In becoming Christians do people repent of sin or grow out of sin?

My initial answer to this question is: “Both.” But it is an answer that needs an explanation.

The one asking the question is concerned that some people in coming to Christ seem to have the idea that they can hold on to certain wrong things in their lives with the thought that they will eventually grow out of them. Certainly there are those who treat conversion very superficially who often leave repentance out of the “what-to-do” teaching given to inquirers. It is popular in some quarters to call for a commitment to Christ which seems to ask for or expect little more than a signature on a card or a confession that “I want to be recognized as a Christian.” There are those asking for decisions for Christ who do not seem to realize that this also involves a decision against sin.

Let it be said very clearly that repentance toward God is a necessary part of our response to the gospel of Christ if we are to be saved. And our repentance is not of some sins, part of our sins, or even most of our sins–it is repentance of sin, whatever is wrong in our lives, whatever misses the mark and is not in the will of God. The very moment we begin to reserve some corner of our life and want to be rid of all sin except such-and-such, we show that we are trying to repent selectively and that is not repentance of sin. What wife wants to hear that her husband has decided to stop committing adultery with six different women, that he has “repented” and now only intends to do so with just one other woman? True repentance is not selective but covers every known area of sinning.

Moreover, repentance is a prerequisite of the new birth. New Testament messengers included repentance in their message (Acts 2:38; 3:19; 5:31; 20:21). From the beginning to the end of the Bible repentance precedes the forgiveness of sins. It is not something added to faith as a work of merit; it is one of the activities of true faith in a God who abominates sin. But it is there. There is not even a hint that God forgives known sin in responsible persons without repentance.

Now, without retracting even one iota of the above, let us understand that prospective Christians and new Christians do not always recognize some things to be sin which are sin. New Christians are babes in Christ and immature in their thinking. Every Christian in his growth becomes more aware of the terribleness of sin and likely comes to see things as sin which he may not have earlier understood to be so. In this sense he might be said to grow out of sin.

Let us illustrate. A young man believes that Jesus is the Christ and, repenting of his sinful life, confesses Christ and is baptized into Christ. It is a genuine conversion to Christ. Let us say however that he has not had much pre-Christian training as to what the Bible teaches and so he does not as readily recognize specific sins as others might. In spite of his immature state, such a one is a genuine Christian. Now let us say that this young man in his life has picked up some language which is not wholesome. He continues to use that language. That proves, does it not, that he never repented of sin? No, it does not. He may have repented of sin as a principle, but his understanding may not have caught up with his principles. He does not intend to do wrong, but he does, without being aware that it is wrong. Now, as a further development, someone declares his language to be wrong without giving a solid basis for it in God’s word. He may be deterred a bit, but does that person know what he is talking about? Let us not confuse faith in an individual’s judgment with faith in Christ. Finally, he is shown from the word of God that his words are wrong. Now he must repent of this sin. He has not grown out of it, but he has grown in his understanding so that he now includes it in those works of darkness he wants out of his life. Suppose we even go a step further. His words have been spoken by habit, and a habit is not easily broken. He no longer intends to use those words, but he slips. It was not that he had not repented. He temporarily lost a battle with the flesh. But now that he knows this to be sin he can not shrug it off. Repentance is called for. And if he is living in touch with Christ as he ought to be, it will be done.

There is a sense, then, in which repentance is primarily a matter of the heart. We do not say there is not also a practical side. Some wrongs are so evident that it is foolish in any normal case to talk about repentance while one continues in the acts. Nor are we talking about playing games with God, pretending an ignorance which we do not have. God knows our heart. What we are saying is that it is possible for a person who has repented of sin in his heart to continue doing some things because of ignorance or immaturity which will be recognized as sin by the more discerning. Now we know that when there is a willingness to do the Lord’s will (John 7:17), darkness does not persist. We must be fair, however, and recognize that sins of ignorance can only be repented of in the sense of ceasing from them when we come to know them to be sins. And this is often a process of growth.

Another danger to be avoided is this–confusing a human standard with God’s. Some there are who are ready to pronounce a cup of coffee or a glass of Coke sin. Nevertheless, that person who drinks these refreshments is not necessarily an unrepenting sinner; he may simply see that there is no solid ground on which such an interpretation stands. I have some neighbors and friends for whom holiness is a particular style of clothing and hair style. Am I unrepenting in rejecting this arbitrary standard which they have adopted? I do not like to see Christians using tobacco. I think it hinders their testimony. I can even make the possible connection that it harms the temple of God. I’d like to see no Christians ever using the stuff in any form. But I have known and know some Christians for whom I have a high regard who use it. It is just not an issue with them. They reject my application of scripture which makes it a sin. They reject my standard, but they do not believe God has made it an issue. Preachers, elders, teachers and others have been known to be wrong in what they declare to be sin before God. Those persons are not necessarily wicked sinners before God who reject human judgments and applications. Even when the judgments and applications are right, it may involve growth in spiritual understanding to recognize it.

Now for a statement or two in closing. We are not saying that only that is sin which a person recognizes to be sin. God’s word, in specific declaration and in principle, determines sin. We are saying that there can only be an active repentance of that specific sin when it is known. Surely this is one area where the continual cleansing of sin for the one abiding in Christ is such a precious truth (1 John 1:7). Again, we are not suggesting that one can deal with known sin by growing out of it and that it is to be tolerated until such is achieved. We may grow in strength to overcome (or in our awareness of the provision for strength in Christ), but known sin must be repented of or else our whole outlook on sin is defective.