News media love a good scandal. We have become used to the sight of a celebrity appearing on television or sending out a tweet to apologize for some transgression. Celebrity ministers are not immune. Recently mega-church pastor Mark Driscoll became the latest in a long line of high-profile pastors to feel the need to apologize after being caught in a scheme to inflate his book sales numbers.
We have become so used to these apologies that we are mostly skeptical of their sincerity. Some people think that if someone apologizes then a Christian is obligated to forgive that person and not remind anyone of that sin. We need, however, to make an important distinction. There is a big difference between making a verbal apology and repenting of sin.
Most people do express regret when they have been caught doing something they should not do. How can we tell the difference between the regret of getting caught and real repentance over the sin?
First, we need to acknowledge that we can never know the heart of another person. When Jesus tells us not to judge others, He is reminding us of this truth. I do not believe Jesus was telling us that we should never evaluate situations or people. We cannot live in this world without making judgments. He was reminding us that final judgment is reserved for God, and we need to be humble in our own judgments. We need to recognize that we could fall as easily as the person we are judging. We have to evaluate. It is not our job to condemn.
Second, we can only evaluate a person’s actions, not their words or their intentions. When a husband beats his wife, and immediately tells her that he is sorry, this is a cycle that repeats itself often in an abusive home. Saying he is sorry is not repentance. He is only manipulating the person and the situation. The church needs to speak out and say that such behavior is wrong. The wife is not to blame when her husband hits her or curses her. We see from his actions that he is not sorry for what he did. Real repentance produces real desire to change the sinful behavior.
Third, real repentance makes restitution to the ones who were wronged. In the gospel of Luke, when Zaccaheus was confronted with his sin in the presence of Jesus, he proved that he was really sorry by offering to repay any money he had taken wrongly.
Fourth, real repentance welcomes genuine accountability. When we say we are sorry but also want to cover up the action, we are not interested in improving ourselves, but in preserving our reputation.
Ultimately we cannot know if a person has really repented in his or her heart. But we can tell by his actions whether or not he is serious in his desire to make amends and change. Just because we say we are sorry, that does not mean that there is real sorrow and a desire to fix what we have broken.
The good news is that when we really repent of our sins, the New Testament promises that God “is faithful and just to forgive our sins” in Christ.
Love in Christ,
Greg Burriss, Pastor
Rocky River Baptist Church
Siler City, NC