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Sin had captured Biff. He repented of his sin. His wife was unsure if Biff truly changed. The reason she was unsure was that Biff did not appear to be different. He was not doing what he was doing before, but that was about it. She had a nagging anxiousness that he would go back to his old ways. It was not the first time he had “repented” of sin, so her hope was minimal as she fearfully guarded her heart.
Understandably, she did not want to be hurt again, but it was also evident that she struggled to put more faith in God than in her husband’s ability to stay changed. “If I could have assurances that he will not do it again. Is that too much to ask? Has he repented this time?”
It’s not too much to ask, but let me ask you this: what is the most valid indicator of a person who has authentically changed? How can you know–as much as one can know–if a person has changed? Paul gives us our answers in Ephesians. Let’s break it down:
To put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness (Ephesians 4:22-24).
Paul told the Christians in Ephesus that they had a former manner of life. Though there are several things to consider from Paul’s teaching in this text, I want to draw out two of them. (1) They were Christians. (2) These Christian people had a former manner of life. Did you catch that? He was talking to born again, saved, regenerated, blood-bought, washed Christians who still struggled with temptations toward wicked, evil, sinful, and futile lives (Ephesians 4:17-22). They were saints tempted to shrink back and sin.
Paul called those believers to put off their former manner of life—that lifestyle of unrighteousness tempting them to yield to in moments of weakness. He was calling them to walk no longer as the pagan Gentiles walked (Ephesians 4:17). Paul perceived the saint/sinner tension. He understood that Christians do sin (1 John 1:7-9), and he wanted to encourage them toward change (Romans 2:4). Guess what: You and I are not entirely sanctified either, so Paul’s teaching on how to change as a post-salvation Christian is so helpful. So may I ask you:
I will not unpack those three verses, but I do want to go where Paul took them—the application phase of those verses, which is the rest of the chapter. Paul informs us in the remaining verses what to look for in a person who has genuinely changed. Here is his sequential logic:
Paul did not want to leave you with incomplete applications of authentic right living and true holiness, which is what would have happened if he stopped at Ephesians 4:24. You need more than conceptual language; you need functional language. Without application you would have to speculate on the kind of repentance he asked you to model.
Fortunately, you will not have to guess. He gives you four practical illustrations of what it means to authentically and effectually put off, renew, and put on a new lifestyle.
Change is not complete repentance if you only stop doing bad things. You will know if repentance happened to someone by the proactive, practical, gospel-motivated blessings they provide to other people. Jesus did not come to earth to help you stop sinning. He had a higher vision. He wants you to go beyond the putting off phase of your sanctification, which you can authenticate by your (1) dying to yourself and (2) living for others.
Repentance is more than conceptual; it is practical. Actual repentance moves a person from selfishness to selflessness. Real change is long-term and a sustained others-centered living for the glory of God. Note Paul’s carefulness. He knew religious people could do good works. He used to be one of those religious people (Philippians 3:3-6).
Thus, he pressed the issue further. At the end of his practical application speech in verse 32, you see this as he wrapped up his entire argument for change by tying repentance directly to the gospel. You need to see this. Any person can do good works, but only a person riveted to and motivated by the gospel can consistently glorify God by their works.
Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you (Ephesians 4:32).
Paul connected all of your work requirements (obedience) to a gospel motive by saying, “As God in Christ forgave you.” All work—regardless of what it may be—is motivated by something. Paul wanted to make sure he did not create many nice-behaving Christians, whose motives found motivation from something other than the gospel.
Real change will find its motive rooted in the gospel of Jesus Christ. It will manifest as a penitent person actively living out the following five marks of attitudes and behaviors:
Paul’s template for change has an aggressive quality, which is the opposite of the more common lukewarm Christian experience. Any Christianized person can somewhat do steps one through four and even appear to be changed based on observable behavior. A lack of gospel authenticity is why it is essential for you not to miss Paul’s gospel connection. He connected all of our lives to the gospel.
If a person’s heart motive is not rooted in the gospel, his behaviors will not last no matter how good they may appear. True righteousness and true holiness flow from and find sustainability in the gospel—the person and work of Jesus Christ. I am not suggesting you be a cynic or even suspicious of anyone who says they repented.
The potential of change is not a call to be judgmental but a need to be discerning. It would be wrong to say, “Wait. We’ll see if it’s real or not.” It would also be a mistake not to have humble and wise biblical expectations. Love believes all things and hopes all things, but love is not naive regarding Adamic tendencies (1 Corinthians 13:4-7).
There could be situations in Biff’s life where it appears he repented, but he retreats to his old former manner of life. Perchance that is true; it is imperative for his wife to grasp what may be going on with him, as well as understanding what God may be doing in his life.
Typically, a lack of repentance has more than one reason. Did you know that God can multitask? Think of Moses and Pharaoh here: Pharaoh’s lack of repentance was part of God’s plan (Exodus 9:16; Romans 9:17). A person’s unwillingness to change is not outside of God’s redemptive purposes. Maybe like Pharaoh, there is a greater purpose in a lack of true repentance. Here are six considerations for you:
1 – He May Not Know How to Repent: Do not be surprised by this. My children do not know how to repent fully. I did not know how to repent until I became an adult. How many active and sin-engaging repenters do you know? Compare that number with how many Christians you know. I suspect there is a difference. A big difference.
Not knowing how to change was the story of the Ethiopian eunuch. He had his Bible opened and in his lap but struggled to understand it. He needed help. He needed to collaborate with someone (Acts 8:30-31). Some people talk about the Bible like it is a magic book. It is a powerful book, but it is not a magic book. In His wisdom God chose the agency of humankind to cooperate with His Word and Spirit to help people change.
2 – An Alluring Sin May Have Caught Him: While I am not dismissing personal responsibility for change, I am also not ignoring corporate responsibility. It takes a church. You are to be part of the process. There are many Christians caught in sin who do not know how to escape (Galatians 6:1).
Caught people have a hard time repenting (James 1:14-15). Sin is alluring, and if a person has given most of his life over to satisfy his selfish desires, there is a possibility he will return to his sin. He needs your help.
3 – The Lord Is Maturing You: Paul tells you to guard your heart when helping people caught in sin (Galatians 6:1-2). If you do not protect your heart, you will be culpable as you pile on top of his sin.
It is easy to sin against those you care for, like when they do not change according to your timetable, expectations, desires, or agendas. The wise and humble person will be asking, “What can I learn from this? What does the Lord want to teach me in this relationship?”
4 – The Lord Is Submitting You to Your Calling: Perchance your friend does not change, you must remember your calling (1 Peter 2:21).
The Lord’s calling leads to death (Matthew 16:24). It could be the person you struggle the most with is God’s kindness to you, as He uses that person to reorient your heart back to Him.
5 – What You Need Will Control You: The thing you believe you need will control you, and you will know what rules you by how you respond to life’s situations or the difficult people in your life. When I sin against my wife, I believe I need whatever I am frustrated about, e.g., desires for love, appreciation, respect, and approval. If those things are where my heart is focused, not getting those things will cause me to respond sinfully to her.
If I reorient my heart toward God, and if I am being satisfied in Him alone, her behavior—good or bad—will have no ongoing control over me. If anyone other than God is controlling me, idolatry will capture me. My wife—at least for now—is being used by God to reveal my idolatry.
God can use sin sinlessly, and if you are sinning due to unmet expectations from another person, be sure to know Sovereign God is working for you by calling you to repentance.
6 – You Must Know God Is Good: Regardless of how this shakes out, you must be unflinching in your awareness that God is good and He is working good in your life—even if you cannot perceive it. Moses could not have put up with the shenanigans of Pharaoh if he was not in faith for the process, believing God was working out something good for him and others. His faith was rooted in God alone, and yours must be too.
Repentance is a tricky thing, and the truth is that we cannot ultimately tell if anyone has authentically changed. Repentance is God’s responsibility to grant (2 Timothy 2:25). Our responsibility is to rest in His sovereign care over our lives. If your affection is in God alone, you will be okay regardless of what others do.