What is the difference between feeling sorry for your sin and true repentance? It seems this is a point of confusion for many, so lets spend a little time looking to Scripture to help us understand what Biblical repentance really looks like.
Biblical Repentance and the First Two Kings of Israel
Sin is sin and we are all sinners. Even sincere followers of Christ are going to sin. But there are going to be obvious distinctions between the response of a heart surrendered to God and one that is only giving Him lip service. The first two kings of Israel, King Saul and King David, can really help us see and understand these differences.
King Saul demonstrates what Biblical repentance does NOT look like
Saul was the very first king of Israel. God chose him and gave him the opportunity to establish a dynasty among His people, but Saul was not faithful to the Lord. It really didn’t take him long at all to start doing things his own way, as we see in 1 Samuel 13.
Another time, in 1 Samuel 15, King Saul once again chose to follow his own ideas about what was right instead of obeying what God had told him to do. In this chapter, Saul did just about everything except repent when confronted with his sin. He lied about what he did, minimized it, made excuses for it, even pretended it was the right thing to do! And even when he finally admitted it was wrong and offered an apology, his concern was not that he sinned but that it would look bad to the elders of Israel if Samuel (the prophet God used to confront him) didn’t come back with him.
In other words, he wasn’t interested in turning away from his sin and toward God. He was interested in avoiding the uncomfortable consequences of his sin. Especially the ones that reflected badly on him.
As a result of Saul’s unrepentant rebellion, God rejected him as king and vowed to replace him with “a man after His own heart.” (1 Samuel 13:14)
King David shows us how Biblical repentance responds to sin
Enter King David, one of my very favorite Bible characters and a man who gives us what I believe to be the best example of true repentance in all of Scripture.
David’s story is long. We can find most of it in 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 Chronicles, and a bunch of the Psalms. Today though, we’re focusing on a little portion of his story which can be found in 2 Samuel 11-12 and Psalm 51. In it, David committed some pretty significant sins including adultery, murder, deceit, and many more.
As is often the case with sin, it all started with a seemingly minor deviation from what David knew God wanted him to do. He stayed home and sent his army to war instead of going with them and leading them himself. But small compromises left unresolved almost always lead to bigger transgressions from God’s will. Sin breeds sin.
David’s sin of disobedience to the role God had called him to led to lust, which led to taking advantage of his position as king, which led to adultery, which led to deceit, which led to murder. God sent the prophet Nathan to confront David about this growing laundry list of sins and the way David responded to the confrontation tells us everything we need to know about Biblical repentance.
There were no excuses. He did not minimize what he had done. Instead, he owned his failures and fell on his face before God in devastation over his sin. His plea for mercy was not to avoid the consequences of his sin himself, but to beg God to keep them from landing on the innocent victim of the circumstance his sin had created. And when God refused, He accepted the decision with faith in God’s justice. (See 2 Samuel 12)
What a contrast to King Saul!
Psalm 51 is David’s prayer after Nathan’s confrontation. It is the perfect picture of Biblical repentance. If we take it section by section, I believe we can pull out 8 signs of true repentance and use his example to help us respond properly to God over our own sins.
Sign #1 – True Repentance Recognizes and is Haunted By Its Rebellion
Psalm 51:1-3 – Have mercy on me, O God, because of your unfailing love.
Because of your great compassion, blot out the stain of my sins.
Wash me clean from my guilt. Purify me from my sin.
For I recognize my rebellion; it haunts me day and night.
When we look back at King Saul’s response in 1 Samuel 15, we see he didn’t seem to think he had done anything wrong, and he certainly wasn’t sorry about it. Even though he had directly disobeyed an order from God, he just kept justifying what he had done. On the other hand, the very first words out of David’s mouth after the confrontation of Nathan were, “I have sinned against the Lord.” (2 Samuel 12:13)
Here, in Psalm 51, David began his prayer by once again owning his sins. Not only did he admit his guilt though, he expressed deep remorse over his rebellion as well. He said he was haunted by what he had done, implying that it even kept him up at night as he thought about his choices with regret.
He came before God in humility, recognizing that his need for cleansing had broken the relationship between them, and then acknowledged his inability to restore that relationship himself.
True repentance will do the same. When our sorrow over our sin is sincere, the regret will not be in having been caught but in having broken God’s standard. As we recognize how our sin has damaged the relationship between us and our Savior, it should break our hearts!
Questions to reflect on for sign #1
- Do I recognize what I did as sin, or am I still justifying or making excuses for it?
- Have I considered how costly my sin was to God? That only his death or mine could pay the debt it created?
- Do I understand how my sin flies in the face of the salvation Jesus died to give me, breaking the intimacy I could have with my Savior?
- Does knowing my sin hurts God bother me? Is it heavy on my heart?
- Why, or why not?
Sign #2 – Biblical Repentance Humbly Agrees with God’s Just Judgement Against It
Psalm 51:4-5 – Against you, and you alone, have I sinned; I have done what is evil in your sight.
You will be proved right in what you say, and your judgment against me is just.
For I was born a sinner – yes, from the moment my mother conceived me.
While Saul did not seem to understand or believe that God’s standard was the right one, David unwaveringly trusted in God’s righteousness and His justice. Saul thought his judgement of right and wrong was superior while David recognized that he was nothing more than a born sinner.
True repentance will always agree with God.
Pride tells us we know better. It convinces us that God’s standards somehow don’t apply to us or our situation, or even that God’s standards are not right to begin with. But the humility that comes with Biblical repentance recognizes that our sins are a violation against God above anything else.
David’s sin hurt many people – Bathsheba, Uriah, Joab, his unborn son, his many wives, his children, and the whole nation of Israel to name a few. Nonetheless, David says to God, “Against you, and you alone, have I sinned; I have done what is evil in your sight.”
You see, sometimes people get hurt even when we obey what God tells us to do. For instance, if Saul had been obedient to God it would have meant killing the king of the Amalekites. But that harm against King Agag would not have been sin, it would have been justice.
One of the signs of true repentance is an understanding that the only reason any of the harm done to others as a result of our actions qualifies as a problem is because the sin that hurt them was a violation against God. That is what made it evil.
Questions to reflect on for sign #2
- When I think about what I have done, do I know which standards God has for me that I chose to break? Can I make a list of at least five compromises to God’s will I’ve made in this situation?
- Does it bother me more that my actions hurt me, other people, or God?
- Am I ready and willing to accept the uncomfortable and even painful consequences of my sin and am I prepared to do everything in my power to make sure they land on me rather than others?
- Do I trust in God’s justice and am I willing to place myself in His hands, believing He will see to it that what happens going forward is right?
Sign #3 – Honesty is A Sign of True Repentance
Psalm 51: 6 – But you desire honesty from the womb, teaching me wisdom even there.
When King Saul was confronted with his sin, his biggest concern was that the prophet Samuel wasn’t going to come back with him to some gathering where the elders of Israel were going to be. He wanted to make sure Samuel would still honor him in front of those elders.
More to the point, he didn’t want anyone else to know about the judgement that God had brought against him that day.
On the other hand, after Nathan’s confrontation, David spent a full week prostrate on the ground before God, fasting and praying, no matter who was watching. The Bible tells us the elders of his household pleaded with him to get up and eat, but he refused.
It was only after God took his infant son’s life as a consequence for the sin that David got up. He went to the Tabernacle to publicly worship God first, then explained to the elders what had happened and why he had been fasting.
Again, more to the point, once David repented he was no longer worried at all about people knowing what he had done. Instead, he was concerned that they understand God’s goodness and justice. In his prayer, here in Psalm 51, he spelled it out plainly – God desires honesty.
When we experience true repentance, we will be honest about our sin. Not just before God, but with people too. We won’t feel the need to conceal what we’ve done, but will willingly bring it into the light.
Questions to reflect on for sign #3
- Have I been completely honest about the extent of my sin with the people that sin violated? Do I understand and believe they have the right to know?
- If I’m still trying to keep aspects of my sin hidden, do I realize that God desires honesty and until I choose to live in the open I am continuing to reject his standard?
- What stops me from being honest? Is it that I want to avoid the shame I’ll feel if people know what I’ve done? If so, is that more like Saul or David and whose example would I rather follow moving forward?
- What steps can I take right now to live in complete honesty?
Sign #4 – Biblical Repentance Desires Restored Relationship with God
Psalm 51:7-9 – Purify me from my sins, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
Oh, give me back my joy again; you have broken me – now let me rejoice.
Don’t keep looking at my sins. Remove the stain of my guilt.
A person who has a genuine relationship with God is going to be devastated when that relationship is damaged, as we talked about in sign #2. But it won’t stop there. When we experience true repentance, we’ll long to have that relationship restored.
King Saul gave no indication that he noticed or cared that the relationship he once experienced with God had been severed. He was too busy worrying what people might think. In contrast, King David seemed to feel the fractured relationship all the way to his core and pleaded with God for restoration.
When we experience true repentance, we’re going to feel like David did. We’ll long for the joy of redemption, knowing it can only come from God.
Questions to reflect on for sign #4
- Is there a longing in my heart for right relationship with God? If not, why is that true?
- Do I understand that even though my sin fractured my intimacy with God, redemption is available?
- Do I want the cleansing Jesus offers? Do I recognize that it can only come through Him?
- Am I willing to turn to God to receive the free gift of restored relationship that is found in His forgiveness?
Sign #5 – True Repentance Appeals to God for Cleansing
Psalm 51:10-12 – Create in me a clean heart, O God. Renew a loyal spirit within me.
Do not banish me from your presence, and don’t take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and make me willing to obey you.
This is a big one. One of the most important signs of true repentance is an understanding that we can not fix ourselves, it has to be God who does the cleansing.
King Saul’s life was marked by one attempt after another to handle things his own way, right up to the very end. But David’s heart was tethered to his God and as a result, when it needed cleansing, he appealed to the One to whom it belonged.
David understood that if he had any chance of recovering from the enormous debt his sin had created he needed God to change his heart and turn it back towards Him.
When we choose repentance, we too will eagerly turn our hearts over to God for renewal. We will appeal to Him to give us the desire and ability to live in obedience to Him.
Questions to reflect on for sign #5
- Do I understand that no matter how hard I try, I just can’t clean up the mess my sin made by myself? Do I know I need God to create a clean heart in me?
- Am I ready to ask God to make me willing to obey Him? Do I understand it has to be His work that changes me?
Sign #6 – A Sign of True Repentance is Eagerness to Share the Story of God’s Redemption with Others
Psalm 51:13-15 – Then I will teach your ways to rebels, and they will return to you.
Forgive me for shedding blood, O God who saves;
then I will joyfully sing of your forgiveness.
Unseal my lips, O Lord, that my mouth may praise you.
King Saul wanted to make sure that he still received honor from Samuel before the elders of Israel, but David was only concerned that God be magnified. Here in Psalm 51, he asks God to “unseal his lips” so he could tell everyone about the incredible forgiveness God offers to those who repent.
One of the many signs of true repentance is an interest in sharing our story for God’s glory. The humility that comes with Biblical repentance is genuinely blown away by how God works in spite of our sin and can’t wait to tell others about it.
Even though telling our story will make us look so bad, once we’ve experienced Biblical repentance, that won’t matter to us. Instead, we’ll see how awesome our story shows God to be and we’ll be eager to tell it!
Questions to reflect on for sign #6
- Am I interested in the story of my sin turning into a story of God’s magnificence?
- Would I be eager to share that story, no matter how bad it made me look, if it really did turn into an undeniable picture of God’s power and love?
- Am I willing to actively ask God to use my story for His glory?
Sign #7 – True Repentance is Willing to Make Amends But Recognizes that What Really Matters is a Changed Heart
Psalm 51:16-17 – You do not desire a sacrifice, or I would offer one.
You do not want a burnt offering.
The sacrifice you desire is a broken spirit.
You will not reject a broken and repentant heart, O God.
This is another huge sign of true repentance and another example that is so clearly represented by Saul and David. Saul believed that he could offer sacrifices to God to make up for the fact that he had not exactly followed His instructions. Meanwhile, David’s prayer says plainly, “You do not desire a sacrifice, or I would offer one.”
So often we think we can fix the fallout of our sin by just doing enough good things to make up for it. But there is no undoing what has already been done. I like the way the prophet Samuel said it to King Saul in 1 Samuel 15:22:
“What is more pleasing to the Lord: your burnt offering and sacrifices or your obedience to His voice? Listen! Obedience is better than sacrifice, and submission is better than offering the fat of rams.”
True repentance recognizes this truth which changes the motivation behind a willingness to make amends. You see, David DID offer sacrifices at the Tabernacle for his sin. But he didn’t do it thinking that would be enough to please God or undo the damage of his sin.
Rather, David understood that what God really wanted was a changed heart. After all, that is ultimately what repentance IS – a changed heart. And David’s heart WAS changed. He turned 180 degrees, leaving his sin behind and running in the other direction, back toward his God.
Questions to reflect on for sign #7
- Am I trying to make up for my sin by doing things that I believe should fix it? Can I see that these “sacrifices” will never be able to undo the damage because God doesn’t want sacrifices, He wants obedience?
- Am I ready to recognize that unless my heart changes, any amends I make will be meaningless?
- Will I humbly ask God to change my heart? Will I turn away from my sin and run in the opposite direction, towards God, from now on?
- Even after my heart is changed, will I still be willing to do what I can to make amends, even though I know these things won’t actually fix anything, but will simply be the evidence of my changed heart?
Sign #8 – Biblical Repentance Looks Forward to Reconciliation without Demanding It
Psalm 51:18-19 – Look with favor on Zion and help her; rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.
Then you will be pleased with sacrifices offered in the right spirit –
with burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings.
Then bulls will again be sacrificed on your altar.
This final sign of true repentance can be summed up as an eagerness for restoration free of entitlement for it. The truth is, God offers forgiveness, redemption, and restoration, and He offers it freely. But it’s not because we deserve it. We don’t.
We can have confidence in God’s healing without demanding it. But it’s an impossible line to walk apart from Biblical repentance. On the other hand, when we have humbled ourselves in genuine repentance, it will be as easy and natural as can be.
Unfortunately, King Saul never did repent. He spent the rest of his life in this miserable state of constantly trying to force his way back into right standing with God by doing what HE thought should please the Lord. It just doesn’t work, and Saul died never having experienced the joy of redemption.
It’s very sad! And completely unnecessary.
David shows us the other side of the coin. David repented immediately once confronted and that repentance was complete. He didn’t try to get back to God in his own way and instead simply submitted himself to the Lord as he had consistently done before he slipped into sin.
As he closed out his prayer of repentance here in Psalm 51, David looked forward to the restoration he knew would come. Not because he deserved it, but because the God he worshiped is a forgiving God.
God did forgive and restore King David and he is known throughout Scripture as “a man after God’s own heart.” What a legacy! It’s a legacy we can have too, if we will only repent today and turn our hearts completely to God.
Questions to reflect on for sign #8
- Do I believe I am owed forgiveness from God, or does it humble me to my core to recognize that He offers it in spite of the fact that I absolutely do NOT deserve it?
- Do I look forward to the day when the redemption that follows repentance is complete? Will I be patient with the process and recognize that I have no right to it and cannot demand it?
- Will I follow David’s example and choose to submit myself wholly to God in complete repentance today?
The Results of Biblical Repentance
David wrote another Psalm that goes really well side by side with Psalm 51. This time he wasn’t telling God of his repentance, but praising God for the forgiveness that came as a result. It is Psalm 32, and I think it is a great way to close us out here. So here is Psalm 32. Pray it with me now.
Oh, what joy for those whose disobedience is forgiven, whose sin is put out of sight!
Yes, what joy for those whose record the Lord has cleared of guilt,
whose lives are lived in complete honesty!
When I refused to confess my sin, my body wasted away, and I groaned all day long.
Day and night your hand of discipline was heavy on me.
My strength evaporated like water in the summer heat.
Finally, I confessed all my sins to you and stopped trying to hide my guilt.
I said to myself, “I will confess my rebellion to the Lord.”
And you forgave me! All my guilt is gone.
Therefore, let all the godly pray to you while there is still time,
that they may not drown in the floodwaters of judgment.
For you are my hiding place; you protect me from trouble.
You surround me with songs of victory.
The Lord says, “I will guide you along the best pathway for your life.
I will advise you and watch over you.
Do not be like a senseless horse or mule that needs a bit and bridle to keep it under control.”
Many sorrows come to the wicked, but unfailing love surrounds those who trust the Lord.
So rejoice in the Lord and be glad, all you who obey him!
Shout for joy, all you whose hearts are pure!