How does repentance come about? It certainly isn’t something I can just conjure up. Scripture informs me that repentance is a gift God grants us (Ephesians 2:8, 2 Timothy 2:25). This stands true for initial repentance (salvation) and the lifestyle of repentance to which a believer is called. So how does the gift of God’s grace affect repentance in a person’s heart?
Well, a precursor to genuine repentance is sorrow. We cannot truly repent for sin if we are not sorrowful because of our sin. Paul calls a sorrow that leads to repentance “godly sorrow” (2 Corinthians 7:10).
Not all experiences of sorrow are godly. “Many sorrows shall be to the wicked” (Psalm 32:10). “He who sows iniquity will reap sorrow” (Proverbs 22:8). “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, for which some have strayed from the faith in their greediness, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows” (1 Timothy 6:10). Contrasted with “godly sorrow,” this “worldly sorrow” produces death, not repentance leading to salvation.
It may not always be a sin to experience sorrow, but whether good or bad, sorrow is (ultimately) the result of sin. I make such a conclusion based on verses like Revelation 21:4—“And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.” With sin removed in heaven, there will be no more residual affects of sin, including sorrow.
After studying about the requirement for godly sorrow to lead to genuine repentance, I dug even deeper. A quote from Jonathan Edwards (in a John Piper article entitled Sweet Sorrow) helped me see that mere godly sorrow isn’t the root of repentance. The solution to sin goes deeper still. Edwards writes,
There is repentance of sin: though it be a deep sorrow for sin that God requires as necessary to salvation, yet the very nature of it necessarily implies delight. Repentance of sin is a sorrow arising from the sight of God’s excellency and mercy, but the apprehension of excellency or mercy must necessarily and unavoidably beget pleasure in the mind of the beholder. ‘Tis impossible that anyone should see anything that appears to him excellent and not behold it with pleasure, and it’s impossible to be affected with the mercy and love of God, and his willingness to be merciful to us and love us, and not be affected with pleasure at the thoughts of [it]; but this is the very affection that begets true repentance. How much soever of a paradox it may seem, it is true that repentance is a sweet sorrow, so that the more of this sorrow, the more pleasure.
Repentance—and therefore, godly sorrow—necessitates delight in God. If there is no delight in God, there will be no grief over sin, which is a turning from God and delighting in other things. So, in order for me to respond to my sin with godly sorrow, I must see how good and glorious is the God whom I am forsaking.
This is one reason why threats of punishment and/or negative consequences aren’t enough to battle sin. They may provide temporal benefit, but on their own they cannot lastingly affect one’s life. I must grow in my love for God if I am to grow in my hatred of sin.
Now I was getting to the root of the issue. This delight in God’s goodness is the root of repentance Paul talks about in Romans 2:4. “Or do you despise the riches of His goodness, forbearance, and longsuffering, not knowing that the goodness of God leads you to repentance?” If I am thinking lightly of God’s goodness, I will think lightly of my rebellion against His goodness and my idolatries will not affect me with sorrow.
My battle against sin, then, is a battle to find delight in God. Beauty brings delight, and the most beautiful thing in the universe is holiness, and only God is truly holy. My appreciation for and awe/fear of the holiness of God has been obscured.
At the end of the above mentioned article, John Piper asks some excellent application questions:
1. Have we truly repented? Are we now truly repentant? Have we seen and savored and desired the glory of God in Christ so much that we grieve over not cherishing it as we ought? Does our delight in God waken our sorrow for how easily we desire other things more?
2. Is the sorrow of our repentance a “godly sorrow” that does not produce the death of discouragement and paralysis (2 Corinthians 7:10), but produces a life of hope that God will be merciful to us because Christ died for us, and will forgive us and help us make progress in putting to death the old self with its evil desires (Colossians 3:5)?
In Conclusion (yes, I know this is a long post)
It’s one thing to view a maze from the sky and discover how to get from the beginning to the end. It’s quite another to be on the ground and discover the way out by actually traveling through the maze. In the same way, it’s good to know in a general and broad sense that the glory of God is our ultimate aim. However, I think it helps us grow in godliness when we see and experience exactly how a particular issue (idolatry, repentance, etc.) relates in all its intricacies to the glory of God.
Repentance is a vital discipline, and by God’s grace—and I mean only and totally by God’s grace—the hardness of my heart is being softened into repentance. As I have studied, the concept of repentance has brought me back to the one thing that really matters: delighting in the glory of God.
May I continue to grow in the grace of Christ Jesus so that my life more consistently resembles God-exalting, sin-despising, properly sorrowful (and yet properly sweet) repentance.