To properly counsel Biblically, the counselor and counselee must have an accurate view of repentance. Counselees come from various backgrounds, churches, even religious denominations. The counselor must ask good questions to help determine the root of heart issues, and part of this process is helping the counselee understand their accurate and inaccurate understanding or remorse and repentance.
The terms, remorse, repentance, and penance are often understood by counselees as synonymous. Many consider repentance simply feeling “sorry” for what they have done and confessing their sorrow to God. For many, if not most of these people, they are only sorry because they were found out in their sin. So, before we can properly discuss Biblical repentance, we need to attempt to define these terms.
Remorse is a “gnawing distress arising from a sense of guilt for past wrongs.” There is a sense of guilt, sometimes shame, and often grief associates with remorse. But remorse can stop at that. Remorse is not repentance. Godly remorse leads to repentance, however. 2 Corinthians 7:9-10 explains Godly remorse, “As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting. For you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no loss through us. For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death. “(ESV, emphasis mine). Judas is often used as an example of someone who was grieved (remorseful) over his betrayal of Jesus, yet we have no record of Judas ever repenting of his sin.
Repentance is a change of mind that leads to a change in behavior. It is more than grief or sorrow. The conscience helps us determine sin that leads to remorse and identifies the presence of guilt that motivates us toward repentance. True repentance will require understanding of sin, confession and a turning away from that sin. God grants mercy and compassion to the one who confesses his sin, “Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy” (Proverbs 28:13 ESV, emphasis mine). The repentant puts off his old way of thinking, “in the futility of their minds.” (Ephesians 4:17b, ESV) and puts on a new way of thinking, “after the likeness of God” (Ephesians 4:24, ESV). God grants repentance and completely forgives the sinner on the merit of Jesus Christ, not on anything man has done.
Penance is a way for man to earn his forgiveness, or at least prove his repentance. We most often hear the word penance associated with the Roman Catholic Church under the heading of, “acts of contrition” or “doing penance.” In the Roman Catholic Church, penance is a sacrament used as a form of discipline or punishment imposed on a person to demonstrate their repentance. This is simply an example of one’s thinking that they must earn their way back into God’s gracious kindness. The responsibility falls partially to the remorseful sinner in order to be forgiven. The Catholic doctrine is often misunderstood because it does require remorse. It is not simply doing things to earn your way back into God’s graces, but it does include those works.
Many Christians, and thus our counselees, would contest the Romans view of penance while at the same time believing in it functionally. It is difficult for us to accept that, “…if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.” (1 John 1:7, ESV). We struggle with the same attitude many of the Colossians did,
“Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God. If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh“(Colossians 2:18-23, ESV).
Repentance is a gift of God, a merciful grace in which he opens our eyes to our sin and standing before him while also empowering us with the desire and ability to act upon what we profess to be true. By faith we believe his Word and what he declares to be the just reward and penalty for our unrighteousness. In obedience and through the power of the Christ we confess and agree that we have sinned, repent of our sins and respond by actively turning from that sin (put-off), and actively pursue the sanctification of our hearts, minds, wills, and emotions (put-on). Repentance is a purposeful, repeated, daily decision that demonstrates what we have confessed. We are saved, yet need daily cleansing. This is the picture of our ongoing transformation (progressive sanctification) that Jesus explained to his Apostles in the upper room,
“He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, do you wash my feet?” Jesus answered him, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean.” (John 13:6-10a, ESV).
Biblical repentance is a crucial requirement in counseling for a number of reasons. First, repentance is necessary for salvation. This is God’s desire, “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9, ESV). The ability for a person to recognize and understand sin, and the ability to escape enslavement to sin, is their salvation. Once saved, their sin will not control them because sin cannot control them (Romans 6:14).
Repentance is not simply something that happens to our heart, but an active engagement of our heart and mind. A counselee desiring to conquer sin and change must identify the root heart issues that are the driving force behind the thorns that are destroying them. We must be careful not to tie performance to repentance in our “judgment.” We initially accept one’s repentance as genuine based solely on their confession. Matthew 18:15-17 demonstrates this. Wayne Grudem writes of this as well, “We cannot say that someone has to actually live that changed life over a period of time before repentance can be genuine, or else repentance would be turned into a kind of obedience that we could do to merit salvation for ourselves.”
Biblical repentance in an indication of the willingness and desire of the counselee to do whatever it takes to turn from their sin and actively pursue right thinking and holy living. This is the idea of radical amputation found in Matthew 5:29-30.
Giving homework to help aid the counselee in his understanding of and guiding him through his repentance is generally based specifically on the sin from which he is repenting. There are some general assignments, however, that can help in this area. This homework might include:
How do the following Scriptures help you understand true, Biblical repentance? Read one each day this week, list a single truth from each, and how this truth describes your heart and guides you into repentance.
- Psalm 51
- John 17:17
- 2 Corinthians 3:18
- 2 Corinthians 7:9-11
- Luke 17:3-4
- 1 Timothy 3:9
- Romans 2:14-15
Do you need to ask another person for forgiveness as part of your repentance? Write out your confession using the seven A’s of Confession listed below. We will discuss this writing assignment at our next session:
- Address everyone involved (All those whom you affected)
- Avoid if, but, and maybe (Do not try to excuse your wrongs)
- Admit specifically (Both attitudes and actions)
- Acknowledge the hurt (Express sorrow for hurting someone)
- Accept the consequences (Such as making restitution)
- Alter your behavior (Change your attitudes and actions)
- Ask for forgiveness
Read Luke 5:1-11. What was Peter’s response when confronted with Jesus? How was Peter’s response a proper one? How does Proverbs 23:7 define Peter’s response? How does Peter’s response and the truth of Proverbs 23:7 describe your heart?
Create a list of heart attitudes and changed behavior that gives evidence of your repentance. Who is holding you accountable for change?
What people, places, associations, objects, schedules, music, books, TV, etc. do you need to remove from your life to keep from sinning in this way again? Write out this list.
 Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary: Eleventh Edition.(Miriam Webster, 2004)
 Adams, Jay, A Theology of Christians Counseling”,(Zondervan, 1979), 197
 Grudem, Wayne, Systematic Theology, (Zondervan, 1994), 713
 Sande, Ken, The Peacemaker: A Guide to Resolving Personal Conflict, (Baker Books, 2004), 137