The Submissional Life // Matt Tebbe

living in submission, leading from below, loving as mission

Repentance: What is it? How do I do it?

A big part of what we do in discipleship is to learn to expect and embrace repentance as the ordinary, regular experience of a Christian. Too often repentance is seen solely as the “entry point” into faith. Or, even more unhelpful, something we should do less and less the longer we follow Jesus. But remember: a disciple literally means “learner” (mathetes). To repent (metanoia) means to have a change of mind/heart. It is an INNER change that aligns our minds/hearts with God. Scripture talks about repentance often, even when the word isn’t used. It’s the way we “are renewed in the spirit of our minds” (Eph 4.23), the way we “have this mind about us, which is our in Christ Jesus” (Phil 2.5), the way we actively “set our minds on things above, not on earthly things” (Col 3.2).

But what is godly repentance? How do we “do” it? When do we know we’ve repented? Repentance can be difficult for us for the following reasons:

1.Many of us associate repentance with making ourselves feel really bad about sin. How do we respond to the conviction our badness? Do we respond with shame and self-loathing? Self-contempt and condemnation? With renewed resolve and determination to “try harder” or “stop sinning”? This isn’t godly repentance, but it is another form of self-effort moralism. Or…do we fly to the cross? Jesus took our punishment – repentance isn’t about punishing ourselves, but learning to rely on the finished work of Jesus. If repentance is an inner work, then our job in repentance isn’t to muster up enough “awful feelings” to make our repentance genuine. 40 lashes by the “whip of guilt” isn’t painful enough to teach us to obey from the heart. Jesus took the thorns, the whip, the nails – so put down your instruments of self-flagellation. It’s the Lord’s kindness that leads you to repentance (Rom. 2.4). Because of this kindness and patience we simply agree with God about what he is saying or doing – inwardly, we submit and surrender to what he shows us.

2. Many of us think repentance is focused on overcoming our sin. Much of what passes for repentance in churches is simply sin management. As my friends at Truefaced are famous for saying, “My righteousness is not measured by how little I sin, but is evidenced by how I give and receive love.” Godliness isn’t about sinning less…it’s about loving more. So, then, repentance isn’t about hating sin SO THAT we’ll listen to (or love or obey) God. Repentance is about listening to (loving, agreeing with) God so that we will learn to reject sin. Any repentance that focuses on getting away from sin rather than getting deeper into God is doomed to fail – or – doomed to keep us in bondage to what my friend J.R. Briggs calls “Religious Enslavement”. Much of what passes, for instance, in the realm of helping men achieve “sexual purity” is really about managing sin: not lusting, not masturbating, etc. RATHER than retraining their hearts to love women and see them the way God intended. A man may “conquer” lust, but never learn to love. He may stop looking at porn, but never learn to look at women the way God intended.

3. Many of us are surprised that we have to repent so much. After all, I’ve been a Christian for many years! I went to seminary, teach in church, lead a small group. “I should be far enough along by now to not have to repent as much as I used to.” I want to suggest this way of thinking is what keeps many of us enslaved to our shame and hiddenness and keeps us from enjoying the freedom and grace of God in Christ Jesus. As mature as Christians we will not repent less and less, but repent more and more. Repentance is simply the act of being sensitive to God’s voice in our lives, discern what he is saying/doing, and listening to him. Maturity, holiness, spiritual growth all lead us deeper into repentance. As we grow and mature in faith we just uncover more and more where we are wrong – or where God is right – and inwardly take on his attitude, his posture, his thinking, his heart. Our sin shouldn’t surprise us – Jesus didn’t die for “pretty good Christians who shouldn’t ever sin” – he died for you and me, all of us tied for “second worst” sinners. (1 Tim 1.15)

4. Many of us have a hard time paying attention and discovering where we are wrong. Do you know that repentance isn’t just something that happens when we obviously sin? But that God is giving us invitations all day, every day, to repent? Our job is to become increasingly aware of those opportunities (rather than seeing moments of repentance as “set backs”). I’ve found the language of Kairos Moments and The Learning Circle from 3DM to be extremely helpful to create a culture and awareness of repentance. Repentance is the doorway into the kingdom of God for the disciple (Mark 1.15; Rev 3.20) – If we are to grow we must learn to pay attention so that we can participate in what God is doing in our lives.


This is why I like to say “The best thing that could ever happen to me is that someone would lovingly show me I am wrong.” If we have a defensive, angry, or combative posture with others who disagree with us we will probably also have an issue with admitting wrongness and receiving correction. This will seriously impair the disciple’s greatest gift – the gift of repentance. Because I’m human I’m naturally disinclined to want to repent. The more I say “the best thing that could ever happen to me is that someone would lovingly show me that I am wrong,” the more I remind myself that repentance is a gift to seek. I need that reminder.


How have you experienced repentance in your life?
How were you taught to repent?
Anything that I’m saying about repentance bother you? Or do you disagree with?
What am I not seeing?

Categorized: Confession/Repentance, Huddle, Spiritual Disciplines Tags:Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,