The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. (Psalm 51:17)
I can still see the moment in my mind. At the Christian conference, a friend whom I had been studying the Bible with that semester shared with the group that he was going to follow Jesus. He cried. I never saw him cry before. I couldn’t believe it. He not only came to the Christian conference, but he even received Christ. I sat watching it unfold in awe.
Afterward, I talked with the campus minister about how amazing his conversion had been. The minister, an older man, shared that he had witnessed many such conversions — and that many had not lasted. I didn’t have categories at the time for what the minister said.
My friend spoke, “I want to follow Jesus,” so clearly;
No doubt he felt some truths deeply;
He soon sung songs so sweetly,
As the crowd sang with him.
But time proved that repentance was not his truest praise. An immoral relationship soon came along, which he found harder to give up than Jesus.
The Tree of Repentance
If someone’s conversion to God is true, repentance will always follow. A mouth not born again can say true things. Unchanged eyes can cry. A fallen tongue can sincerely sing worship songs for a season. And still be lost. As with the seed sown on rocky soil, someone can receive “the word with joy,” yet because he has no root, fall away eventually (Matthew 13:20–21).
John the Baptist instructs, “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:8). Repentance is not figuring out the secret passwords and phrases to get into heaven. We do not merely confess that we have sinned against God — though that certainly is the first step — we bear fruit in keeping with our contrition. Our hatred of that sin does not evaporate when we rise from confession; our repentance does not end after we’ve grown satisfied with how long we’ve put ourselves in time-out. Repentance is a tree that bears fruit continually in our lives.
We do not begin an immoral relationship, get confronted in our sin, and continue on in that immoral relationship. We confess our wrongness before God, understand how we’ve conspired against him, and prayerfully cast the sin from us as Paul did the viper on the island of Patmos. Now, do not misunderstand me: Christians sin, and at times sin grievously. But they do not practice sin by living a lifestyle of it. It is impossible to do so. “No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him; and he cannot keep on sinning, because he has been born of God” (1 John 3:9). Those with the Spirit repent of sin and turn away from it, encouraged by the discipline of a loving Father.
Our Truest Praise
Repentance does not earn us God’s forgiveness; the fruit is not to be mistaken for the root. If we adopt many resolutions in fighting our sin, yet do not love and trust Christ, our “repentance” is mere showmanship. We become whitewashed tombs, beautiful on the outside while bones decay inside. We wear costumes of righteousness while rejecting the righteousness offered us by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, who died for the sins of those who trust in him.
Have you continued in a life of repentance? Have you continued in this truest praise of God? Have you continued in true contrition over sin committed against your God, accompanied with a true impulse to renounce that sin? Have you continued to consider, “How could I so offend my Best Friend, grieve his Holy Spirit indwelling me, and dishonor my heavenly Father?” Have you asked, “How could I indulge the flesh and commit sin that Christ died to redeem me from?” These are some of the considerations of repentance that break our hearts.
But notice that God does not despise this brokenness: “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Psalm 51:17). He does not stand in heaven cross-armed, scowling. He draws near by it. We do not bring our mere promises to do better next time; we bring bended knees and lowly hearts. We ask him to cover our disgrace and lavish us with fresh mercy from the cross of Jesus.
This is praise to God: agreeing with him that our sin is horrible, that we deserve punishment for it, but by the blood of Jesus Christ, trusting in the sufficiency of his sacrifice for it, and resolving by the help of the Spirit to put it to death. We vow to turn from it, yes, but only in the strength, forgiveness, and acceptance that he provides us through grace alone. Continue to offer God this truest praise.