True and False Repentance

Charles G. Finney - New York City


“Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.”—2 Corinthians 7:10

In this chapter Paul mentions another letter he had already written to the church at Corinth about a certain sin they were guilty of committing. He writes here of the effect his letter had in bringing them to true repentance. They sorrowed in a godly way. This was the evidence that their repentance was genuine.

“See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done.” (verse 11)

In these verses, the Holy Spirit speaks of two kinds of sorrow for sin, one producing repentance leading to salvation, the other bringing death.

Lately I have been frequently led to ask God why there is so much false religion, and I have tried to find out the root of the problem. That great numbers suppose themselves to be Christians, but are not—unless the Bible lies—is well known. Why is it that so many are deceived? Why do so many, who are still impenitent sinners, get the idea that they have repented? One cause is doubtless a lack of clear teaching about foundational issues of the faith, especially a lack of clarity about true and false repentance.

Repentance and Reality

Genuine repentance involves changing the mind about sin, and this change of thinking is followed by a corresponding change of heart toward sin. Feeling is the result of thought. And when this change of thinking produces a corresponding change of heart—if the thought is right and the feelings and will correspond—this is true repentance. It must be right thought. The new way of thinking must line up with God’s thought about sin. Godly sorrow, that God requires, must spring from a godly view of sin.

A Change of Mind

To one who truly repents, sin looks like a very different thing from how it looks to one who has not repented. Instead of looking desirable or fascinating, it looks just the opposite—hateful and detestable—and he is astonished that he ever could have desired such a thing. Impenitent sinners may look at sin and see that it will ruin them, because God will punish them for it. But they still desire it. They love it. They roll it under their tongue. If it could end in happiness, they never would think of giving it up. But to the truly repentant person it is different; he looks at his own conduct as perfectly hateful. He looks back on it and exclaims, “How hateful, how detestable, how worthy of hell, this thing was in me.”

Sinners do not see why God threatens sin with such terrible punishment. They love it so much themselves, that they can’t see why God would think it deserves everlasting punishment. When sinners are strongly convicted, they experience a change of mind and see their sin in the same light as a Christian does, and then they only need a corresponding change of heart to become Christians. Many a sinner sees that sin deserves eternal death, but his heart does not go with his opinions. This is the case with the devils and wicked spirits in hell. Remember, then: a change in our thinking is essential for true repentance, and usually comes first. The heart never goes out to God in true repentance without our minds changing first. There may be a change of opinion without repentance, but no genuine repentance can happen without a change in our thinking.

So the convicted sinner comes to see his sin as destructive to himself and every one around him, in spirit, soul, and body, for time and eternity, and that there can’t be any acceptable solution except to stop sinning. The devil knows how devastating sin is. And possibly there are some sinners reading these words who know it.

The word translated repentance implies a change in the state of the mind including all these areas. The unconvicted sinner has almost no right ideas, even as far as this life is concerned, about what sin deserves. He may admit in theory that sin deserves eternal death, but he does not really believe it. If he did, it would be impossible for him to remain apathetic. He is deceived, if he thinks he honestly believes that sin deserves the wrath of God forever. But the truly awakened and convicted sinner has no more doubt of this than he has of the existence of God. He sees clearly that sin must deserve everlasting punishment from God. He knows that this is a simple matter of fact.

A Change of Heart

The individual who truly repents, not only sees sin to be detestable and wicked and worthy of hatred, but he really does hate it, and rejects it in his heart. A person may see sin to be hurtful, while his heart still loves it, and desires it, and clings to it. But when he truly repents, he heartily hates and renounces it.

In relation to God, he feels towards sin as it really is. And here is why Christians sometimes break out in gushings of sorrow, when contemplating sin. The Christian thinks about sin’s nature, and simply feels disgust. But when he views it in relation to God, then he feels like weeping, the fountains of his sorrow burst open, and he wants to get right down on his face and pour out a flood of tears over his sins.

As for the outcome of sin, the individual who truly repents sees it as it is. When he thinks about where sin leads a person, it awakens in his heart a passionate desire to stop it, and to save people from their sins, and to roll back the tide of death. It sets his heart on fire, and he starts praying, and working, and pulling sinners out of the flames with all his strength, for he knows where sin will lead them. When the Christian sets his mind on this, he will be motivated to make people give up their sins. Just as if he saw people taking poison that he knew would destroy them, he lifts up his voice to warn them to BEWARE.

When someone truly repents, he has not only an intellectual conviction that sin deserves everlasting punishment, but he feels that it would be so right and reasonable and fair for God to condemn him to eternal death. He is far from finding fault with the law that condemns him. In fact, he thinks it the wonder of heaven that God can forgive him. Instead of thinking it hard, or strict, or unkind of God that impenitent sinners are sent to hell, he is full of adoring wonder that he is not sent to hell himself, and that this whole guilty world has not long since been hurled down to endless fire. It is the last thing in the world he would think to complain of, that all sinners are not saved. But, oh, it is a wonder of mercy that the entire world is not damned. And when he thinks of such a sinner being saved, he feels a sense of gratefulness that he never knew anything of until he became a Christian.

The Effects of Genuine Repentance

I want to show you the fruit of true repentance, and to make it so clear to your minds, that you can know without a doubt whether you have repented or not.

If your repentance is genuine, there is in your mind a conscious change of thinking and feeling about sin. You will be just as conscious of this transformation as you ever were of a change of views and feelings on any other subject. Now, can you say this? Do you know, that on this point there has been a change in you, that old things are gone, and all things have become new?

If you have truly repented, you do not love sin any longer. You do not now abstain from it because you fear punishment, but because you hate it. How is this with you? Do you know that your desire to commit sin is gone? Look at the sins you used to practice before you repented. How do they look to you? Do they give you some fond memories, and would you really love to do them again if you dared? If you do if you have the inclination to sin still inside you, you are only convicted about the sin in your mind. You have not yet repented from the heart! Your opinion of sin may have changed, but if the love of that sin remains, you are still an impenitent sinner.

The text says, “Godly sorrow leads to repentance.” Godly sorrow produces a change in how we live. Paul was writing of a change of mind that produces a change of life, ending in salvation. Now, let me ask you, are you really different? Have you surrendered your right to sin? Or, are you living in your sins still? However you may have changed your mind, if it has not brought about a change of life, an actual transformation, it is not godly repentance, pleasing to God.

Repentance, when true and genuine, leads to confession and restitution. The thief has not repented if he keeps the money he stole. He may have conviction, but not repentance. If he had repentance, he would go and give back the money. If you have cheated any one, and do not give back what you have taken unfairly, or if you have injured any one, and do not set about it to undo the wrong you have done as much as you are able, you have not truly repented.

True repentance is a permanent change of character and life. The scripture says that repentance leads to salvation and “leaves no regret.” In other words, true repentance is a change so deep and fundamental that the man never regrets repenting and so never changes back again. You could say that a person never repents of true repentance. The love of sin is truly abandoned. The individual, who has truly repented, has so changed his views and feelings, that he will not change back again, or go back to the love of sin. The text says this kind of repentance “leads to salvation.” It goes right on, up to and all the way through eternity. The very reason it ends in salvation is because it is a repentance that will not be repented of.

Here is a big part of the truth behind the “once saved, always saved” doctrine that has so often been twisted into a permission to sin. True repentance is such a thorough change of heart, and the individual comes to hate sin so thoroughly for the sake of Jesus that he will persevere and not take back all his repentance and return to sin again.

False Repentance

False repentance is said to be worldly sorrow. It is a sorrow for sin produced by worldly considerations and motives without regard to the true nature of sin.

The change produced by worldly sorrow is shallow. A person may see undesirable consequences of sin from a worldly point of view, and it may fill him with concern. He may see that it will greatly affect his self respect, or waste his money, or endanger his life; he may worry that if some of his hidden conduct were found out, he would be disgraced. It is very common for people to have this kind of sorrow, when some worldly consideration is at the bottom of it all.

False repentance is founded in selfishness. It may be simply a strong feeling of regret in a person’s mind about what he has done, because he sees bad consequences for himself. It makes him unhappy, or exposes him to the wrath of God, or disgraces his family or his friends, or it harms him some other way. All that is pure selfishness. He may feel remorse in his conscience—biting, consuming REMORSE—but still have no true repentance. His feelings may extend to fear—deep and dreadful fear of the wrath of God and the pains of hell—and yet be purely selfish. The whole time there may be no such thing as a heart-felt hatred of sin, and no change of heart following the convictions of the mind, about the infinite evil of sin.

Signs of False Repentance

False repentance leaves unbroken and unsubmitted the heart’s desire to sin. A person may abstain from sin, not out of hatred for it, but because he dreads its consequences.

Worldly sorrow leads to hypocritical concealment. The individual who has truly repented is willing for the whole world to know it. He has nothing left to hide. But one who has only worldly sorrow, resorts to excuses and lying to cover up his sins. He is more ashamed of his repentance than he is of his sin. When he is called to give an account for his life, he will cover up his sins by a thousand explanations and excuses, trying to smooth them over, so they won’t seem all that bad. If he speaks of his past life, he always does it in the softest and most favorable way. You see a constant pattern of excusing sin. This “repentance” leads to death. It makes a person commit one sin to try to cover up another. Instead of that guileless, open-hearted response of softness and honesty you see a wordy, smooth-tongued, half-hearted mincing out of something that is meant to substitute of a confession, and yet really confesses nothing.

How is it with you? Are you ashamed to have anybody talk with you about your sins? Then your sorrow is only a worldly sorrow, and leads to death. How often you see sinners going out of their way to avoid conversations about their sins, and yet calling themselves seekers, and expecting somehow to find Jesus that way. The same kind of sorrow is found in hell. No doubt all those wretched inhabitants of the pit want to hide from the eyes of God. No such sorrow is found among the saints in heaven. Their sorrow is open, sincere, full, and wholehearted. That kind of sorrow doesn’t contradict true happiness. The saints are full of joy, and yet full of deep, undisguised, gushing sorrow for sin. But worldly sorrow is ashamed of itself and miserable. It produces death.

The change produced by worldly sorrow extends only to the outward behavior about which the individual has been strongly convicted. The heart is not changed. You will see him avoid only what he thinks are “serious” sins that have made him feel guilty.

Look at that young convert. If he is deceived, you will find that there is only a shallow change in his behavior. He has improved certain things, but there are many sins he makes little effort to change. If you get to know him well, instead of finding him tremblingly alive to sin everywhere, and quick to detect it in everything contrary to the Spirit or the gospel, you will find him strict and quick to see certain things, but loose in his living and lax in his views on other points, and very far from demonstrating God’s attitudes about all sin.

Ordinarily, worldly sorrow produces only temporary changes. The individual is continually relapsing into the old sins. The reason is, the desire to sin is not gone. It is only held in check by fear. As soon as he has a hope and is accepted by the church, as soon as he’s told he has nothing more to worry about, you see him gradually pulling back, and before long returning to his old sins. This was the real problem with Israel, that made them so constantly return to their idolatry and other sins. They had only worldly sorrow. You see it now everywhere in the church. Individuals are reformed for a time, and accepted by the church, and then relapse into their old sins. They love to call it “struggling” or “backsliding,” but the truth is, they always loved sin, and when they had the opportunity, they returned to it, like the sow that was washed goes back to wallowing in the mire, because she was always a sow.

Please understand this point thoroughly! Here is the reason for all those fits and starts in religion, that roller coaster ride you see so much of. People are awakened and convicted, but they stop there. They settle down into false security, and then away they go. Maybe they keep their guard up enough not to be turned out of the church, but the foundations of sin are not broken up, and they return to their old ways. The woman who loved being vain about her appearance still loves it, and gradually returns to her eye-catching and attention-getting ways. The man who loved money still loves it. He soon slides back into his old ways, and dives into business, and pursues the world as eagerly and devotedly as he did before he joined the church.

Go through all the classes of society, and if you find deep conversions, you will find that their most besetting sins before conversion are the farthest from them now. The real convert is least likely to fall into his old besetting sin, because he hates it most. But if he is deceived and worldly minded, he is always attracted back into the same sins. The source of sin was not broken up. They have not purged out iniquity from their hearts, but they valued sin in their hearts all the time.

The reformation produced by a false repentance is not only a shallow, outward change, and a temporary one at that, but it is also forced. Life changes in a person with true repentance are from the heart. He no longer wants to sin. In him the Bible promise is fulfilled. He actually finds that “Wisdom’s ways are pleasant, and all her paths are peace.” He experiences that the Savior’s yoke is easy and his burden is light. He has felt that God’s commandments are not burdensome but life-giving. “More to be desired are they than gold, yes, than much fine gold; sweeter also than honey from the honey comb.” But this false kind of repentance is very different. It is a legalistic response, the result of fear and not of love; a selfish reaction, anything but a free, voluntary, heart level change from sin to obedience. You will find, if there is any one reading these words who has this kind of repentance, that you are aware that you do not abstain from sin by choice, because you hate it, but from other motives. It is more through a guilty conscience, or fear you will lose your soul or ruin your reputation, than from hatred of sin or love of obedience.

Such persons always need to be coaxed to obey, with a specific passage of scripture, or else they will excuse their sin, and evade their duty, and think there is no great harm in it. The reason is, they love their sins. If there is not a “book, chapter, and verse” they dare not rebel against, they will keep sinning. Not so with true repentance. If a thing seems inconsistent to the great law of agape love, the person who has true repentance will detest it and avoid it, whether he has a black-and-white command of God on the subject or not.

So the man who has true repentance does not need a “Thus saith the Lord” to keep him from taking advantage of his fellow man, because he really wants to be like Jesus. How certainly men would hate anything that’s not of Jesus, if they truly repented of sin.

False repentance leads to self-righteousness. The individual who has this repentance may know that Jesus Christ is the only Savior of sinners, and may claim to believe on Him and to rely on Him alone for salvation, but really he is actually placing ten times more reliance on his outward performance than on Jesus Christ for his salvation. And if he knew his own heart he would realize it. He may say he expects salvation by Christ, but in fact he is dwelling more on his outward conduct, and his hope is founded more on that, than on the atonement of Christ. Because he doesn’t see the depth of his heart level need, he is really patching together a righteousness of his own.

This kind of repentance also leads to false security. The individual supposes the worldly sorrow he has had to be true repentance, and he trusts it. He takes it for granted that Christ will save him because he has felt sorry for his sins, although he is not conscious that he has ever felt any resting in Christ. He felt sorrow, and then felt better, and now expects to be saved by Christ, when his very consciousness would teach him that he has never felt a wholehearted reliance on Christ.

Here is a serious consequence of worldly sorrow: it actually hardens the heart. The more times a person has a superficial response to God’s word, the harder he becomes. If he has strong feelings of conviction, and his heart does not break up and flow out, the fountains of responsiveness are more and more dried up, and his heart increasingly difficult to reach. Take a real Christian, one who has truly repented, and every time you bring the truth to bear upon him to lay him bare before God, he becomes softer and softer, and more easily touched and excited and melted and broken down under God’s blessed word, as long as he lives and to all eternity. His heart gets into a habit of following the convictions of his mind, and he becomes as teachable and compliant as a little child.

Here is the big distinction. It is as broad as the gap between light and darkness. Let churches or individual members, who have only this worldly repentance, hear God’s word and get waked up and scurry about, and then grow cold again. Let this be repeated, and you find them more and more difficult to touch, until eventually they become as hard as rock, and nothing seems to reach them any longer. Every fresh excitement hardens the heart and renders them more difficult to be touched by the truth.

Just the opposite are those churches and individuals who have true repentance. Let them hear God’s word over and over, and you will find them growing softer and more tender until they reach a state that if they even sense the Spirit moving, they ignite and glow instantly and are ready to join their hearts to His work.

Worldly sorrow sears the conscience. Such persons are liable at first to be thrown into distress whenever the truth of God flashes on their mind. They may not have so much conviction as a real Christian. But the real Christian is filled with peace at the very time that his tears are flowing from conviction of sin. And each repeated season of conviction makes him more and more watchful, and tender, and careful, until his conscience becomes so tender that the very appearance of evil in his heart offends it. But the other kind of sorrow, which does not lead to a genuine renunciation of sin, leaves the heart harder than before. Eventually it sears the conscience as with a hot iron. This sorrow “leads to death.”

Worldly sorrow rejects Jesus Christ as the ground of hope. Depending on external responses or on mental thoughts alone, or on anything else, leads to no such reliance on Jesus Christ. The love of Christ will never compel him to live for the One who died for him and lives again.

This kind of repentance is sure to be repented of. Sooner or later you will find such persons becoming ashamed of the deep feelings that they had. They do not want to talk of them, and if they talk of them it is always lightly and coldly. They may have made some commotion at first and appeared quite sincere in what they were doing. But now that the freshness of the conviction is over, you find them changing back and ashamed of their zeal. They in fact repent of their repentance.

Some Implications

Why, then, is there so much spasmodic religion in the church? They have mistaken conviction for conversion, the sorrow of the world for godly sorrow that brings repentance and leads to salvation that leaves no regret. I am convinced, after years of observation, that here is the true reason for the present deplorable state of the church all over the land.

And why do some non-Christians experience conviction but feel as if it would be a great cross to become Christians? Why do they think it a great trial to give up their ungodly friends and to renounce their sins? If they had true repentance, they would not consider it a cross to give up sin. I remember how I used to feel, when I first saw young people becoming Christians and joining the church. I thought it was a good thing on the whole for them to be converted, because they would save their souls and get to heaven. But it still seemed a sad thing anyway. I never dreamed then, that these young people could be really happy in this life. I believe it is very common for people, who know that religion is good on the whole and good in the end, to think they cannot be happy as believers. They mistake the true nature of repentance. They do not understand that it leads to a hatred of the things that were formerly loved. Sinners do not see that when their friends become true Christians, they feel a repulsion for their parties and sinful pleasures and foolishness, and that their love for these things is crucified.

I once knew a young lady who was converted to Jesus. Her father was a very proud, worldly man. She used to be very vain about her appearance, and she loved to go dancing. After she was converted, her father would make her attend dances. He used to go along with her, and force her to get up and dance. She would go there and weep, and sometimes when she was standing up on the floor to dance, her feelings of repulsion and sorrow would so overcome her that she would turn away and burst into tears. Here you see why. She had truly repented of these things, with a repentance not to be repented of. As she stood on that dance floor, what compassion must have gripped her heart for her former friends, what horror at their blind pursuit of pleasure. How she must have longed to be with her brothers and sisters in the Lord. How could she be happy in a bar or a dance hall? Such is the mistake which the impenitent, or those who have only worldly sorrow, fall into, about the happiness of the real Christian.

This is also why some professing Christians think it burdensome and legalistic to be very diligent about sin. Such persons are always excusing their sins, and explaining away certain practices that are not consistent with diligence. It shows that they still love sin and will go as far as they dare in it. If they were true Christians, they would hate it, and turn from it, and the burden they would fear would be to be dragged back into it.

So they are not cheerful and happy in religion. They are grieved because they have to break off from so many things they love, or because they have to give so much of themselves. Their feet are to the fire all the time. Instead of rejoicing in every opportunity of self-denial, and loving the clearest and most cutting statements of truth, they think it a great trial to be told their duty, when it goes against their preferences and habits. The plain truth distresses them. Why? Because their hearts do not love to obey. If they loved to live for Jesus, every ray of light that broke in on their minds from heaven, pointing out God’s will, would be welcomed, and make them more and more happy.

Whenever you see someone who feels cramped and distressed because the truth presses them, if their hearts do not surrender and go along with the truth, HYPOCRITE is their name. If you find that they are distressed like anxious sinners, and that the more you point out their sins the more frustrated they get, you can be sure that they have never truly repented of their sins, nor given themselves up to belong to God.

You see why many professed converts, who have had a very strong response at the time of their conversion, afterwards return to sin. They had deep convictions and great distress of mind. Afterwards they found relief, and they were amazingly happy for a while. But eventually they decline, and then they sputter out. Some, who do not discern the difference between true and false repentance and think there cannot be such strong reactions without the Spirit’s power, say that these professing Christians have fallen from grace. But the truth is, “they went out from us because they were not a part of us.” They never had that repentance that kills and destroys the desire to sin.

Perhaps you think that I suppose all true Christians are perfect, from what I said about the desire to sin being broken up and changed. That’s not true. True Christians can fall into sin. But there is a radical difference between a genuine but backslidden Christian, and a hypocrite who has gone back from his profession of faith. The hypocrite loves the world, and enjoys sin when he returns to it. He may have some fears and guilty feelings, and some concern about what others are thinking of him, but the bottom line is that he enjoys sin. Not so with the backslidden Christian. He loses his first love, then he falls a prey to temptation, and so he goes into sin. But he does not love it; it is always bitter to him; he feels unhappy and lonely and far away from home. It is true that for a time he has no Spirit of God or love of God at work to keep him from sinning, but he does not love the sin. He is unhappy in it; he feels that he is a wretch. He is as different from the hypocrite as can be. A true Christian who leaves the love of God, may be delivered over to Satan for a time for the destruction of the flesh that the spirit may be saved; but he can never again enjoy sin as he used to, or delight himself as he once could in the pleasures of the world. Never again can he drink down sin like water. So long as he continues to stray from the Father’s love, he is wretched. If there is one such reading these words, you know it.

You see why convicted sinners are afraid to pledge themselves to give up their sins. They tell you they don’t dare make any promises, because they are afraid they won’t keep them. The reason? They love sin. The drunkard knows that he loves booze, and though he may make and keep a promise to abstain from it, his appetite still craves it. And so with the convicted sinner. He feels that he loves sin, that his hold on sin and sin’s hold on him have never been broken. He dares not promise.

Some professing Christians won’t renounce sin for the same reason. They love their sins so well that they know their hearts will excuse it, and they are afraid to promise to give sin up. That is why many who profess faith stay away from relationships with serious Christians. The secret reason is, they feel that their heart is still going after sin, and they dare not come under the obligations of making covenant with the light. They do not want to be subject to the discipline of the church, in case they should sin. That man is a hypocrite.

Those sinners who have worldly sorrow can now see where the difficulty lies, and the reason why they are not converted. Their intellectual views of sin may be accurate. If their hearts would only corresponded, they would be Christians! And perhaps they are thinking this intellectual conviction is true repentance. But if they were truly willing to give up sin, and all sin, they would not hesitate to confess it, and to have all the world know that they had done it. If there are any such reading these words, I urge you to act on your conviction—today! But if you resist conviction, when your understanding is enlightened to see what you ought to do, your heart will still chase after your sins. Tremble then, sinner, at the prospect before you. All your convictions will get you nowhere if you do not truly repent! They will only sink you deeper in hell for having resisted them.

If you are willing to give up your sins, then renounce them, tell God in prayer, and confess them before His people, and go on to make concrete changes in your life. “Today is the day of salvation!”
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