What does a repentant heart look like?
Does it just look sad? Timid? Is it simply agreeable? How would we discern the difference in ourselves between a heart turning from sin and one seeking simply to manage or alleviate the consequences of it?
While I don’t think it’s normally a great idea to be going around “measuring” other’s repentance, sometimes this kind of discernment is indeed necessary. And it’s always necessary in evaluating our own efforts of daily taking up our cross and following Jesus in our participating in the Spirit’s work of sanctification in us. Paul tells Timothy to “keep a close watch on yourself (1 Timothy 4:16), so a grace-driven examination of our own souls is not out of spiritual bounds.
In his helpful little book Church Discipline, Jonathan Leeman offers some guidance on discerning repentance:
“A few verses before Jesus’ instruction in Matthew 18 about church discipline, he provides us with help for determining whether an individual is characteristically repentant: would the person be willing to cut off a hand or tear out an eye rather than repeat the sin (Matt. 18:8-9)? That is to say, is he or she willing to do whatever it takes to fight against the sin? Repenting people, typically, are zealous about casting off their sin. That’s what God’s Spirit does inside of them. When this happens, one can expect to see a willingness to accept outside counsel. A willingness to inconvenience their schedules. A willingness to confess embarrassing things. A willingness to make financial sacrifices or lose friends or end relationships.” (p. 72)
These are good indicators, and I believe we can add a few more.
But first, a note: You will notice I have listed these signs in the first person plural (“we”) not because it is always inappropriate to seek to evaluate the genuineness of someone else’s repentance, but — again — because we should always be evaluating our own hearts first, and because while the truly forgiving heart is interested in an offender’s repentance, it isn’t inordinately set on holding up the measuring stick of the law but holding out the promise of restorative grace. In any event . . .
Here are 12 signs of a genuinely repentant heart:
1. We name our sin as sin and do not spin it or excuse it, and further, we demonstrate “godly sorrow” (2 Cor. 7:10), which is to say, a grief chiefly about the sin itself, not just a grief about being caught or having to deal with the consequences of sin.
2. We actually confessed before we were caught or the circumstantial consequences of our sin caught up with us.
3. If instead of freely confessing, we are found out in our sin, we confess immediately or very soon after and “come clean,” rather than having to have the full truth coaxed out of us. I’m not trying to hide anything or keep back portions of the truth to protect myself. Real repentance is typically accompanied by transparency. Being “caught” is seen as a severe relief to enter into rather than an embarrassing inconvenience to manage.
4. We have a willingness and eagerness to make amends. We will do whatever it takes, if possible, to make things right with those we’ve wronged and to demonstrate we have changed.
5. We are patient with those we’ve hurt or victimized, spending as much time as is required listening to them and taking responsibility without jumping to defend ourselves or trying to manipulate, reverse the offense, or gaslight.
6. We are patient with those we’ve hurt or victimized as they process their hurt, and we don’t pressure them or “guilt” them into forgiving us.
7. We are willing to confess our sin even in the face of serious consequences (including undergoing church discipline, having a spouse leave us, or even — in the case of criminal offenses — undergoing legal consequences like going to jail).
8. We may grieve the consequences of our sin — as all normal people do — but we do not bristle under them or resent them. We understand that sometimes our sin causes great damage to others that is not healed in the short term (or perhaps ever this side of heaven).
9. If our sin involves an addiction or other compulsive or pathological patterns of behavior, we do not neglect to seek whatever help we may need to address it, including seeing a counselor, entering a solid recovery program, entering a rehabilitation center, etc.
10. We don’t resent gracious accountability, pastoral rebuke, or church discipline.
11. We seek our ultimate comfort in the grace of God in Jesus Christ, not simply in being free of the consequences of our sin.
12. We remain humble and teachable.
The good news is that those who have been united to Christ by faith and have experienced the indwelling of God’s Spirit can repent! And we can do so freely and boldly, knowing that we have complete forgiveness in him. We may not be free of sin’s consequences in this life — and we will have to deal with those as they come — but we can know that we are free from sin’s condemnation! Because in Jesus, that is no longer a possibility. We are irrevocably his, and he is eternally pleased with us. Knowing this, genuine repentance becomes not just possible but preferable.
As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting. For you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no loss through us. For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death. For see what earnestness this godly grief has produced in you, but also what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what longing, what zeal, what punishment! At every point you have proved yourselves innocent in the matter.
(This is partly adapted from a post previously published in 2015 at The Gospel Coalition.)