Repentance and Assurance Series

The Genuine Article

by John MacArthur

What is repentance? The literal Greek word, metanoia, has to do with changing your mind. But authentic repentance is much more than merely changing your opinion, your thought process, or your mood. It’s a complete spiritual about-face. And if it’s genuine, it will always result in a change of behavior, too.

And while true repentance is the flash point for saving faith, and a source of powerful, lasting assurance of that faith, it’s a widely misunderstood doctrine. Many believers only have a vague notion of what it means to repent, and they’re unfamiliar with what it looks like in the pages of Scripture.

Jesus’ parable in Matthew 21:28-30 is a classic illustration. “A certain man had two sons; and he came to the first, and said, Son, go work to day in my vineyard. He an­swered and said, I will not: but afterward he repented, and went. And he came to the second, and said likewise. And he answered and said, I go, sir: and went not” (KJV).

The response of the first son explains the meaning of repentance. He said, “I will not,” but he did. That’s repenting. He said one thing but changed his whole attitude and purpose and went the opposite way. Repentance is a complete change of heart and direction, not merely a new idea about something.

Peter preached repentance to the Israelites who gathered after he and the apostle John healed a lame man at the Temple gate in Jerusalem. Peter indicted the Israelites for ignoring the prophecies about Jesus, for labeling Him a blasphemer, and crucifying the very One who was sent to rescue them from their sins. But then Peter offered a solution: “Therefore repent and return, so that your sins may be wiped away” (Acts 3:19).

The nation of Israel had decided that God’s will for them was a self-generated righteousness. The Pharisees manipulated a system of legalism or works for righteous­ness. They made sure it maintained its hold over the people. If a Jew kept the 365 negative commands and the 248 positive commands of the law of Moses, he was safe and righteous. They thought that was what God wanted, and they rejected Jesus because of it.

Peter essentially said to them: You blew it on every count. Jesus is the very opposite of what you concluded Him to be. Therefore, reverse your decision and change course—turn all the way around. Whatever you think you’re doing to please God, if it isn’t based only on faith in Jesus Christ, stop doing it and turn around.

That’s repentance. It’s a total transformation from sin to salvation, from flesh to spirit. It’s a radical reversal of the orientation of your heart, and a new direction for your life.

But where does it come from? How does the Lord bring about this transformation, and how do we draw assurance from repentance? What does the act of repentance have to do with our confidence in an eternity with Christ?

Over the next several days, we’re going to answer those questions as we look further at the nature of genuine repentance.

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COPYRIGHT ©2012 Grace to You

The Lord’s Positive Prodding

by John MacArthur

The constant war between our new nature in Christ and our old, sinful flesh is a recipe for spiritual inconsistency. Regardless of how long you’ve been saved or how much you’ve grown spiritually in that time, temptation to sin is always waiting around the corner (1 Peter 5:8).

And because we too often fall back into our old, sinful patterns, the Lord uses a variety of means to prod us back to repentance and a right relationship with Him—some are positive, others are negative. For today, let’s consider some of the key methods God uses to positively prod us to repent.

First, He uses our knowledge. God has given His Word so that His people might repent. Through the Bible, He tells us that we ought to turn from a self-righteous attitude toward total faith in God through Jesus Christ plus nothing else. Scripture contains everything we need for salvation and sanctification (2 Timothy 3:16-17), including practical wisdom for identifying and destroying sin in our lives. We can’t act on God’s Word unless we know it first.

Access to and an understanding of Scripture is essential for true repentance. Apart from His Word, we can’t know the truth about our sin, our need for a Savior, Christ’s perfect sacrifice on our behalf, the means of salvation, or God’s pattern for sanctification. Cut yourself off from the truth of God’s Word and you’ve cut yourself off from any hope of repentance, redemption, or spiritual growth.

The Lord’s second means for prodding believers to repentance is His goodness. As Jesus said, “He . . . sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45). God showers His goodness on people through the joys of life, such as love and the beauty of nature. In Romans 2, the apostle Paul says that the Israelites had every blessing and promise of God, and yet they treaded on His goodness. He says, “Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and tolerance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repen­tance?” (Romans 2:4). God’s goodness is for the purpose of bringing us to turn around and change our minds about Him and about Jesus.

Third, God uses our sorrow for sin as a means to prod us back to repentance. Have you ever done something wrong and then felt bad? That’s a good thing, because guilt is God’s way of enabling us to feel the evil of our own sin.

In our previous blog series, we discussed the gift of the conscience. As the soul’s internal warning system, the conscience can cause depression and anguish over your sin. But it’s a precious gift that God has given each person to guard him from the dangers of sin, and to steer him back to His perfect, righteous standard.

Therefore, how you respond to your conscience is vitally important. There are a lot of people who are sorry about their sins but who are not saved because they do not turn from sin. Others believe but they can’t get past their guilt feelings, and their perpetually wounded consciences inhibit their spiritual growth. It is critical that our sorrow over sin prompts us to repen­tance and change (2 Corinthians 7:9). Otherwise it’s worthless.

Tomorrow we’ll look at the negative ways the Lord prods us to repent.

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COPYRIGHT ©2012 Grace to You

The Lord’s Negative Prodding

by John MacArthur

The Lord employs a variety of methods to bring about repentance in the lives of His people. Last time we looked at three positive means He uses to prod believers away from sin and back to His righteous standard.

But if the knowledge of God’s Word, His goodness to us, and the nagging guilt of a troubled conscience fail to bring us to repentance, God has other ways of leading us there. Let’s look at a couple negative ways He prods us back into a right relationship with Him.

First, He disciplines us. Revelation 3:19 says, “Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline; therefore be zealous and repent.” Do you know why God rebukes and chastens us? He sometimes puts us through crises to bring us to change. That happened in my life.

As a young man, I never would have denied a belief in God, and yet in my heart I was rebelling against what I knew He wanted in my life. God had tried knowledge, sorrow for sin and then goodness. Finally, He got to chastisement, and it worked.

After being thrown at seventy-five miles per hour from a car as it flipped and rolled, and then sliding on my backside approximately 100 yards down the highway, scraping off some sixty-four square inches of my back a half-inch deep, I knew God was dealing with me. My body was covered in abrasions and bruises. No one else in the car was injured, and I was able to get up and walk to the side of the road. It was a miracle that I was alive. Standing there immediately after the accident, I thought, “I know why this happened. I have been trying to ignore God’s calling, and He is making sure He has my attention.” Right then I said, “From now on, I’ll do whatever You want me to do.” That was the change in my life. That’s when I really turned around.

While that kind of prodding from the Lord can be uncomfortable and disruptive, we need to consider the reminder of Hebrews 12:5-11, that He only disciplines those whom He loves. So even as He uses hardship, difficulty, and struggle to steer us back to His righteousness, it ought to give us assurance that we truly belong to Him.

Another negative way that God brings people to repentance is by warning us of judgment to come. Acts 17:30-31 says, “Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all peopleeverywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world.” The message of judgment is all over Scripture, and it must be preached because God designed judgment to lead us to repentance. God placed guilt within the Israelites’ hearts and chastised them with wars, famine, and exile. He displayed His goodness to them by bringing them back to their homeland after the chastening. And He preached judgment to them through the prophets. God had tried to prod the Israelites with knowledge through the Old Testament and then He sent Jesus to perform miracles in their faces. Jesus preached judgment to the Jews in Matthew 21, but they didn’t repent.

Ignoring the prodding of the Lord puts you directly in the path of His judgment. Instead, you need to heed His warnings, root out the sin in your life, and repent. Unless you’re regularly mortifying your sin, you can’t have strong confidence in your salvation.

And that’s where we’ll pick it up next week.

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COPYRIGHT ©2012 Grace to You

Dealing with Sin

by John MacArthur

The tragic, inescapable reality of the believer’s life is that he or she will never totally and finally conquer sin. The Lord has transformed us, replaced our hearts, and reoriented our lives, but we still can’t completely escape the grip of sin.

The apostle John recognizes, of course, that believers do fail and fall into sin. As a matter of fact, he began the epistle with a series of statements underscoring the truth that no one can claim any degree of perfection in this life: “If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). And, “If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar and His word is not in us” (v. 10). When we sin, however, Christ is our advocate with the Father (1 John 2:1) as well as the all-sufficient sacrifice who has paid the price of our sin (v. 2).

Therefore, we can know true assurance, despite the sinful and fleshly tendencies we all struggle with. Read Paul’s testimony in Romans 7 about his own frustrating battle to overcome the sin that remains in each one of us as long as we inhabit fallen flesh. We all sin all the time, and we wage the very same struggle Paul describes in Romans 7:14-24. But notice that Paul ends that discussion with a celebration of his own assurance: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (v. 25). From there, he devotes the entirety of Romans 8 to a discourse about the believer’s security in the Spirit.

How can believers know that kind of assurance, even while being aware of their own sinfulness?

First, it’s vital to understand that Scripture expressly refutes all forms of perfectionism. Even when the apostle John writes, “No one who is born of God practices sin, because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God” (1 John 3:9), he is clearly not making perfection a test of salvation, because as we have seen, he recognizes and even emphasizes the inevitability of sin in every believer’s life.

The point of 1 John 3:9 has to do with our attitude toward sin and righteousness, our response when we do sin, and the overall direction of our walk. In other words, as I have often said, we don’t test the genuineness of our repentance by the perfection of our walk, but by the direction of it. In the words of Puritan John Owen, “Your state is not at all to be measured by the opposition that sin makes to you, but by the opposition you make to it.1

What is the true moral object of your affections? Is it sin or righteousness? If your chief love is sin, then according to the principles outlined in 1 John, you are “of the devil” (1 John 3:8, 10). If you love righteousness and practice righteousness, you are born of God (1 John 2:29). This is not measured by the frequency, duration, or magnitude of one’s sins, but by the inclination of the heart.

And the true mark of a redeemed heart is a spirit of repentance, mourning over our sin when we do fall, and a deep and abiding dependence on God’s grace as we wage the warfare against sin. To quote John Owen once more: “A man, then, may have a deep sense of sin all his days, walk under the sense of it continually, abhor himself for his ingratitude, unbelief, and rebellion against God, without any impeachment of his assurance.2

That may sound preposterous, but an understanding of the depth of our own sin is the very thing that keeps Christians from falling into utter despair. We know we are guilty, fallen, and frail. To use the exact idea conveyed in the Greek text of 1 John 1:9, we agree with God about our sin.

When we discover sin in our lives, we are not shocked or astonished, but we nonetheless hate the fact that it is there. We trust Christ, our Advocate, for forgiveness and cleansing. And far from becoming tolerant or comfortable with sin in our lives, we become more and more determined to mortify it. As John says, “I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin” (1 John 2:1, emphasis added).

In other words, a spirit of perpetual repentance ought to permeate and characterize the life of every true believer. The repentance that takes place at conversion begins a progressive, lifelong process of confession and forgiveness (1 John 1:9). That spirit of continual repentance in no way undermines the assurance of a true child of God. On the contrary, it is the very thing that feeds our assurance and keeps it alive.

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COPYRIGHT ©2012 Grace to You

The Fruits of Repentance

by John MacArthur

What kind of evidence substantiates authentic repentance? When the crowds asked that question of John the Baptist in Luke 3:10, he told them to share with their needy neighbors (v. 11). To tax collectors he said, “Collect no more than what you have been ordered to” (v. 13). To soldiers he said, “Do not take money from anyone by force, or accuse anyone falsely, and be content with your wages” (v. 14).

In each case, he was calling for a selfless attitude and kindness to one’s neighbors. That short list doesn’t exhaust all the possible fruits of repentance, of course, but it demonstrates that genuine repentance ought to produce the kind of character change that results in a qualitative difference in the way we live. James wrote, “Faith without works is dead” (James 2:26). In a similar way, repentance that doesn’t produce works is barren and useless. A person who has genuinely repented is never left unchanged.

The apostle Paul likewise looked for proof of repentance. “I did not prove disobedient to the heavenly vision,” he said, “but kept declar­ing… to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds appropriate to repentance” (Acts 26:19-20, emphasis added).

The emphasis on self-examination is consistent throughout Scripture. Because true repentance is one of the first indications of salvation, believers can and should look to the fruit of repentance for assurance. As Paul said, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

Scripture presents self-examination as an essential prerequisite for authentic assurance (2 Corinthians 13:5). The evidences of true salvation cited in Scripture include the fruits of one’s behavior (1 John 3:18-19), pattern of life (1 John 3:24), and way of thinking (1 John 5:1-2).

Don’t be misled: salvation is in no way merited by our works, and therefore true assurance is not ultimately grounded in our performance. Self-examination can destroy false assurance, but you’ll never find settled assurance merely by looking at yourself. In the end, we have to look away from ourselves and rest in the objective promises of God’s Word. True, lasting assurance is anchored in the promise of salvation to all who believe. That promise is as true as God Himself and needs no empirical verification.

Still, self-examination is a necessary and biblical aspect of gaining assurance. It is the process by which we evaluate the quality of our own faith. And the fruits of repentance are the evidence we must seek.

This is especially crucial in the contemporary evangelical environment. Multitudes believe they are saved merely because someone told them so after a cursory conversation, the simple reciting of a canned prayer, the raising of a hand in a public meeting, or sometimes even less. People have not been challenged to examine themselves. Rarely do they test their assurance by God’s Word. As a matter of fact, many have been taught that doubts about their salvation can only be detrimental to spiritual health and growth.

But Scripture demands self-examination. In fact, we’re supposed to examine ourselves regularly, every time we partake of the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:28). Paul’s famous challenge to the believers at Corinth clearly has the doctrine of assurance in view: “Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves! Or do you not recognize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you—unless indeed you fail the test?” (2 Corinthians 13:5 emphasis added). And Hebrews 10:22 indicates that “full assurance of faith” comes from “having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience.”

So we need to examine ourselves in the process of coming to grips with assurance. Nowhere is this made more plain in Scripture than 1 John, one of the key passages of Scripture on the subject of assurance. In fact, the epistle was written with the express purpose of building the assurance of true believers. John wrote, “These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13). His aim is to deepen the assurance of genuine Christians—those “who believe in the name of the Son of God.” He’s not trying to provoke doubts in the presence of authentic faith; he is giving us a basis to “assure our heart before Him” (3:19).

Notice again, however, that our faith in Christ is the ultimate ground and foundation of true assurance. Self-examination is simply the process by which we examine whether our faith is genuine and our repentance real.

True believers should not be unnerved by the biblical call to self-examination. Unbelievers and mere hearers of the Word, on the other hand, need to have their self-confidence shaken. So the apostle John names several practical tests that may be used to determine the authenticity of faith—including such things as obedience (2:3-6; 3:1-10), sound doctrine (2:21-28; 4:1-6), and love for the brethren (3:14-19; 4:7-11). Those are fruits of true repentance.

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COPYRIGHT ©2012 Grace to You

The Two Sides of Assurance

We want to close this series on repentance and assurance by highlighting two sermons from John MacArthur. Both address the issue of assurance—from different perspectives.

As we’ve seen throughout this blog series, Scripture reveals that true repentance leads to lasting assurance. And assurance is not to be underestimated—it’s a taste of heaven here on earth. It’s a glimpse ahead to the joys and blessings that await us in eternity. And it’s a gift from the Lord—one that too many believers forfeit or reject.

Why then do so many Christians miss out on the benefits of assurance? A variety of factors can contribute to weak and failing confidence in salvation—underestimating God; overestimating sin; misunderstanding grace, mercy, and forgiveness; and lacking trust in the promises of God.

Nagging, overactive consciences can also cause Christians to doubt or question their assurance. John MacArthur addresses that issue directly in the sermon “Why Christians Lack Assurance.” And if you’ve ever struggled with confidence about your salvation—as most believers have from time to time—it’s a message you ought to listen to. It’s a warning to avoid the sinful patterns and spiritual immaturity that rob believers of their assurance.

You should also listen to John’s sermon called “Resting in the Assurance of Our Salvation.” In it, he explains the valuable and vital role of assurance in every believer’s life, and he extols the great blessings and benefits of confidently resting in the promises of the Lord.

We know both messages will be a comfort and an encouragement to you.

GTY Staff

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COPYRIGHT ©2012 Grace to You

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