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 by Eternal Perspective Ministries (Randy Alcorn), Challies.com (Tim Challies), Moody Radio (Dawn and Steve Mornings), 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; .

Questions or comments? I’d love to hear from you! Leave a reply in the box below.

Am I Sinning? Six Questions For Moral Gray Areas

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

Below are 15 actions that some people see as sinful and others do not. Count how many of the following you deem as sinful.

  1. Making out with your boyfriend/girlfriend. (Y/N)
  2. Watching rated R movies. (Y/N)
  3. Listening to non-Christian music. (Y/N)
  4. Drinking alcohol. (Y/N)
  5. Swearing. (Y/N)
  6. Getting a tattoo. (Y/N)
  7. Attending a Halloween Party. (Y/N)
  8. Using social media. (Y/N)
  9. Binging on Netflix. (Y/N)
  10. Driving five MPH over the speed limit. (Y/N)
  11. Skipping church one Sunday to attend a big sporting event. (Y/N)
  12. Sending your kids to public school. (Y/N)
  13. Betting on sporting events. (Y/N)
  14. Spending money on luxury items (designer clothes, sports cars, etc.). (Y/N)
  15. Playing video games that contain violence. (Y/N)
  16. [BONUS]: Allowing your kids to do any of the above. (Y/N)

Interpreting Your Score

So … How many “Y’s” did you circle?

If you scored 10 or more, you are a legalist!

If you scored 5 or less, you are an antinomian!

Just kidding.

If you had trouble answering these—and you found yourself answering “it depends” for many of them—that might not be a bad thing.

Many Christians would label at least some of these issues as “gray areas” (i.e., not black or white). For the purposes of this article, we can define a gray area as an action that Scripture does not clearly identify as “sinful” or “non-sinful” for all people in all places at all times.

To say that another way, a gray area (biblically speaking) is any matter which is not clearly commanded, prohibited, or permitted in Scripture to God’s people.

Developing Discernment

Gray areas have always existed for believers (e.g., Romans 14:1-23). New technology and modern social issues certainly provide unique manifestations of gray areas, but gray areas themselves are nothing novel—Christians have always needed to exercise wisdom and discernment in myriads of life situations.

As Charles Spurgeon helpfully notes, “Discernment is not knowing the difference between right and wrong. It is knowing the difference between right and almost right.”

My goal in this article is not to give you my opinion on the morality of the aforementioned potential “gray areas,” but to give you several questions that will help you engage with any moral decision in your own life in a biblical and God-honoring way.

We can see these questions not as foolproof solutions to every moral dilemma we will face, but as trustworthy tools for Christian discernment.

To Act or Not to Act?

Whenever you aren’t sure if a particular action is sinful, ask yourself these questions before proceeding:

  1. Is the Holy Spirit convicting me that this is wrong? (See Romans 14:23; James 4:17)
  1. Is this action causing a brother or sister to stumble? (See Romans 14:20; 1 Corinthians 8:9-13).
  1. Is this action harmful to my faith? (See 1 Corinthians 6:12; 10:23)
  1. Is this action mastering/controlling me? (See 1 Corinthians 6:12; 9:27)
  1. Is this action causing me to be disobedient to someone who God has put in authority over me? (See Ephesians 6:1; Hebrews 13:17)
  1. Am I judging others who don’t agree with me in this gray area? (See Matthew 7:1-5; Romans 14:13)

If you answered “yes” to one or more of the above questions, it is likely that this behavior is sinful or at the very least unwise.

Of course, this is not an exhaustive list of all that the Bible says about gray areas—and there are many caveats that we could add here (e.g., how to tell the difference between Spirit-led conviction and legalistic guilt-tripping, how to respond to abusive authority, etc.)—but this list serves as a helpful starting point.

How Will God Judge Me in Gray Areas?

In order to answer this question, we need to do a little bit of theology.

God has two kinds of “will”—his hidden will and his revealed will (cf. Deuteronomy 29:29). Some theologians describe these two kinds of will as his will of decree and his will of command.

It is incomplete to say (as some have) that God’s will of decree is the aspect of God’s will that will certainly come to pass, whereas his will of command is left up to human choice. God will accomplish all that he has purposed (Isaiah 46:8-11); nothing is left up to chance. (Readers may refer to John Piper’s work on Providence for more information on this topic.)

Yet, there is a real sense in which God has kept some of his will hidden from us (e.g., whether to marry Christian A or Christian B, whether to live in Greenville or Dallas, etc.), whereas he has clearly revealed other aspects of his will to us (e.g., you should love your neighbor, you should repent of your sin, etc.).

So which aspect of God’s will are we going to be held accountable for obeying?

The Westminster Shorter Catechism Q&A #39 is helpful here:

Q. What is the duty which God requires of man?

A. The duty which God requires of man is obedience to his revealed will.

Obedience to God’s Revealed Will

The last two words of this statement are key: God requires obedience to his revealed will.

Deuteronomy 29:29 provides both the language and the justification for the Westminster Divines’ assertion: “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but what he has revealed is for us and for our children forever, that we may keep all the words of this law.”

God is not playing games with you, seeing if you can “guess which hat” the sin is under, and if you guess wrong, you lose. He isn’t secretly wanting you to buy the red car—without telling you—and then punishing you for buying the blue car. This is not the kind of Father that God is.

God wants us to obey his commands in the black and white areas, and to seek his wisdom in the gray areas. He knows that we don’t know his hidden will (Psalm 103:14), and he doesn’t condemn us for that.

Applying These Truths

It is worth noting that it is possible for us to sin unintentionally—for example, if we break a revealed law of God that we were oblivious to.

The good news is that God’s grace covers both our intentional sins and our unintentional sins (see Psalm 19:12).

So let’s be diligent to repent of both our intentional sins and our unintentional sins. Let’s be committed to trusting God’s grace. And let’s be faithful to pursue obedience to God’s will in all areas—not because we are legalists, but because obedience to God’s will is best for us and honoring to him.

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Blake Glosson is a student at Reformed Theological Seminary. He has been published by The Gospel Coalition and republished by Eternal Perspective Ministries (Randy Alcorn), Challies.com (Tim Challies), Moody Radio (Dawn and Steve Mornings), ChurchLeaders.com, and numerous other sources. Previously, he served as the director of young adults at New Covenant Bible Church in St. Charles, Illinois.

Have a question or further thought on this topic? I’d love to hear from you — leave a comment below!

Read “Overcoming Fear of the Future” here.