Sometimes repentance doesn’t come easy. At times it feels like sin has a hold on us and we can’t repent. If you’ve been a Christian for any length of time, you’ll have experienced this. There are three reasons that we can’t repent, here they are along with what we can do about it.
The primary reason we can’t repent
The intention of man’s heart is evil continually (Gen 6:5), and there is none who seeks God (Rom 3:11) since all have turned aside from our God-given purpose (Rom 3:12), which is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. This sin is a result of the corruption of our flesh or our nature as human beings. Therefore we’re in a dilemma. We sin, and we can’t help it due to the corruption of our heart (Jer 17:9) — yet, God commands all people everywhere to repent (Acts 17:30), by which he means to turn away from evil.
This corruption is the reason the Bible describes us as spiritually dead (Eph 2:1). Dead people cannot act. They are simply unable to do so. To act requires life, and dead people don’t have life and therefore can’t act. For this reason, the Lord must quicken or regenerate us to make us alive. God has to give us a new life for repentance to occur (Eph 2:4, Titus 3:5). But, when God does make us alive, the old ways can be put off because we are an entirely new kind or quality of being (2 Cor 5:17).
1. The Lord gives repentance
So, while we can decide to make organizational changes and modify our lifestyle, we can’t put off our corrupt ways, change our mind and put on righteousness. Organizational change and lifestyle modifications are limited in scope and incomplete in its effect since it doesn’t change the heart and isn’t rooted in response to the person and character of God.
The Bible presents repentance is a gift of God. In 2 Tim 2:24, Paul explains that the Lord’s slave is not to be quarrelsome, but is to “be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, with gentleness correcting those who are opposition.” Why this emphasis (particularly patience and gently correcting)? He continues, “If perhaps God may grant them repentance, leading the the knowledge of the truth and they may come to their senses, and escape from the snare of the devil…” There is a lot packed into this passage, but the key thing to see here is that God grants repentance. Repentance isn’t merely something we do, but something God gives.
We see the same thing in Acts when Peter and the apostles were jailed for preaching and explained to the Jewish council of elders who Jesus was. He explained that Jesus was, “the one whom God exalted to His right hand as a Prince and Savior, to grant repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins.” In this passage, it is Christ who grants repentance. In Acts 3:26, Christ (God’s servant) was sent to bless Israel “by turning every one of you from your wicked ways.” This repentance was not granted just to the Jews, but also to us who are Gentiles (Acts 11:18).
We can still seek repentance
Even though God grants repentance and we can’t repent without His work in us, this doesn’t mean we can’t seek repentance. In fact, we are commanded to repent in numerous places in the Bible (Matt 3:2, Mark 1:15, Acts 2:38, 3:19, 8:22, Rev 2:5, 16, 3:3, 19). Indeed, the very seeking of repentance may be an indicator that God is at work to grant repentance. The very knowledge of our need to repent comes as God’s Spirit applies His word in our heart.
Therefore, let me ask, Have you sought repentance? Proverbs 28:13 explains starkly, “He who conceals his transgressions will not prosper, But he who confesses and forsakes them will find compassion.” Uncover your sin in prayer before the Lord, receive the forgiveness He offers in Christ. God is faithful and just to forgive when we confess (1 John 1:9). Take a look at the 3 steps of repentance.
2. We love and cling to sin
The main reason we struggle with repentance is that we enjoy our sin. We love it because it gives some small reward. Sin is like a fishing hook. The hook is the reward (the pleasure, praise, perception of power or the temporary removal of pain) that keeps us coming back. The problem is that the consequences of sin far outweigh the reward it gives. That hook has a long line attached, and when it reels us in, we suddenly find ourselves at a (literally) dead-end.
We can’t repent while we’re holding on to and treasuring the rewards of sin. To repent, we need to recognize that the reward of sin is a short-term, hollow and will not bring long-term joy, but only misery and guilt. Focus instead on the long-term joy of walking rightly with the Lord, having a clear conscience and right relationships. This means valuing what God says is worthwhile, not what we think is worthwhile, or what the world tells us is worthwhile.
Knowing and Doing
This means that we need to 1) Know what pleases the Lord and 2) Trust His wisdom over our own and believe what He says. Paul wanted and prayed for Christians to know His will so that they could walk in a manner pleasing to the Lord (Col 1:9-10). He wrote letters to tell us what is pleasing to the Lord and what was not (1 Tim 3:15). We can’t know what pleases the Lord if we don’t read His Word to find out. We can’t repent if we don’t know we need to.
Many who know what God says don’t obey it. Why is this? There are two possible reasons. It could be that we simply deny that we have sin, which is a dangerous state to be in (1 John 1:8), and perhaps this is not you if you’re reading this. A second reason is that we don’t trust the Lord. What I mean is that we trust in our own wisdom rather than His. We say we believe God is all knowing and all wise, but we act like He doesn’t know what He is talking about when it comes to what is best for us. I know, because I catch myself all the time. Obedience is the simple response of someone who believes that God knows better than me and has my best interests at heart. We can’t repent if we don’t set our hearts and minds to trust Him and do as He says.
Reason #3 – Consequences…
Here’s another reason we can’t repent; we don’t want to face the consequences. Sometimes we’ve done things and hidden them so others are not hurt by them, or so that we’re not humiliated. But sin that stays secret is sin that enslaves. A powerful way to break the hold sin has on us is to bring it into the open so that others know about it. Confession to others provides an opportunity for others to hold us accountable, and it opens the path to get further help.
In addition, one of the marks of genuine repentance is a willingness to face the consequences of our sin. An unwillingness to accept the consequences of sin is an indicator that we value relationships with people, or how others might think about us more than our relationship with the Lord and a clear conscience. If we are unwilling to accept the consequences for our sin, it may suggest that we’re not really as serious about repentance as we think or say we are.
A note of caution is warranted here. If you are in a situation where some heavy consequences will come if you expose your sin, you should get help. You will need great wisdom to confess your sin in the appropriate context for others to understand why you are telling them. Further, those who you confess to might need help and support to think through those consequences in a biblical manner. Seek advice from a trusted advisor such as a church leader or biblical counselor, who will help you wisely confess your sin and turn from it. But don’t let consequences of sin keep you from genuine repentance.
Repentance is interdependence on the Lord
Repentance, even for the believer remains a work of God. But, It is also a work that we participate in as believers. We are to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Phil 2:12-13). This verse explains that it is God working and willing change in us. Paul assumes we are working and exhorts us to do this work with fear and trembling because, while we can’t initiate repentance and change, we can stop it. I don’t know about you, but standing in the way of what the Lord wants to work in my soul doesn’t sound like a path to prosperity.
God has given us His Word so that we can know what is good and right in His eyes. If we set our hearts to study the word of God to understand His will and desire, and then trust Him by obeying, repentance will come. But it takes a dependant activity that devalues sin and values God’s glory and pleasure while working with God for sanctification.