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tears-of-repentanceHow 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 coaxed out of 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 this side of heaven).

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 gracious 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

(I have put my signs in the first person plural not because it is always inappropriate to seek to gauge someone’s repentance, but because we should always be gauging our own first, and because the truly forgiving heart is interested in an offender’s repentance but isn’t inordinately set on holding up measuring sticks but holding out grace.)

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15 thoughts on “How Do You Know You’re Repentant?”

  1. Oliver says:

    Thanks for this well thought-out and helpful list, Jared; it’s a fantastic resource to have. Just one question: would you argue that these are traits that are present in all who repent (even if they’re sometimes too small to see at this time), or marks by which we may measure the ‘health’ of our repentance?
    I ask because of a bigger question: if, with regards to any item in this list, somebody is behaving in a manner that shows that the opposite is true in their hearts, can we consider that a reliable alarm bell as we try to prayerfully discern their state before God?

    1. Jared C. Wilson says:

      Oliver, good questions. “Alarm bell,” yes, about others. But I would stress again the first person emphasis of the markers I’m suggesting, as the posture of one measuring another’s repentance is best gracious optimism, even in hurt (when we’re a victim of someone’s sin) or grieved pleading (when we’re responsible for discipline), not simply trying to hold someone coldly up to a list of repentance measurements. A great level of discernment is needed, certainly.

      And I would add two more thoughts: in most cases, no church discipline is necessary when someone is repentant. Leeman’s book is quite helpful here. The point of discipline is repentance and restoration, not simply punishment. Certainly there are still some disciplinary consequences that may be involved depending on the gravity of the offense, even if repentance is evident. But in most cases, repentance forestalls severe discipline.

      Secondly, I am one of the weird people who thinks we are obligated to forgive everyone who hurts or offends us, regardless of their repentance. That’s not too popular a view today, but I find it most in keeping with Christ’s unilateral and preemptive grace for us, his words from the cross, etc. This does not mean we act like “everything is ok” if someone is not repentant or that we subject ourselves to abuse or we can carry on relationship with them the same way or that we do not seek justice (whether by law for criminal acts or church discipline, or both). But it does mean we hand vengeance and bitterness over to God, and whatever punitive measures we in good conscience seek are sought in a spirit of grace, for the offender’s good, that they might repent in response to a severe mercy.

  2. Eric says:

    So a severity toward sin that we would be willing to resist sin to the point of bloodshed (Heb. 12:4). We will reflect on whether we are actually a repentant people.

  3. BOT says:

    Good thoughts here. Thank you. Only push back is that #2 is not always the case – David was caught without self-disclosing, but was truly repentant.

    1. Jared C. Wilson says:

      BOT, yes. See #3.

  4. This is also important for broken relationships because genuine restoration cannot begin apart from essential attitudes and actions of true repentance. We simply must know what true repentance looks like. But this might also require a closer look at the differences between forgiveness and reconciliation. I wrote a piece a number of years ago for TGC exploring this difference. You can find it on the TGC site here,

  5. LeeAnn Cheeley says:

    This is very helpful for those of us who want to reconcile, but without true repentance, the cycle of sin & wounding just continues. I am thinking of women, in particular, who have been sinned against repeatedly by their husbands/boyfriends. The man says they are sorry, but then returns to the same sinful behavior. This list is a tool that we all can use to help ourselves see that often true repentance has not taken place, & therefore reconciliation is impossible, and we need to make wise decisions accordingly. Sin will destroy both relationships and people unless it is dealt with biblically & complete repentance takes place. Thank you so much for this. I will be sharing it with others.

  6. Mark says:


    I appreciate and enjoy following your ministry. This is a very helpful checklist/litmus test as we work out this sanctification battle.

    That said, I think this should be read/taken in its proper concept, and not as litmus test for assurance of one’s salvation (not sure if that is what you intended or not). Bottom line, no person born of sinful flesh and indwelled by the Holy Spirit has perfectly displayed your 12 elements perfectly for every sin. I’m also of the belief that we don’t know all of our sin, and as we grow, we only see more and more of it in ways that didn’t catch our attention when we were more immature.

    I think for a belieber with a very sensitive conscience, they could read an article like this and begin to catalogue the sins of their past for which they need to make amends. Should a believer be focused on seeking out people they harmed 20, 30, 40 years ago, or should they move forward in faith and obedience?

    Does one need to catalogue the times they were guilty of speeding and send in a fat check to their local municipality? Should I seek out the kid who I was mean to at recess when I was 8 years old to make sure that my repentance is pleasing to God?

    I guess I look at Paul in the New Testament. If Paul had spent the bulk of his time making amends for the sins of Saul (which he could never begin to do), the early church would have suffered a great deal and we would have fewer epistles to read.

    Are these comments fair? I’m just concerned that one could look at this and see their repentance is imperfect, and doubt their salvation as a result.

    Our only hope of Christ’s person, work, and Resurrection alone, and not that plus our (imperfect) repentance.

  7. Troy says:

    I’ve always liked what Ryle (I believe) wrote “Sin forsaken is one of the best evidences of sin forgiven”.

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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, director of The Pastoral Training Center at Liberty Baptist 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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