Some years ago, I corresponded with a murderer. While in prison, the Lord saved him. He said something to me I will never forget. “I know the Lord has forgiven me, but I deserve to die. If the penal system feared the Lord, they would put me to death for my crime.” The Holy Spirit taught this man the truth about sin, repentance, and restitution. He understood that repentance concerns not simply personal peace and restoration in broken human relationships. Repentance is chiefly concerned with upholding God’s righteous government in the world and restoring sinners to peace and submission to him through the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ and the renewing grace of the Holy Spirit.
Unrepentant sinners have a different attitude toward theirs sins. They regret the consequences of their actions, the confusion that sin creates in their lives, and that they cannot enjoy their sins without trouble. They bristle when confronted with their sins and do not want to hear about making appropriate restitution for their sins. “Forgive and forget” is their demand, even without repentance. These are evidences of a worldly sorrow that leads to death (2 Cor. 7:10).
We should never be stingy with mercy. If our brother sins against us seven times in one day and comes back in repentance seven times, we should forgive him (Luke 17:4). Mercy is our joyful default in all interpersonal, private sins. Other sins, however, are public (1 Tim. 5:24) or call for a public rebuke due to the position of the sinner in the community (1 Tim. 5:19-20). Other sins escalate to excommunication due to stubborn refusal to listen and repent (Matt. 18:15-20). Some sins are also crimes, as murder and adultery. We do not stand in the place of God and cannot forgive crimes.
Personal offenses are more common, and we are to forgive all offenses against us. At the same time, if our brother comes to us seven times in a day or seventy-times-seven in a month, we have a duty to exhort our brother to a more thorough repentance that bears fruit in stopping the sin. We must treat mercy carefully, since it cost our Lord Jesus his precious blood and the terrors of death and hell.
Saying, “I forgive you” is a serious matter, for we are also committing not to bring the matter up again and to receive the repentant brother back into the sphere of brotherly fellowship. Therefore, we need wisdom in asking and extending forgiveness – always ready to forgive with respect to personal sins against us, careful with respect to public and more serious sins, and never without exhortation to bear fruits of repentance. “Fruits worthy of repentance” is our Lord’s guide for all true repentance, in every sphere.
“Please, forgive me” may be an encouraging step toward repentance, but it is not the same as repentance. The sorrow of the world, as the Holy Spirit says in 2 Corinthians 7:10, does not face sin. Worldly sorrow focuses on getting past the pain of sin without removing its offense before a holy God. Worldly sorrow avoids the light, for it is consumed with man. How I can get back in the good graces of others and move past unpleasantness? Worldly sorrow does not forsake the sin that brought the sorrow in the first place. Worldly sorrow holds on to its sin while demanding others accept the sin.
Without some fruit of repentance, extending mercy can be ill-timed, shallow, even dangerous to an immortal soul. We rejoice to hear, “Will you forgive me?” At the same time, “I forgive you” is the last thing a sinner needs to hear when all there has been is words but no fruit, no godly sorrow over sin, and what is worse, more of the same sins. In the case of sins beyond interpersonal sins, far better to ask humble questions that probe a little deeper, express deep concern, and direct the individual to seek reputable, knowledgeable counsel from appropriate church authorities.
Very different from the worldly sorrow is the cry of the repentant heart that is broken before the Lord. We feel its moaning, for has been our moan: “Against you, and you only, have I sinned” (Ps. 51:4). How could David confess this? David committed adultery and murdered Urriah. Bathsheba’s life was forever altered, and she had lost her husband and the child she bore. When God grants repentance unto life – and he alone can (Acts 11:18) – he brings the sinner face to face with his holiness. All other considerations fade in the light of his holiness, that we have sinned against his grace, his mercy, and his law. Godly sorrow is overwhelmed, convicted, and cast down before a holy and righteous God.
Godly sorrow also brings us into the light of God’s great mercy. He against whom we have sinned offers us restoration in his beloved Son. His atoning blood, perfect obedience, and heavenly intercession secure our forgiveness and restore us to a right relationship with God. When the Lord gave David real conviction, he ran away from hiding and silence. David pled for mercy alone (Ps. 51:1). His hope was that God would blot out his sins. Real repentance does not make excuses or pressure others to accept us and our excuses. A repentant man does not want others to hear his side of the story. He seeks only mercy through Jesus Christ to get rid of the stain upon his soul.
Godly sorrow that works repentance does not stop with words and tears. Repentance always entails replacement, or to use the more biblical language, “putting off” the old man of sin and “putting on” the new man of righteousness (Eph. 4:17-30; Col. 3:9). In the case of adultery, the sinful relationship must be abandoned. Attempts must be made at restitution – public confession, oversight, and restoration of the broken marriage, if possible (Matt. 5:32; 19:9). For our common sins like lying, anger, and gossip, the same proof of genuine repentance must be pursued. “Wherefore, putting away lying speak every man truth with his neighbor” (Eph. 4:25). “Be angry, and do not sin; let not the sun go down upon your wrath” (Eph. 4:26). Without turning from sin unto righteousness, there is no true repentance.
“Repentance unto life” (Acts 11:18) reflects the reality of God’s mercy and his righteousness. He restores every repentant sinner to harmony with himself. It is painful to experience, for genuine repentance forces transparency and stretches everyone involved, the repenting sinner and the victims of his sin. The fruits of righteousness take time to blossom. A season of repentance requires soul-searching before the candle of Scripture, clear confession that depends upon the person and work of Jesus Christ, and patient commitment to walk in obedience to God’s word.
This is the glory of our Redeemer. He restores God’s image in us. He empowers us to forsake the old ways of sin and to live in righteousness (Eph. 4:24). In fellowship with Him, we are able to repent, forsake the old ways of sin, and pursue “righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost” (Rom. 14:17). He does not expect us to produce the fruits. He does not hold us from coming to him until we have measured up. He invites us to come, to come now, when still bleeding from our sin. He promises to forgive us, cleanse us, and gives us the grace to repent. This is all his work. This is the best news we can preach to ourselves and tell someone who sins against us. “His name is Jesus, and he saves his people from their sins.”