Gospel Repentance vs. Religious Repentance

Gospel Repentance vs. Religious Repentance

"No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” Luke 13:5

When Martin Luther penned his 95 Theses and nailed them upon the Castle Church door at Wittenberg he commented on the Christian life as being one of repentance:

"When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said “Repent,” he intended that the entire life of believers should be repentance."

Thirty years later at the end of his life and ministry he scribbled on a piece of paper this same thought:
"We are beggars! This is true."

Wherever in the world and whenever in the world there is the church, there should be a people repenting.

The posture of the man who is justified and acceptable to God is that of repentance. But it is not merely the posture of the man from the beginning of his Christian life. It is not a one time posture, it is also the posture of the sanctified Christian who is on the road to glory. The gospel is not for the first day of the new life. The gospel is the substance of everyday Christianity. Therefore, all of the Christian life from the beginning until we reach our final home is a life of turning from sin and trusting in the good news that God sent his Son Jesus Christ to save sinners. Repentance is the posture of the Christian who must be served everyday by the wisdom, power and goodness of God revealed in the gospel of Jesus Christ. "We are beggars this is true."

Repentance is the way we make progress in the Christian life. But there is a difference between religious repentance and gospel repentance. Religious repentance is being sorry for something so that God will bless us with something. This kind of repentance is selfish. It is like the child telling his father he is sorry so that he can go out and play. The child is trying make his father happy so that he will answer his own desire with, "Yes, Johnny go out and play." Religious repentance seeks to make God happy so that he will answer our prayers and bless us. But this is not gospel repentance. Tim Keller says, "In the gospel, however, the purpose of repentance is to repeatedly tap into the joy of our union with Christ to weaken our impulse to do anything contrary to God’s heart." Gospel repentance aims at the knowledge and enjoyment of God, and a life reflecting the glory of God in Christ.

  • Religious repentance is sorry because the person wants to avoid the consequences of what he has done. This is self centered. We are mainly concerned about sin because of what the results are for us.
  • Gospel repentance acknowledges there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom.8:1); therefore, sin is a heinous offence against God, if offends and dishonors him. This is God centered. We are sorry for the sin itself.
  • Religious repentance is self righteous. We try to earn forgiveness by how sorry we are. We try to convince God and ourselves we earned it by how miserable we are over what we have done.
  • In gospel repentance we receive forgiveness by faith in who God is and what he has done. Jesus suffered for our sins. He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, so we ask him (1Jn.1:9).
  • Religious repentance hopes in a life good enough. It hopes in self righteousness. Therefore any sin known or admitted is horrible, miserable and makes this person feel terrible about themselves. Their hope is their own moral goodness. Therefore, only under great duress will they admit they have sin. Religious repentance looks to a moral self and then to Christ as the example whom he is living.
  • Gospel repentance hopes in the righteousness of Christ. Therefore, it is not traumatic or damning to admit weakness and sin. In gospel repentance a person is able to look beyond their sin to the righteousness of Christ, and if there is goodness reflected in a faithful life it is in and from Christ.

The sin that is underlying all other sins is a lack of joy in all that God is for us in Christ. When we begin to understand the gospel and true gospel repentance, we can dismiss our self righteousness and unwillingness to acknowledge sin. We can look into the face of Christ in our weaknesses and sins loving him in repentance and faith. Examination for repentance and faith is necessary in the Christian life, but we must be careful to proceed in gospel repentance and not religious repentance.

George Whitefield who practiced this personally had this to say, "God give me a deep humility, a well-guided zeal, a burning love and a single eye, and then let men or devils do their worst!” Let me suggest we use these categories for an example and practice in gospel-grounded repentance:

Deep Humility vs. Pride
Have I spoken, thought or acted to put another person down? Have I spoken or thought with a critical spirit about another? Do I believe others are wronging me?

Gospel Repentance:
Think upon the free offer of the gospel in Jesus Christ until you see in your heart: less contempt for others since I am justified by faith and still struggle with sin, less hurt over being criticised or offended since I am approved by God, and an ability to seek the Lord's glory rather a good image that I may know his grace and joy.

A Well Guided (Wise) Zeal vs. Fear or Anxiety or Disparity
Have I avoided people, responsibilities or the will of God that I know I should face? Have I been fearful and overwhelmed with worry about things I cannot control? Have I been downcast and sad as a reaction to God's providence in my life instead of trusting him by faith?

Gospel Repentance:
Think upon the free offer of the gospel in Jesus Christ until you see in your heart: a willingness to do what God has given you to do, since Jesus did the will of the Father; anxiety, fear and worry extinguished, since Jesus' life, death and resurrection proves God's care for you always; a lifting of your head and a return of hope and belief in God, since Jesus for the joy that was set before him endured the cross scorning its shame.

Burning Love vs. Indifference
Have I spoken in a way to hurt another or have I refused to use my words to encourage and instruct another? Have I been angry, impatient and irritable with others? Have I thought only about myself and been indifferent and inattentive toward others?

Gospel Repentance:
Think upon the free offer of the gospel in Jesus Christ until you see in your heart: a willingness to act toward others with kindness and a costly service, as you look to the kindness and love of Christ toward you; the fruit of patience that acts with a listening ear and encouraging words, since the Lord has been patient and spoken to you with his encouraging word; and a willing heart that acts to honor and esteem others as more important than yourself, since this is how Christ loved you.

A Single Eye (God Centered Motivations) vs. Man Centered or Man Fearing
Am I thinking and acting toward others out of fear, a need to be approved, a love of peace and prosperity, a need to control people and situations, a hunger for power and glory for self? Am I covetous of another person, situation, or place in life? Am I lusting after people or possessions? Am I spending my time doing the important things God has given me or the immediate things that satisfy my wants or desires?

Gospel Repentance:
Think upon the free offer of the gospel in Jesus Christ until you see in your heart how Jesus is providing you what you are looking for in wrong ways. Pray, O Lord Jesus, let my joy in you overflow that sin will be resisted, that I will be wise to act in accordance with your pleasure, and that I may have your righteousness and holiness to desire and reflect your glory.

The fruit that glorifies our heavenly Father is a fruit that comes from Jesus Christ and his Word and by the Spirit (Jn.15:1-8; Gal.5:22-23). This tree of fruitfulness that is our lives personally and our church corporately is rooted in gospel repentance and faith. Unless we repent we perish.


Join us Sunday at 

10:00 am at 1824 Barnwell St

6:00 pm at 3100 Covenant Rd.