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Lately, I’ve been going through an intense time of confessing and repenting both to God and to others. Without giving all the nitty-gritty details, a sin pattern in my life came to light and I’ve had to face how much I’ve hurt others and how far I’ve wandered from God. It has been a painful experience, and while I know logically that this is healthy, I still feel tempted to retreat back into that sin. I’ve always been told that repenting and turning to Jesus makes everything better, but it doesn’t feel like it. Am I wrong to feel this way?

– Trying to Change

Dear Trying,

You’re right that this process of repentance is healthy, but sometimes, even healthy things are uncomfortable and painful.

True repentance is the first step toward healing, but this is a long process, so give yourself grace if you don’t feel completely transformed yet. While repentance works as a salve on sin’s wounds and initiates healing, recovery requires time, and scabs might be scraped off prematurely exposing fresh pangs of guilt.

Repentance is an undeniable command from God for healing sin’s wounds, but it is not a magic elixir erasing the sin itself or an assurance that the same sin will not materialize in the future. Repentance has limitations.

Repentance Cannot Reverse Sin

So often, we expect our repentance to reverse a sinful act. Clearly, repentance cannot change the past, but often, an expression of repentance and an act of contrition subdues our conscience. We naturally attempt to make up for what we’ve done. If a mischievous boy steals a candy bar from his sister, his conscience might not be assuaged until he buys her a new candy bar.

Unfortunately, not all crimes can be made right, and these situations force us to truly experience God’s grace. Salvation would not be so immensely magnificent if we could simply repent and buy God a new “candy bar.” Even if we possessed the entire physical world, it would not be adequate to correct our sin (Ask Satan how that offer turned out).

God’s grace becomes our lifeline when repentance falls short. As you work through this, remind yourself of that reality. Reach out and grip the only safehold against your sinful tendencies. Realize that you can’t make this right by any action you perform—or by beating yourself up about your past. Only Christ’s grace can heal your conscience, so cling to Him.

Repentance Cannot Ensure Others’ Forgiveness

Often, we feel like we can be rid of guilt’s crushing burden if we can simply gain the forgiveness of those we’ve wronged. While you should ask for forgiveness for those you’ve hurt, it’s not guaranteed just because you’ve repented.

Forgiveness is an individual choice. Just as you cannot force someone to love you, coercing forgiveness is impossible. Forgiveness must be given willingly, and we shouldn’t feel like we deserve forgiveness simply because we’ve asked for it. Forgiveness is not about what we deserve; forgiveness is about obtaining grace. It has little affinity with justice, but is incomplete without grace.

God does guarantee forgiveness if we repent, but God’s promise is predicated by His choice to forgive. Often, we take God’s blanket promise and spread it over others. We think they are required to forgive if we simply repent, but God has allowed them their own choice. If it were not a choice it would not be grace; it would be a contract.

Repentance ensures Christ’s grace, which is more than enough. While forgiveness of others restores relationships, it is not required in order to release the burden of guilt. Consequences will always remain, but Christ’s grace can unburden your guilt despite others’ decision to withhold forgiveness.

Repentance Does Not Guarantee You Will Not Commit the Same Sin

Regardless of others’ forgiveness, repentance does not guarantee a future void of the same sin. The composition of the word itself indicates a continual penitent heart. The Latin prefix re translated “back, again” is combined with the Latin paenitere meaning “penitent.”

Repentance’s etymology literarily indicates continually going back with a penitent heart again and again. Sincere repentance means a genuine desire to avoid the sin in the future, but Man’s fall foils “the best-laid plans of mice and men” (as Robert Burns would say).

Repentance ensures God’s forgiveness alone, but that same forgiveness may be needed time and time again no matter how sincere or how many changes are made.

A duck will always quack, a dog will always bark and humans will always sin. While this realization may cause despondence, God’s greatness continually emerges through our weakness. First, God’s grace and love are far greater than any evil we commit; however, as Paul is quick to point out, we should not sin so God’s grace may abound.

Our goal and calling is to be like Christ, meaning we attempt a life void of sin. While this calling is a losing battle in this life and in our own strength, God’s grace provides the opportunity and means found in his Holy Spirit. Repentance cannot ensure I never commit a specific infraction again, but it can guarantee God’s grace every time I go “back, again” before the throne of His grace with a penitent heart

The important thing to remember is that repentance is far more about who God is and what He does for us than what we bring before His throne. Our works to amend for sins are as filthy rags in His sight; God’s forgiveness is all we need in spite of others’ choice to withhold forgiveness; God’s grace is larger than any of our failings. Repentance has limits because it is a human action; God’s grace is inexhaustible because it is a divine choice.

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