpful to other leaders.

Let’s start at the beginning.

The place of repentance in the conversion process

When the Pentecost crowds became convicted of crucifying the Lord Jesus, they cried out to Peter,  “What shall we do?” Peter replied, “Repent, be baptised in the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins and you will receive God’s gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:38) 

Here we see their conversion as a three part process.

  • First, repentance – the word means having a change of mind resulting in both a turning from doing evil, and a turning to God. It involved a radical change!
  • Second, public declaration – making a public declaration of faith in Jesus for salvation, forgiveness and inclusion in the Family of God.
  • Third, receipt of the Holy Spirit – receiving the gift of God’s own Holy Spirit to dwell within eternally.

On the Day of Pentecost there were two factors that led to this crowd-wide repentance and the multi-individual conversion of thousands. It is important for us to understand this. Working backward in time, we note that before repentance came, there was a great conviction of sin amongst the people. Those people today who can only see their worship in terms of quiet and order, need to understand that sometimes our quietness and order can be the result of the absence of conviction. The crowd was so greatly convicted that expressions like “cut to the heart,” and “drummed to the earth” were used to describe the pain and noise associated with this first painful conviction.  No wonder they repented!  How people express their conviction depends on a number of factors – personality, cultural values and even stage of life. In the case of our three girls who all became believers at a young age, their repentance became evident as a quiet yet determined turn towards God.

The second factor that led to this great repentance at the birth of the First Church was the strong, tangible sense of the Presence of God. The gathered Apostles and other followers in the Upper Room were visited by the Holy Spirit (Acts 2: 1-4). When the Apostles emerged into the public they were the bearers of the Wind of God and the Fire of God. The previously unbelieving crowd felt the full force of the Presence of the Spirit of the Living God.

We should not be surprised at all this because our Lord Jesus promised us in John 16:8,9a that “When the Holy Spirit comes, He will convict the world of sin, righteousness and judgment.  In regard to sin because people do not believe in me.”  (Notice here that people are convicted not of their many mistakes but of the one great sin – unbelief!)

So, in the history recorded in Acts 2, we can trace the finger of God at work in a sequence of events.

  • First, a great revelation of God’s Presence.
  • Second, a deep conviction. 
  • Third, a thorough repentance.
  • Fourth, a declaration of faith in Jesus and having His salvation.
  • And fifth, an experience of the Holy Spirit moving from outside to inside as a permanent, comforter, guide and Friend. 

If we are unwilling to repent, then we have nothing but Judgment to look forward to (John 16:9b).

Is repentance only related to conversion?

The quick answer is “No!”  Whenever we sin as believers we should repent. If our sin is done in private, then our repentance should be in private before God.  But if our sin has impacted others in the public, then our repentance should also be done in public. In the very personal and private world of the Church in the West, we have shied away from implementing this last truth to our detriment.

Here are two examples that show us, as Christ’s followers, that we should live with repentance as our friend. Do you think it strange that repentance should be regarded as our friend? Please let me explain what I mean. Whenever we as believers act in a way that is “different” to God’s way, then we have sinned. If we do nothing about that sin, then it becomes a barrier between all of the God-head and ourselves. The great prophet Isaiah spoke two unchanging truths at the beginning of Chapter 59. He stated firstly, that there is no limit on God’s side in coming to our aid. His strong arm can reach down as far as is necessary to save us, and His hearing is so acute that He can hear the weakest call for His help. No problem there! So why is it that God chooses not to come to help us?

Here is the second truth – “Your iniquities have separated you from your God;  your sins have hidden His face from you, so that He will not hear!” (Isaiah 59:1,2). Our unconfessed sins become a wall that hinders communication between ourselves and our God. That is why the Lord has given us His own Word and His Holy Spirit. So that whenever we sin, we are instantly aware of it. We have already learnt that it is the designated task of the Holy Spirit to convict us about our sin. That conviction is meant to lead quickly to our confession of that sin to Jesus and His forgiveness. Remember that Satan never convicts us, why should he? He condemns us in his attempt to make us depressed and to feel that we have failed Jesus. When we are convicted and we feel guilty because we have disappointed Jesus, we have two choices. We can continue with the guilt and hide from the smile of the Father’s Face because we think that repentance is too costly.  Or, we can reach out immediately to Jesus, knowing that repentance is our friend and not our enemy, and make our confession to Him. “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).  So from now on, let us regard repentance as our good friend. The two examples that follow show clearly that the Risen Christ wants us to obey His calls to repent, both individually as believers and corporately as Churches. 

  1. The Church at Ephesus  (Rev.2:4,5)

After commending the people in the Church at Ephesus for their good works, perseverance, hard work and intolerance of those who work evil, the Risen Jesus called them to repent. “I hold this against you, you have forsaken your first love.  Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.”  The believers in the Church at Ephesus had left their first love. Early In their history they loved Jesus so much that they worked eagerly to take Jesus to all the people in the surrounding regions. The Church people had maintained all their beliefs and practices, but they were no longer motivated with Jesus’ love to reach out beyond themselves. They were called to repent and to do the first things or their Church would cease to exist!

  • The Church at Laodicea  (Rev.3:19,20)

Today we might regard this Church as both wealthy and successful – delivering a full suite of services. They believed that they were in need of nothing (v17). But in Jesus’ eyes they were “wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.” Notice the difference between the way they saw themselves and the way that Jesus saw them. He said that because they were neither cold nor hot He would spit them out of His mouth. Can you imagine how the people in a rich, self-sufficient, full-service Church would react to this terrible judgment?  It would hurt their pride.  But Jesus offered them some hope. He said, “My rebuke and my discipline are evidence of the fact that I love you. In fact, I am standing right now outside the door of your Church.

(Here was a Church with everything that is admired today. But they did not have Jesus – He was outside the door!) Be earnest and repent!  If you hear me knocking (the knock of conviction of sin,) come and open the door (repent), and I will turn your lukewarmness into something wonderful!  I will give you the right to sit with me on my throne!”  I wonder how many Church members and pastors in this Church ran as fast as they could to open the door?

Repentance today

I fear that in many Churches, but especially in the West, we have lost the dynamics that led to the conversion of thousands at Pentecost. My deepest concern is that this loss may be due to our failure to keep repentance close by as our friend. The practice of repentance is not often spoken about in the Churches today,and perhaps that is why it is not often practised in our lives, either in private or in public.

Over my lifetime I have been privileged to serve people as a pastor and I have also had the joy of ministering in many national and international gatherings in the Name of Jesus. I think that it would be helpful for me to provide a few examples from my experiences that illustrate repentance both real and hypocritical.  I must be careful not to give details that would embarrass anyone.

Example 1  Repentance refused

In one Church that I pastored, a single man ran away with another man’s wife. He was rescuing her from a difficult situation, or so he thought. This was a terrible witness. As the pastor of his Church, I had an idea of where they might have gone so I set out to find them and to bring them back quickly. With God’s guidance I had found them in a few hours and was able to share my concerns and plead with them to repent. The implications of repentance were complicated and they refused. Their Church felt that there was a need to stand up in public for Christ’s way, so the two members were put under discipline in the hope of bringing them back. Though hard for the Church,their response made a stand in the community for love and right behaviour that the community understood.

Example 2  Repentance that was genuine

We were involved for a time in the leadership of the South Pacific Prayer Movement. The Assemblies moved around the Pacific Nations and eventually it was Australia’s turn to host this international and multi-cultural event at Tamborine Convention Centre. It was right at the time when Australia was moving forwards in a movement designed to bring reconciliation between our original Indigenous people and those whose ancestors had displaced the original owners off the land.

On the first morning of the Conference, the teaching was about God’s role in human reconciliation and especially that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself.”  God was powerfully present and a large number of people came under strong conviction. Some of them asked for permission to speak to the whole crowd.

I remember hearing sincere and tearful apologies made by people of European descent about their ancestor’s treatment of Indigenous people.  Similar confessions were made by Australian born people and received graciously by the precious Indigenous leaders who were present. Another group expressed their remorse over the treatment of South Sea Islanders who were mainly forced to leave their homes to come and work as labourers in the Cane Fields.

I can honestly say that there were people present in that gathering who were “cut to the heart” by the Holy Spirit’s conviction and were determined to do something about it. Many strong relational bonds were formed that day that have had many positive benefits to this day. The changed attitudes and lives, and the efforts to work together, proved that the repentance and tears were genuine and Heaven-sent!

Example 3  Repentance that was revealed to be hypocritical

Often hypocritical repentance happens when the person is caught out sinning. They act initially like King David did when the prophet confronted him.

I have counselled a few pastors in different countries who have been caught out in the sexual sin.  When they come forward and volunteer the information that they have failed God, then it is far more likely that they are genuine. If they only confess when they are caught out, much discernment is needed. Also, in order to sin in this way, they must practise deception. They deceive their partner; they deceive their people; and they may think that they have deceived God! In some cases I have found that they have even deceived themselves! When Churches re-instate the sinful leader too soon they remove the opportunity for the leader to reflect on the causes of the sin and their own need to repent deeply.

What is a sign that the repentance is false? It is that the person repeats the sin and in so doing reveals that repentance is absent from their heart despite their words.

No one person or leader sits higher than God’s discipline is able to reach. A dear personal friend and mentor of ours was the world leader of a large Christian organisation. I attended some world gatherings that he led. I remember two strange things happening during the last of those meetings. The first was that even though we had been invited to be an intercessory team for the gathering, the leaders had decided at the beginning of the Conference not to allow it – no explanation. The second strange thing was that the final speaker began with an apology. Normally, the notes of all speakers have to be approved in advance by the leaders, he explained. He told us that his notes had not been submitted for approval. He then spoke very powerfully about David and Bathsheba. This was the final meeting of the Conference.

I was both shocked and deeply hurt when, about one month later, I received an email to tell us that the world leader had resigned his post after admitting to adultery. No one is too high or too necessary to God that their sins can be overlooked or ignored by our Holy God. My friend and mentor had lived as a hypocrite for a number of years. I do not know what has become of him. I pray for his recovery.

All of this has been written as an introduction to some helpful insights that I believe will prove to be instructive to leaders

  • in leading their people through repentance and
  • in discerning when repentance is true.

I acknowledge the work of Dr Warren Wiersbe in his commentary on the Minor Prophets as the basis of the helpful insights that you will discover.

Because context is always important in learning God’s truth. I will use the form of a case study to provide the historical background as briefly as possible and to set the stage for the teachings about Repentance.

A Nation Under Judgment

A Biblical Case study

Before we can learn the essential lessons about true and false repentance, we first need to have a clear understanding of the historical context of the passage we will study a little later. If you love history, you can read more about the history of this period of Israel’s history in 1 Kings chapter 12 and 2 Chronicles chapters 26-32. For the rest of us, here are the essential details.

  1. During the reign of King Solomon’s son, Rehoboam, the Hebrew nation divided into two totally separate kingdoms.  Judah contained the tribes of Judah and Benjamin and was centred on Jerusalem and the Temple there. Israel contained the remaining ten tribes. Jeroboam II was a wicked king. In order to stop his people journeying south to the Temple to worship, he established a place of worship attended by his own priest involving a system of country wide idols and a system of prostitution associated with the worship. Because of its large population base, Israel became prosperous. There was a rich upper class who abused the poor. Corruption was rampant among the judges and other public servants. God brought the Armies of Assyria to punish Israel in 722 BC and the nation ceased to exist. Assyria killed many and took many away as slaves. Then the small remaining population was deliberately mixed with people from other cultures and became known in Biblical times as the Samaritans.
  • Many of the Minor prophets were called to minister to Israel during these years of sinful comfort. Even though they ministered at different times and probably never spoke to each other, the message they brought was consistent over a century of time. It was God’s message promising judgment, mercy and love. But God’s impending judgment demanded repentance before there could be mercy and love. Some of the benefits of God’s mercy were promised immediately, but the final fulfillment was to wait until the “Great and Final Day of the Lord” when God will reconstitute the Jewish nation and once again reveal His glory through them.
  • The hero of our historic case study is the prophet Hosea. His story doesn’t make sense to us. As a man of God, Hosea was commanded to marry Gomer, a well-known prostitute. Hosea obeyed and three children were born although it is not certain that Hosea was the father of two of them. Then Gomer went to live in adultery with another man. I am sure that Hosea felt relieved that this disastrous and shameful relationship was over. But no! God commanded Hosea to go and buy back Gomer from the other man paying half the value of a slave for her return (Hosea Ch 3). None of this makes sense to us as we read the story in Hosea chapter one. But as we read on, we discover that this is another of God’s prophetic dramas that He had the prophets act out from time to time. God reveals that in this drama Hosea, the faithful husband, represents God who came to Egypt and chose and called out a bunch of slaves to be His people. During their wanderings in the wilderness God became their husband by virtue of the fact that He and then Israel, made a Covenant agreement together at Sinai. God would be their God and they would be His unique people participating in His purpose and His glory. However, as the centuries passed the glory of God became less and less evident in His people. In the case of Israel, they no longer worshipped God. They insulted Him by making other idols and bowing down to them. Through Hosea, God called this sin “spiritual adultery.”  In this way, Gomer’s behaviour in leaving Hosea was a parable of Israel and what they had done.
  • Israel in God’s court. One common practice followed by the Minor Prophets was to call the nation before God’s Court. This occurs in Hosea chapters 4 and 5. Listen as God’s voice rings out.

Hear the word of the Lord you Israelites,

Because the Lord has a charge to bring

Against you who live in the land:

“There is no faithfulness, no love,

No acknowledgement of God in the land.

There is only cursing, lying and murder,

Stealing and adultery.” (vv1,2)

God then proceeds to lay His charges against the various parts of Israeli    society.  No one escapes. Because we are thinking about true and false repentance we need to first understand what they have done wrong.

  • The Nation as a whole. Everyone had failed to keep their part of the Covenant. Chapter 4 verses 1-3 describes a lawless society whose behaviour had a flow on effect upon the barrenness of the land, the animals and even the fish in the sea. Sin is a terrible contagion. It spreads in its impact like a terrible plague.
  • The Priests. (Ch 4:4-14)  When Jeroboam established his own religion, the true priests fled to Judah. So the king chose his own priests (2 Chron 11:13-15) who knew neither the Lord nor His Law! Their primary interest lay in having an easy job with food, clothing and pleasure included in their benefits. Hosea tells them, “Don’t blame the people, they are only following your bad example!” (Ch 4:9).  Instead of finding God’s will, the priests consulted their idols (vv12,13). As the peoples’ sin increased so too did the benefits to the priests who accepted the gifts sacrificed to their idols.   But all this was futile because God would cause hardship to abound until even the families of the priests would go in to prostitution in service of false idols.
  • God’s summary of His evidence against Israel (Ch 5:1-7).  All the leaders – the royal house, the priests and the false prophets were guilty of trapping innocent people and exploiting them (Ch 5:1).  As a result there was no justice in the land. They had sunk so deep into sin that they lacked the power to repent and turn back to God (v4). What was the cause? They did not know the Lord at all! (v4). Their own arrogance has led them to stumble and fall (v5). It was too late for the nation! Even if they were to gather up all their livestock to sacrifice to the Lord, God would not meet them (v6).  He had withdrawn Himself from them. He rejected their illegitimate children and their monthly feasts were about to become funerals (v7).
  • God’s terrible Verdict (Ch 5:8-15).  The verdict is “guilty” and God’s punishment will soon follow. Assyria would come and conquer the cities of Israel (vv8-13). The inner decay of the nation was like the damage caused by a moth eating away within (v12). However, the attack by the Assyrians would be sudden and catastrophic. It would be like being attacked by a lion and torn to pieces (v14).  Instead of repenting and turning back to the Lord, the leaders of Israel adopted a political solution by seeking an alliance with Assyria. All the Lord God could do in the face of their stubbornness was to withdraw and wait for the people to learn their lesson and return to His love. The silences of God are sometimes more powerful even than His words beause they draw us to Him.
  • The People made their appeal before God (Ch 6:1-3).  The words of the people recorded in Hosea Chapter 6: 1-3 have been the subject of many powerful sermons and uplifting spiritual songs. Perhaps you can recall singing songs about this passage. Surely these are words spoken out of genuine contrition and a hope that God will respond positively.

“Come, let us return to the Lord…He will heal us…

He will revive us that we may live in His presence…

Let us acknowledge the Lord, let us press on to acknowledge Him…

He will come to us like the winter rains…”

These are all wonderful words and they seem on the surface to be an expression of true repentance.  But Israel’s repentance was not acceptable to God because God saw right into their hypocritical hearts.

  • God, the righteous Judge, saw that their repentance was not genuine. In Chapter 7 God presented evidence that proved that, despite their words, their actions and attitudes had remained unchanged. God’s voice thunders from the throne in accusation. Here are just a few of God’s charges against Israel.
  • Israel’s arrogance testified against them. Despite all the talk, Israel did not return to the Lord, nor search for Him (7:10).
  • Israel had strayed so far from God that they had even spoken lies against Him (7:13).
  • Israel had not cried out to the Lord from their hearts. Despite their many troubles, they had turned away from God (7:14).
  • Israel would be punished and destroyed for their ongoing arrogance and sin (7:16).

Their repentance was unacceptable to God, their Righteous Judge.

I have given all of this context to show how God regards hypocritical repentance. Now we move forward to discover some guidelines that will help us both personally and as leaders, to know when our repentance is genuine. Remember that as believers we should regard repentance as our friend, the key to further blessing.

How can I tell when repentance is genuine?

Wiersbe examines the confession made by the Nation of Israel and he asks, “What was wrong with this confession?”  Then he provides some statements that will help us personally to know if our repentance is real. Sometimes as leaders we are in a position where we have to deal with a confession of sin by others. These insights will help us to have God’s discernment about the genuineness of the confession.

  1. Their concern was for healing and not for cleansing  (6:1) The people knew that the nation was in trouble and they wanted God to make things right for them. They wanted their painful circumstances to change, but not their arrogant, stubborn hearts. They did not come before God with broken and surrendered wills.  The test of motivation.
  • They wanted happiness, not holiness  (6:3)  They wanted God to change their circumstances and give them a happy, normal life. They did not understand that what God wanted for them was a complete change of character. As His holy Nation they were meant to represent Him before the surrounding nations as a witness to the world. Instead of living only for God, they had prostituted themselves before the idols of those nations and brought shame to God’s Name. (People who are in trouble often come to God like a Lifeguard who will deliver them from danger, but not deliver them from their sins! They cry because they are suffering and not because they have sinned.) The test of outcome.
  • They wanted the remedy to come quickly without delay  (6:2) “After two days He will revive us.”  The false prophets in Jeremiah’s day taught this same message. They offered superficial remedies, but never got to the heart of the problem (Jer. 6:14 and 8:11-16).  Wiersbe says that this is like applying sunscreen to a dangerous skin cancer instead of going for deep surgery. Expecting a “quick fix” is one of the marks of an unrepentant heart that does not want to pay the price for deep cleansing. Listen to David’s prayer after he has been found out in his terrible sin with Bathsheba. “Surely you desire truth in the inner parts; you teach me wisdom in the inmost place. Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.” (Psalm 51:6,7).  How long will this process take?  It will take as long as it takes!  Every case will be different, and only God the Holy Spirit knows when His “heart surgery” on us has been completed. The test of patience.
  • They thought that forgiveness and restoration were guaranteed once they repented. Our faith is a relational matter involving getting right with God (6:3). They believed that if they acknowledged the Lord then He would automatically come and bless them. This thinking is common today. We can call it “formula religion.” We can develop many “formulas to success” as we go through the Christian life. But the Christian life is a relationship with God and relationships are not based on rigid formulas! The test of relationship.
  • They depended on religious words rather than righteous deeds  (6:3) “Let us acknowledge the Lord and that will cause Him to bless us!” True repentance reveals that our words have come from broken hearts. Our words of confession should cost us something. Later in Chapter 14, Hosea calls Israel to true repentance. He says, “Your sins have been your downfall. Take words with you and return to the Lord.  Say to Him ‘Forgive all our sins and receive us graciously, that we may offer the fruit of our lips.’” (14:1,2). These words were to be like spiritual sacrifices brought to the Lord.  They must be contrite and full of sincerity. Our words can conceal the truth about us and they can reveal the truth about us. God is waiting to hear genuine words that are matched by righteous deeds. Eccles.5:1-4 gives a strong warning to all of us about our words. “Go near to listen to God rather than to offer the sacrifice of fools… Do not be quick with your mouth, do not be hasty in your heart to utter anything before God. God is in heaven and you are on earth so let your words be few… When you make a vow to God, do not delay in fulfilling it.  He has no pleasure in fools.”  The test of integrity.

How can I tell if my own repentance is genuine? And how can I know with confidence that the repentance expressed by another believer is acceptable to God?

Look for the evidence of a deep work of God in the heart. Words are not a reliable guide in themselves. What is important? Is it that God’s Name will be glorified or is it that my pain and problems will be taken away?

And apply the five tests listed above to the situation. The tests of:

  1. Motivation
  2. Outcome
  3. Patience
  4. Relationship, and
  5. Integrity.

Paul wrote, “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldy sorrow brings death. See what this Godly sorrow has produced in you:  what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done.” (2 Cor. 7:10,11)  Is repentance real?  Look for the fruit!

Re-discovering God’s wonderful love

At the beginning I said that the ministry of the Minor prophets provided us with a consistent message even though they lived in different times and ministered to different situations as God gave them His words to speak. Their words are still relevant to us today as we approach the times that they spoke about. They announced God’s impending Judgment; they offered God’s wonderful mercy; and to those who would repent (a small “company of the concerned” in Judah,) they described a future day when God’s people would be re-gathered to Him to serve Him and to thrive in His love. What a wonderful restitution and restoration!

God promises mercy, restoration and love to all those who come to Him with sincere hearts earnestly desiring a pure relationship with Him. Love awaits us!  In Jesus’ story of the prodigal son there was a moment when he had wasted everything that belonged to his father. Then Jesus said, “He came to himself.”  The run-away son had a moment of sanity that led him to repent. “I will go to my father and I will say, Father I have sinned against Heaven and against you. Make me as one of your servants!” Notice that Jesus pointed out that the son’s sin was not simply against his father, but at its deepest level it was against Heaven. We should understand that our sins not only involve our families, our Churches and even our communities, but they are also striking at the very heart of God.

When, like this lost son, we truly repent not only with words but also with actions, then our future is bright.  Hosea concluded with statements full of hope and love as he spoke of a future time in Chapter 14.

“I will heal their waywardness and love them freely, for my anger has turned away from them… Israel will flourish… I will answer them and care for them…I am like a green pine tree, your fruitfulness comes from me…Who is wise? He will realize these things. Who is discerning? He will understand them.  The ways of the Lord are right; the righteous walk in them, but the rebellious stumble in them.”

Print Friendly, PDF & Email