BIBLE READING: 1 John 1
TEXT: If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”(1 John 1:9)
Thanks for this question – its one that has appeared in various forms (have a look at questions 17, 19 and 34) – but we need to look at it because it is so important. The devil is the accuser of the brothers and sisters so he wants to ensure that we are defeated and kept down by his accusations.
How do people get caught up in a habitual sin (sexual, financial, gluttony, drunkenness or many others)? The pattern is often that we first of all do something that is wrong and are utterly horrified and thoroughly repentant. Then a while later we do it again. This time we are not quite so horrified and the repentance doesn’t last so long. The next time it is even less and shorter.
I think of the student who would come to see me on a Sunday night – thoroughly penitent because of his actions in the student union the previous night. We would talk and pray together. But the same thing would happen the next Sunday…and the one after that. What was going on? The truth is that he was doing something that he knew was wrong…. and every time he did it he felt bad afterwards. But what he felt was remorse not repentance. How do we know that? “Real repentance is changed behaviour” (Phil Jenson).
Let’s just go a little deeper as we consider what real repentance is.
The Shorter Catechism asks in question 87: What is repentance unto life? And answers “Repentance unto life is a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ,doth, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavour after, new obedience. “
Forget the old fashioned language and instead let’s just unpack this. Repentance is something that comes from God. So instead of trying to work it up, maybe we need to ask God to show us our sin and cause us to see it as he does? That will then give us a true sense of our sin that would overwhelm us if it were not for our ‘apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ’.
We need a genuine awareness not only of our sin but also of the incredible mercy of God in Christ. Both those things combined cause us to hate and grieve for our sin (it is something which nailed Christ to the tree – it was my sin that held him there – and something which does harm to us, those around us and God’s world). Not only to hate and grieve but also to turn.
This is what repentance is – a turning away from sin and a turning to God. The trouble for many of us is that we try to turn away from sin but we turn in on ourselves. There is no solution in us. When we turn to God and in the words of our text confess our sin and ask him to forgive us, the difference between remorse and real repentance, is that there is a full intention to newly obey God and an endeavour to do so.
By the way you will never confess ‘once and for all’ and never sin again. As Martin Luther pointed out, the Christian life is one of continual daily repentance. But the difference between the ‘repentance unto life’ and the remorse you are describing is that whilst the latter has no power except to pile on the guilt, the former renews, cleanses and restores us.
Every time I sit at the Lord’s table and take communion it is a reminder for me of what Christ has done – how he – confessed’ once for all – how his atoning sacrifice really does atone. It is always a time of renewal and new beginning. So please – stop focusing on yourself and your sin. Look to Christ. “For every look at self, take ten looks at Christ” (Robert Murray McCheyne).
It will break your heart to realise what you are doing to him by sinning – and that will be enough to cause you to truly repent and endeavour after new obedience.
CONSIDER: How do you break out of the cycle of despair caused by habitual sin? Why is it important to look more at Jesus than at ourselves? Do you think it is helpful to realize that we can never defeat our own sin, but we can look to the one who cleanses and renews from all sin?
RECOMMENDED FURTHER READING: Indwelling sin in Believers (abridged and made easy to read) – John Owen
PRAYER: O my God, have mercy on me in your steadfast love, I pray; In your infinite compassion my transgressions wipe away. 2 Cleanse me from iniquity; wash my sin away from me. 10 Lord, create a pure heart in me, and a steadfast mind renew. 11 Do not take your Spirit from me; cast me not away from you. 12 Give me back the joy I had; keep my willing spirit glad. (Psalm 51:1-2, 10-12 – Sing Psalms)
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