“Religious Repentance vs. Gospel Repentance”
An excerpt from Dr. Tim Keller on the distinction between religious repentance vs gospel repentance. Enjoy!
In religion we are sorry for sin only because of its consequences for us. Sin will bring us punishment—and we want to avoid that, so we repent.
The gospel tells us that as Christians sin can’t ultimately bring us into condemnation (Rom. 8:1). Its heinousness is therefore what it does to God: it displeases and dishonors him.
Thus in religion, repentance is self-centered; the gospel makes it God-centered. In religion we are mainly sorry for the consequences of sin, but in the gospel we are sorry for the sin itself.
Furthermore, religious repentance is self-righteous. Repentance can easily turn into an attempt to “atone” for one’s sin—a form of self-flagellation, in which we convince God (and ourselves) that we are so truly miserable and regretful that we deserve to be forgiven.
In the gospel, however, we know that Jesus suffered for our sin. We do not have to make ourselves suffer to merit God’s forgiveness. We simply receive the forgiveness earned by Christ. God forgives us because he is “just” (1 John 1:9). That is a remarkable statement. It would be unjust of God to ever deny us forgiveness, because Jesus earned our acceptance!
In religion we try to earn our forgiveness with our repentance. In the gospel we simply receive it.
Last, religious repentance is bitter all the way down. In religion our only hope is to live a life good enough to require God to bless us. Every instance of sin and repentance is therefore traumatic, unnatural, and horribly threatening. Only under great duress do religious individuals admit they have sinned, because their only hope is their moral goodness.
In the gospel the knowledge of our acceptance in Christ makes it easier to admit that we are flawed, because we know we won’t be cast off if we confess the true depths of our sinfulness. Our hope is in Christ’s righteousness, not our own, so it is not as traumatic to admit our weaknesses and lapses.
Whereas in religion we repent less and less often, the more we feel accepted and loved in the gospel, the more and more we will be repenting. Although there is some bitterness in any repentance, in the gospel there is ultimately a sweetness. This creates a radical new dynamic for personal growth. The more we see our own flaws and sins, the more precious, electrifying, and amazing God’s grace appears to us.