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5 Ways to Discern True and False Repentance

Every Christian will likely encounter this scenario: someone you know and who professes Christ has a major sin in their life exposed. As a result, relationships are harmed, their reputation is destroyed, and their heart is broken. You, as their friend (or pastor or spouse) are left wondering how to respond.

You know that Christians are called to forgive and restore other believers who have their sin exposed, but you also know that this is only true if they are repentant over their sin. For example, the command in Galatians 6:1 to “restore” a fallen believer is paired with an exhortation about the importance of self-examination (vv. 2-4). Or Paul, in 2 Corinthians 7, tell the Corinthians that he stands ready to forgive them, because the exposure of their sin produced godly sorrow as opposed to worldly sorrow (2 Corinthians 7:9-11).

So what are you supposed to do? The person in front of you says they are repentant. They say they are sorry about their sin. But is that enough?  

The Bible contains several aids that are designed to help believers distinguish between true and false repentance. It is important that we are able to distinguish the two, because the difference between them determines how we respond to our fallen brother or sister. If we are to bring law to the proud and grace to the humble, then it is essential that we are able to discern between pride and humility.

For example, as I mentioned above, Paul extended the Corinthians grace (instead of law) because he judged their sorrow to be a sign of godly repentance as opposed to worldly sorrow. But how did he know the difference? After all, the person who sits in your living room weeping about their now known sin may or may not be truly repentant, so how could Paul know?

He tells us that godly sorrow leads to repentance because it is accompanied by indignation, fear, deep longing, zeal, and justice (2 Corinthians 7:11).

Why did he choose those words? Well, taken together they represent someone who is broken over the nature of their sin more than the consequences of it. They provide five marks that the person is sorry they sinned, rather than sorry they got caught.

Indignation: Godly sorrow is a form of godly anger. This is an anger at sin—not the consequences of sin, but at sin itself. The broken believer is sorry about their sin, but they are more than sorry: they are disappointed and grieved that the depravity brought into the world through Adam resides in their own heart.

Some people are angry their sin was exposed. Their concern is to cover their sin and convince others to do that as well. Like Saul who only wanted Samuel to go with him for appearance’s sake, these people are not grieved over their sin. True repentance doesn’t create anger at those who know the sin, but rather anger at the nature of sin itself. This is why Paul describes true repentance as a form of indignation.

Fear: Godly sorrow is a form of holy reverence only found in those who fear the Lord. If a person fears man, they may grieve over how their sin has affected others, but fail to view their sin as an offense against God. But if a person fears God, then they grieve over their sin because they recognize that it was against a holy God. When David was confronted by Nathan, his response was “I have sinned against Yahweh.” He understood that sin is primarily against God.

If you are trying to discern between true and false repentance, this is a good question to ask: “is the person sorry they sinned against God, or sorry that their sin has been uncovered? In response to their sin being exposed, are they repenting like they fear God, or are they in damage control because they fear the world?

Deep longing: This Greek word captures the idea that the repentant person wants to receive forgiveness. They realize their sin has broken relationships, and they want those relationships restored. It is deeper than the person who wants things to go back to the way they were. Instead, it speaks of a person who wants reconciliation that only comes through forgiveness.

Worldly sorrow wants offenses ignored and overlooked. Godly sorrow wants offenses forgiven and relationships strengthened. Paul could tell the Corinthians that his heart “stands open” for them, because they love him, and want to be brought together with him again in a spiritual relationship (2 Cor 6:11, 12, 13, 7:1). This desire for unity through forgiveness is a hallmark of true repentance.

Zeal: True repentance is eager to resolve the sin and move on. Paul uses this word because it captures the attitude of the penitent person to demonstrate their repentance. Elsewhere the Scriptures say that a believer is “zealous for good works” (1 Timothy 2:14, 1 Peter 3:13). Here, the idea is that the good work the believer is eager to do is to ask for forgiveness.

What a contrast with worldly sorrow! I’ve never seen a worldly person zealous to confess areas of his life where he has failed. In the world, failures are overlooked by some sense of mutually assured destruction. But in the church, when a true believer is caught in sin, he is zealous to be restored.

Justice: Godly sorrow comes from a heart that is willing to accept the consequences of sin. David was broken by his sin, and while he mourned the death of his son, he also understood that this was the consequence for his sin, and he worshiped. A broken believer does not run from sin’s consequences. Rather, he receives them knowing that if they are for his discipline, then they must be from a loving father.

Worldly sorrow is often feigned to escape consequences. The husband might apologize for the affair if it means keeping his wife. The speeder might fake a tear to avoid the ticket in the same say a child might cry to avoid a spanking. But those actions do not come from a repentant heart. Godly sorry sees justice as being from the Lord, and because it is godly, it is good.

Paul knew the Corinthians were truly repentant because they were angry over their sin, they were longing to restore their broken relationships, they were zealous to make things right, and they trusted in God’s justice for their sin.

It’s true that these are all somewhat subjective, but taken together they indicate a heart that is “pure,” and that pursues repentance out of “diligence” (vv 11-12). When you find yourself ministering to someone caught in a sin, it is essential that one of your first acts of Christian love is to try and discern if their tears are from the world and for themselves, or if they are from the working of the Spirit and for the glory of God.

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