How to Give (and Receive) Repentance

Note: This article is also published on The Gospel Coalition.

Imagine you are on Family Feud, and Steve Harvey gives the following prompt:

“We asked 100 sinners, ‘Name one reason why you do not repent of your sin to one another.’ The top seven answers are on the board.” 

What do you think the most common responses would be? I’d offer these seven. 

We don’t repent because. . .  

  1. We’re completely blind to our sin, or we don’t think our sin is bad enough to warrant repentance.
  1. We don’t think the other person deserves our repentance. Maybe we think they sinned first, or they sinned more, or their sin caused our sin, so we refuse to repent until they do.
  1. We don’t think repenting will help anything. Sometimes we fear our repentance will fuel their pride, appear to ignore their fault, or lead to further conflict. So we stay silent.
  1. We are too proud. Repentance means admitting we were wrong—and that we need mercy—which requires Christlike humility. Sometimes we don’t want to stoop that low.
  1. We are too ashamed of our sin or too afraid of the consequences. Repentance also means giving up (the feeling of) control over our own reputation, and putting ourselves at the mercy of others. This takes vulnerability—something many people run from.
  1. We don’t want to change. Biblical repentance requires turning—changing our behavior—which can feel a bit like heart surgery. Many resist confessing their sin because they love it too much to give it up.
  1. We don’t know how to repent. Many people never had repentance clearly modeled in the home or taught in the church, leaving them unequipped to put it into action.

So why should we confess our sins to one another?

James 5:16 gives us a helpful starting point: “Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.”

This verse gives us at least two motivations to confess our sins to one another:

  1. Because God commands us to.
  2. Because God commands us to for our healing.

Repentance is not a punishment God makes us pay after we sin; it’s medicine God uses to heal us from our sin’s ravaging effects. God uses our repentance to enliven us (Acts 11:18), refresh us (Acts 3:19–20), restore us (Luke 15:11–24), cleanse us (1 John 1:9), and enrich our fellowship with him and with one another (1 John 1:6–7). Repentance is not a curse to fear, but a gift to cherish.

How do I repent of my sin to someone?

Repentance can be hard, but it doesn’t need to be complicated. Below is a simple “1-2-3 model” of repentance: one statement, two omissions, three questions.

One statement:

“I am sorry that I [insert sin].”

We can call this naming the sin. James 5:16 says, “confess your sins to one another” Both the words “your” and “sins” are key here.

First, confess your sins. Repentance is not saying:

  • I’m sorry you were hurt.
  • I’m sorry you were offended.
  • I’m sorry you interpreted that the way you did.

Rather, repentance is saying,

  • I’m sorry I spoke harshly with you.
  • I’m sorry I was dishonest with you.
  • I’m sorry I was selfish in demanding my way.

Second, confess your sins. This means taking the offense out of the abstract (“I’m sorry I hurt you”) and getting specific about how you sinned against the other person. Specificity honors the other person, legitimizes her pain, helps both parties come to an agreement, and gives you something specific to work on in the future.

Two omissions:

  1. Finger-pointing: “I am sorry I [insert the sin], but you. . .”
  1. Self justification: “I am sorry I [insert the sin], but I wouldn’t have had to if. . .”

Finger-pointing and self-justification are two of the biggest roadblocks to healing and reconciliation. I once heard a pastor say, “In conflict, always own 100 percent of your 2 percent.” In other words, even if you were only two percent of the problem, own it. Not only does this honor God (our ultimate motivation), but often when we take full ownership of our sin, the other person will reciprocate and confess her sin, too.

Three questions:

  1. “Will you forgive me?”

Trying to forgive someone who hasn’t asked for your forgiveness is like trying to climb a mountain with a bag of rocks strapped to your back. It’s possible, but much harder, more painful, more tiring, and less enjoyable. Asking for forgiveness doesn’t remove the mountain the other person must climb to forgive you, but it can immediately remove a significant amount of weight off her back, which can be immensely freeing. This might be the one question your loved one has been longing to hear from you for days, months, or years.

  1. “Was there any other way that I hurt you in this situation?”

One of the most important aspects of confession is coming to an agreement about the sin committed, the pain caused, and the plan of action going forward. (The Greek word for confess in James 5:16 literally means “to agree.”) Without coming to an agreement, bitterness and distance will continue to thrive.

  1. “How can I love you better in the future?”

Beneath this question is the humble acknowledgement that, “Maybe I don’t know what you need. You tell me how I can love you better.” This question conveys love, facilitates needful communication, and provides a healthy foundation for healing and reconciliation. 

How do I receive repentance?

Because repentance is so rare, it can be difficult to know how to respond when someone actually does confess their sin to us. Consider three simple tips. (In cases of abuse, seek help from others to determine the best way forward.)

  1. Thank them for repenting and grant them forgiveness.
  1. Confess any way that you sinned in this matter. (It is possible that you have not sinned, in which case you shouldn’t make something up.)
  1. Communicate exactly how you were hurt and how you would feel loved in the future, so that they can work on changing.

We have a responsibility to communicate our needs to those closest to us. It’s not loving to sweep their sins under the rug or to tolerate their annoying habits without saying anything. This will only enable their behavior and feed bitterness in our hearts.

Cherish Repentance

Repentance is a gift of God that leads to life and healing (Acts 11:18; James 5:16). Let’s cherish it, cultivate it, and live in gratitude and dependence on God as we seek to model it in our lives.

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Blake Glosson is a student at Reformed Theological Seminary. He has been published by The Gospel Coalition and Crosswalk.com 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, Monergism.com, and numerous other sources. Previously, he served as the director of young adults at New Covenant Bible Church in St. Charles, Illinois.

Read “An Answer to Prayer Even Better than Clarity” here.

Read “How to Starve Bitterness” here.

Read “Which Memories Should I Dwell On?” here.

How to Starve Bitterness

Note: This article is also published on The Gospel Coalition.

I once had a conversation with a friend who had been hurt by someone he loved. He told me he was doing everything in his power to not harbor bitterness toward this person. He then made a comment I have not forgotten years later: “I’ve heard it said that harboring bitterness is like drinking poison and hoping the other person dies. I’ve experienced this firsthand. The more I feed bitterness in my heart, the more it brings death to me.”

This is precisely how bitterness works. Bitterness is poison dipped in honey. It tastes sweet going down, then it proceeds to metastasize and kill us from the inside out. In this way, bitterness is the poster child for the deceitfulness of sin. Whenever we love something that brings death to us, the devil has us right where he wants us.

There’s a scene in C.S. Lewis’s Perelandra where the devil incarnate is tempting a woman to sin. After baiting her with lies, the devil says, “It is for this that I came here: that you may have Death in abundance.” Death is the devil’s favorite seed to sew. If we do not actively starve bitterness, it will bring death to us—and there are no exceptions to this rule.

How is bitterness fed?

In order to starve bitterness, we must first know what feeds it. Proverbs 17:9 gives us a helpful starting point:

“Whoever covers an offense seeks love, but he who repeats a matter separates close friends.”

Here we see the antithesis of forgiveness is something called “repeating a matter.” There are three primary ways we can repeat a matter—each of which feeds death-producing bitterness in our hearts.

1. We can repeat the matter to ourselves.

Repeating the matter to ourselves is when we replay the videotape of the other person’s offense over and over again in our minds. This is perhaps the most common feeder of bitterness and unforgiveness. Every time we replay someone’s sin in our minds, we water the seed of bitterness in our hearts—and it grows.

2. We can repeat the matter to the sinner.

Ken Sande (author of The Peacemaker) calls this gunnysacking. This is when we collect the other person’s sins in a figurative bag (gunny sack), and we carry that bag around with us wherever we go. Then, whenever we get into an argument with this person, we dump out their old sins and throw them back in their face.

Whether it’s through actively attacking this person (e.g., lashing out in anger) or through passive aggression (e.g., giving the cold shoulder), we have one goal: Don’t let them forget what they did.

3. We can repeat the matter to someone else.

The Bible calls this gossip. (The CSB actually translates Proverbs 17:9 as “Whoever gossips separates close friends…”) One thing to notice about gossip is that it harms four different parties:

Every time we repeat a matter in one of these three ways, we feed bitterness in our hearts—and this bitterness inevitably brings death to us and those around us.

Important caveats

Of course, there are certainly situations where we must lovingly and prayerfully confront the person who sinned against us and discuss their offense with them. (In fact, it is our duty to lovingly communicate how we’ve been hurt, so the person can take steps toward growth.) There are also situations where we should report an offense to the authorities, especially in criminal activity or abuse cases. There are also situations in which we should discuss sins committed against us with a counselor, therapist, or pastor. None of these things are what Proverbs 17:9 warns us about when it talks about “repeating a matter.”

Rather, this verse warns us of the danger of allowing bitterness and vengefulness to consume us, causing us to repeat the matter with the intent to harm the sinner or to justify our own sin. Whenever we do this, we give the devil a foothold to sew death-producing bitterness inside of us (Ephesians 4:26-32; Hebrews 12:14-15).

Before you read on, ask yourself: Which of these feeders of bitterness do I need to repent of? Which do I need to be on guard against in this season of my life?

So, how can we starve bitterness?

Ephesians 4:31-32 is helpful here: “Let all bitterness … be put away from you … Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”

In order to starve our souls of one thing, we must feed our souls with something else. According to this passage, we “put away” bitterness in part by preoccupying ourselves with God’s love and forgiveness toward us. How does God love and forgive us? I love how J.I. Packer put it in Knowing God:

There is tremendous relief in knowing that His love to me is utterly realistic, based at every point on prior knowledge of the worst about me, so that no discovery now can disillusion Him about me, in the way I am so often disillusioned about myself, and quench His determination to bless me.

God’s love for us is so deep, strong, and committed, that he’s actually able to see the worst in us and yet still desire good for us. He is constantly pursuing us—even when we wander from him—eager to embrace us, kiss us, bless us, forgive us, and celebrate with us when we repent of our sin and return to him (Luke 15:20-32).

Rehearsing the gospel of God’s grace and love toward us is always the first step in starving bitterness and cultivating forgiveness toward others (1 John 4:19-21).

Remembering God’s promises

Beyond this, Christlike love and forgiveness are cultivated by keeping three promises of God on the forefront of our minds:

  1. God is grieved by the evil committed against you, and he will avenge you (Proverbs 20:22; 24:17-18, 29; Romans 12:19-21; 1 Peter 2:22-23).
  2. God is pleased by your desire to forgive, and he will reward you (Proverbs 25:21-22; Ephesians 6:8; Hebrews 11:6; James 1:12; 1 Peter 4:19).
  3. There is mercy waiting for every repentant sinner, including you in your imperfect forgiveness (Proverbs 28:13; 1 John 1:9).

If we rest in these promises, our hearts will become fertile ground for the Holy Spirit to work. Remember this: bitterness is not something that you have or don’t have; it’s something that you cultivate—and the same is true for forgiveness (Luke 6:45).

Freedom through forgiveness

It has been said that to forgive is to set a prisoner free, and then to discover that the prisoner was you. May God work forgiveness in our hearts—as we are compelled by the gospel of Jesus Christ—for God’s glory, the good of others, and our own freedom and joy.

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Blake Glosson is a student at Reformed Theological Seminary. He has been published by The Gospel Coalition and Crosswalk.com 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, Monergism.com, and numerous other sources. Previously, he served as the director of young adults at New Covenant Bible Church in St. Charles, Illinois.

Read “An Answer to Prayer Even Better than Clarity” here.

Read “Which Memories Should I Dwell On?” here.

Repentance That Leads To Death

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 righteousnesswith 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.

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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.comThe 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&gt; .

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