True Repentance

By Mike Ivey

“For godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of:  But the sorrow of the world worketh death.” 2 Cor 7:10

There is a popular saying “It’s easier to ask for forgiveness than to get permission.”  This adage expresses existential reasoning for doing whatever one chooses even if it offends others.  It conveys the idea that it is proper to do whatever is necessary to achieve a desired outcome and then deal with negative consequences by apologizing to those who are offended.  The sentiment expressed by this adage could not be more contrary to biblical teachings of treating others how we wish to be treated and truly repenting when we commit sin.  The adage is fallacious in its logic to anyone who believes sinning offends God and that we must seek His forgiveness in order to truly repent.  This is because it is based on a premise it is okay for me to sin as long as I ask forgiveness if anyone is offended.  Thus, the pretext of this saying is willingness to commit sin and deal with consequence later.

The idea of insisting on having one’s own way and then dealing with whatever offense it produces is predicated on willful sinning because it ignores the teaching of Christ that “all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.” (Mat 7:12).  It pays hypocritical lip service to biblical practices of true repentance in that repentance is only sought if someone complains or an undesirable consequence occurs.  This kind of repentance is designed to silence criticism from others or otherwise eliminate an undesirable after effect rather than to change one’s attitude and thus end the sinful behavior it produces.  Furthermore, it can be a bullying intimidation tactic: I apologized and you are wrong and a bad person if you don’t forgive me.  It is not true repentance in that it is not motivated by godly sorrow.

Repentance, true repentance results from godly sorrow.  Godly sorrow works, or brings about true repentance.  Godly sorrow is spiritually motivated painful regret for having offended God by committing sin(s).   Two good examples of the relationship of godly sorrow and repentance are found in the accounts of David and Job.  When David finally faced the wickedness of his sin of killing Uriah, he confessed to God; “against thee, and thee only, have I sinned and done this evil in thy sight” (Psa 51:4).  He indicated that “a broken spirit: a broken and contrite heart” is the only sacrifice God accepts when we seek forgiveness for our sins.  The account of Job demonstrates he also understood true repentance is motivated by intense sorrow for having offended God.  After God spoke to him, exposing his self-righteous and presumptuous attitude, Job responded by admitting he had foolishly sinned and declared, “I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6).  (Sprinkling one’s self with dust and ashes was a custom that signified intense sorrow.)

Stark contrast to the godly sorrow and true repentance exemplified by David and Job is evident in the account of Esau and also the unjust steward parable Jesus used to teach about repentance.   Esau” despised his birthright” (Gen 25:34) and bartered it to Jacob for a bit of food.  Later, when faced with the undesirable consequence of his rash act Esau sought to have his father Isaac change his mind and give him the blessing.  But he “found no place of repentance, though he sought it carefully with tears” (Heb 12:17).  He did not receive a spirit of repentance from God because he did not take responsibility for his sin and admit he sinned against God when he despised his birthright and foolishly traded it to his younger brother for a meal.  In seeking to have Isaac repent of giving Jacob the blessing of the firstborn Esau placed all fault on Jacob.  To be sure, Jacob did sin by deceiving Isaac to get the blessing. However, the Hebrew writer clearly indicates Esau despised his birthright.  Esau’s attitude suggests he wasn’t sorry he despised his birthright.  Rather, he regretted losing the benefits of rights of the firstborn.   Another example of one who did not receive a spirit of repentance from God for committing sin is found in the parable of the unjust steward (Luke 16:1-9).  When faced with his crime of embezzlement rather than sorrowing for his sins he engaged in new schemes to offset the negative effect of losing his stewardship.  In doing so he continued committing the sin of coveting another’s possessions rather than sorrowing for his covetousness and seeking repentance.

True repentance is a change in attitude that produces changes in behavior.  According to Strong’s Greek Dictionary repent is translated from a Greek word metanoeo.  It means: to change one’s mind for the better.  Furthermore, repentance effects behavioral change.  In Acts 3:19 Peter commanded “Repent ye, therefore, and be converted.”  Conversion in this context implies changed behavior is an effect of repentance.  If there is no change in behavior then repentance has not occurred.  Thus, those who are willing to engage in sinful behaviors with the thought they will overcome opposition by apologizing to whoever is offended do not apologize based on godly sorrow for having offended another.  Their motive is to have their way regardless of who is offended while avoiding responsibility for the hurt they cause.  Such an attitude itself is offensive to God.  And sense there is no repentance from the attitude which produced the sinful behavior there can be no forgiveness from God for the behavior the attitude produced.  This is so even if the offended party forgives the wrongdoer because he mistakenly believes the apology was sincere. One must at once sorrow over his willingness to offend others and for the offense his attitude produced in order to receive a spirit of repentance from God that causes him to abhor his willfulness to sin.  God will not grant a spirit of repentance to address the offense the attitude produced unless one sorrows and seeks repentance from God for the attitude that produce the offense.

Therefore, the adage it is easier to ask for forgiveness than to get permission is untrue.  This is because whatever apology given is not based on a change in attitude as the result of godly sorrow.  It is merely a tactic to overcome criticism or else avoid an undesirable consequence.  Those who willfully offend others cannot get forgiveness from God as long as they retain the attitude of willful sinning that produced the offensive behavior.  Those whose attitude is it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than to get permission receive neither permission nor forgiveness.

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