The desire is good. We all want to see people confess and repent and walk in newness of obedience before the Lord. But the execution can often be forced. We are so used to walking with people, coming alongside of and shepherding them in blessed directions, that we can fail to realize when we find ourselves “doing the work for them.” Never is this more problematic than when coaxing a confession and subsequent repentance out of someone.
The Scriptures are clear that repentance is the Holy Spirit’s business, as Acts 11:18 and 2 Tim. 2:25 reveal. To compel an admission of guilt very well may be the jurisdiction of police detectives, but it certainly is unbecoming of the church of Christ. Far worse than mere admission of wrongdoing, however, would be coaching someone on what repentance would look like in a given situation, so much so that we find ourselves functionally “repenting for them”, as it were.
Coerced confession is not repentance. Yet all one has to do is stop for a moment to consider how such a situation naturally happens. The person is having a hard time seeing his sin, though he can concede to some elements as another points them out and asks good questions. So the fellow-believer or elder offers some additional coaching. There is resistance and vague concessions along the way. A little more coaching and direction, and the helper has massaged the “confession” to a point where they feel satisfied. It passes muster as far as the outward biblical forms are concerned. The one coming alongside then coaches the person on how to go about repenting for such sins, and before long, the fellow-believer is relieved. Repentance has been achieved. The only problem is, this is not biblical confession and this is not biblical repentance. It is mere concession or a parroting back someone else’s understanding of the situation.
Lip Service or Heart Change
Lip service to reality is not heart change. After all, Jesus never wrested repentance out of anyone. He presented the truth and some embraced it, many did not. Some responded sincerely from the heart, most did not. The reason Jesus is never depicted as compelling the truth out of someone, is because, humanly speaking, it simply is not possible. “Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45), and “with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved” (Rom. 10:10), and “no one speaking in the Spirit of God ever says “Jesus is accursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except in the Holy Spirit.” (1 Cor. 12:3) Genuine confession comes from a heart that is right with God. Genuine repentance is a repentance that is worked by the Holy Spirit in the heart of a person.
Biblical repentance is freely offered and freely given. Let us remember the contrast of a worldly sorrow versus godly sorrow, as the Apostle unpacks for us in 2 Corinthians 7:10-11. Worldly sorrow wallows. It does not move in godly directions of its own accord. Godly sorrow on the other hand is earnest, eager, puts forth effort to clear oneself, involves a hatred of sin, includes a fear of God, a longing for holiness, a zeal for the truth, and a willingness to receive appropriate consequences for one’s sin. A godly grief biblically demonstrates oneself innocent at every point—not in a defensive posture, but in an honest living in the light.
Making it Plain
Such confession and repentance could never be compelled. As Charles Spurgeon famously said when commenting on David’s confession in Psalm 51, “Honest penitents…come to the point, call a spade a spade, and make a clean breast of all.”1
So let us walk with people, by all means! Let us come alongside of our brothers and sisters and help them to see where confession is needed. Shepherd them through the repentance and forgiveness process. But let us make sure that such responses are of the individual themselves—flowing from a broken and contrite heart of their own. While the old adage of “you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink” is much too banal, there is something to it that rings true at this point. You can help your brother see the speck in his eye, but you can’t address it for him. Only the individual may repent for their individual sins. Let us help others do so, freely, and from the heart—but may we never do it for them.