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Thorough Repentance

By Paul Shirley | 10.10.17 | The Expositors Blog

    The New Man in Christ has been endowed with a new capacity for spiritual fruit. One of the fruits that grows only in the soil of a regenerated heart is the fruit of repentance. Simply put, repentance is a change to your life stemming from a change in your mind. Repentance, along with faith, is required by the Gospel (Mark 1:14-15). Conversion takes place as a sinner turns away from his sin and turns toward Christ. Thus, believing unto salvation includes turning your allegiance away from yourself and toward Christ, which can only be done through the enablement of the Spirit. 

    The importance of repentance does not fade away after a believer’s initial conversion. In fact, the Christian life can be characterized largely by the work of repentance. Conversely, many of the spiritual problems Christians face can be traced back to a lack of repentance, or at least a superficial repentance. Many have confused worldly sorrow (2 Cor 7:10) with genuine repentance, which is why they do not see the fruit of change in their lives. A sorrow that leads to repentance possesses spiritual value, but a sorrow focused solely on worldly ramifications—such as embarrassment, regret, distaste for the consequences of sin, etc.—will only lead to the same sins over and over again.

    This is why it is crucial for believers to examine the repentance in their lives and make sure it is a godly and thorough repentance. It must be godly in the sense that it is Godward in focus. That is to say, true repentance recognizes that sin is ultimately against God and must be dealt with before God. Repentance must be thorough in the sense that it is penetrating in depth. That is to say, true repentance recognizes that sin is an issue of the heart and must be dealt with at a heart level.

    The thoroughness of genuine repentance is usually where individuals stumble. Upon seeing sin in their life, they are willing to show remorse for sining against God, confess it to God, and seek forgiveness from God. However, when it comes to rooting through the recesses of their hearts to determine the underlying unbelief and lustful allegiances that caused the sin, few are willing to go that far. As a result of superficial repentance, their fruit is often superficial as well.

    What does thorough repentance look like? 

    Thorough repentance can be summarized with three words: meditation, mortification, and vivification. These words might seem antiquated, but they have a rich biblical heritage worth preserving. Consider, first of all, meditation. This, of course, is not referring to a mystical and mind-emptying behavior. Actually, it is speaking of the exact opposite. Thomas Manton defined meditation as “that duty or exercise of religion whereby the mind is applied to the serious and solemn contemplation of spiritual things, for practical uses and purposes.” (Thomas Manton). In other words, meditation involves thinking deeply about the implications of God’s truth in our lives. This is not merely a beneficial practice, you have a biblical responsibility to fill your mind with the knowledge of Scripture (Col 1:10). Growth in the knowledge of the truth—and an understanding of what the truth demands from your life—is required for growth in fruit-bearing repentance. Truth will not penetrate the depths of your heart until you meditate on the depth of the truth. 

    Meditation always leads to mortification. As you increasingly fill your minds with the truth of God, you will increasingly desire to mortify the sin that does not conform to God’s truth. As John Owen, author of the The Mortification of Sin, explains: “To ‘mortify’ means to put any living thing to death…, to take away the principle of all its strength, vigor, and power, so that it cannot act, or exert or put forth any proper actings of its own.” In other words, to mortify means to kill, which is what you must do to the sinful inclinations that plague us from within. The work of repentance requires that you root out the vestiges of remaining sin in your heart and starve them to death. You do this by resisting the lies of lust which influence your heart and by making no provision for the gratification of lust which will control your life. Repentance requires that you cut off any avenues by which your lusts may lead you to sin. Mortification demands that you starve sin to death, while you feed on the person of Christ.

    The mortification of sin makes room in your heart for the vivification of holiness. Vivification can be an intimidating word—being difficult even to pronounce—but it is pretty simple to understand. “It means…the desire to live in a holy and devoted manner, a desire arising from rebirth; as if it were said that man dies to himself that he may begin to live to God” (John Calvin). If mortification describes a negative aspect of your responsibility, then vivification is the positive aspect. Mortification is the active move away from sin and vivification is the active move toward the newness of life we have in Christ (Eph 4:23-24). To mortify and vivify, in biblical terms, means “to put off” and “put on.” Calvin, who was one of the first theologians to use these terms, used them to explain repentance, which “consists in the mortification of our flesh and the old man, and in the vivification of the Spirit.” Thus, repentance requires you to actively pursue righteousness in the area where you previously pursued sin.

    Together, these three words–meditation, mortification, and vivification–encapsulate our responsibility in repentance. This, in principle, is what thorough repentance looks like. And this, by the way, is exactly what you have been equipped for as New Men in Christ Jesus. As a New Man you have the capacity to apply this strategy for fighting sin in every area of your new life: 

    • Meditation: utilizing your new capacity fill your mind with truth (Col 1:10)
    • Mortification: utilizing your new capacity to kill sin (Col 3:5; Rom 13:14)
    • Vivification: utilizing your new capacity to pursue righteousness (1 Tim 6:11)

    Thorough repentance won’t happen without a battle, it won’t always be pretty, and it is usually painstakingly hard. At the same time, however, you can be confident that thorough repentance won’t happen without fruit. The sweetest fruits of the Christian life are cultivated through godly and thorough repentance. 

    Paul Shirley is a graduate of The Expositors Seminary and has served as the pastor of Grace Community Church in Wilmington, Delaware since 2011.

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