Yesterday, I responded to a question concerning whether a narcissist could be saved. Within that question was another on whether the narcissist was capable of repenting. Today I want to take a stab at the definition of repentance.
I would establish two axioms. It may be that not all believers would agree with me on these, but I believe them to be true and they move me to understand more about sin and repentance. Here they are:
- God hates sin because sin hurts His people and He loves us.
- Believers can commit any sin, if they seek to live out of their flesh rather than the Spirit.
Much is made of the Greek meaning of words. The word, metanoia, is usually the word we see translated as “repentance.” It means simply, “to change the mind.” In other words, to think differently. But to think differently about what?
As we grew up, we created a coping system for our lives. We learned how to deal with people, how to look at ourselves, and what limits to place on our dreams. We learned how to deal with life. Our system may not have worked very well, but it worked well enough to get us through difficulties. Addictions, habits, attitudes, expectations—these grew out of the system as we created it. The Scripture calls this system the “flesh.” It stands against the Spirit, according to Paul in Galatians. The flesh, because it is unwilling to trust the assessment of the Lord, often embraces sin as a method of getting what it needs. For example, a person might desire some attention in order to feel good about himself. He tries some things but doesn’t get what he wants. When he lies, however, he is able to move attention toward himself. The need to feel good about himself leads him to crave attention and lying becomes simply one of the ways to meet his need. This is the flesh at work.
The error that is often made is to think that repentance is thinking differently about particular sins. When a child lies, the parents will try to move him to repent, to acknowledge the sin and renounce it. If he says that he is sorry for lying and will try not to do it again, the parents are satisfied. But the child may only have learned that lying doesn’t work or, worse, that he hasn’t been lying well enough. He may think differently about that particular sin, but his core thinking hasn’t changed at all. Next time he craves attention, he may hit someone or break something or use a bad word. Too often people learn either to sin more discreetly or to exchange one sin for another. To call this repentance is in error.
Repentance happens when a person looks at his or her life and realizes that the flesh system isn’t working. To repent is to look outside oneself for life, to seek the life God provides. The one who repents reaches out to God because God offers something more than he could ever provide for himself. The flesh system is seen as insufficient and the love of God is accepted.
Someone asks whether repentance is necessary for salvation. Of course it is. Why else would anyone look to the Lord for new life? But repentance is not a decision to no longer sin, nor is it merely regret for former sins. Repentance is a realization that life isn’t working as is and a genuine desire for something different. Repentance doesn’t save. Jesus saves. But repentance allows us to look outside ourselves to see Jesus.