In his December 7 daily devotion in My Utmost for His Highest, Oswald Chambers says the following:
“Repentance always brings a man to this point: I have sinned. The surest sign that God is at work is when a man says that and means it. Anything less than this is a remorse for having made blunders, the reflex action of disgust at himself.”
I’m not entirely sure what this means, but this is not the first and only time that I have heard or read Christians attempting to distinguish true repentance from false repentance. Jonathan Edwards did so in his book, Religious Affections. I read this book over a decade ago, so my memory is hazy, but I vaguely recall Edwards saying that true repentance produces lasting fruit and contains a genuine and disinterested love for good and hatred for evil. False repentance, by contrast, is temporary, does not bear lasting fruit, and may arise from terror of God and a desire to avoid hell.
I one time heard a sermon, and I went up to the person afterwards to tell him I liked what he had to say. (He was a classmate of mine.) He responded that there is a difference between repentance and regret. I responded, “Yeah, I think I see what you mean”, but then he excused himself, perhaps because he felt that he was treading on uncomfortable territory, or because he sensed that I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about. After he left, the lady next to me who was listening to the conversation said, “That was a really good point that he made, about the difference between repentance and regret.
Another point that I read was in one of E.W. Bullinger’s books, which was about Hebrews 11. It’s been a while since I read that book, but I vaguely recall Bullinger saying that repentance is not over things that we did, but it’s over what we are, sinners.
How do I process all of this? I won’t go into every little detail, but I’ll mention a couple of points. First of all, a problem that I long had as a Christian was not knowing what exactly I should think or feel. On the one hand, we’re told that we’re supposed to be repentant and recognize that we are rotten-to-the-core sinners. That’s supposedly a sign that God’s grace is working on us. On the other hand, we’re supposed to be able to look at our hearts and our lives and see spiritual fruit—-love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, etc.—-and we’re told that such spiritual fruit demonstrates that we are truly saved. Well, that sort of puts people in a bind, doesn’t it? We’re supposed to see ourselves as bad, yet we’re supposed to look for good within us so that we can verify to ourselves that we are truly saved. Speaking for myself, I’m sick of playing this game. I have good acts, thoughts, and feelings, and I have bad or sub-standard acts, thoughts, and feelings. Even the good that I do is tainted with bad. But that doesn’t mean it’s not good at all. Why can’t I just cultivate the good, rather than beating up on myself for not being perfect?
Second, I’m not on some quest to verify to myself that my repentance is authentic or genuine. Don’t get me wrong, for I still feel that Christians have much to teach me about what kind of repentance may work in terms of helping me to live a moral and spiritual life. Edwards, for example, makes valid points that repentance should entail loving what’s good and hating what’s evil on a continual basis. And, while Bullinger is making a common Christian point about human corruption, he does well to bring up the point that my problem is not just my outward deeds, but it runs much deeper than that. Moreover, regarding the distinction between repentance and regret, perhaps one could say that they’re different in that regret is people beating up on themselves for having done what’s wrong, whereas repentance involves restoration and a new beginning. But, in my opinion, people should not despair about lacking true repentance if they find that they primarily have regret, or shame about their bad deeds, or remorse at their mistakes, or disgust at themselves for making blunders, for who’s to say that God can’t use those things to bring about a fresh start and change?
Why can’t we just focus on pursuing good and avoiding evil, rather than fretting about whether or not our repentance is real?