Little Johnny’s mother plainly told him not to eat any cookies before supper. As soon as her back was turned, though, Johnny ate some cookies. When the mother discovered what he had done, she asked him, “Didn’t you know it was wrong to eat those cookies?” Johnny answered, “Yes, mamma, and the whole time I was eating them, I was asking God to forgive me.”
Sadly, this story sums up how many of us — including many of us Christians — deal with our sinful conduct. We keep on sinning and keep asking God to forgive us. Over and over again the pattern repeats itself: sin-ask for forgiveness-sin-ask for forgiveness-sin-ask for forgiveness. It’s like we’re stuck in a loop, and I don’t guess I have to explain why that loop will never result in any real change.
Genuine repentance, on the other hand, is much more serious. The Greek verb that gets translated as “repent” in our English translations of the Bible is metanoeo. Interestingly, this verb doesn’t primarily involve actions. Any change in action only comes at the end of the process. First and foremost, the verb involves the mind. In his famous Word Studies in the New Testament, Greek scholar Marvin Vincent explains that metanoeo is the combination of a preposition that means “after” or “with” alongside a verb that means “to perceive.” Thus, he says, “…the whole compound means to think differently after.” We find this same basic definition in Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words,” which defines “repent” as “to perceive afterwards.”
The point is that there is a distinct process that works itself out in regards to repentance. First, you commit the sin, either once or a hundred times. Second, somewhere along the line after you have committed the sin, you realize that what you did was wrong and you are actually sorry that you did it. Your sorrow shows that you are now thinking differently about the sin and see it as a problem. Third, now that your thinking has changed concerning the sin, you have the inner motivation necessary to stop committing the sin.
By understanding this process, you can understand why repentance has been defined as “a change of mind that leads to a change of action.” Also, you can understand why the apostle Paul said, “For godly sorrow produces repentance…” (2 Corinthians 7:10, N.K.J.V.). Admittedly, the specific context for those words from Paul has to do with the salvation, but the link between feeling sorry for your sin and repenting of that sin always applies.
This explains why high-pressure tactics, threats, and even emotional pleas don’t produce repentance that lasts. If someone badgers, threatens, or begs you enough to get you to stop committing a particular sin, but deep inside your mind you don’t feel sorry for having committed the sin in the first place, you will almost certainly eventually return to the sin. Why? It’s because your repentance was not produced by a change of mind and what Paul calls “godly sorrow.”
I’ve always loved that illustration about the little boy who was told to sit down but wouldn’t. Finally, his mother walked over to him and manhandled him by picking him up and plopping him down into a chair. As the little fellow sat there stewing, he said, “I may be sitting down on the outside, but I’m standing up on the inside!” That, my friend, is why so much so-called “repentance” doesn’t last in our lives. Even as we are outwardly doing the right thing about the sin, inwardly we are still thinking wrongly about it. We are rationalizing it, minimizing it, or attempting to explain it away. Like that little boy, we are still standing up on the inside, mentally. And what will that mean in the long run? It will mean that at some point, sooner or later, we will run back to the sin. It’s virtually inevitable.
Therefore, as we begin this New Year let me say that repentance is infinitely better than resolution. While resolutions are typically barely skin deep, repentance goes way deep, penetrating even to the inner recesses of the mind. Accordingly, show me a person who says, ‘I’ve got to change my way of doing,” and I’ll show you a person whose attempts to stop committing his pet sin won’t go the distance. On the other hand, show me a person who says, “I’ve got to change my way of thinking,” and I’ll show you a person who has an honest-to-goodness chance of laying a pet sin in the dust once and for all. You see, the battleground is the mind, not the body. If you can get the mind turned around, the body will naturally follow.