A sinner’s guide to repentance


Originally published March 22, 2017

Repentance is sincere remorse or regret for an action. Theologically, repentance is associated with the idea of turning away from sin and turning to God.

James 4:7-10 gives what’s almost like a “how to” guide for repentance. It’s not exhaustive, but he says five things that are important to repentance.

1. Repentance involve submission to God

Repentance isn’t just about moralism. It’s about an actual desire for God.

It’s not “well I’ll just drink less” or “get control my temper better.” It’s not just “don’t do that,” but it’s a turning to God. It’s recognizing that God is greater than your sin, that he is better. That his ways are better. That turning from sin is turning to a better way.James 4:7 says, Submit yourselves therefore to God.

Romans 8:7 says For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot.

If what drives us is our own desires, if we’re coveting things, wanting things at the cost of relationships, wanting things more than God, that is a mind that is hostile to God, as the text says.

A disregard for the will of God is at the root of sin. We don’t submit to God. You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die (Genesis 3:4). 

But we want to do things our own way. And in our own lives, we don’t submit to God.

Do you ever do something that you KNOW is sinful?

Yes! We do it all the time. Maybe you lose your temper, maybe you get short with someone, maybe you find a reason to justify why you don’t really have to love a certain person in your life or a certain group of people.

Ultimately, it’s a failure to submit to God.

The point isn’t about grudging submission. God isn’t some tyrant, and we just have to get with his program or bad things are going to happen. Rather it’s that God’s ways are better, that it’s a better life. It’s a more joy filled and purpose filled life to live for God than to decide our own ways. Because by the logic of an all knowing and all perfect God, there can be nothing outside of that which brings joy and fulfillment.

But we don’t always have that outlook? One of joy. Do we? If we’re being honest?

If you struggle with anger, then it feels good to get angry. If you have a certain group of people who you don’t feel like you have to love, or who’s somehow an exception, than you feel justified and comfortable of not loving that group.

So it is not always a joy to submit to God.

But in submitting to God, even when you might not like something, even if your natural inclination is to disagree with the will of God, to have the humility to say “your kingdom come, your will be done.” To have the humility, to put the will of God above your own. To have the humility to trust that God’s ways are higher than your ways.

So we submit to God and his will.

James 4:10 says humble yourselves before the Lord and he will exalt you.

We can’t exalt ourselves before the Lord! Because we don’t stand up before an almighty God.

But we submit to God and his will, we humble ourselves that his ways are true and good, that he his righteous, that he is our hope.

2. Repentance involves resisting evil.

Verse 7 continues that we are to resist the devil and he will flee from you.

And when James calls us to resisting the devil but it is also about resisting evil, turning away from evil, not putting ourselves in venerable positions to sin. Being on guard about sin and thoughts and actions that can lead to sin patters in our lives.

Especially when it’s a specific sin we’re turning away from. Resisting sin. And it isn’t about conquering sin on our own. By the nature of the gospel, we can’t do that. But through Jesus, there can be victory. Through the transformation that comes through faith, there is hope.

3. Repentance involves drawing near to God

A third step in repentance, is in James 4:8: Draw near to God and he will draw near to you.

We repent by submitting to God, by resisting evil, and by drawing near to God. And the difference between submitting to God and drawing near to God is that in submitting to God, it’s submitting to the will of God. Drawing near to God, is getting at our relationship with God.

So we submit to the moral perfection and righteousness of God, we resist evil and sin, and we draw near to God.

It’s not that God leaves us when we sin. It’s that we leave him, we take ourselves away from his presence by our sin. God is easy to find!

But we aren’t always looking. We aren’t always wanting to approach him.

Such a wonderful promise that God’s word makes. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. We draw near to God by loving God. Specifically by loving him in our heart, and mind, and soul, and strength. By turning our focus to God. By turning to him in prayer.

4. Repentance involves holiness

James 4:8 continues, cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. 

In saying to “cleanse your hands,” James is referring to the Old Testament. The priests had to wash their hands before entering the Temple. There were purification rituals because the Temple represented the presence of God. And you don’t approach a Holy God anyway you want to.

James makes a twist on the Old Testament, and really gets at the heart of those priestly rituals. It wasn’t just about washing your hands, but that washing your hands was to be a symbol for moral cleanliness. And so here James says that we are to cleanse our hands and purify our hearts as we approach God.

And again, the point isn’t just teaching a bunch of rules. It’s not just about: do this, don’t do that. But rather, as we approach God, that act requires holiness.

And if you’re thinking, “I can’t do that…”

You’re right.

You can’t do that. You can’t be holy on your own. It is through the grace of Christ that we can be made holy. It is Jesus who is the greater High Priest who goes into the temple. It is Jesus who is the presence of God with us. It is Jesus who is morally pure and clean and allows us to stand before God. It is Jesus who allows us access to God.

And we can accept Jesus by faith, and trust in him, and know that he is the Lord, and trust in him as our savior. And for you, or for people you know, that any person is able to accept that gift.

And that no matter how low a person is, how far off a person is, they can accept that grace.

But to go the step beyond that, to actually return to God, then it does become about submitting to God. The grace of Christ isn’t meant to be taken so we can continue doing things our own way.

And in returning to God, it requires purity and holiness. It requires a focus on God, and humility before him. The text says that we can’t be double-minded. That’s a word that James used in chapter 1. That we aren’t to be wavering between worldliness and Godliness, but God’s desire is for us to be single-minded in our focus on him.

And when you’re not, when you lose that focus, when you struggle with sin, that we can turn from that sin as well, and repent, and turn to God.

5. Repentance involves turning from sin

Repentance involves remorse for sin.

It’s not just a matter of wanting a change. It’s recognizing that something is a sin against God and wanting to change.

But that also does involve remorse for sin. It’s not that we’re called to live in shame. But in the process of turning away from sin, there is a season for remorse.

Verse 9 says be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom.

Once again, this type of language is similar to what we see in the prophetic books of the Old Testament.

Images of the prophets wailing, mourning, weeping over sin. Grieving the sins of God’s people, their failure to repent.

This actually makes me also think of the Beatitudes. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”

This is the reason why the gospel isn’t just about following a list of do’s and don’ts. Because in your inner being, in your heart and mind, you can’t cause yourself to hate sin without actually hating it.

You can control certain behaviors. You can force yourself to come to church.

You can’t force yourself to hate sin. It comes from looking to a Holy God. It can only come from comparing the holiness of God to our failure to live up to that. Because if we just compare ourselves to what’s around, well most of us are probably pretty good compared to that (and even if we’re not, we look at things selectively and justify!)

When he says to let laughter be turned to mourning and joy to gloom, the point isn’t that there is never a time for joy and laughter! It’s that when we’re in the process of repenting and mourning a sin, that we not take the sin lightly.

Do you ever do that? Do you take sin seriously? Or is it like a little league team losing a game “oh just try harder next time.”

The good news is that we have a gracious God. That when we mess up, or fall into sin, he forgives, because he is good. It’s not that we deserve it. It’s not that he owes us. It’s because he’s good. He is also Holy.

And truly walking with God, that life, we grow.

So if you’re in the middle of something right now, know there is grace. If you’re looking at your life right now, and doubting “do I even believe?” Even if you don’t, today can be that day. This moment can be that moment to place trust in God. To turn away from sin.

Josh Benner is the associate pastor at Cornerstone Evangelical Free Church in Fergus Falls, Minnesota and has a Master of Divinity from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He enjoys writing about faith and culture. He lives with his wife Kari in Minnesota.