True Repentance—How Can We Identify It?
“IF WE make the statement: ‘We have no sin,’ we are misleading ourselves and the truth is not in us.” The apostle John said this back in the first century of our Common Era. Writing to fellow Christians, he included himself in the expression “we.”—1 John 1:8.
Are we true Christians? Then before ever we were baptized as disciples of God’s Son, we ‘repented and turned around’ from the wrong course we had been following. This put us in position to ‘make request to God for a good conscience,’ and become reconciled with Him through his Son’s atoning sacrifice or “sin offering.” (Acts 3:19, 26; 1 Pet. 3:21; 2 Cor. 5:19-21, margin) But the need for repentance does not end there. John’s words show that, being imperfect and by inheritance sinful, we will still commit errors. In most cases these will be minor. Yet a Christian can fall into a major wrong. Either way, he needs to repent and seek God’s forgiveness.
REPENTANCE FOR SERIOUS SINS
A Christian can become overconfident, failing to realize that ‘the one who thinks he is standing needs to be on guard lest he fall.’ (1 Cor. 10:12) Or because of not appreciating fully God’s provisions for keeping spiritual strength and health and for defense against Satan’s attacks, the Christian may become weak and vulnerable to temptation. He may commit a serious wrong. Then what? What should he now do?
He can benefit by considering what David did. In the thirty-second Psalm, perhaps written after David’s serious sin involving Bath-sheba and Uriah, David said: “When I kept silent my bones wore out through my groaning all day long. My sin I finally confessed to you, and my error I did not cover. I said: ‘I shall make confession over my transgressions to Jehovah.’ And you yourself pardoned the error of my sins. . . . On this account every loyal one will pray to you at such a time only as you may be found.” (Ps. 32:3, 5, 6) To put off seeking Jehovah’s pardon only prolongs the suffering of a stricken conscience. As Proverbs 28:13 counsels: “He that is covering over his transgressions will not succeed, but he that is confessing and leaving them will be shown mercy.” Yes, our relationship with God is too precious to neglect seeking his pardon and mercy. We should be quick to do so through his Son as our “helper with the Father.”—1 John 2:1.
There is more, however, that a repentant person can do. The wise course would now be to approach the spiritually “older men” of the congregation. Why? Do they have the power to grant pardon from God for the sin committed, or can they act as intermediaries between the one having sinned and God? No. The person sinned against can grant forgiveness. Another thing: Only God can grant pardon for a sin against his law, and our one intermediary is his Son.—1 John 1:9; 2:1, 2; Heb. 4:14-16.
But did not Paul speak of the brothers in Corinth as ‘forgiving’ a congregation member who had committed a serious wrong and repented? True, but their ‘forgiveness’ was clearly not the pardoning of the violation of God’s law itself. Rather, it was forgiveness of the trouble, reproach and sorrow that the act had brought upon the congregation. (Compare 2 Corinthians 2:5-10; 7:11.) In a similar way we individually can ‘forgive others their trespasses against us.’—Matt. 6:14, 15.
Why, then, go to these elders? To seek their help as appointed shepherds. Wrongdoing is an evidence of spiritual illness. Showing what is needed, the disciple James says: “Openly confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may get healed. A righteous man’s supplication, when it is at work, has much force.”—Jas. 5:16.
Yes, the purpose of going to these elder brothers is to get help in becoming “healed,” regaining spiritual health and strength. To give such aid is part of their work as shepherds. (Compare Ezekiel 34:4, 16; Hebrews 12:12, 13.) There is yet another reason, however.
These brothers are also concerned with protecting the spiritual health of the congregation as a whole, guarding against its being infected. They are likewise seriously concerned with aiding the congregation to maintain always a right standing before God and before all men, in no way becoming a reproach to Jehovah’s name. We rightly seek to cooperate with such ones and aid them in their responsibility.
Rather than a person’s having his wrongdoing perhaps become known through some other source to the elders who constitute the congregation’s judicial committee, and thereby obliging them to inquire of the wrongdoer whether he has sincerely repented and turned away from the wrong course or not, such a person shows a right spirit by voluntarily providing them with this information himself. “For they are keeping watch over your souls as those who will render an account” to God. In all confidence, then, we can show submission to such ones.—Heb. 13:17; Acts 20:28-30, 35; 1 Thess. 5:12-15, 23.
These elders, obviously, are concerned that there really is sincere repentance on the part of the wrongdoer and that he is now making straight paths for his feet, for his own good and for the good of the rest of the congregation. Only evidence of genuine repentance can assure them that God has forgiven the wrongdoer, has ‘not taken his sin into account.’ (Rom. 4:8) Were this not the case, they might find themselves obliged to expel or disfellowship such a person as a danger to the congregation’s spiritual health and its right standing before God.
Yes, what determines whether the congregation disfellowships one or not is—not the gravity of the wrong, nor the bad publicity it may have occasioned—but the individual’s sincere repentance or lack of it. If he is truly repentant, the congregation would never cast the person out just to satisfy the feelings of some individual or of the public in general. True, in cases of gross wrongdoing they would likely find it necessary to reprove severely and publicly the wrongdoer, and he would undoubtedly not be given responsibility within the congregation for a long time, perhaps for years. But they would not abandon any sincerely repentant one, any more than God abandoned David when he humbly repented of his grievous wrongdoing. They imitate God in his loyal love, his loving-kindness.—2 Sam. 22:50, 51; 1 Ki. 8:22-26; Ps. 51:17.
How can these elders on the judicial committee satisfy themselves that one committing a serious wrong is genuinely repentant? For that matter, how can we ourselves be sure our repentance is true, the kind that God is pleased with?
WORLDLY SADNESS OR GODLY SADNESS?
Clearly there should be sadness, remorse and regret felt by any Christian who sins. And yet these feelings of themselves are not a sure measure of the genuineness of repentance. The question is: Why does the wrongdoer feel such sadness, remorse and regret? What motivates these feelings?
The apostle shows the importance of determining this when he writes: “For sadness in a godly way makes for repentance to salvation that is not to be regretted; but the sadness of the world produces death.” (2 Cor. 7:10) So it is a life-or-death matter that our motive be the right one. Worldly sadness does not stem from faith and love of God and righteousness. It is born of regret due to failure, disappointment, material or social loss, the prospect of undergoing punishment or shame. Worldly sadness mourns the unpleasant consequences wrongdoing brings. But it does not mourn over the unrighteousness itself, or the reproach it brings on God.—Compare Jeremiah 6:13-15, 22-26.
Cain expressed such sadness. When God pronounced sentence on him, Cain felt sorry indeed—for himself due to the bleak future he foresaw. But he expressed no regret over his act of murdering his brother.—Gen. 4:5-14.
Esau unappreciatively sold his birthright to his brother Jacob. Later, on learning that Jacob had received his father Isaac’s prophetic blessing as firstborn, Esau cried out “in an extremely loud and bitter manner.” With tears he sought repentance—not his own but his father’s, seeking to convince Isaac to ‘repent’ or ‘change his mind’ about his bestowal of the blessing. What Esau regretted was not the materialistic attitude that caused him to ‘despise his birthright.’ He regretted the loss in benefits this was now going to cost him. God said: “I loved Jacob, but Esau I hated.”—Gen. 25:29-34; 27:34; Heb. 12:16, 17; Rom. 9:13.
That God will never be pleased with any ‘off-and-on’ attitude in this matter is made clear by Hosea’s prophecy. Regarding Israel he says, ‘When they are in sore straits they seek God.’ But the repentant expressions they made were short-lived. “The loving-kindness of you people is like the morning clouds and like the dew that early goes away.”—Hos. 5:15; 6:1-4.
Hosea 7:14-16 then reveals the key factor lacking in many expressions of repentance even today, saying: “They did not call to me for aid with their heart, although they kept howling on their beds. On account of their grain and sweet wine they kept loafing about . . . they proceeded to return, not to anything higher . . .” Their “howling” for relief in time of trouble was selfishly motivated and, if granted relief, they did not use the opportunity to improve and strengthen their relationship with God by adhering more closely to his high standards. (Jas. 4:3) Hosea says they were like a “loose bow,” one that never hits the mark. (Hos. 7:16; Ps. 78:57) Their repentance was not really from the heart.—Joel 2:12, 13.
WHAT MOTIVATES TRUE REPENTANCE
The sadness accompanying true repentance has a very different motivation than worldly sadness. There is a heartfelt wanting to come back into God’s favor, motivated by a love for him that comes from knowing him and his splendid qualities and righteous purposes. Appreciation for his goodness and greatness makes genuinely repentant wrongdoers feel keen remorse at having brought reproach on his name. Love for neighbor also makes them rue the harm they have done to others, the bad example set, the hurt caused, perhaps the way they have sullied the reputation of God’s people among outsiders, thereby hindering persons from recognizing the true congregation of God. These things, and not just the shame of being ‘found out’ or the prospect of discipline, cause them to feel “broken at heart” and “crushed in spirit.”—Ps. 34:18.
But repentance (Gr. me·taʹnoi·a) also involves a ‘change of mind’ or ‘change of will.’ To be genuine, it must include a positive rejection of the bad course as repugnant, something hated. (Ps. 97:10; Rom. 12:9) This is paralleled by a love of righteousness that causes the repentant Christian to determine firmly to hold to a righteous course thenceforth. Without both this hatred of bad and love of righteousness there would be no real force to our repentance, no following through with what the apostle Paul called “works that befit repentance.” (Acts 26:20) King Rehoboam’s case illustrates this. After first humbling himself under God’s anger, he turned back to doing bad. Why? Because “he had not firmly established his heart to search for Jehovah.”—2 Chron. 12:12-14.
The Corinthian congregation showed this being “saddened in a godly way.” When reproved by Paul for having harbored a practicer of wickedness in their midst, they responded and corrected the situation. They manifested their sadness at their wrong not only by fear but by “great earnestness . . . yes, clearing of [them]selves, yes, indignation [at the reproach the wrongdoer’s course had brought], . . . yes, longing, yes, zeal, yes, righting of the wrong!” (2 Cor. 7:11) So, elders today can look for similar qualities in those who express repentance over wrongdoing to them.
IMPERFECTION NEED NOT FRUSTRATE JOY
Sins, of course, can vary in gravity. Perhaps instead of some major sin, such as fornication, adultery or theft, we realize we have been guilty of having “lofty eyes” or of “showing favoritism,” things that are very displeasing to God. (Prov. 6:16, 17; Jas. 2:9) And when it comes to the use of the tongue, “we all stumble many times,” saying things we later recognize as unwise, unkind, unloving, unchristian. (Jas. 3:2, 8-13) Are we concerned that our relations with God not suffer damage? Then we need to ‘repent and turn around,’ seeking his forgiveness.
But since our imperfection shows itself in some way or another daily, does this mean we should be in a constant state of mourning, feeling continually remorseful? By no means.
In listing the fruits of God’s holy spirit, the apostle places “joy” right after “love.” (Gal. 5:22) The psalmist says: “If errors were what you watch, O Jah, O Jehovah, who could stand?” (Ps. 130:3) We can be joyful, remembering instead that “Jehovah is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abundant in loving-kindness. . . . For he himself well knows the formation of us, remembering that we are dust.” (Ps. 103:8-14) While our errors rightly bring regret, we do not need to torture ourselves over every minor fault or thoughtless word.
Nevertheless, our recognition of these faults should have a humbling effect on us, helping to keep us both modest and compassionate toward others. Then, when we pray to God for forgiveness of our daily errors he will be pleased with our prayer. Conscientiously walking in his ways and regularly seeking his face in prayer, we may indeed be joyful, confident of a good relationship with him.—Phil. 4:4-7.