Repentance is a change of mind and heart that produces a change in behavior. In real life it is not always easy to know when a person is genuinely repentant. In Second Corinthians the apostle Paul distinguishes between godly sorrow and worldly sorrow. Worldly sorrow may produce a change in actions, but that change will not continue. True repentance will not be repented of. (2 Corinthians 7:10) The chief evidence of genuine repentance is a persistence in forsaking the sinful behavior.
However, everyone falls into sin. Those struggling with addictions or other life controlling sins may find the process of repentance to be full of successes and failures. When someone says they are repentant but then fall back into sin, have they truly repented or not? Are there other characteristics of true repentance that enable a person to distinguish between godly and fleshly repentance?
2 Corinthians 7:11 lists seven characteristics of Godly repentance. Godly repentance produces a carefulness to not return to the sin again. The repentant is not lazy about his transformation. He is diligent and anxious to change. True repentance will not toy with sin. The repentant will set up safeguards and take precautions against falling back into it.
Godly repentance produces a desire to show that sin is being avoided. The repentant will be transparent about his transformation, allowing others to look into his life to see that he has truly turned away from sin.
Godly repentance produces a deep grief over sin. The repentant soul is troubled by the sin they committed. Their sin will not be a source of pride. The repentant will not regale others with stories of his sin. True repentance sees sin as a shameful thing. The repentant is upset by his sin.
Godly repentance produces fear. This fear is a carefulness which is deeply concerned about sin. The repentant one will no longer view their former sin as pet to be pampered, but as a poisonous serpent to be avoided.
Godly repentance produces a strong desire for holiness and righteousness. Godly repentance produces zeal- an intense passion for good. Godly repentance produces a readiness to see justice done. The repentant accepts the consequences of his actions and is anxious to be vindicated from any further association with the sin.
These characteristics of repentance will not always be evident, especially when someone is just beginning to work through the process of repentance. However, if these characteristics do not become evident there is reason to question the validity of a profession of repentance.
Understanding repentance is important so that we do not deceive ourselves into thinking we are repentant of sin when we are not. The addict may convince himself he has turned over new leaf, but his habit and his attitude towards his habit show he is still in bondage to his sin. Understanding repentance protects us from bondage to sin and the consequences sin brings. For the unsaved, the consequences of sin will be eternal punishment. For the Christian, the consequences of sin may be the chastening of the Lord or the loss of rewards in heaven. Repentance is not easy, but it is far better to endure the sorrow of repentance than to suffer the sorrow of Divine judgment.