According to the Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Louw & Nida) the word repentance means, to change one’s way of life as the result of a complete change of thought and attitude with regard to sin and righteousness. In repentance, a person is given a true sense of the heinous nature of sin and, hating it, they turn to God through Christ with the desire to part ways with it. It is a gift that God gives to us and true repentance leads to eternal life (2 Tim. 2:25).
The Bible does make it clear that not all repentance is genuine, though. Paul said to the Corinthian church in 2 Corinthians 7:10-11,
For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death. For see what earnestness this godly grief has produced in you, but also what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what longing, what zeal, what punishment! At every point, you have proved yourselves innocent in the matter.
Based on this Scripture and others, here are some of the distinguishing characteristics between true and false repentance:
True repentance does not regret parting ways with sin; false repentance does.
Because God grants us a clear view of our sins in repentance, we don’t regret the loss of them. False repentance is characterized by a continual longing for the “old life.” Although a person may have made certain external changes in their life, their heart is continually drawn back to the sins they miss. Jesus said, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God”(Lk. 9:62).
Now, it’s important to note that this doesn’t mean we won’t face old temptations as believers. There’s a constant struggle between the old and the new man (Gal. 5:17), and this conflict is itself an indication that we have been enlightened by God to see our sin as something we must fight against. We don’t always experience victory on the battlefield though, and often the Christian life can feel like a string of defeats. The good news is when we sin, we have an advocate before the Father pleading our case (1 Jn. 2:1), and as he grants us victory, we rejoice over the death of our sin, rather than mourning its loss.
True repentance hates sin; false repentance hates the consequences of sin.
True repentance is often characterized by a godly anger about the terrible nature of sin. This zealous indignation is concerned with God’s glory and the flourishing of the image of God in humanity. False repentance is less concerned about the glory of God and more concerned with getting caught. This type of concern is what Paul calls “worldly grief.” True repentance often takes the initiative in bringing sin into the light (through confession) since it hates the sin itself, not just its consequences. Jesus said, “For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God” (Jn. 3:20-21).
True repentance accepts godly counsel and accountability; false repentance avoids accountability.
It should not escape our notice that the Corinthians’ “eagerness to clear themselves” resulted in honesty and accountability, such that the apostle Paul was able to write to them about the situation in question. The repentant person recognizes they aren’t beyond falling and that they need to be vigilant so as not to give in to sinful temptations (1 Cor. 10:12). False repentance is often characterized by a resentment for authority and a confidence in one’s own abilities to live a holy life. Sadly, this is often self-deception, and the real reason that the falsely repentant rejects accountability is because they don’t yet want to abandon their sinful habit.
False repentance is scary because it can trick us into thinking we’ve truly repented when, in reality, we’ve only found more crafty ways to hold on to our sin. Do you constantly long for your sin? Do you love your sin more than Jesus and find yourself only hating its consequences? Do you avoid brothers and sisters who will be honest with you about your sin because you don’t want to held accountable? There is still hope for you.
Speaking of our Lord’s promise to return and judge the world, Peter says, “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9). God doesn’t want you to continue in worldly grief that ultimately leads to death; rather, his will is that you might experience the genuine repentance that leads to life. If you’ve been “faking” it, pray for forgiveness, and ask that the Lord would give you a true sense of your sin so that you might part ways with it. Go to spiritually mature brothers or sisters within the church and embrace godly accountability. Turn to Jesus, the one who doesn’t cast out those who go to him—see John 6:37—and is not willing that you should perish, but he is for your genuine repentance.