There are fewer deceptions that are more confounding than that of false repentance. When someone pretends to confess and turn away from sin, but in the depths of his heart means only to appease anger and escape consequences, it leaves in its wake an especially sensitive kind of confusion and pain.
“Do they really mean it?” is a question that I’m asked frequently. My response is that I do not know for sure, and I am vulnerable to deception. However, genuine repentance tends to be more like mountains on the horizon than a pit on the path — that is, it tends to be easily discernible and not something for which you have to be on the lookout. The more you feel like you have to go find it, the less likely it is authentic.
Why Do We Repent?
“My bad.” Those words got me out of more trouble as a young man than any other two-word combination I can imagine. Guys especially have a tendency to think that repentance almost solely consists of admitting a fault. Once the fault has been admitted, even if in the most lexically concise way possible, the assumption is that everyone should just get over it and move on.
However, when repentance is given the short shrift, so is the relationship that is supposed to be repaired. Our repenting of sin is the first step toward rebuilding trust with those whom our sin has harmed or affected. If we seem irritated or rash in our repentance, then the wound which that sin created can stay open and become infected with bitterness.
More than that, the reason that we prioritize repentance is because our Lord and Savior tells us to (1 John 1:9). The gospel is on full display when we repent. Its light shines forth for us as we perceive our moment-to-moment need of a gracious Savior, and it penetrates into the painful darkness of others as it illuminates the route to restoration grounded in the good news of a holy God. As Tertullian once said, “I was born for no other end but to repent.”
The famous seventeenth century pastor Thomas Watson wrote a treatise on repentance with six “ingredients” to show us what genuine repentance looks like.
1. Sight of Sin
By this, Watson means that we rightly perceive ourselves as sinners. How often have you heard the phrase, “I know I’m not perfect but . . . ” which in nearly every circumstance means, “when it comes to this, I’m perfect!” Genuine repentance starts with the understanding that we are desperate sinners whose sin touches nearly everything we do (Romans 3:10). It means that we should not be surprised when we find it necessary to repent, nor should that exercise undo us.