One of the Most Important but Misunderstood Words in the Bible

I was twenty years into my marriage before I discovered the shocking truth when the veil was removed in a phone call with a friend.

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One of the most important but misunderstood words in the Bible is repentance. In Mark 1:4, we read of Jesus’ first cousin, John the Baptizer, “preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” What does this mean and why is it important for you today in the twenty-first century?

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The Shocking Truth Revealed

As a pastor, I have taught on this subject more times than I can count and assumed I knew what I was talking about. But truth be told, it was twenty years into my marriage before I discovered the shocking truth when the veil was removed in a phone call with a friend.

At the time, Kristy and I were taking a discipleship course from a global missions ministry called Serge (formerly World Harvest Mission). Over the course of eighteen months, following a curriculum called Sonship, we completed lessons with discussion questions in preparation to meet via video conference with our discipler, Stu Batstone.

Most of the topics in the course were covered in one lesson. However, I noticed that there were two chapters devoted to repentance. Why were we going to spend so much time on this subject?

I would soon find out.

As Stu, Kristy, and I discussed our theme of the week, I waxed with theological eloquence, citing passages in Scripture and examples from my own life. This was my time to shine, as the spouse who was quick to repent was yours truly. Kristy always seemed much slower.

What was her problem?

Later, I would learn that what I took for slowness actually was thoughtful genuineness. Nevertheless, my flesh was looking for a congratulatory response from Stu. He had listened patiently, without interrupting my well-woven discourse. After all, I spoke as an expert on repentance. Then, with a marksman’s precision, he commented.

“McKay, I don’t think you have ever repented to Kristy.”

Stu wasn’t angry. His tone was gentle and caring, like a father, grieving over a son’s foolish mistake that has brought harm to his son’s life. Stu wanted me—and Kristy—to experience the healing and restoring grace of repentance.

To that end, he told me a story. An analogy, really.

The Bump vs the Bite

“Imagine Kristy is at the beach, wading in the surf. She sees what looks like a rock gliding along the surface of the water. Soon, it dawns on her that rocks do not float nor glide. Before she is able to make it to land, the shark attacks, taking a huge bite out of her thigh. She is badly wounded and struggling to regain her footing. Eventually, she crawls up onto the shore, but it is going to take time for the damage to heal.”

Stu then addressed me, “McKay, the way you have harmed Kristy with sharp (even if not loud) words is like tearing into her with shark teeth.” But the damage I had caused was worse than a shark attack. I had not wounded her leg. I had pierced her heart.

Because you don’t have to yell to hurt. All it takes is a precision-targeted statement that is designed to strike at the level of core identity. Yes, loud words hurt, too. As does betrayal, neglect, passive-aggressive manipulation, physical abuse, and countless other ways to sin against a spouse, child, parent, or friend.

Yet I felt myself wanting to push back.

“Okay, but I always say, ‘I’m sorry.’ Isn’t she called to forgive me?’ What else am I supposed to do? Make promises? Buy her flowers? How can I make up for what I said or did?”

Again, with gentleness and patience, Stu replied, “The reason why you have never truly repented to Kristy is that you have never felt the wounds you have inflicted. You’ve rationalized your actions and minimized the pain. It is as if you think your offenses are closer to a bruise from a dolphin bump than the laceration of a shark bite.”

At that moment the veil was lifted and I saw the horror of my sin with new eyes. What I had said and done over the years wasn’t just wrong, it was an intentional infliction of pain and suffering upon my wife in word and deed that stemmed from a deep need to be right. That need to be on the winning side of an argument is symptomatic of what we call self-righteousness.

When I detect that evil disposition of prideful self-glory within my own heart, I am prepared to repent at the level of the heart, going below the act to the motive. It is there that I am able to feel the pain I have caused, put down my defenses, and turn (repent) from making excuses to confessing truth, saying, “I hurt you.” And, I am so very sorry.

“I am sorry” alone is not enough. Owning the depth of the wound I have caused, and being sorry for that is getting closer to true repentance. Then, “I am sorry” becomes the emotional expression of regret and sorrow over the wound, not just a way to get the humiliating moment over with.

Minimizing, Blame-Shifting, and Deflecting

The flesh is clever. It will find a thousand ways to avoid true repentance because to own my sin feels like death. And it is. It is a death to my self-righteousness. So, instead of repent, I’ll minimize my actions (“You are making a mountain out of a molehill!”), I’ll shift blame (“If you hadn’t pushed my buttons, I would not have…”). Sometimes, the flesh will just deflect.

There are a couple of different ways to deflect. One is to charge the offended partner with the same crime. “Well, you have done the same thing.” A second deflection technique is to deny culpability. I can’t count the number of times I’ve said, “I didn’t mean it.” Oh, but I did. Why else would I have said something so cruel?

Oh God, help me! I have killed my wife with words.

Does that sound overly dramatic? Maybe. I love Kristy. I really do—with all my heart! But the damage “the flesh” is able to inflict is not to be underestimated. Paul recognized this in Romans 7, where he lamented the ongoing power of this sinful nature that influenced him to do what he didn’t want to do and not to do what he wanted to do.

At the end of that chapter of honesty and lament, the apostle cries out, “Who will save me from this body of death?” The answer comes in the next verse, “Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!” It is a deliverance that comes through Jesus’ body of death, nailed to a cross, where his heart was literally pierced through for a sinner like me.

What I learned from my extended lesson on the doctrine of repentance is that the practice of repentance is not just saying I’m sorry. It is not making promises to do better next time. It is not doing penance to make up for crimes committed.

Honesty, not Resolutions

The Greek word for repentance (metanoia) means, “a change or turning of the mind.” This turning has been misunderstood to mean a turning from doing bad things to doing good things. But the outward manifestation of a changed life is not the condition of repentance, it is the result. It is what John the Baptizer called “the fruit of repentance.”

Should repentance include sorrow? Of course! How can I feel the wound I have caused and not be filled with anguish?

Should repentance include a new desire to love well? Absolutely. How could I see the damage I have caused and not want to have a different result in the future?

But we must be careful that we do not turn repentance into a feeling, a deed, or a promise. Or else, by feeling badly enough, paying the debt down ourselves, and declaring new resolutions, we may sense entitlement to forgiveness. “Look what we have done. Certainly, I have made up for my offenses.”

No, I should not demand forgiveness. I can only admit what is true about my sin—and not just the act but the corrupt, defensive heart motive driving the deed. In repentance, I put myself—without excuse—before the mercy of someone else. They can make me pay. Or they can pay the debt themselves. That is what we call forgiveness.

The essence of repentance is being honest about the pain I have caused and owning it. That is the change of mind, from minimizing, making excuses, and blame-shifting to holding myself responsible. In repentance, I step out of the darkness and into the light.

The apostle John put it like this in 1 John 1:8-9, “8 If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”

Whether my repentance is before God, my wife, or child, the gospel calls me to step into the light of truth and be honest. In casting myself before their judgment, I put the relationship in their hands, where they have the option to condemn or forgive. While I will not treat the concept of forgiveness here (read about that in these posts, How to Really Forgive and How to Clear the Drain When Your Marriage Gets Clogged), the power for restoring a broken relationship is found in the process of genuine repentance and wholehearted forgiveness.

Confess and Rest

Here is the takeaway. Either I will live in the darkness or the light. I will be oppressed by deceit or set free by the truth, which tells me that my flesh is not a playful dolphin. Rather, it is a shark with layers of serrated teeth.

The way we step out into the light and live by the truth is so simple that it can be expressed with one word: confess. Synonyms for confess include reveal, admit, disclose, divulge, and uncover. Pick your favorite and if the shoe fits, wear it.

  • Confession is the term used to describe how we take ownership of our sins.

  • Faith is the term used to describe how we take ownership of our forgiveness.

As glorious as forgiveness is, the gospel is even better than that. Through the crucifixion of Jesus, we not only have our debt paid in full before the demands of the law but we are giving the perfect righteousness of Jesus as our new record before heaven and humanity. As John says, we are forgiven and purified (made righteous).

It is being forgiven and declared righteous in Christ that gives us the freedom and confidence to confess our sins (own them vs dismiss, rationalize, minimize, and blameshift), knowing that our true identity is not to be found in the corruption of the flesh but in the justification we have in Jesus.

You may have noticed the conditional “if” in verse 9 of 1 John 1. That is the gospel call for you and me today in order to enter into the fullness of gospel rest. To confess, and then to rest in Jesus, who is faithful to forgive us not just some or most of our sins and unrighteousness, but all of it.


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