Genuine Repentance—How Is It Identified?
“A heart broken and crushed, O God, you will not despise.”—Ps. 51:17.
1. (a) To gain forgiveness, to whom should sins be confessed, and why? (b) Why can a sin against Jehovah God also be a sin against the congregation?
ELDERS are not ‘father confessors’ who have been authorized to forgive all the sins that members of the congregation may commit. It is Jehovah God who forgives the sins of repentant ones, doing so on the basis of his Son’s atoning sacrifice. Therefore, a person’s being forgiven by Jehovah is not dependent upon his confessing his sins to the elders. (1 John 1:8, 9; 2:1, 2) However, by serious transgression, a person can also sin against the congregation. This is the case because gross wrongdoing can bring much reproach and trouble upon the congregation with which the wayward one is associated. Hence, elders representing the congregation should make sure that the individual is genuinely repentant before extending forgiveness to him for the bad name that he has given to the congregation.
2. (a) What do we learn from 2 Corinthians 2:7 about the congregation’s forgiving sin? (b) Of just what did the congregation forgive the repentant Corinthian man?
2 That the congregation can forgive or withhold forgiveness in certain cases is evident from what the apostle Paul said to the Corinthians about accepting a repentant disfellowshiped man back into their midst. He wrote: “You should kindly forgive and comfort him.” (2 Cor. 2:7) The apostle recommended forgiving this man because the ‘rebuke given to him by the majority’ had served its purpose in bringing him to repentance. (2 Cor. 2:6) Because the man had sincerely repented and straightened out his life to conform to Jehovah’s righteous requirements, it was right for the congregation to receive him back. He had sought Jehovah’s forgiveness for his sin and now the congregation also forgave him, not in the sense of granting “absolution” for his sin, but in forgiving him for the trouble, reproach and sorrow that his wrongdoing had brought upon the congregation.
3. What should elders do when persons who have committed grave sins claim that they reproved themselves?
3 In certain cases a person’s record of sin, when brought to light, may be very shameful. For a period of months or even years he may have conducted himself in a way that would be considered sinful even in the world. Later, he may come to the elders, stating that he recently stopped his wrongdoing and prayed to God for forgiveness. He may feel that he has reproved himself. Or, upon being confronted with evidence of his shameful conduct, he may tell the elders that he reproved himself and, therefore, did not consider it necessary to approach them about the matter. What should the elders do? They should determine what kind of spiritual help the individual needs and whether he is indeed truly repentant. This may require more than one discussion with him in order to ascertain his true feelings, motivations and needs. The truly repentant one will welcome and humbly accept such loving help from the elders.
WORLDLY SADNESS OR GENUINE REPENTANCE—WHICH?
4. Is great sadness always evidence of true repentance? Explain.
4 A wrongdoer should, of course, have feelings of sadness, remorse and regret as regards his sinful course. Depending upon the emotional makeup of the individual, these feelings may or may not be accompanied by tears. However, elders should keep in mind that not all sadness, remorse or regret is necessarily proof of genuine repentance. The Christian apostle Paul wrote: “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) Hence, elders properly seek insight as to what motivates the wrongdoer’s sadness.
5. What motivates worldly sadness, and why is it not genuine repentance?
5 Worldly sadness may stem simply from a sense of personal failure and accompanying disappointment, or from concern over the loss of esteem or of certain benefits, or from the prospect of undergoing discipline or shame. This is a sadness over the undesirable and hurtful results of the wrongdoing, or over the fact that the wrongdoing came to light. Though normal in themselves, if these feelings are the sole reasons for sadness, then the individual does not truly regret having committed the sin but is distressed about having been exposed. He is not really concerned about the reproach that his transgression has brought upon God.
6. What shows that Esau’s emotional outburst in connection with Isaac’s blessing Jacob was not true repentance?
6 This is well illustrated in the case of Esau. For one meal he sold his birthright to Jacob. Years later, when Jacob received the blessing that was due the firstborn, Esau gave way to an emotional outburst of sorrow. He cried out “in an extremely loud and bitter manner,” wanting to persuade his father Isaac to change his mind about blessing Jacob. Esau did not regret the unspiritual attitude that prompted him to ‘despise his birthright.’ No, he regretted the fact that he had lost benefits through his course of action.—Gen. 25:29-34; 27:34; Heb. 12:16, 17.
7, 8. What reveals that King Saul’s acknowledgment of sin was not genuine repentance?
7 Another case in point is King Saul. Told by the prophet Samuel that he had disregarded God’s command to devote the Amalekites to destruction, Saul tried to justify himself, insisting that he had carried out the word of Jehovah. In unmistakable terms Samuel then set forth the king’s failure and added: “Since you have rejected the word of Jehovah, he accordingly rejects you from being king.” Hearing this, Saul admitted: “I have sinned; for I have overstepped the order of Jehovah and your words, because I feared the people and so obeyed their voice. And now, please, pardon my sin and return with me that I may prostrate myself to Jehovah.” (1 Sam. 15:17-25) But this acknowledgment of sin was not true repentance. Why not?
8 Saul still minimized his sin, trying to excuse it on the basis that he yielded to fear of the people. He did not make a heartfelt acknowledgment of his having sinned against Jehovah. His words were evidently prompted by the fear of being rejected as king and experiencing public disgrace. This is evident from Saul’s plea that Samuel return with him. How so? It was not just a matter of Samuel’s returning to offer an intercessory prayer in Saul’s behalf. When Samuel insisted on leaving, Saul pleaded: “Honor me, please, in front of the older men of my people and in front of Israel and return with me.” (1 Sam. 15:30) Thus Saul was concerned about how he would appear in the eyes of others. He wanted to be honored by Samuel’s presence, not disgraced by his absence. So, Saul’s admission of sin was merely an expression of his lips. It was not “sadness in a godly way” over having offended Jehovah God.
9. What do we learn about repentance from the Scriptural record about Esau and Saul?
9 From what the Bible says about Esau and King Saul, we can draw some vital points that can help elders to gain insight as to whether a wrongdoer is repentant. Tears may accompany expressions of true sorrow. Nonetheless, like Esau’s tears, emotional displays are not in themselves proof of repentance. By the same token, the absence of such does not necessarily mean that the erring one is unrepentant. The important thing is that the individual deeply regrets the wrong, acknowledging it as a sin against Jehovah. He would bring into question any claimed repentance if he continued to justify or excuse his actions. The individual should come to hate the wrong course, loathing it. While there may be a natural measure of embarrassment in his having become guilty of grave sin, his primary concern should be not so much with the unpleasant consequences of his wrongdoing but, rather, the reproach he brought upon Jehovah God and the congregation of his people. He should sincerely regret having damaged his relationship with the Most High.
WHAT IS INVOLVED IN TRUE REPENTANCE?
10. Why should a person’s feelings of sadness over bringing reproach upon Jehovah also include remorse about the harm done to his brothers and fellow humans?
10 A person’s feeling of sadness over bringing reproach upon Jehovah is not something necessarily apart or isolated from his feeling of remorse as regards harm done to his brothers and fellow humans. The apostle John shows that love for our brothers is evidence of love for God, in fact, a inseparable part thereof. (1 John 3:11, 17; 4:7, 8, 11, 12, 20, 21) Wrongdoing is always, inevitably, harmful. If ever we should become involved in some serious wrongdoing, we might well meditate on such things as these:
11. If we should ever become involved in grave wrongdoing, what are some things we should seriously consider?
11 Having committed such a wrong, do we feel hurt at heart upon realizing that we have been unlike the loving upright God that we serve, acting in a selfish, even greedy way, not showing consideration for the interests of others? (1 Thess. 4:3-6) Could we really think that wrongdoing, such as immorality, could ever contribute to the true happiness of others? How much concern have we shown for their lasting good and their hope of life in God’s favor? Our actions might not have directly touched others, but we still affect people by our example and influence. (Rom. 14:7) Are we, then, so self-centered that we will please ourselves even though we know we are setting a bad example, acting as a weakening influence that can erode others’ spiritual strength? (Contrast Romans 15:2, 3.) According to Jesus Christ, the road to life is ‘narrow and cramped and few are finding it.’ (Matt. 7:14) We should know ourselves how much effort it takes to stay on the path of righteousness. So do we want to be like someone who, in effect, walks along in that narrow pathway and drops boulders that can make others stumble or at least make their progress more difficult than it already is? How unlike our heavenly Father that would be! (Isa. 40:11) As the apostle Paul states, we certainly “did not learn the Christ to be so.” (Eph. 4:19-24) If we truly love and admire God and his Son for their splendid qualities, do we not feel deep shame and sorrow at acting so differently from them, betraying their trust in us? Yes, thoughts such as these are in line with true repentance.
12. What point about repentance can we draw from the course King Manasseh followed after God forgave him?
12 Another vital part of repentance is illustrated in the case of King Manasseh of Judah. Regarding his sin, the Bible tells us: “He did on a large scale what was bad in Jehovah’s eyes, to offend him.” (2 Ki. 21:6) Finally, as an expression of Jehovah’s judgment, Manasseh was taken captive to Babylon. There he repented. The Scriptures report: “He softened the face of Jehovah his God and kept humbling himself greatly because of the God of his forefathers. And he kept praying to Him, so that He let himself be entreated by him and He heard his request for favor and restored him to Jerusalem to his kingship.” (2 Chron. 33:12, 13) Thereafter Manasseh did what he could to rectify his wrongs, clearing out idolatrous practices from his realm, sacrificing to Jehovah and encouraging the people to serve the Most High. (2 Chron. 33:15, 16) This shows that true repentance involves both abandoning the wrong course and making a determined effort to do what is right.
13. What might “fruit that befits repentance” include, and why?
13 So, then, a person who is truly repentant should be able to point to “fruit that befits repentance.” (Matt. 3:8) This would include the individual’s putting forth reasonable efforts to rectify matters to the extent that he finds possible in his present circumstances. For example, his profession of repentance would have little substance if he showed no concern as to compensating for something he stole. Also, if he made no positive resolve to follow a right course, there would be a serious question about whether his repentance was genuine.
14. When a person’s record of sin is very shocking and accompanied by bad publicity, what determines whether he should be disfellowshiped or not?
14 But how is the matter to be viewed if an individual’s sin is very shocking and has given rise to much bad publicity? Again, whether the wrongdoer is expelled from the congregation or not depends upon his genuine repentance or lack of it.
15. When is it proper for elders to take disfellowshiping action, and why?
15 Whenever evidence of sincere repentance is missing, the elders need to be careful that they do not allow themselves to be governed by sentimentality. They cannot condone wrongdoing, simply ignoring or viewing as of little consequence the reproach and trouble an unrepentant person’s lawlessness has brought upon the congregation. Were they to do so, this could have a damaging effect on the congregation as a whole. Some members of the congregation might be emboldened to take liberties and to disregard the inspired counsel: “Be as free people, and yet holding your freedom, not as a blind for badness, but as slaves of God.” (1 Pet. 2:16) Furthermore, the wrongdoer himself might come to regard sin lightly, exercise even less restraint in the future and get others involved in lawlessness. Wise King Solomon observed: “Because sentence against a bad work has not been executed speedily, that is why the heart of the sons of men has become fully set in them to do bad.” (Eccl. 8:11) So, when the genuineness of a wrongdoer’s repentance is subject to serious question and when there is clear evidence that corruption is likely to result, elders should not hesitate to heed the admonition: “Remove the wicked man from among yourselves.”—1 Cor. 5:13.
WRONGDOING BY ELDERS AND MINISTERIAL SERVANTS
16. If an elder becomes guilty of serious wrongdoing, what should he do, and why?
16 Since elders have such weighty responsibility in the Christian congregation, their conduct should certainly be exemplary. Therefore, if an elder commits a grave wrong, he is morally obligated to inform the body of elders respecting this, even though he may have repented of his error. Why? Because, having ceased to be irreprehensible, he is now disqualified from continuing to serve as an overseer. (1 Tim. 3:2) For men with serious spiritual blemishes to serve as elders would not conform to God’s standard of holiness.—1 Pet. 1:15, 16; compare the law at Leviticus 21:17-23, which prohibited men of Aaron’s house from carrying out priestly duties if they had a physical defect.
17. What should be done if an elder feels that he is no longer irreprehensible?
17 Of course, like all other members of the congregation, elders time and again fall short of reflecting Jehovah’s image perfectly. Because of his repeated failings, an elder may come to feel that he no longer measures up to Scriptural requirements and may bring this to the attention of the other elders. After looking into the matter and also taking into consideration the conscientious feelings of the congregation as a whole, the other elders, however, may conclude that the kind of shortcomings involved do not call into question the man’s qualifications to serve as an overseer. (See Galatians 2:11-14, where we learn of Peter’s being reproved; this wrong did not disqualify him from continuing to serve as an elder.) Nevertheless, if this elder still conscientiously believes that he is no longer irreprehensible, the other elders should respect his feelings and relieve him of his responsibilities.
18. What responsibility do elders have toward one of their number that becomes guilty of grave sin?
18 On the other hand, if there is a valid accusation against an elder or if he confesses to gross sin, the other elders should assume full responsibility for relieving him of his eldership and should reprove him as needed, imposing whatever restrictions are advisable. Or, where an unrepentant attitude on his part makes it necessary, they should take disfellowshiping action.
19. What should a ministerial servant who becomes involved in serious sin do, and why?
19 As in the case of elders, ministerial servants who become guilty of grave wrongs have a moral responsibility to let the elders know about this. Only men who are “free from accusation” are qualified to serve in that capacity. (1 Tim. 3:10) Therefore, instances of wrongdoing involving ministerial servants are dealt with like those involving elders.
20. What good may result from an example of genuine repentance?
20 If God requires every member of the Christian congregation to be conscientious about pleasing him and keeping clean for his service, those who are elders and ministerial servants should certainly be no less sensitive as to their conduct. They are generally more experienced in the Christian way of life and are held more responsible by God, for they are examples. (Compare Luke 12:48; 1 Peter 5:2, 3.) Even if they make a grave mistake, their sincere repentance, manifested by their turning around from their wrong and their bringing it to the attention of the body of elders, is an example. This may serve to help others who slip into serious sin to take a like repentant course. The zeal for clearing themselves before God, the earnestness, the indignation toward their own wrongs, the effort at righting the wrong, will work for the salvation of all. Moreover, it will maintain peace in the congregation—peace with God and with one another.—2 Cor. 7:11.
21. What wholesome effect can repentance have on us?
21 How very vital genuine repentance is! Really, because of being imperfect, we daily fail in some way to reflect the image of Jehovah God perfectly. This is something we should rightly regret. But it should not cause us to torment ourselves over every minor fault or slip. Nevertheless, the realization that we often err in word and in deed should keep us humble and help us to be merciful when others sin against us. Then, when we pray to God for forgiveness of our trespasses, we can be confident that he will be pleased with our prayers. (Matt. 6:12, 14, 15) Thus, we will enjoy a clean conscience as we continue seeking to do his will. Yes, we will be truly happy, knowing that Jehovah has forgiven our sins and that he views us as his clean servants who have before them the prospect of everlasting life.—Ps. 32:1, 2; 103:10-13.
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Though King Manasseh had sinned greatly, his genuine repentance was proved by his zealously clearing out the idolatrous “sacred poles”