It’s beautiful when Christians humbly confess their sin to one another and cling to the gospel yet again (James 4:7–10).

Maybe we were repulsed by our sin after a gospel-centered sermon, a Christ-anchored Bible study, or a meaningful time of prayer. Perhaps we’ve been confronted with our iniquity after a friend’s rebuke (Proverbs. 27:5), a spouse’s edifying correction (Ephesians 4:15, 25), or a time of self-examination during the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:28). In these moments, the Holy Spirit gives a heart-wrenching conviction of sin that’s either newly uncovered or old and rusty. Emotional brokenness and convincing contrition quickly follow, and we’re suddenly in glorious agreement with God about our sin.

All of this is known as confession (1 John 1:9–10).

What's Missing

But how many times have we seen this happen without genuine and lasting change? Why does genuine transformation still evade us?

Perhaps it’s because we don’t understand that confession and repentance aren’t the same thing. In our genuine desperation to be done with the shame and the shackles of our sin, we confess. But then, sometimes, we foolishly exhale and believe our work is done. Not wanting to talk about or be bothered by our sin again, we fail to realize that confession is just the beginning. This failure is why many people experience false transformation.

We shirk repentance when we agree with the truth of our sin (confession) without choosing the gospel-motivated response. To be sure, repentance is jump-started by confessing our sin to one another (1 John 1:9–10), but it must extend further. We must make no provisions for the flesh, viciously renounce temptation (Matthew 5:24–27), and eagerly walk the tangible road of godly grief (2 Corinthians 7:10–11).

Repentance requires no foot-dragging, blame-shifting, excuse-ridden compliance that bends under someone else’s forced demands on us. Instead, true repentance is earnestly expressed in fellowship within our local church as a genuine surrender to biblical truth inserted into our lives by those who love God and care about us. When we’re repentant, we see the necessity of rebuilding trust with others, even if it takes longer than we planned.

Christians who have genuinely repented seek to live in the light (1 John 1:5–7) and to avoid ungodliness because repentance requires not only forsaking sin but also putting on Christ (Romans 13:14). It demands that we turn away from debauchery and turning toward God by putting on Christ (Colossians 3:1–17). Practically, putting on Christ involves serving the Lord and others, and studying God’s Word. Putting in Christ means increasing fellowship, singing, praying, and setting our mind on the things above—primarily through fellowship in our local church. This process will take time, and we’ll continue to make missteps. But when God brings someone to repentance, the fruit will be evident over time (Luke 6:43–45).

Four Distractions

These buzzwords are common in Christian circles. Thought they have the impression of being helpful, they can potentially interfere with genuine repentance and lasting transformation.

1. Accountability

It’s common to hear that Christians should have an “accountability partner.” Sometimes, this means a regular small group of Christians come together to ask hard questions about sin struggles and then to pray for one another. Praise God for such groups. Other times, however, accountability partners offer a less-than-biblical approach that obscures sin and too heavily relies of man-centered help (a.k.a. unspecified expectations for checking in, texting, software reports). In such cases, such groups can trend toward self-help moralism and may shift the focus away from the gospel over time. Because the Bible doesn’t necessarily give us an explanation of this word “accountability”, it can become difficult to use this idea consistently.

2. Legalism

Everyone wants to avoid legalism, especially us gospel-centered folks. But unfortunately, our allergy to the error of legalism can become a well-intentioned excuse to avoid serious attempts to fight temptation and put away sin. Meanwhile, we’re given more room to indulge and dance with our sinful idols.

This fear of “legalism” is sometimes a fear of genuine repentance. In Christ, we’re called to avoid temptation and sin, not to flirt with it (2 Kings 23, when the king broke, buried, and burned the sources of idol worship; Matthew 5:24–27). As long as our efforts to repent aren’t attempts to undermine God’s favor for us in Christ, then there’s little reason that we should say “I don’t want to be legalistic” when talking about our fight against sin.

3. Heart Issue

It’s important to find clarity about the “why” behind our sin (1 Thess. 5:14). But sometimes, this search will go on and on and on in vain. Why? Because “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9)

Therefore not knowing the true “heart issue” behind our sin is no reason to avoid confession. Furthermore, it’s no defense for delaying the pursuit of biblical repentance, especially while our sin seeks to destroy our relationships.

4. Interpretation

Sometimes, we hold on to sin because we’re convinced that what others are telling us is just not true, right, or biblical. We suggest that their interpretation of truth is different than ours, and so we live on in our sin until the consequences become too great (Proverbs 18:1, James 3:13-18, Matthew 18:, Proverbs 14:12, 2 Timothy 2:14, Matthew 18:15-20).

Confession, Prayer, Repentance

Confession, prayer, and repentance are three ways we should biblically pursue our growth in Christ.

1. Confession

We must identify our sins biblically while moving toward a concise agreement with God (1 John 1:8–10). Confession means to agree with God about our sin in community with others through the local church; it means we agree with his response to those sins, according to the Scriptures.

2. Prayer

Take time to pray to God with others in your local church for God’s strength to change your desires and to express thanksgiving for his immensely undeserved grace and mercy in Christ. Pray to the Lord to take away temptation and evil—both from within your heart and from outside influences. Thank God that he is worthy of praise, even in the midst of our wreckage. Thank him for the hope of the gospel as our reason for repentance.

3. Repentance

Finally, we must patiently and passionately choose repentance, which must include surrendering to God and putting to death sinful desires. Again, we will not be perfect, but Christians should regularly be pursuing Christ-likeness in specific ways through relationships in the local church.

We will repeat this process—confession, prayer, repentance—over and over and over again. This is simply called Christianity. It’s not an equation or a marketing ploy, but a biblical idea. Sometimes, you may start out repenting, then confessing, and then praying. Or you may begin by praying, then repenting, then confessing. Whatever the order, just remember that if you’re a Christian then God has already changed you in many ways (Eph. 2:1–3), and he’s not finished with you yet.

Let’s not allow a single method of transformation to obscure the hard, joyful, and life-long process of surrendering to God and pursusing the fruit of the Spirit. For every believer, Christ-likeness will come through prayerfully depending on God in true confession and repentance.

Editor's Note: This post originally appeared at the blog for 9Marks Ministries and is used with permission.

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