5 Ways to Discern True and False Repentance

So what are you supposed to do? The person in front of you says they are repentant.

The Bible contains several aides that are designed to help believers distinguish between true and false repentance. It is important that we are able to distinguish the two, because the difference between them determines how we respond to our fallen brother or sister. If we are to bring law to the proud and grace to the humble, then it is essential that we are able to discern between pride and humility.

 

Every Christian will likely encounter this scenario: someone you know and who professes Christ has a major sin in their life exposed. As a result, relationships are harmed, their reputation is destroyed, and their heart is broken. You, as their friend (or pastor or spouse) are left wondering how to respond.

You know that Christians are called to forgive and restore other believers who have their sin exposed, but you also know that this is only true if they are repentant over their sin. For example, the command in Galatians 6:1 to “restore” a fallen believer is paired with an exhortation about the importance of self-examination (vv. 2-4). Or Paul, in 2 Corinthians 7, tell the Corinthians that he stands ready to forgive them, because the exposure of their sin produced godly sorrow as opposed to worldly sorrow (2 Corinthians 7:9-11).

So what are you supposed to do? The person in front of you says they are repentant. They saythey are sorry about their sin. But is that enough?  

The Bible contains several aides that are designed to help believers distinguish between true and false repentance. It is important that we are able to distinguish the two, because the difference between them determines how we respond to our fallen brother or sister. If we are to bring law to the proud and grace to the humble, then it is essential that we are able to discern between pride and humility.

For example, as I mentioned above, Paul extended the Corinthians grace (instead of law) because he judged their sorrow to be a sign of godly repentance as opposed to worldly sorrow. But how did he know the difference? After all, the person who sits in your living room weeping about their now known sin may or may not be truly repentant, so how could Paul know?

He tells us that godly sorrow leads to repentance because it is accompanied by indignation, fear, deep longing, zeal, and justice (2 Corinthians 7:11).

Why did he choose those words? Well, taken together they represent someone who is broken over the nature of their sin more than the consequences of it. They provide five marks that the person is sorry they sinned, rather than sorry they got caught.

Indignation: Godly sorrow is a form of godly anger. This is an anger at sin—not the consequences of sin, but at sin itself. The broken believer is sorry about their sin, but they are more than sorry: they are disappointed and grieved that the depravity brought into the world through Adam resides in their own heart.

Some people are angry their sin was exposed. Their concern is to cover their sin and convince others to do that as well. Like Saul who only wanted Samuel to go with him for appearance’s sake, these people are not grieved over their sin. True repentance doesn’t create anger at those who know the sin, but rather anger at the nature of sin itself. This is why Paul describes true repentance as a form of indignation.

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