What you are about to read is not anything that you will find in typical, secular, pump-you-up, self-help seminars.
It has nothing to do with what personal growth gurus hawk in countless audio series, their volumes of books, or in fiery seminars after they roll into town with much fanfare and bluster to teach you how to live in the moment, aim for the stars, and grow into your greatest and most powerful self.
What you are about to read has nothing to do with any of that panoply. What follows instead is the biblical formula for growth, which stands in dire and stark contrast to the world’s notions of how to achieve that.
Unlike the idealistic commodities that are bought and sold today, the biblical formula for growth is not pleasant, nor is it ego-gratifying. Rather, it’s hard work and has everything to do with coming to the end of yourself and understanding the critical need for repentance and turning from sin.
Read on my friends,
The Bible has much to say about how a person can change; as a matter of fact, the Scriptures reveal that those who are in Christ will change for the better.1 But how exactly does this change happen? Or better, how is the believer—to use the appropriate theological term— sanctified? In addition to all the secular theories regarding achieving personal growth and change for the better, at least four major historical/theological views are proffered in answer to this question. But as you will see, only one of them has a solid biblical basis. Very briefly they are as follows:
A. TOTAL PERFECTIONISM
The first, known as Christian Perfectionism, stems from Charles Wesley, the historic English leader of the Methodist movement. Herein, a supposed second work of grace, post-salvation, catapults the believer into a state of “sinlessness.” Another name for this flawed view is “entire sanctification.” The believer may make mistakes, but supposedly he is no longer sinning. Spiritual growth is indicated by increasing good works. Simply put, in a real-world sense, Wesleyan Perfectionism is problematic in that the perfect person’s spouse only needs to be asked if he or she is perfect. Practical reality suggests that total sanctification/perfectionism is not achieved by any believer in this life, nor is such a view supported by Scripture.
B. PASSIVE GROWTH
A second widely held view of sanctification is the Keswick (pronounced “Kezeek”) School of thinking. In this understanding, believers passively grow in their relationship to Christ. A believer needs only “surrender” to grow spiritually. Just keep drinking in the Bible, and you will mature. “Let go and let God” is an appropriate summary of this way of thinking. But as will be seen in the following two views, God’s grace enables human responsibility in the sanctification process. There is a biblical expectation for the enactment of human volition in the achievement of spiritual growth.
C. PENANCE AND REMORSE
This third position, which is commonly practiced in cults, is known as penance. Whereas the previous two positions are practiced in error among those with a biblical soteriology (i.e., a proper understanding of what the Bible teaches about true saving faith), penance is the idea of imposing something as a punishment for sin. In other words, penance is a human attempt to balance the scales. In the world of penance-seekers, neither justification (one’s salvation) nor sanctification (one’s spiritual growth) is imputed from God via His enablement (as per the truths of 1 John 1:9 and many other passages). Rather, a person’s salvation and his sanctification are earned via self-effort or personal merit. In this way of thinking, it follows that if a person is saved by personal merit then he grows by personal merit. An individual is sanctified by conducting offsetting good deeds, works or prayers in order to propitiate (satisfy) his wrongdoings; in other words, he is “guilted” into changing. The problem is, likened to the former positions, there is no substantiated biblical basis for such a belief or practice.
D. PROGRESSIVE SANCTIFICATION
The fourth position on sanctification is the view supported by Scripture: Progressive Sanctification. The Bible repeatedly reveals that a lifelong cycle of repentance and renewal progresses a believer toward Christlikeness, and this process of growth will only be complete when the believer goes home to be with the Lord. There is no perfection this side of heaven. Growth and change are accomplished through the active participation and discipline of the believer whom the Holy Spirit prompts and energizes for the task. Philippians 2:12–13 and many other passages support this summation on sanctification:
“So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.”
Notice this passage closely. Work out (the Greek word katergazomai) is not referring to salvation by works2 (cf. Romans 3:21–24; Ephesians 2:8, 9; John 1:12; Romans 10:9) but rather is descriptive of the responsibility that the believer need possess after being saved by God’s grace. And the fact that God is at work in you evidences the causal agent (God) who engenders and empowers the working out of sanctification in the life of the believer after being saved. Other passages that support the biblical teaching of Progressive Sanctification include Philippians 3:13, 14; Romans 6:19; Acts 1:8; 1 Corinthians 9:24–27, 15:58; 2 Corinthians 7:1; Galatians 6:7–9; Ephesians 4:1; Colossians 3:1–17; Hebrews 6:10–11, 12:1–2; and 2 Peter 1:5–11. Each passage underscores Progressive Sanctification, wherein God who is at work in you is the One who prompts the believer, and his responsibility is to work, i.e., taking personal responsibility to achieve spiritual growth as God directs in his heart.
II. SCRIPTURAL BASICS RELATED TO SANCTIFICATION
The aforementioned listing of Bible passages are all worth noting and pondering before moving further along in the further development of this study (but are in accumulation, too lengthy to include in what I hope to be limited to a 12-page study on the matter). In summary, human responsibility, i.e., working at your sanctification is catalytic to change. But more specifically, how? What follows are the four fundamental scriptural basics related to Sanctification.
A. ALL CHANGES SHOULD ALIGN WITH SCRIPTURE
Since the Bible is inspired by God, it is the basis of all truth. “He is there, and He is not silent,” wrote Francis Schaeffer. In other words, God has not only revealed Himself to man in the advent of His Son Jesus Christ, but also in His Holy Word. Scripture therefore need be the sole epistemological source (that is, the sole grounds for knowledge) as it relates to a person’s faith, practice and changes. Notice Scripture’s internal testimony regarding itself as it relates to change:
“All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16).
The Greek construct of this important passage is best translated as follows: “All Scripture is given by inspiration.…” One of the specific purposes God inspired Scripture is for proper teaching, reproof, correction and training; all these words connote change that is informed and guided by scriptural truths. Add to this understanding the following:
“For this reason we also constantly thank God that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but for what it really is, the word of God, which also performs its work in you who believe” (1 Thessalonians 2:13).
Scripture states of itself that it intends to perform a work in you—that is, to change those who believe in it. Accordingly:
Since the Bible is God’s Word to man, then every change a believer desires to make should align with His ordinances.
Importantly and to the point in our outline, the Scriptures are the basis for achieving right changes. Second Corinthians 10:5 echoes and summarizes this first point when it says, “taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ.”
B. ADMONISH ONE ANOTHER WITH SCRIPTURE IN ORDER TO PRODUCE CHANGE
The second fundamental scriptural basic related to change can be gleaned from 1 Thessalonians 5:14. Paul states, “We urge you, brethren, admonish [noutheteo] the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with everyone.” Change occurs when a believer is confronted by the truths of God. Change results, according to 1 Corinthians 1:18, because God’s Word has power—power to change individuals when they are confronted by it:
“For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
Isaiah 55:11 amplifies this same astounding truth:
“So will My word be which goes forth from My mouth; it will not return to Me empty, without accomplishing what I desire, and without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it.”
It, therefore, follows that the Word of God is the conduit that needs to be utilized in counseling or mentoring (or better, admonishing) another to change.3 States Hebrews 4:12 in summary of the importance of the Word to create change, “For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword.…” God often uses other believers through their friendship or writings to amplify His Word in our lives. Looking for this amplification and being open to it is how God intends to create biblically based change in your life.
C. THE REACTION TO SCRIPTURAL ADMONITION NEED BE REPENTANCE
Building from the first two points relative to scriptural basics related to change is how a person responds to being admonished by the Word of God. How you respond to being admonished by the Word of God is very important if you are to grow. Pivotal to this understanding is 2 Timothy 2:25, which says:
“With gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth.”
The proper biblical response to the admonitions of the Word of God is not “I don’t need to change; I am already perfect,” nor “I’ll just let go and let God” nor “I’ll balance the scales myself.” To the contrary of these aforementioned aberrant views of the sanctification process, this passage reveals that repentance (metanoia) which means “a change of mind, direction and purpose” is the key to the believer’s growth process. Importantly, Scripture reveals here and elsewhere (cf. Acts 5:31, 11:18; Romans 2:4; 2 Corinthians 7:9,10; Ephesians 2:7) that repentance is produced by God’s sovereign grace: “if perhaps God may grant …” (2 Timothy 2:25). In other words, like the faith to believe in Christ (e.g., Ephesians 2:8–9):
Repentance is also a gift from God! The person trapped in sin, desiring to change should therefore cry out in humility, “God, have mercy on me and grant me the gift of repentance from my sin!”
Repentance leads to lasting change; it is the key element in Progressive Sanctification! Underscoring this truth is Jeremiah 13:23. It states that any change apart from God-given repentance is futile:
“Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots? Then you also can do good who are accustomed to doing evil.”
Sinners in and of themselves cannot change the essence of their very nature is Jeremiah’s point. Therefore, the only way a believer can achieve lasting change is with God’s help, which is why crying out to Him in brokenness and contrition is the only way to enact change for the better. If you are following me in the development of this study, “How to Effect Change and Growth in Your Life” has much to do with understanding exactly what biblical repentance is—in great detail—since that is pivotal to attaining growth, or sanctification, in the here and now.
D. THE RECURRING PAULINE SOUNDBITE DESCRIBING CHANGE
In Paul’s letters to the Roman, Ephesian, and Colossian churches he often speaks of spiritual growth, i.e., sanctification or “change” in terms of “putting off ” and “putting on.” He is saying that to grow spiritually, the believer must put off the old self and put on the new self, which is best capsulized in Ephesians 4:22–24 wherein Paul states:
“That, in reference to your former manner of life, you lay aside the old self, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit, and that you be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth.”
Key to our study and relative to how the believer effectuates change in his life is the idea of “laying aside the old self,” or “putting it off.” And synonymous with “putting off ” or “laying aside” is the Greek word for repentance. It means “to turn 180°,” to put something off or out of your life that is not pleasing to God.
It follows then that repentance or “putting off ” is an essential, key element for Christian growth. Given basics related to sanctification and what leads to it, how can we best understand what is characteristic of true repentance? What follows may seem a bit “in the weeds” on this subject, but precisely and thoroughly understanding what the Bible means by repentance is of utmost importance since it effectuates spiritual growth! It is the starting point of spiritual growth! Accordingly, to fail at understanding this point is to fail at growing spiritually.
What are the biblical indicators of repentance? What is the difference between human sorrow and true repentance?
Second Corinthians 7:9–11, which is perhaps the best passage in the New Testament that carefully delineates the characteristics of genuine repentance, reveals how to best understand that passage.
III. THE CONTEXT OF THE INSTRUCTION ON TRUE REPENTANCE
The following passage delineates, details, and defines the various components of true repentance:
“I now rejoice, not that you were made sorrowful, but that you were made sorrowful to the point of repentance; for you were made sorrowful according to the will of God, so that you might not suffer loss in anything through us. For the sorrow that is according to the will of God produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation, but the sorrow of the world produces death. For behold what earnestness this very thing, this godly sorrow, has produced in you: what vindication of yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what longing, what zeal, what avenging of wrong! In everything you demonstrated yourselves to be innocent in the matter” (2 Corinthians 7:9–11).
In this portion of the second book of Corinthians, Paul is tracing over the past relationship he has had with the body of believers in Corinth. In brief summary, during his second missionary journey, he spent 18 months personally establishing this church. Sometime after having planted this church, he sent his emissary, Timothy, to Corinth (1 Corinthians 4:17; 16:10, 11). As a result of that, Paul found out that self-styled false apostles now inhabited the assembly, and in their zeal for power, they had castigated Paul and had tried to persuade the congregation to no longer follow his teachings.
When he learned of this mutinous news, Paul immediately departed from Ephesus to visit Corinth. To his deep chagrin, upon his arrival he soon tasted of the bitter fruit of the false teachers, experiencing the disloyalty of so many in the flock—a flock he had labored so hard to establish. Accordingly, and reactively, upon his return to Ephesus, he authored what is now commonly referred to as the “Severe Letter” (ref. 2 Corinthians 2:4), sending it to Corinth via his beloved, loyal disciple Titus.
Upon their eventual reconnection, Titus gave a surprisingly warm report to Paul as to the Corinthian church’s acceptance of Paul’s “Severe Letter.” Specifically, many had repented of their rebellion against the apostle! Paul was overjoyed to learn of this (as per the text under study herein in 2 Corinthians). In this broad context the words of 2 Corinthians chapter 7 need to be understood. As a result of the mutiny and the congregation’s later repentance from their disloyal behavior, the Holy Spirit is affording to all what connotes true repentance in the life of a believer. Again, perhaps no better passage in the entire Bible can be found than this one in 2 Corinthians 7:9–11 that unveils poignant insights all followers of Christ need to possess relative to the make-up of true repentance.
IV. EIGHT ASPECTS OF GENUINE REPENTANCE
True, genuine repentance and change, states Paul, is characterized by at least eight attitudes and related actions that are motivated by God’s sanctifying presence in the life of the believer.4 “Paul expands [on the matter of godly sorrow] into a whole series of acts or dispositions, all of which are inspired by that sorrow, according to God.”5 These characteristics follow from the words used by Paul in the 2 Corinthian passage.
A. EARNESTNESS (SPOUDE)
When a believer expresses sorrow in a godly manner, there will be a manifest sense of earnestness on his or her behalf to pursue a righteous course eagerly and assertively. There will be, as one commentator puts it, “speed involved in the carrying out of a matter…a willingness to do good will.”6 Herein is the initial reaction of genuine repentance that is born from above.
The first earmark then, of genuine repentance is that godly sorrow, when present and given by God, will produce a sense of effort and urgency that is self-motivated from within.
There is a resolution that becomes a reality—an internal motivation, an earnestness to “bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:8).
B. VINDICATION (APOLOGIA)
States the New International Commentary on the New Testament (NICNT) in regard to this specific characteristic of vindication:
“When they [the unrepentant Corinthian believers] thought of the infamy which sin had brought upon the church, they were quite eager to clear themselves of complicity in it and angry with themselves that they had ever allowed such a thing to be.”7
Here is the second mark of true repentance, as one commentator puts it: “A desire to clear one’s name of the stigma that accompanies sin, the repentant sinner restores the trust and confidence of others by making his genuine repentance known.”8 There exists an earnestness to outwardly rectify, i.e., to vindicate that which the sin caused. Conversely:
The falsely repentant are characterized by an attitude that remains stayed on self— far more concerned about damage to personal image than promptness to remedy.
This unrepentant person remains preoccupied with himself and the ramifications to self that stem from his actions: his reputation and his standing among peers remains far more important. True repentance is always characterized by a God-given desire to immediately vindicate a matter, seeking out others whom they have offended, asking for their forgiveness, and thereby exonerate the wrong done. Put another way, to the genuinely repentant, outward self-preservation is less important than God-glorification. When an unction to vindicate is missing, a person is really not repentant.
C. INDIGNATION (AGANAKTESIS)
This same Greek word translated here into English as indignation is used elsewhere in several other gospel narratives and carries the idea of a person’s being angered by his own wrongful actions. The Early Church father, Chrysostom, interpreted this portion of the passage to mean that the authentically repentant believer will be characterized by a personal indignation or anger “because of the scandal he had permitted to continue unchecked in the church and the consequent affront to the holy name of God.” Herein is another clear indication of genuine repentance: the believer will possess an internal hatred and anger over his sin and a discontentment relative to the indignity it has brought on the Lord’s name and His church.
In actuality, this self-indignation is a blessing from God that can be likened to the internal molten pressure found in a volcano. An authentic self-hatred will brew inside the believer’s heart—a self-hatred that can only find its release through total rectification with offended parties.
D. FEAR (PHOBOS)
In addition to their internal compunction, the wayward Corinthian believers feared the apostolic authority of the one to whom they had been disloyal. They feared that he could seek retribution for their sinful ways, in fact, “with a rod” (cf. 1 Corinthians 4:21). A manifest characteristic of true repentance means there will not only be a healthy fear of God but of those the sin has wronged.
To summarize the first four points:
The genuinely repentant are those who possess an earnestness to vindicate themselves with an offended party. This motivation stems from self-indignation and also present is fear of the retributive judgment of a holy and righteous God.
E. LONGING (ZELOS)
Zelos is the Greek word from which we derive the English word “jealousy.” At its root, it means “a strong desire.” In the context of this passage, it means “a yearning” or “a strong desire to restore a relationship with someone who has been sinned against. Akin to No. 2 (the vindication of self which has in mind the forensic, outward detail given to clearing up the matter and situation), the longing mentioned here relates more to a vehement desire stemming from an internal aspiration of the heart.9 The Corinthian believers, in their genuine repentance, manifested an internal zeal to honor Paul and his apostolic authority. In addition, they strongly desired to repudiate the false intruders in the church. More deeply, they possessed a yearning to follow Paul’s example—one of wholehearted devotion to the cause of Christ.
All of these attitudes express a motivated-by-God compunction to do the right thing. Why? John Murray states, “[True] regeneration is the renewing of the heart and mind, and the renewed heart and mind must act according to their nature.”10 The genuinely repentant will always yearn and long for right relationships with other people. In Romans 12:18 Paul summarily embodies the aforementioned characteristics when he states, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.”
F. ZEAL (EPIPOTHESIS)
Another attitude that is consistent with true repentance is the zeal that the Corinthian believers possessed to take up Paul’s defense and stand against the false teachers who had taken over the Corinthian Church. States NICNT, [the Corinthian believers desired] “to see the restoration of their former relationship of trust and affection.”11 Their response to Paul’s “Severe Letter” was not one of anger, but one of soberness, acceptance and the realization that they had been disloyal to the apostle. They adopted Paul’s view toward the false teachers, taking up Paul’s cause as their own! God-enabled genuine repentance produces this kind of zeal to do an about-face on a matter. They possessed zeal to reaffirm their love and allegiance for him. To the contrary, people who are unrepentant or humanly sorrowful in a selfish way will remain disloyal and avoid adopting the contrary opinion regarding an offense. They are characterized by not admitting to any wrongdoing and continue to blame the other party.
G. AVENGING OF WRONG (EKDIKESIS)
Perhaps the strongest indication of true repentance is the one that is hardest to perform by means other than God-given. In God-empowered repentance, the sinner thinks not of protecting himself or herself. The overriding concern is for justice to be done. States one commentator, “he wants to see the sin avenged no matter what it might cost him.”12 Whether or not Paul was referring in our home passage to the Corinthians’ avenging of the wrong relative to their interpersonal relationship, or the Corinthians’ avenging of wrong in having allowed the false apostles to lead in the church does not matter relative to this study. In both cases, the now-humble Corinthian believers had a desire to seek reconciliation! The all-consuming objective was to put their house in order—no matter what the cost. When this is the believer’s attitude, then spiritual growth is in view:
Such an attitude is indicative of an earnest desire never to do that again—and therein is spiritual growth; progressive sanctification is achieved.
H. INNOCENT IN THE MATTER (HAGNOS)
The last characterizing word that Paul chooses under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, to choose what typifies true repentance is the Corinthians’ innocence relative to their past sin. The Greek word here for innocent means “clear” or “pure, holy.” He chose this word because the connotation of it has to do with a ritual purity. Without going into greater details or illustrations of early word usage, the idea carried here is that if a procedure is followed, then purity results. And that is exactly why Paul chooses this word last on his list of identifying characteristics. Paul’s word choice displays a beautiful, human illustration of the theology behind 1 John 1:9, which states:
“If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us of our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
In Paul’s mind, the Corinthian believers were now innocent of the matter because they had confessed and repented of their sin as was more than evident by the seven previous new attitudes and actions indicated in and by this insightful passage. Important also to note is that Paul doesn’t rehearse the sin here; he simply calls it the matter. Why? In that they had satisfactorily taken care of their sin as evidenced by their actions of godly sorrow, in Paul’s mind, the past had been made “as white as snow” (Isaiah 1:18) because they had borne “fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:8). In Philippians we learn that Paul practiced forgetting what lies behind (Philippians 3:13). Since the past had been made right, it was time to move on—not relive it. Paul is expressing an attitude of exhilaration over the completion of the matter. This passage then is a beautiful narrative of the achievement of spiritual growth:
Indicative of real spiritual growth is this: Dehabituation and rehabituation have been achieved.
These eight characteristics of genuine repentance are basic to spiritual growth—correctly and completely turning away from the past and moving toward what is right in the future. Putting off and putting on is a dehabituation and a rehabituation.
A worldly kind of self-centered sorrow over sin will manifest few if any of these attitudes characteristic of true, genuine repentance. Furthermore, such a response to sin—holding on to it—is stagnating to a believer’s spiritual growth. Remember the Greek word for repentance means “a change of mind” whereas lupe, the Greek word for worldly sorrow, means, “pain of body.”
Repentance is the fundamental key to a life of change and growth. As such, a believer matures in his Christian life through genuine repentance. So then, as God places things on your heart that need to change, pay close attention! Turn from them in earnestness and put them behind you forever as you put off and put on and move on toward sanctification in Christ! Amen!
1. Second Corinthians 5:17 states, “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.”
2. Since salvation is explicitly revealed in Scripture to be a gift to those who will by faith repent and receive Jesus Christ as Lord.
3. Note that the term Nouthetic Counseling comes from this reference. This form of pastoral counseling is totally Bible based and focused solely on Christ, renouncing conventional psychology and psychiatry as humanistic because so often they are opposed to biblical principles.
4. As stated, repentance is actually a gift from God, given along with the ability to believe in Christ, at the day of one’s salvation. Importantly and additionally, this gift of repentance is ongoing in its operation—not only in salvation, but in sanctification (throughout the life of the believer) as inferred by the apostle in this passage under study.
5. James Denney, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, Vol. 38, The Expositor’s Bible (New York: A.C. Armstrong and Son, 1894), 256.
6. Moisés Silva, New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology [NIDONTT] (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Academic, 2014).
7. Denney, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, Vol. 38, 256.
8. John MacArthur, The MacArthur Study Bible: New American Standard Bible (Nashville, Thomas Nelson, 2006), 1743.
9. Whenever Paul spoke of a good desire in the NT (as he does 13 times), he uses this Greek word that is translated as “longing.” (Conversely, when he speaks of a wrong, lustful desire he uses epithymia.)
10. John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), 106.
11. Silva, New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology [NIDONTT].
12. MacArthur, The MacArthur Study Bible: New American Standard Bible, 1773.