Note: This article is also published on The Gospel Coalition.
“And they glorified God, saying, ‘Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.’” —Acts 11:18
Repentance is the lifeblood of every Christian. Without it we cannot enjoy freedom or fellowship with God—or with one another—in the way God intended. As Thomas Brooks put it, “Repentance is a continual spring, where the waters of godly sorrow are always flowing.” Yet, there is an extremely common misinterpretation (and misapplication) of repentance that does not lead to life and freedom, but actually leads to death and slavery. I know this from firsthand experience.
When we think about repentance, many of us rightly think about the phrase “to turn away.” That is, in fact, the definition of the Hebrew word שׁוּב (pronounced “shoove”). To repent means to turn away (or turn back) from something and to turn to something else.
But where we often go wrong is in what we turn from and what we turn to.
Turn! Turn! Turn!
Fill in the blank: Repentance is turning away from ____________ and turning to ____________ . Which two words did you pick?
For me—up until recently—I probably would’ve said that repentance is turning away from sin and turning to righteousness.
But a brother in Christ reminded me of something a few months ago that has deepened my hope and joy in repentance ever since. He said, “Repentance is not primarily turning away from sin and turning to righteousness; repentance is primarily turning away from sin and turning to Christ” (cf. Luke 1:16; 1 Thes. 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 leads to freedom.
Subtle difference, enormous implications
If we believe that repentance is primarily about turning away from sin and turning to righteousness—with Christ omitted from the equation—then every time we repent, we actually perpetuate and deepen our commitment to legalism. If we think the chief end of repentance is a behavior—not a Person—then every time we repent, we reinforce an anti-gospel message which says that our hope is 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 next time!”, then our hope is in ourselves, and we are on a fast track to despair (Romans 7:18-24). But if our response after we sin is, “God, I need you—give me a fresh measure of Christ and all of his benefits!”, then our hope is in our perfectly faithful God, and we are on the path to joy, peace, and yes, sanctification (Romans 7:24-8:6).
But what about holy living?
If you are particularly sensitive to antinomianism, 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 new obedience? By no means! (Romans 6:1-4). In fact, just the opposite.
Consider how the Westminster Shorter Catechism defines repentance that leads to life.
Q. 87. What is repentance unto life?
A. 87. 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.
If we were to nuance my friend’s statement using the language of the Westminster Divines, it might look something like this:
“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 new obedience].”
The difference between these 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.
Ironically, when we make “sinning less” our primary goal in repentance, we often overanalyze ourselves to death, get caught up in despair, and fall flat on our faces. Yet when we make “knowing Christ” our primary goal in repentance, we often get caught up in his beauty and find ourselves bearing the fruit of sanctification (John 15:4-5).
Free to fixate on your Savior (not your sin)
Believer, God has fully taken care of your sin in Christ—meaning 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 McCheyne memorably put it, “For every look at yourself, take ten looks at Christ.”
May this be our battle cry in every area of our lives—repentance included.
Blake Glosson is a student at Reformed Theological Seminary. He has been published by The Gospel Coalition and republished and/or referred by Eternal Perspective Ministries (Randy Alcorn), Challies.com (Tim Challies), Moody Radio (Dawn and Steve Mornings—here and here), The JOY FM (The Morning Cruise with Dave, Bill, and Carmen), ChurchLeaders.com, The Aquila Report, and numerous other sources. Previously, he served as the director of young adults at New Covenant Bible Church in St. Charles, Illinois.
Watch or listen to “Forgiveness” here.
Read “Am I Sinning? Six Questions to Help You Navigate Gray Areas” here.
Read “Three Powerful Lessons From “American Underdog” (Kurt Warner)” here.
Source of modern version of WSC Q&A 87: R S Ward, Learning the Christian Faith : The Shorter Catechism for Today (Wantirna, 5th ed, 1998), cited in The Westminster Shorter Catechism in modern English with Scripture proofs and comments (online), 8 March 2022 <https://matt2819.com/wsc> .
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