Reader Question: "Is Repentance a One-time Thing?"
A reader of the blog recently asked me: “is repentance a one-time thing?”
Often we associate repentance as part of our conversion experience. The word implies a turning away from a former way of life. The old path is done for and when we repent we are now going in a different direction and pursuing a new object. Frequently in the sermons of the New Testament we see Peter, Paul, and John the Baptist conclude with the imperative application: “repent and believe!” The two are dependent on each other: to truly believe in Jesus for salvation is to repent and turn from your sins. To turn from your sins, to repent, is to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ.
So in one sense, yes, repentance is a one-time thing that we do when we first believe the gospel. A natural response to the work of the Holy Spirit at salvation. If we do not experience this reorientation of direction away from sin and towards Christ at conversion, it would be wise to re-evaluate where we stand with the Lord.
But in another sense, repentance is very much a daily habit of us as Christians as we pursue righteousness and put to death sin. The more seasoned and hardened the Christian is the better he will understand this fact.
A verse that comes to mind is Romans 12:2 where Paul writes: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is--his good, pleasing and perfect will.” The key word in this verse is “renewing”; and you will notice it is in the present tense. This is not an isolated “renewal” that happened sometime in the distant past, but rather a constant and necessary action that Christians walking with the Lord must continually undergo. It is a reprograming of sorts of the mind—a daily turning from the natural will of the flesh to the perfect will of God.
Furthermore Jesus says in Luke 9:23, "Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Italics mine). Paul writes to the Galatians chapter 5, “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other” (Italics also mine). In both these verses we see that there is this daily activity necessary, this “keeping in step” required to follow after Christ as Christians. So while we are secure in our salvation because of what Christ has done on our behalf, when we are saved the battle has only begun. We must now live a life of continual renewal of the mind, of continual self-crucifixion, of continual “keeping in step with the Spirit”—a life of continual repentance.
Consider these words of John Calvin in book 2 of the Institutes of the Christian Religion:
David, too, expresses this distinctly in these words: ‘With my whole heart have I sought thee: O let me not wander from thy commandments,’ (Psalm 119:10) Though he had been regenerated, and so had made no ordinary progress in true piety, he confesses that he stood in need of direction every moment, in order that he might not decline from the knowledge with which he had been endued. Hence, he elsewhere prays for a renewal of a right spirit, which he had lost by his sin, (Psalm 51:12) For that which God gave at first, while temporarily withdrawn, it is equally his province to restore.
Even as Christians we stumble and fall. We stray and sometimes we even sin big, like David did. But just like David we too need to recognize our need of “direction every moment”, and when we falter we must be quick to return, to repent, that we might regain that same right spirit we had before.
So while we must repent and believe to be saved, it seems that repentance is not an isolated response that remains in the past; rather, repentance is the lifestyle of the Christian. It is a constant, moment by moment realignment to things of the Spirit and away from the depraved flesh within—something we all must grow in as we follow after Christ.