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I have sinned against you. I have apologized. But how do you know if I mean it?

How do you know when someone is repentant? In his helpful little book Church Discipline, Jonathan Leeman offers some guidance:

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.

Here are 12 signs we have 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,” 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 found out, we confess immediately or very soon after and “come clean,” rather than having to have the full truth pulled from us. Real repentance is typically accompanied by transparency.

4. We have a willingness and eagerness to make amends. We will do whatever it takes to make things right 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 without jumping to defend ourselves.

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 to go to jail, or having a spouse leave us).

8. We may grieve the consequences of our sin 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).

9. If our sin involves addiction or a pattern of behavior, we do not neglect to seek help with a counselor, a solid twelve-step program, or even a rehabilitation center.

10. We don’t resent accountability, pastoral rebuke, or church discipline.

11. We seek our comfort in the grace of God in Jesus Christ, not simply in being free of the consequences of our sin.

12. We are humble and teachable.

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.

– 2 Corinthians 7:9-11


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32 thoughts on “Genuine Repentance”

  1. Gary Ware says:

    The apology doesn’t hinge on ‘if’. I’m sorry if people were hurt/offended.
    The apology hinges on ‘for’ or ‘that’. I’m sorry for what I did. I’m sorry that what I did was hurtful/offensive.

    The apology understands, acknowledges and champions the difference between God’s immediate and complete forgiveness, and any consequences which may need to worked through with other people and groups in life. cf point 7 above.

  2. a. says:

    and when those that have sinned against us never repent to us personally…

    “11. We seek our comfort in the grace of God in Jesus Christ,”

  3. Joy says:

    what a helpful way to check my heart for true repentance.

  4. Nathanael Logan says:

    Thanks for this article. Can I make a suggestion? Please understand my heart. I am not trying to be critical. I like what you have written. I think that there is something that can add power to your presentation. I think Biblical examples or passages would be powerful. You may think through the first few points with Ps 51, 2 Sam 11-12. Ps32. You may open it with Matt 18.To help the person understand that there are times when we continue to repent and fail. I’m just thinking out loud without with you. again I love what you have written and i think I will use it. There are those on my face book who need it. Maybe you go to other passages that I do not that would help me think through the issues. Help me think through the Scriptures that you look to when you think through the issues. thanks :)

    1. You have opened it and closed it with the passages you wanted. I should have written “you opened it with” rather than “you may”. sorry I do see the book ends. I sorry I was thinking example wise to go along with the instruction passage. Does that make since? Sorry I probably should not have said any thing.

  5. Chris says:

    This is a great post Jared. Thank you.

  6. Awesome. Very helpful

  7. Larry Farlow says:

    Great stuff. I’m a bit uncomfortable with #9 as that implies certain sins can’t be successfully dealt with in the way the Bible prescribes, that some sins require a “professional” in order to successfully be repented of. It also can run contrary to #1. In most people’s minds if have an “addiction” there’s a degree to which it’s not my fault and that often provides the excuse needed to delay or avoid true repentance.

    1. Mary Gray Moser says:

      FWIW: As a professional counselor I have found that accepting responsibility for any form of addiction is necessary. I believe what the Word of God says: No temptation has taken you that is not common to man. Glad to discuss the matter should anyone be interested. marygraymoser@verizon.net

  8. Wayne Wilson says:

    A keeper.

  9. Thank you! This is an important subject on many levels. It helps those who are trying to move toward reconciliation after being deeply or repeatedly hurt by someone
    How can they rebuild trust? The first and most important step is to confirm the genuineness of the apology or the repentance of the one who hurt you.

    I am not suggesting that changes to deeply ingrained patterns occur overnight. But there are essential attitudes in authentic repentance that offer hope for change. We must know what true repentance looks like on this level.

    It also helps those who are called to be instruments of godly sorrow (as Paul modeled). Godly sorrow involves a willingness to take seriously the offense committed. True repentance flows out of humility (Luke 18:9-17), and a readiness to accept responsibility. A visible and wholehearted change of behavior follows true repentance (godly sorrow). It produces “fruit in keeping with repentance” (Luke 3:8a). The apostle Paul said, “I preached that they should repent and turn to God and prove their repentance by their deeds” (Acts 26:20b).

    When called by God to be instruments of godly sorrow, we must prayerfully take inventory of our own hearts before confronting others. Then go in a spirit required in Galatians 6:1-3 (http://thinkpoint.wordpress.com/2011/05/19/even-if-i-caused-you-sorrow-instruments-of-godly-sorrow/)

  10. Flyaway says:

    Will save this and use it gently.

  11. lawrence says:

    No mention of attempting to repair the wrong?

    1. Jared C. Wilson says:

      Lawrence, yes, in point #4, which reads:
      “We have a willingness and eagerness to make amends. We will do whatever it takes to make things right…”

  12. Some Guy says:

    Dead on. This is not about whether we should forgive the sinner but about how to recognize true repentance. The practical application is that anyone who is still trying to hide his sin after “repenting” hasn’t really repented and will probably do whatever it is some more. Don’t be party to a cover-up! Insist on the appropriate amount of daylight. The truly repentant will grow and thrive in the process.

  13. Joey E says:

    I need to come back to this often. For my own sake.

  14. Rob A says:

    I have always remembered the words of great theologian weighing in on a very sensitive family situation. He said “repentance makes no demands.”

    If I am repentant, I am willing to own the pain I caused. And while I go “above and beyond” to re-earn trust and do nothing to cause suspicion that I may injure the individual again…I do not expect to be forgiven.

    And when after a time, I still feel rejection because of my past sin…it is an opportunity for an even deeper understanding of my sin and further repentance. And if I am a believer, greater gratitude for my Savior.

  15. Joe B says:

    It is a good descriptive list. What exactly is the application? It could look to some as a list of reasons why not to forgive, or why to punish those whom God has forgiven. It also has little reference to socially acceptable sins like greed and ambition. As we study these very valid points, let us remember Jesus has this funny way of sacrificing himself totally for the sins of people who have not even repented yet. It is by grace we are saved.

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  17. Bryan Abeling says:

    “How do you know when someone is repentant?” Now, what is BEHIND that question? Way too often it is our desire to hold justice over someone’s head, because we really really want an excuse to NOT forgive them. If they haven’t REALLY, completely repented then we are justified in withholding our forgiveness, right? Oh boy!! We all want justice for others and mercy for ourselves. See the parable of the unforgiving servant in Matt 18 for example. It happens A LOT.

    Second, I think it’s REALLY important to realize that not all offenses are sins. Very often we are offended(and we are very easily offended, aren’t we) by some personality trait or the innocuous(but annoying) action, statement or habit of another. And I dare say each of us is often the perp too! Probably Proverbs 19:11 is just as salient as 2 Cor 7:9-11 in discussions of human discord.

    1. Joy says:

      This is so, so very true, as I have been on the receiving end of someone insisting that my offense against them was a sin (when pastoral counsel instructed both parties that it is not).

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Jared C. Wilson


Jared C. Wilson is the Director of Content Strategy for Midwestern Seminary, managing editor of For The Church, and author of more than ten books, including Gospel Wakefulness, The Pastor’s Justification, and The Prodigal Church. You can follow him on Twitter.

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