Welcome. Good morning! Please find your seat, and we will begin. In case you’re new here in Sunday school or haven’t been here in a while, this is the fifth lesson in our series on prayer. So far, we had two introductory lessons and two lessons on praise. Today, I’d like to cover repentance.
The Importance of Repentance
Let’s begin this morning by talking about the importance of repentance. Once again, I’d like to start with a quote. Heath Lambert says this, “[R]epentance is the means by which you lay hold of Jesus’ forgiving and transforming grace.”
Turn with me to James 4. We’ve already been here once in this series. Now we’re coming back again. In our first look at this passage, we saw the despicable spiritual adultery James’s readers were committing. Now we’ll take a look at the solution to that problem. Let’s start in v. 6, where the passage takes a very hopeful turn (James 4:6-10). What does James tell his readers to do about their sin? He tells them to repent! He tells them to stop resisting God and start resisting the devil instead. He tells them to submit to God. He says “cleanse your hands” (which probably has to do with confessing outward sins) “and purify your hearts” (which is probably about confessing inwards sins). He says “Lament and mourn and weep! Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom.”
Clearly, James wants his readers to be sorry for their sins and to change their direction, but it’s also very safe to say that he intends for them to confess their sins to God. What will happen to them if they do these things? They will experience God’s grace! Not only does God give the repentant grace; but according to v. 6, He gives them “more grace” or “greater grace”—as the famous hymn puts it, “grace that is greater than all our sin.” That’s good news, isn’t it? Because all of us have sins that we struggle with. We want to be more like Christ, and yet we fall over and over again. But this verse holds out a promise that feeds our souls: God’s grace is bigger than our sin. That’s why repentance is so important. It’s the key that unlocks God’s grace.
What Keeps Us from Repenting?
What attitude keeps people from repenting? According to v. 6, it's pride! The pride that keeps people from repenting manifests itself in a couple of different ways. Some people literally deny their sins. This is called “self-righteousness,” and sadly, it’s very common. Self-righteous people are always looking for an apology, but they themselves will rarely if ever apologize, because in their minds, they’ve done no wrong. And try as you might, you can never pin them down. They always have an excuse. Everyone else has a problem but them. Like Adam and Eve in the Garden, they’re quick to blame others. Oftentimes, their own inflated view of themselves is so ridiculously inaccurate, it’s almost funny (Luke 18:9-14).
Can you stop feeling sorry for this make-believe Pharisee long enough to laugh at him? Have you ever watched someone strike up a conversation with an important person… and make an absolute fool of themselves? The first annual NBA awards were held last week, and Russell Westbrook was named MVP for the 2016-2017 season. Imagine that an older gentleman walks up to Russell Westbrook after he’s just won the MVP award. We don’t know how this older gentleman got into the awards ceremony in the first place; he’s certainly no one important in terms of NBA basketball—in fact, he’s just a Joe off the street, and his self-awareness is lacking, to say the least. So he walks up to Russell Westbrook and says, “That’s a nice trophy you’ve got there. You know, I used to be a basketball player. I played all through high school. I thought about going pro, but I just didn’t think I could handle all of the limelight and media exposure like this. I’m not very good at giving speeches, you know.” And you watch in amazement as this guy who probably warmed the bench in high school, boasts to Russell Westbrook!
Let me tell you, that’s nothing compared to this Pharisee! He decides to grace the God of the universe with a few minutes of his time, and he spends the entire time bragging. On the other hand, the tax collector is so ashamed that he cannot even bring himself to look up. He beats his chest in sorrow and exclaims, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” If you want to experience God’s grace, you’ll to need to be humble, not self-righteous, like this Pharisee.
But the pride that keeps us from repentance also takes another form; I’m calling it “self-condemnation.” This quote describes the thought process associated with self-condemnation. “I’m terrible. I’m awful. What was I thinking? If my friends knew what I was doing, they would never talk to me again. I can never be in ministry if I don’t quit doing this. What if my spouse finds out? What if my girlfriend finds out? What if my parents find out? What if my pastor finds out? What if people at church find out? I don’t deserve to be a Christian. Maybe I’m not a Christian.” And on and on it goes. If you’ve ever been here, you know it’s absolute misery, sometimes even despair.
Can you think of anyone in the Bible who followed a thought process like this rather than repenting? How about Judas? What’s wrong with this thought process? There’s way too much “me”—way too much “I”—and absolutely no “Christ.” Lambert says this, “You need to stop talking to yourself in categories of condemnation and begin talking to God in categories of confession.” I think that summarizes it perfectly. If you struggle with the kind of thought process we just talked about, you might not believe me at first, but your real problem is selfishness and pride. I know you think you’re humble, but you’re actually not. True humility runs to Christ and takes God at His word when He says, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
The Wrong Way to Repent
Before we move on, I should say that’s possible to fall into lesser forms of the two errors we just discussed even when we do repent. Self-righteousness and self-condemnation are sins that keep us from repenting. But we can also repent in the wrong way. We repent wrongly when we fall into either superficiality on the one hand or inordinate self-loathing on the other. For instance, I’ve counseled people who say, “I’m concerned that my confessions are too trite. They don’t match the serious nature of my offense against God. However, when I try to take my sin more seriously, I sometimes end up wallowing in it for days after I’ve already confessed it and been forgiven.” Thankfully, the Bible gives us theological antidotes for both superficiality and wallowing. Turn to 1 John 1:9.
The theological antidote for inordinate wallowing is the freeness of forgiveness. John says, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." Let’s just unpack that statement. First, there is a promise. If we confess, He will what? He'll forgive! But John also shows how that promise is rooted in the character of God! How can we know that God will forgive? It's because He is faithful and just. God is faithful to us, His people. No matter how many times we sin against Him, He will never reject us; like the father in the parable of the prodigal son, He is always waiting with open arms when we return to Him. His faithfulness demands it. But so too, does His justice! Because our sins were paid for on the cross, God will not withhold forgiveness from any penitent sinner. So, no matter how far you’ve fallen, when you return to God, He will forgive and accept you! This is a truth in which we must soak our souls, because it is vital to spiritual growth. Tim Keller puts it this way.
“If we know we are loved and accepted in spite of our sins, that makes it far easier to admit our flaws and faults. It gives us the deep spiritual and psychological security necessary to be quick to admit when we have been wrong. This softens almost all conflicts, since getting admissions of guilt is no longer like pulling teeth. This simplifies many personal problems, because when we have taken a wrong course of action, we are more readily able to see it and turn back. Most of all, we can more immediately and more often go to God with our sins, confess them, remember Jesus’ sacrificial death, and relive in miniature the joy of our salvation. While there always is some bitterness and grief in repentance, deeper realizations of sin led to greater assurances of his grace. The more we know we are forgiven, the more we repent; the faster we grow and change, the deeper our humility and joy.”
I especially want to highlight the first part of that last sentence: “the more we know we are forgiven, the more we repent.” If you want to develop a pattern of confession in your life, you must internalize the freeness of forgiveness. You say, “But Pastor Kris, couldn’t that lead to the other error that you mentioned, that is, superficiality?” Well, that’s where the other spiritual antidote comes in. Skip down to 2:2. The theological antidote for superficial confession is the costliness of grace. The word “propitiation” is loaded with meaning. “Propitiation” means that Christ bore God’s wrath when He died for our sins on the cross. He suffered more deeply than anyone else has ever suffered. And it is spiritually healthy for us to meditate on all of the ways in which He suffered because it helps us to remember that forgiveness is not free. God didn’t just grant us a presidential pardon. His Son paid for every single one of those sins. We sing many hymns that highlight the suffering of our Savior. I think this one by the Gettys captures it extremely well.
“To see the King of heaven fall
In anguish to His knees,
The Light and Hope of all the world
Now overwhelmed with grief.
What nameless horrors must He see,
To cry out in the garden:
Oh, take this cup away from me
Yet not my will but Yours,
Yet not my will but Yours.
To know each friend will fall away,
And heaven’s voice be still,
For hell to have its vengeful day
Upon Golgotha’s hill.
No words describe the Saviour’s plight -
To be by God forsaken
Till wrath and love are satisfied
And every sin is paid
And every sin is paid
What took Him to this wretched place,
What kept Him on this road?
His love for Adam’s cursed race,
For every broken soul.
No sin too slight to overlook,
No crime too great to carry,
All mingled in this poisoned cup ‚
And yet He drank it all,
The Saviour drank it all,
The Saviour drank it all.”
Later this morning, we’ll observe the Lord’s Supper, in which we’ll meditate on that “poison cup” extensively. How should we respond to such truths? Well as Chris Anderson says in the hymn, “My Jesus, Fair,” we abhor all our sin and adore only Him. So we see that meditating on the costliness of forgiveness keeps us from superficial repentance, while meditating on God’s free offer of grace keeps us from the wallowing in our sin.
What I’d like to in the rest of our time together is to address a couple of practical questions regarding confession. This will be our only lesson on repentance, so I want to try to cover as many bases as possible.
Practical Questions Regarding Repentance
Let’s talk about what and when to confess. You should immediately confess to God each individual sin of which you are aware and which you have not already confessed. You say, “Pastor Kris, where do you get that?” Well, the wording of 1 John 1:9 is interesting. It says, “If we confess our sins” (plural) rather than “sin” (singular). And the implication of that fact seems to be that we are to confess our individual sins, and not just our sinfulness. So, you ought to confess to God each individual sin of which you are aware. And you ought to do so as soon as possible. Psalm 66:18 says, “If I regard iniquity in my heart, the LORD will not hear.” Sin blocks my fellowship with God. So as soon as I am aware of particular sin, I ought to repent of it. Very early on in my life, I developed the habit of immediate confession. As soon as I realized I had sinned, I would try to stop and ask God’s forgiveness. That was a good habit. I think it’s one we all ought to work on.
The other truth we learn from 1 John 1:9 is that once I confess a sin, it is forgiven; so, I don’t need to confess the same sin over and over again. During my teen years and even into my twenties, I struggled with confessing sins multiple times. And it was a temptation related to that tendency to wallow in our sin, as we discussed earlier. 1 John 1:9 became an important verse for me, because I needed to trust God’s promise of free forgiveness. You don’t need to confess a sin more than once. The first time you confess it, God hears your prayer and forgives you.
So, “praying without ceasing” includes confessing individual sins to God as soon as I become aware of them. However, my quiet time is not just for confessing known sins; it’s also a time for self-examination. I ought to ask God to reveal to me any sin of which I might not have been aware so that I can repent of it and continue to grow. God answers that prayer as the Spirit takes the Word and applies it our hearts. Maybe I’m reading along in my devotions, when I come to passage that highlights a sin I’m guilty of, and I begin to feel conviction. That’s the Spirit and the Word working together. Maybe a command that I have failed to obey comes to mind. That’s the Spirit and the Word. James 1 says that God’s Word is like a mirror that reveals to us our sinfulness. And we ought to respond to that vision with repentance.
However, once again, in an effort to ensure balance, I should also point out that even though introspection is good, it can be taken to unhelpful extremes. David knew that he had committed many sins of which he was not even aware! That’s why he said in Psalm 19:12, “Who can understand his errors?” and then he prayed for God to cleanse him from secret faults. Spurgeon said of this verse, “If we had eyes like those of God, we should think very differently of ourselves. The transgressions which we see and confess are but like the farmer’s small samples which he brings to market, when he has left his granary full at home. We have but a very few sins which we can observe and detect, compared with those which are hidden from ourselves and unseen by our fellow-creatures.” Once we get down to the motivational level, we sin so much, we can’t even keep up with ourselves! That’s why David recognized that at some point, he just had to rely on God’s mercy. Personally, I’ve found that it’s better to pray humbly for God to reveal sin and then trust Him to do so, rather than anguishing in scrutiny over every thought, word, and action.
The final thing I ought to say on a practical level is that if your sin has affected another person, you ought to confess to that person, as well as to God. We don’t have time to get into that today, but it is very important.
I’ve got about another lesson’s worth of notes on the difference between positional and relational forgiveness. However, after writing those notes, I decided not to go into that topic, since it’s a bit outside the scope of this study. However, if you are interested in those notes, you can find them in an article on our blog entitled, "Does the Bible Really Teach Two Types of Forgiveness."