Christians are fascinated and enthralled with the transcendent glory of God’s grace and love. But they are equally captivated, with a slightly different effect, by his holiness and justice and purity.
A Habitual Attitude
There is no holiness or Christian life that does not have repentance at its core. Repentance is not merely one element in conversion, but a habitual attitude and action to which all Christians are called. It is, argues Packer, a spiritual discipline central to and inseparable from healthy holy living. But what is it? How should it be defined? What are its characteristic features? A close reading of Packer reveals that he understands repentance to entail a number of interrelated themes. The most important dimension in godly repentance is the fundamental alteration in one’s thinking with regard to what is sin and what God requires of us in terms both of our thoughts and actions.
Repentance thus begins with a recognition of the multitude of ways in which our thinking and attitude and belief system are contrary to what is revealed in Scripture. We are by nature and choice misshapen and warped in the way we evaluate truth claims. What we cherish, on the one hand, and detest, on the other, are fundamentally at odds with God’s value system, and repentance must begin with an honest confession that such is the case. But merely acknowledging where our thinking has gone wrong is only the first step in genuine repentance. The most sincere of apologies is at best only a start down the pathway of repentance. There must follow a change in behavior. There must be a conscious and consistent abandonment of those courses of action to which our sinful and rebellious thinking gave rise. Thus repentance:
signifies going back on what one was doing before, and renouncing the misbehavior by which one’s life or one’s relationship was being harmed. In the Bible, repentance is a theological term, pointing to an abandonment of those courses of action in which one defied God by embracing what he dislikes and forbids. . . . Repentance [thus] means altering one’s habits of thought, one’s attitudes, outlook, policy, direction, and behavior, just as fully as is needed to get one’s life out of the wrong shape and into the right one. Repentance is in truth a spiritual revolution.1
There is also an emotional or subjective sorrow and remorse that true repentance requires. Merely feeling sorry for one’s sins is not itself repentance, but it is impossible for repentance to occur in the absence of a deep conviction, and its attendant anguish, for having lived in defiance of God. Thus whereas one may well, and indeed should, feel regret for a life of sin, repentance is never complete until one actively turns away from those former dark paths in order to face, embrace, love, thank, and serve God. Whatever feeling is entailed in repentance, it must lead one to forsake all former ways of disobedience. To acknowledge one’s guilt before God is one thing; to abandon those actions that incurred such guilt is another, absolutely essential, dimension in genuine repentance. Thus there is in repentance not only a backward look at the former life from which one has turned but also a commitment both in the present and for the future to pursue Christ and to follow him in a life of devoted discipleship. Throughout the process the believer is also examining his heart and habits to ensure that nothing of the old ungodly ways is making its way back into his life.