So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.
Humans are bad at repenting because we are idolatrous. We love the creation, and not our Creator (Rom 1:25). As John Calvin wrote, the human heart is an “idol factory.” This assembly line of idolatry is a well-oiled machine in our sin dominated hearts. We like to think our idols are beautiful and unique, but like Henry Ford (allegedly) once said of the cars coming off his assembly lines, “You can have any color, as long as it’s black.” Likewise, our hearts only manufacture black, evil products. (Disclaimer: This is not to suggest all Ford owners are evil).
Though humans are master craftsmen of idols and are astonishingly skilled at inventing new things to bow to (Loki in the Avengers was not far off on this point, we are made to bow the knee), we all have the same primary idol. We can find this idol by looking into a mirror. We love ourselves inordinately, no matter how detrimental this is to our own health. We are like a parrot who dies of starvation with a full allotment of food right by its side, all the while gazing at its own reflection. Unlike Jesus, whose nourishment for the day was to do the will of the Father (John 4:34), we starve spiritually in our self-obsession. We love ourselves to death, literally. Even after we are saved by God’s grace and taste of his goodness we can easily succumb to our base desires inherited from Adam. This makes real repentance really difficult, because in order to truly turn away from sin we need to turn away from self and move towards Jesus. This means we need to take our eyes off the mirror. Biblical repentance finds his face far more attractive than what we see in the mirror. We are so self-absorbed this change in preference is not humanly possible. Only sovereign grace can initiate such a change in affection.
True faith truly repents of sin by faith. I am convinced many of us do not know what true repentance looks like and therefore do not experience the joy of our salvation because we disconnect repentance from faith. Biblical repentance is not merely admitting we messed up, it is humbling ourselves and turning to a God we know loves us. A Father who will run and meet us where we are at (Luke. 15:20). We must be firmly convinced of the wickedness of our sin and of the compassionate kindness of our Father in heaven. We have been adopted into his family and the Spirit of Christ is given to remind us of this continually (Rom. 8:14-17). Our repentance will sound much different when we remember who were are: children of a gentle, kind, and compassionate Father. With this in mind, our repentance will sound something like:
“Father, I have sinned against you and rebelled against your authority. I hate my sin because it disregards you and your inherent right to every area of my life. But, on the basis of Christ’s work on my behalf I know I am forgiven of sin and adopted into your family by faith. I stand before you confident in your affection for me and know you love to lavish your children in grace. Therefore, you delight in restoring me. I humbly turn to you, trusting you will bless me in accordance with your infinite grace. Blot out my sin, and grant me a clear conscience to worship you free from the condemning thoughts attacking my heart. Remind me of Christ crucified, the work is finished, that I am free, that I am yours.”
What is striking in true repentance is the faith-filled, sorrowful-yet-joyful nature of it. It neither elevates sin above the bounds of God’s grace nor makes light of the despicable reality of sin. So, repentance is a turning from the sin that required the death of the Son in faith, to the very one who was pierced on account of our wickedness, knowing he desires to forgive and restore. This is why Jesus presents repentance and faith as two sides of the same coin. In Mark’s gospel he proclaims the arrival of the kingdom, and in light of the kingdom’s commencement, he commands us to “repent and believe the good news” (Mk. 1:15). Repentance and faith are not the same, but they are inseparable. In our post-fall existence, we as humans are turning from sin in every instance of faith and we are exhibiting faith every time we turn from sin. Repentance is not just sorrow and confession, it is a continual turning back to God in order to commune with him by faith.
The foundation of our communion with God is found in the death and resurrection of Christ. Which means repentance is grounded in the knowledge that our sin has been paid for completely. It rejoices in the finished work of Christ, knowing “by this will, we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all time” (Heb. 10:10). It recognizes we were crucified with Christ and buried with him and subsequently raised with him! We do not merely identify with Christ’s death, but we are united to him and the privileges of his resurrection. This is why Peter writes, “Because of his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Pet. 1:3). In view of God’s mercy, we dwell permanently in a living hope in union with a living Savior who ever lives to intercede for us (Heb. 7:25). Therefore, we do not repent as dead people. We repent as resurrected people. Christians must not give more weight to the sin we committed in our repentance than we do Christ’s sacrifice for the sin. When we turn to Christ in repentance we find a mediator who is our friend, he is for us. Our sins are not counted against us, because Christ bore the punishment for the sins, forever clearing our conscience (Heb. 9:14). We by faith receive the blessing of Christ’s righteousness, credited to our account (Rom. 4:3-5). We have no righteousness of our own, no ability or power to live rightly before God. This means faith and repentance are internal matters of the heart turning away to an external source of salvation. Since we are forgiven and sustained by the grace of God, repentance is a forsaking of self-justification while simultaneously banking on Christ’s sufficiency.
Many of us repent while still staring in the mirror of our self-reliance. The resulting “repentance” is nothing more than a confession of sin in hopes to not feel guilty, to eradicate ourselves of the yucky feeling sin brings. We feel dirty, vulnerable, exposed, and we want it gone. Our hope is to get rid of guilt so we can look upon ourselves and feel pure and whole. This is, in reality, a very selfish faux-repentance because we have not turned from ourselves. In fact, we are only further manifesting our self-infatuation by desiring the feeling of forgiveness and the blessings accompanying it as opposed to desiring communion with God. Fundamentally, sin drives a wedge between us and God, meaning the true terror of sin is not we are dirty, but we are separated from God. Unfortunately, our natural instinct is to hide from him, rather than run into his loving arms. We respond like Adam and Eve, not like the prodigal son. We try to cover ourselves, rather than allowing him to cover us. But, there is no garment we can put on as impressive and effective as his grace.
Friend, let us take our hands off the wheel of self-reliance and admit who we are to God. Wicked, deplorable, pitiful, needy, sinners, desperate for grace, but in Christ, we are loved, elected, adopted, accepted, justified, sanctified, and will be glorified (Rom. 8:29-30). When we are obsessed with what is in the mirror we will not humbly step off of our perch to enjoy the overflowing supply of goodness that is our’s in Christ. In this sense repentance is truly a fight for joy. We must mortify the pride writhing against the Spirit within us who draws us to humble ourselves before God, in order to experience the full joy to be found in his presence. We must stop just admitting we sinned and admit we are sinners. We are made saints who are new in Christ and are charged with the privilege of fighting to turn our eyes to look upon our glorious King. It is thrilling to know our God is ready and willing to answer our request in the affirmative and restore us to the joy of our salvation. Repentance is more than confession, it is an aversion of our eyes from the mirror of self-obsession to the storehouses of heaven. Guilt is not the main motivator of this, but joy and faith in the grace and kindness of our Father drawing us to turn to him (Rom. 2:4).