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?
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.