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Repentance: Pretender or Contender?

Repentance: Pretender or Contender

By Yancey Arrington

How often have we exposed ourselves as pretenders when it comes to battling indwelling sin? All of us have approached a certain temptation in our life with confidence only to wind up succumbing to its pain-inflicting consequences. We are often exposed – assuming ourselves to be contenders when we are truly impotent in our ability to defeat a seemingly unimposing sin.

How can we fight sin well and not fool ourselves? One of the ways we do that is by discovering what kind of repentance we employ in our fight against sin.

Repentance is the essential aspect of spiritual growth. Martin Luther penned in the first of his “Ninety-Five Theses” these words: “Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ…willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” Pastor and author Tim Keller concurred, “Repentance is the way we make progress in the Christian life.”


False repentance conflicts with the biblical pattern by displaying our pride and self-interest instead of displaying contrition. Consider the example of the nation of Israel in Psalm 78:32-35:

In spite of all this, they still sinned;

despite his wonders, they did not believe.

So he made their days vanish like a breath,

and their years in terror.

When he killed them, they sought him;

they repented and sought God earnestly.

They remembered that God was their rock,

the Most High God their redeemer.

Israel clearly experienced a severe discipline at the hands of the Lord. This judgment obviously produced a very unhappy situation for God’s people, driving them to seek God in repentance. They earnestly repented, remembered and sought the Lord. Surely this repenting would rectify their familial relationship with God. But notice how God views their repentance as the Psalm continues:

But they flattered him with their mouths;

they lied to him with their tongues.

Their heart was not steadfast toward him;

they were not faithful to his covenant. (78:36-37)

Here we see the illustration of pretender repentance: words without heart. Israel’s repentance was insincere. They told God that they were sorry with their mouths, but He knew that their hearts were still committed to slavishly following their sins.

Instead of real brokenness over their iniquities, God’s people feigned repentance to obtain rescue from the consequences of their sins, but not the sins themselves. As such, God did not recognize their repentance – because pretender repentance is not repentance at all.

Israel’s example should help us see that sometimes the greatest battle with sin is our very repentance of it. Listen to Paul’s encouragement to the church at Corinth:

As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved,

but because you were grieved into repenting. For

you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no loss

through us. For godly grief produces a repentance

that leads to salvation without regret, whereas

worldly grief produces death. (1 Corinthians 7:9-10)

Pretender repentance is a dead end. If we demonstrate anything but godly grief over our sin, we will experience a lifetime of losses. Therefore, if we would fight sin well, some of us may actually need to repent of how we have repented in the past so that the grace of God is exposed and not our arrogance.