True Repentance

So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (vv. 12–13).

- Romans 8:12–17

True conversion is necessary if we are to produce good works that please God (Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 86–87). Such works are not done to secure our place in the kingdom, for nothing sinners do is good enough to merit a right standing before God. These good works prove that we have been justified in Christ alone through faith alone, demonstrating that we are citizens of heaven (Eph. 2:8–10). Moreover, genuine conversion involves a twofold turn—away from sin in repentance and unto Jesus in faith.

As we saw last week, an authentic conversion involves death and resurrection. The old man in bondage to sin must die, and the new, free man in Christ must live (2 Cor. 5:17). Question and answer 89 take up the aspect of death in conversion in more detail, using today’s passage to show what it means for the old self to die.

In Romans 8:12–13, Paul focuses more on the ongoing results of a genuine conversion than the decisive death to sin that happens when we first trust the Savior. Typically, we speak of conversion as a one-time event. In leaving the darkness for the light, we die to the power of sin and are raised to victory over evil in Christ. This act is thoroughly monergistic, effected by one person—the Holy Spirit of God. We have no inclination in ourselves to die to sin, and we cannot raise ourselves to life. Without the sovereign, gracious intervention of our Creator, the thoughts of our hearts are evil continually, and we do not seek to please God in what we do (Gen. 6:5; Rom. 3:9–18). On account of the Son’s work and the Father’s plan, the Spirit gives us the gift of repentance (John 3:5–6; Acts 11:18). Our once-for-all conversion happens in conjunction with our regeneration. The Spirit changes our hearts, guaranteeing we will repent and trust in Jesus.

Yet though conversion is a decisive event, it produces the ongoing fruit of repentance in us. Sin’s power is broken in the Christian, but its presence remains. The old man, which was dealt a mortal blow through the work of Christ and our union with Him, keeps trying to regain control until we are glorified. We have to put the old man back down by the Holy Spirit through true repentance. Such repentance is sorrow for offending God, not merely sorrow for getting caught (Rom. 8:12–13; 2 Cor. 7:10). Even here the Spirit must give and strengthen such righteous desires, so let us pray that He would give us a yearning to follow after Jesus our Lord in a life of repentance (Eph. 3:14–19).

Coram Deo

Repentance is a gift from God. We express contrition for our sins and their offense to our holy Creator, but the Holy Spirit must give us the ability to do this. Without His sovereign work, we do not care that we have offended the Lord by breaking His law. In fact, we glory in our rebellion. But when the Spirit works in our hearts, we see our sin and, hating it, turn to Christ. A life of repentance is a manifestation of an authentic conversion.

Passages for Further Study

Ezekiel 18:21–32
Zephaniah 3:9–13
2 Timothy 2:24–26
Revelation 16:8–11

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