Grace, Repentance, and Confession
By Rev. Tony Cooke
I recently had the privilege of doing some extended meetings at Pastor Jerry Weinzierl’s church in Sterling Heights, Michigan, and was able to teach in-depth on the topic of grace. One of the areas I taught related to how God’s grace affects whether believers need to confess sins or repent. Some have the distinct impression that being under grace means that it is unnecessary to repent of or confess sins we commit. Instead, it is thought, believers simply need to recognize that they were already forgiven.
Before addressing this, it is vital to define our terms scripturally. The words “repent” and “repentance” do not mean that we anxiously wallow in guilt, hashing and re-hashing our failures, or that we walk perpetually in sin-consciousness. Here is what some of the most respected Greek scholars have to say about the Greek word for repentance:
“The Greek noun metanoia literally means, ‘a change of mind.’ It is more than an emotional sorrow, which too often does not produce any change of life. Rather, it is a change of mind, or attitude, toward God, sin, and ourselves” (Ralph Earle).
“...the change of mind of those who have begun to abhor their errors and misdeeds, and have determined to enter upon a better course of life, so that it embraces both a recognition of sin and sorrow for it and hearty amendment, the tokens and effects of which are good deeds” (Joseph H. Thayer).
In his outstanding work, A Light in the Darkness: Seven Messages to the Seven Churches, Rick Renner writes: “When the words meta and nous are combined together; the new word depicts a decision to completely change the way one thinks, lives, or behaves. This doesn’t describe a temporary emotional sorrow for past actions; rather, it is a solid, intellectual decision to turn about-face and take a new direction, to completely alter one’s life by discarding an old, destructive pattern and embracing a brand new one. True repentance involves a conscious decision both to turn away from sin, selfishness, and rebellion, and to turn toward God with all of one’s heart and mind. It is a complete, 180-degree turn in one’s thinking and behaving.”
Resolutions are not the same as repentance. William Douglas Chamberlain wrote, “The Christian faith turns men’s faces forward. Repentance is the reorientation of a personality with reference to God and His purpose.” Further, he states that in order for believers to enjoy the kingdom of God, they must “undergo a mental transfiguration, which we call ‘repentance.’ Repentance looks ahead in hope and anticipation while remorse “looks backward in shame and forward in fear.”
Jesus Preached Repentance
The very first words Jesus preached (according to Matthew 4:17) were “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Notice that Jesus didn’t simply advocate people turning from the negative, but He wanted people to awaken to the positive - the kingdom of heaven - that was becoming available to them. In this sense, we can say that repentance is really prophetic preparation; it is the preparation of our hearts for something wonderful that God is making available to us.
Repentance occurs when we awaken to God’s glorious potential for our lives. In the light of God’s goodness and good intentions toward us, we recognize the deficiency of our selfish perspective and the destructiveness of our sinful behavior. Thus, we turn from them in order to embrace a new, better, and higher life offered by the God of grace. Like grace, repentance involves both attitude and action. There is the discontinuation of wrong behavior based upon a heart and mind that have turned completely toward God and His ways.
But Do Believers Have to Repent?
Some believe that confession of sin and repentance is important for unbelievers, but becomes unnecessary once a person has become born-again. After all, it is reasoned, if Jesus already died for and has already forgiven all of our sins, why would we need to acknowledge them or confess them if they’re already under the blood?
Long after His ascension, Jesus addressed believers in various congregations throughout Asia Minor (Revelation 2-3). He told five out of seven congregations that they needed to repent of certain sins, and specifically told the Laodiceans: “Those whom I [dearly and tenderly] love, I tell their faults and convict and convince and reprove and chasten [I discipline and instruct them]. So be enthusiastic and in earnest and burning with zeal and repent [changing your mind and attitude]” (Revelation 3:19, Amplified).
Jesus was not telling these believers that they needed to earn their forgiveness by repentance, but He certainly wanted them to acknowledge the areas where they needed to make adjustments and align themselves with His Word.
The Apostle Paul certainly believed that it was important for believers who had missed it to repent before God and, with the help of God, to get their lives in order. In 2 Corinthians 12:20-21 (NLT), he said, “For I am afraid that when I come I won’t like what I find, and you won’t like my response. I am afraid that I will find quarreling, jealousy, anger, selfishness, slander, gossip, arrogance, and disorderly behavior. Yes, I am afraid that when I come again, God will humble me in your presence. And I will be grieved because many of you have not given up your old sins. You have not repented of your impurity, sexual immorality, and eagerness for lustful pleasure.”
Paul has often been called “The Apostle of Grace,” and yet he obviously believed that repentance is important for Christians who get off-track. I believe the clear teaching of Scripture is not that grace makes repentance unnecessary, but that grace makes repentance possible. Because God is gracious, He doesn’t reject us or cast us out when we struggle or fail, but He invites us to, “...come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16). In 2 Corinthians 7:10, Paul said that, “godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death.”
What About Confession?
When we understand what confession (of sin) really entails, we realize that it is THE first step in the repentance process. The Greek word “homologeo” is derived from two words meaning “same” and “to speak.” Hence, it is typically defined as meaning to speak the same thing. Confess also means to agree with, to concede, to admit, and to acknowledge. If a person doesn’t first acknowledge that there is a problem, how or why would they bother to change their mind, their attitude, or their conduct about that problem? A person will never repent unless they first confess (or acknowledge) that the issue is a sin.
It is unfortunate that some have endeavored to diminish the significance of confession by claiming the 1 John 1 was not written to Christians, but to unbelievers or gnostics. Many epistles were written against backdrops of doctrinal error, but every New Testament epistle was written to Christians. 1 Corinthians was written against a backdrop of antinomianism, Galatians against a backdrop of legalism, Colossians against a backdrop of asceticism, and 1 John against a backdrop of gnosticism, but ALL were written TO Christians.
The Bible Knowledge Commentary states: “In modern times some have occasionally denied that a Christian needs to confess his sins and ask forgiveness. It is claimed that a believer already has forgiveness in Christ (Ephesians 1:7). But this point of view confuses the perfect position which a Christian has in God’s Son (by which he is even ‘seated…with Him in the heavenly realms’ [Ephesians 2:6]) with his needs as a failing individual on earth. What is considered in 1 John 1:9 may be described as ‘familial’ forgiveness. It is perfectly understandable how a son may need to ask his father to forgive him for his faults while at the same time his position within the family is not in jeopardy. A Christian who never asks his heavenly Father for forgiveness for his sins can hardly have much sensitivity to the ways in which he grieves his Father. First John 1:9 is not spoken to the unsaved, and the effort to turn it into a soteriological affirmation is misguided.”
Grace does not eradicate or make unnecessary any other New Testament teaching or discipline. Grace does not do away with the need for repentance, obedience, holiness, church involvement, or giving. Rather, grace provides forgiveness when we have fallen short of His directives, and if we will respond to His grace, we will find the power to obey Him in all things. Grace is not an excuse; it is enablement. Grace is not a cop-out; it is a catalyst. Grace is not divine permission to do wrong; it is divine empowerment to do right!
May you find great strength in His all-sufficient grace!
For more information on Tony Cooke visit: www.tonycooke.org