“I’ve been repenting of this sin—seems like thousands of times—but I can never make any progress!” I don’t know how many times I’ve heard this from someone about repentance and what it looks like to change a deeply-rooted behavior. It is a common frustration about the nature of repentance.

I usually hear erroneous views of repentance when I first meet a man trying to stop using porn. Along with his struggle, there is a strong feeling of despair and a faltering assurance of salvation. “I’ve been told that sin does not have dominion over me, but it doesn’t seem to be true. Perhaps I’m not really a Christian.”

I can respond to this man in many ways to give him real hope, but one thing that can be of great help to him is some basic instruction on repentance. In his mind, he has given ample effort at this repentance thing and has found it ineffective in producing any lasting change. But in my observation and experience, there are a few common flaws in how repentance is done, which virtually guarantee it to be fruitless and frustrating. Here are three:

  1. The Lone Ranger Flaw  

I have estimated that the typical man coming to Harvest USA has been fighting his porn struggle for upwards of twenty years.

Alone. By himself. In secret. With no one else helping him.

Year after year, he has wrestled with the revolving cycle of will power, weakness, guilt, and despair—without enlisting the help of another soul in the battle. Why? The shame they feel about their sin and about being exposed is just too intense. Shame gives them the excuse that they can overcome it on their own. “I can confess this after I have conquered it.” Then it can be a victorious testimony. But the victorious testimony never comes.

Trying to repent on your own fits well with the individualistic bent of our heart, but it is unbiblical and foolish. Proverbs 18:1 warns us, “Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire; he breaks out against all sound judgment.” This is selfish and bad judgment.

Year after year, he has wrestled with the revolving cycle of will power, weakness, guilt, and despair—without enlisting the help of another soul in the battle.

The Bible consistently depicts a healthy, godly life as one lived in community, in relationship with others. The godly life is profoundly relationally connected; we image a Trinitarian God, after all. Christians are fellow members of one “body,” where the “eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you’” (1 Corinthians 12:21). And, as John points out, truthful confession and “walking in the light” is integral to fellowship with both God and one another (1 John 1:6-10).

Further, trying to beat a sin like pornography on your own shows a misunderstanding of the nature of sexual sin. Sexuality is inherently relational. Sexual sin of every type is a relational sin, even if that sin is one done in private, like watching porn. Even if you think you commit your sin in the privacy of your own imagination, you are training your heart and body to treat others in a profoundly selfish and destructive way. A sin that involves attitudes and actions towards other people cannot be repented of in isolation from people.

So why do we cling to an individualistic, isolationist approach to repenting?  We need to dig a bit deeper about shame.

  1. The Shame Syndrome Flaw  

A desire to escape shame can look like true repentance, but it is not. I am not thinking of shame as a proper sense of guilt before God, but of a painful, self-deprecating alertness to the judgmental opinions of other people. This is one piece of the “worldly grief” described in 2 Corinthians 7:9-10, where Paul says “As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting. . . For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.”

We can experience grief over a variety of consequences of our sin: a lost job, economic hardship, marital strife, etc. Some people may misinterpret grief over these kinds of things as repentance.

But the grief we feel over shame is the easiest to mistake for repentance. The sense of shame is so closely connected to the sin that honest expressions of shame (“I am so ashamed of what I have done!”) can sound to those around us—and ourselves—like sincere hatred of sin. But it may not be.

It might only be that it hurts that people see your “dirty laundry.” This may especially be the case if the occasion for our seeking help is having been caught in sin. In other words, a sudden and humiliating shame has been forced upon us, and we are eager to get rid of it. What looks like an earnest effort at repentance may really be a striving to push through and beyond this present shame to reach a place where we can be at peace with our reputation again.

True repentance does the hard work of examining the inner motivations and thoughts of our heart, seeking their transformation through the gospel.  

What are the effects of this repentance flaw? Because our strongest motivation is to be rid of shame, we will not maintain humility and honesty for the long haul. We will tend towards minimizing the sin that is still in our hearts and overestimating our repentance “success.” We will be quick to claim “victory,” giving the impression that whatever we have to be ashamed of is past and gone.

Now people will think well of us again. Now we can exchange being known as a sinner for being known as a sin-conqueror. Ironically, the “victorious testimony” we mentioned in flaw #1 is now achieved, but it is a shame.

  1. The “Just Stop It” Flaw

A third flaw is focusing your repentance almost entirely on stopping a behavior. This fits naturally with flaw #2; it is primarily the behavior that has gotten us in trouble and earned us the shame we want to escape. Accordingly, we think the solution is to cease that behavior. Like the effort to escape shame, this can look a lot like real repentance. Shouldn’t we try to stop this sinful behavior, after all? Yes.

But the flaw in this way of repenting is that it does not adequately understand the nature of sin.

The mistake here is that sin is viewed as nothing more than wrong behavior. But the Bible presents behavior as the final, outwardly visible manifestation of the affections, desires, and thoughts deep in our heart. Sinful behavior, then, is the proverbial “tip of the iceberg.” Repentance that ignores this reality fails.

So a behavior focus is much too narrow. Any one behavior is the fruit of deeper desires and thoughts of the heart. The truth is that the roots of sin in our hearts find expression in a wide variety of sinful behaviors. For instance, a habit of using porn may be an expression of an inner desire to control people and circumstances to project a sense of self-importance as an antidote to deep insecurities. That same heart desire is acted out not just in looking at porn, but in manipulative and destructive ways in how you treat your wife, conflicts with co-workers, parenting, driving, etc. Merely trying to curb one behavior, porn use, without addressing the heart, leaves all these other areas untouched. Any change achieved is weak and unsustainable.

True repentance does the hard work of examining the inner motivations and thoughts of our heart, seeking their transformation through the gospel.

Are you or someone you know struggling with a persistent and frustrating battle with porn?  Are you struggling to understand how gospel repentance truly works? Before you are tempted to revise the promises of the gospel to fit the complete inertia of your repentance, make sure you are not working with a completely unbiblical view of sin and repentance.

Stop going it alone. Seek help. Confess to your brothers. Repent beyond your shame; repent of loving your own reputation more than God and the people around you.

Finally, repent of sin deeper than behavior; let the gospel confront your heart.

For those who struggle with life-dominating sexual struggles, repenting is something that is hard to do. We resist it. We run from it. Why? Bob Heywood talks about the reasons why it’s so hard  — and what the one key thing you need to do to stop resisting.

Click to read Bob’s blog on this:  Repentance and Resistance.

Repentance and Resistance

Repentance is a hard thing to talk about. We might have a certain confidence in our ability to articulate what the Bible says about repentance, but when we take an honest look at our repentance, in the light of what we know the Bible teaches, we can become very discouraged.  Truth be told, we don’t know what a life of repentance is supposed to look like. When was the last time you talked about it in your home Bible study group? Around your dinner table? With your friends?

Are we modeling repentance in our churches? Jack Miller, the author of Repentance and the 20th Century Man, said that the leaders of the church (pastors, elders, deacons, etc.) should be the lead repenters. In other words, the congregants should know what repentance looks like by observing the lives of their leaders.

How true is that in your church? Martin Luther said, “When Jesus Christ said, ‘Except you repent you will all likewise perish,’ he was not talking about a one-time event but rather a life time of repentance.”

I resist repentance because of my deep sense of shame over my sexual sin. I find it hard to believe God could love a pervert like me.

I think about this subject a lot because the men who come to Harvest USA struggle with the reality of going to church and feeling like they’re the only ones who need to repent.

For them, not only is repentance not modeled well for them, repentance is a hard thing to do. They resist it and believe me, I know what that resistance is like in my own life.

I resist repentance because of my deep sense of shame over my sexual sin. I find it hard to believe God could love a pervert like me.  Feeling like a pervert is a shame-based self-identity that sticks to us like tar.

I resist because I feel like I’ve sinned my way past God’s desire to pursue me. I’ve gone too far, I’ve sinned too much. He’s not going to want me anymore.

I resist because I haven’t made myself good enough again for him. I first need to pray more or read the Bible more or tell more people about Jesus. I got work to do.

I resist because I simply can’t believe he would accept me right here and now.

To be honest, I resist God simply because He is God! He is too big for me to take in. Too much holiness for me. Too sovereign for me. He knows too much about me. When the Psalmist says “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain” (Psa. 139:6), I think to myself, I’m not even going to go there!  I resist some more.

These are all lies that shame tells me about myself.

The only way I can do what I need to do—which is to resist those lies!—is to speak truth to myself. Truth about what repentance really is.

And it starts with this truth. You need to first repent of your inability to receive God’s love and grace for you. Let me explain how this first step leads us to freedom and joy.

I believe that faith and repentance are opposite sides of the same coin. You can’t have one without the other.  You obviously need faith and repentance to be saved, and I don’t believe God is asking for two different things. As you begin to believe — you are starting to repent. That’s why if we take an honest look at our faith we can get discouraged.  Jesus said, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you” (Luke 17:6).

So this is again what I’m saying to anyone struggling with sexual behavior you can’t seem to stop—you need to first repent of your inability to receive God’s love and grace for you. 

I don’t know about you, but when I read this, I realize that I must have very little faith. And while that’s true, here’s a bigger truth I have to speak to myself:  It’s not my faith that saves me, it’s the object of my faith that saves me.

It’s the same thing with repentance.  It’s not my repentance that saves me; it’s who I’m turning to. It’s not how sincere I am, but how sincere God is. That is the reason we are saved by faith and not by love. If our salvation depends on our love for God we immediately turn love into a work that we have to do.

Then our conversations with God sound like, Why don’t you believe I love you, God?  Or, What else do you want me to do? Let’s stop looking at what we bring to the table and look at what Christ brings to the table. Hey! That’s something to repent of! God doesn’t need to believe us.  We need to believe Him.

So this is again what I’m saying to anyone struggling with sexual behavior you can’t seem to stop—you need to first repent of your inability to receive God’s love and grace for you.

But here’s the second thing to know about repentance. God will take you places where you can’t avoid Him. The verse before Psa. 139:6 says, “You hem me in, behind and before; you have laid your hand upon me.”  And Peter said, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).

God has cornered me with nowhere else to go but to Him. Perhaps you are feeling this right now. But the good news is, when I look at my behavior as the very thing Jesus died for, I’ve got no other alternative but to submit to Him. Nobody else points directly at my sin and calls it what it really is. His blood is the only honest solution for my dilemma.

I submit to Him when I’m honest with Him about my sin. When I learned that my sexual struggle was not just a habit I couldn’t stop doing, but it was idolatry and turning to something else besides God for my source of comfort and strength, then I could confess accurately. I could thank God for opening up my eyes to see things as they really are.

Then another truth hits me: I have really sinned, but God really loves sinners!

To me, that is what a life of repentance looks like. Appreciating more and more God’s character that we can’t help turning to Him. His perseverance with us is disarming. We can’t avoid Him. So we find ourselves acknowledging the movement in our hearts away from Him and His will, but that doesn’t have to stop us from turning back toward Him.  Because we know of His eternal commitment to us for His glory.

Understanding the reasons for our resistance enables us to truly repent.


You can watch Bob  talk  more about this on his accompanying video: Why Do I have Such a Hard Time Repenting?  These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.

Dr. Clair Davis, retired church history professor from Westminster Theological Seminary, writes on church and gospel issues. When he writes on sex and sexuality, he has a lot of good things to say, so we thought you’d like to read it also. Dr. Davis wrote in respomse to the Supreme Court ruling in June 2015 that the Constitution guarantees a right to same-sex marriage.

The Supreme Court’s decision enabling same-sex marriage in all states has gotten much attention, positively and negatively. It will facilitate unbiblical marriages everywhere, and God and his law will be massively mocked. Of course that is very serious. Going ahead, will those opposing this decision be convicted of hate-crime? It is very possible.

But how is this anything new? Some of us can remember when states followed biblical norms, permitting divorce only in cases of adultery. That was when people went to Reno, Nevada, to live for six weeks until they could obtain a “no-fault” divorce there. Those finding that inconvenient were able to enlist private detectives to help them set up a phony adultery in raids on hotel rooms. I can’t remember how believers responded to Reno, but wasn’t that just as serious then as the Court’s decision today?

No doubt there are legal and social advantages to “marriage,” but in a hook-up culture, that has little to do with sexual activity. Puberty comes earlier and marriage much later; do the math yourself. No one says “common-law marriage” any more, but what could be more common? Has the evangelical Christian church, along with Catholic and Orthodox churches, been consistently clear?

This has nothing to do with our welcoming people. Jesus welcomed all us sinners, and we are so glad. But along with our trusting Jesus Christ comes repentance for our sin, and that is what we know ourselves and seek to tell others. I tell this story, one that I actually experienced, about getting drainage pipe for a plot of ground and asking for a much bigger pipe than the clerk suggested, prompting his response as he sold me the really big one, “You do have a drainage problem.” That the Beloved Son of the Father should give up his life for us sinners, crying out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me”—that wasn’t to show off, that was because of our sin.

We are called to welcome all to Jesus, but clearly turning to him means turning away from whatever idol you worship, including same-sex relations. We need to show and tell that this means us too. We are not called to be Pharisees, to look down on those not as holy as we are. In no way are we worthy.

Were we sloppy about Reno? Hook-ups? It is time for us to repent of that and our own respectable sins too. The Court has gotten everyone’s attention right now, so why should we delay our own repentance? And along with that, calling the world around us to Jesus the Savior? Not just same-sex people—that suggests their sin is greater than ours, and it isn’t. That suggests cultural narrowness, and our calling is to the whole world. The Court has people awake. Now is the time to talk—more clearly and consistently than ever before.

This article first appeared in our 2015 magazine newsletter under the title, “Real Life Conversations: Ministry Becoming More Challenging as Men and Women in Our Churches Come Out.” It is being posted here for online reading and for those who may perhaps wish to comment on what it says.

I was just clearing my desk, getting ready to lock up the office, when the phone rang. I almost let it go to voicemail, but I decided to answer it.

It was a pastor of a reformed, evangelical church on the phone. Frantically, he shared his predicament. There was to be a receiving of new members into the church on Sunday. However, one situation now threatened to dampen the whole event and possibly cause confusion, disbelief, anger, and hurt feelings all around.

He had, just an hour before, received a call from “Kevin,” one of the men becoming a member. After talking for about fifteen minutes about how happy he was to be joining the church, he dropped the news on the pastor. “I’m gay, you know. I’m a gay Christian.”

The pastor’s questions now came at me fast and furious. What was he going to do now, in the time between this phone call and Sunday? Why hadn’t Kevin told him this before? How could he have answered all the questions for membership in the affirmative? What about those in the church who had become Kevin’s friends? “You don’t understand, John,” the pastor told me, “This man is deeply cared for by many in the congregation. Active in the life of the church, he’s at every event—among the most faithful in serving. Everyone loves him. I thought we knew him. “

I offered the first thoughts that came to mind. “Looks like, between now and Sunday, you’re going to need to have a long conversation with Kevin to better understand what he means.” The pastor seemed confused, “What do you mean? What kinds of things should I ask him?”

I told him that he should, right up front, admit to Kevin that this news shocked him, but still to encourage him that he really wanted to hear his story. Then he could ask some follow-up questions like: Why had he hidden this part of himself? Just what did he mean by saying he was gay? Was this merely a description of his sexual attractions, or was it a behavioral matter, or both? Were these things he wrestled with—or was it a firm identity that he embraced? How did he see the Word of God governing his life in regard to this? Did he have any problem with what Scripture says about homosexuality? How and where did the cross, the work of Christ, and his union with Christ enter into Kevin’s life regarding his sexuality? Was he open to the admonitions and instruction of Scripture, and to pastoral support and care, to help him from living in ways that Scripture says aren’t appropriate for followers of Jesus?

In other words, the objective of these questions was to get to the ruling passions of Kevin’s heart and see where his view of Scriptural authority was in his life. The pastor had to discern whether Kevin understood what walking in repentance and faith looked like for him, as a same-sex attracted man. It’s one thing to have this man active and involved in the church. We want our churches to have open doors to people hearing the gospel and coming to faith. But it’s another thing to join the community of Christ’s body yet then live in any way one wishes. Is Kevin willing to enter the community of faith as all must enter, denying himself, taking up his cross to follow Christ, no matter how uncomfortable, disturbing and disruptive that might be? Getting these answers and deciding what to do next, for this pastor, would be would be quite an undertaking!

Situations like this will only become more common in the future. Actually, the future is now! The gay Christian movement is growing. It’s the new “third way,” promoted by advocates like Matthew Vines, Justin Lee, Rachel Held Evans, and others. Many are being persuaded by their false Scriptural arguments and emotional stories, made more powerful by an increasing lack of biblical knowledge and understanding on the part of our people.

How those holding to an historic interpretation of Scripture will ultimately respond to all this is still very much on the table. The pressure to conform to and embrace this new rendering of Christianity in the church and in families is huge. For those who stand firm on God’s Word, they will face the derision of those who label us as out of touch, mean-spirited, and irrelevant. Yet the compassion of Christ is found in his understanding of and grace for all of our struggles, while he continues to call us to a holiness that reflects God’s character. Truth and mercy did not compromise at the Cross: they met—in the One whose life, death and resurrection continues to transform any who come to him.


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