The Benefits of True Repentance: Transformation by the Spirit


Psalm 51:7-17; Romans 8:12-18 (text); Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 33 • Liturgy here

July 22, 2012 • Pasig Covenant Reformed Church [dl url=”” title=”Download PDF sermon” desc=”” type=”” align=”left”]


Criminals who have been arrested and confessed their crimes often express their remorse for what they did, saying, “Please forgive me. I’m just trying to feed my family.” When children are also caught, they will also express their remorse, and they are released. This is why there is no real remorse and fear, because they’re not punished for their crimes. So they continue with their criminal lives.

But when criminals express remorse, is this real repentance? One of the most well-known parables of Jesus is about the so-called “prodigal son.” After he squandered his inheritance, and had nothing left, he decided to go back to his father, with a plan: a confession of his remorse, and a promise to work for his father as a slave (Luke 5:17-19). But his initial remorse was not real repentance, because he wanted only to be able to survive as a slave in his Father’s house, even to earn back his sonship by slaving for his father. Only when his father welcomed him even before he could say a word that he confessed his sin, saying, “I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”

Our catechism reading says that true repentance involves two things: “the dying of the old man, and the making alive of the new.” The “dying of the old man” part involves “heartfelt sorrow for sin, causing us to hate and turn from it always more and more. “ The “making alive of the new,” on the other hand, is seen in “heartfelt joy in God through Christ, causing us to take delight in living according to the will of God in all good works.”

Nathan Admonishes King David

The Prophet Nathan Admonishes King David by Palma Giovane, 17th century (click to enlarge)

One of the clearest examples of true repentance in the Scripture is that of King David after his sins of adultery and murder. He writes about his godly sorrow in Psalm 51, asking God to wash away his sins. But he also anticipates God’s forgiveness, and as a result, he vows to declare God’s praises and teach sinners about God’s ways. This “dying” and “making alive” is what the catechism calls true repentance.

True repentance, then, is godly sorrow for sin. The Greek verb for “repent” is literally “to change one’s mind.” It’s a key word in the New Testament, used 34 times, for example, in Acts 8:22, where Peter rebukes Simon the magician to repent of his wickedness and pray that “the intent of your heart may be forgiven you.” This is what the catechism calls repentance that causes the sinner to hate sin and turn away from it. In many city intersections, U-turns are not allowed. But God wants sinners to make a U-turn—to die to the old sinful self, and to make alive the new self.

But repentance is not only in the negative sense of turning away from sin. Positively, it also causes the penitent sinner to live according to God’s will in doing good works. In our text, Paul celebrates the believer’s new, transformed life of the Spirit because of Christ’s death on the cross. He says that the repentant sinner’s life is transformed by the Spirit from dead works to living works. As a result of the Spirit’s work of regeneration, the believer is now a child of the Father, and as such, he has the right to be an heir in God’s kingdom. And as a pilgrim in this sin-infested world, the Christian experiences sufferings, before God rewards him with a glorious heavenly inheritance.

From Dead to Living Works
In the first two verses of our text, verses 12-13, Paul uses the word “flesh” three times. What does Paul mean when he uses “flesh”? Does he mean the human body as a whole, as in his “thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor 12:7)? In Paul’s use of this word in his letter to the Romans, “flesh” is used 26 times. Of this number, a majority refer to the sinful nature of man from fallen Adam.

Paul contrasts the old life in the “flesh” with the new life in the “Sprit.” He says that since we have the indwelling Spirit, we are no longer “debtors” to our sinful nature. We must no longer be captive to sin or under the impulse of sin, because if we do, we face eternal death. So we must not live according to our sinful passions and desires, but according to the Spirit. We are now under obligation to live according to the Spirit, and if we do, it means that we have eternal life.

Because of the indwelling Holy Spirit, we are not under compulsion to do good works, but we are truly pleased to do them. Why? Because God has guaranteed our progressive holiness, and in the end, our perfect holiness. So unlike regeneration which is solely God’s work, sanctification is synergistic: the Spirit of God gives the power and strength to the believer to do good works. But the believer’s active role is, as Paul commands, “you put to death the deeds of the body.”

However, we must maintain a balance between this synergistic roles in our sanctification. On the one hand, we do not put to death our sinful passions and attain holiness in our lives mainly through our own efforts—this leads to moralism and legalism. On the other hand, we are not to passively “surrender all” or “let go and let God,” as if God will do the “dying to sin” for us, so that we do not actively do anything to hate sin and flee from sin. So the preaching of the gospel must be sandwiched between the preaching of the law that convicts us of sin and leads us to the gospel of Christ, and then sends us back to the law that tells us “what duties we owe God… and what duties we owe our neighbor” (HC 93).

Therefore, Paul has a warning for us, “For if you live according to the flesh you will die.” There are professing Christians in the church who may not be regenerated, who have no Holy Spirit, and thereby have no fruits of the Spirit. If he does not have good works to evidence that profession and continues to live according to his sinful nature, he is spiritually dead. He might think and be assured that he is saved, but in reality, he is unsaved.

A person might have made profession of faith during an evangelistic rally by walking down the aisle at the pastor’s invitation and reciting the sinner’s prayer. He has been told that now he is a child of God. But everything was all outward and emotional. The Holy Spirit did not give him a new heart and put a new spirit within him (Ezek 36:26), and he therefore was not truly born again (John 3:5). The effects of his emotional experience linger for a while, but his unrepentant sinful nature takes over his life again. So nothing has changed, but he has a false assurance that he is a Christian. And even when he knows that his spiritual life has no progress, continuing to live according to his sinful nature, he is told that he is a true Christian, but merely a “carnal” Christian!

So it is necessary that a Christian must show the fruits of the Spirit. And the Christian has been given the “whole armor of God” to stand against the schemes of the devil: the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, shoes of readiness given by the gospel of peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God (Eph 6:14-17).

Because he has the Spirit and the Word, the true Christian is able to put to death the passions and desires of his sinful nature. So our Reading of the Law commands us, “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (Col 3:5). Paul calls these “the deeds of the body,” referring to our sinful physical cravings.

If you do not struggle, strive and toil to put sin to death in your life, sin will put you death, because you might not have the Spirit at all. But if you are striving to put to death sin in your life, this is evidence that you have eternal life, because only the Spirit can give you the power to bring you from dead to living works.

From Slaves to Heirs
In verses 14-17, Paul now explains another aspect of the Spirit’s work in a believer. Since true believers have been transformed from dead to living works by the Spirit, Paul says they are now also brought from slavery to sonship. And as children of God, they are heirs of God.

Led by the Spirit of truth
Those who are “led by the Spirit of God” evidence the fruits of the Spirit. What is this thing called “led by the Spirit”? Is it a pastor getting direct revelations from God through dreams and visions? Or a pastor just “winging it” in his sermon so he could preach according to the “leading of the Spirit”? Or a worship leader just picking whatever songs come into his mind, such as singing “Feliz Navidad” “La Bamba” in a Christmas Eve worship service?

No, the leading of the Spirit is by the Word of God. Paul always connects the Word and the Spirit in the life of a believer. The sword of the Spirit is the word of God (Eph 6:17). The Christian relies on God’s Word, the sword of the Lord. Note that the sword of the Spirit is the only offensive weapon mentioned in the whole armor of God, as we read in Hebrews 4:12, “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”

Paul says that the believer who is led by the Spirit does “not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law… And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Gal 5:16-18, 24).

Being “led” by the Spirit does not only mean being “guided” by the Spirit, but that the Spirit is actually leading the Christian to put to death his sinful passions and desires. The Spirit obligates and compels the Christian to holiness. When the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan, the Spirit did not suggest to Jesus to go to the wilderness (Matt 4:1; Luke 4:1). The Spirit “immediately drove him out into the wilderness” (Mark 1:12).

Jesus says that his Spirit is the “Spirit of truth… [who] will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority” (John 16:13). Who gives the Spirit the authority to speak the truth? It is the Father in heaven, to whom Jesus prays for his people, “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth” (John 17:17). What is the truth, except God’s Word? The Spirit and the Word of God cleanses and sanctifies the church, “that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word” (Eph 5:26). Therefore, it is the Spirit who leads Christians into all truth, and this truth leads to holiness and eternal life.

Children and heirs of God
Putting to death the sinful nature is not the only benefit of the Spirit’s work in us. By his work of regeneration, he makes us “sons of God.” Here, Paul uses the Old Testament idea of sonship. Israel was God’s adopted son, with full legal rights, benefits and privileges as a son (Hos 11:1; Rom 9:4). In fact, God called Israel his firstborn son (Exod 4:22), having the highest rights and privileges among all the children.

A son is not a slave in the household, but a member of the family. Christians are no longer slaves to sin, but are adopted as sons into God’s family, as evidenced by the Spirit that cries out within them that God is their Father. Paul also uses the same idea in Galatians 3:26, “for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.” Thus, our status as adopted sons of God is based solely on faith in Christ who was “born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Gal 4:5).

If the “spirit of adoption” is connected to the Holy Spirit, what then is the “spirit of slavery”? Since Paul also says that “God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts” (Gal 4:6), referring to the indwelling Holy Spirit, some believe that Paul is also referring to the Holy Spirit as the “spirit of slavery.” Because as a result of being adopted through faith in Christ, a believer is no longer under slavery and conviction by the law that the same Holy Spirit has written in his heart.

As adopted children of God, we have become brethren of Christ, and he himself calls us his brothers and sisters, “For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one source. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers” (Heb 2:11). This is why John says that those who believe in Jesus receive “the right to become children of God” (1:12). Near the end of his gospel, he quotes Jesus saying, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God” (20:17). Therefore, we are “fellow heirs with Christ.”

As fellow heirs, we are the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham “that he would be heir of the world” (Rom 4:13). This is only fitting for believers, because they are also firstborns, and also the brethren of Christ who is the heir of all God’s promises (Psa 2:8; Heb 1:2).

And lastly, if you are sons of God, then God is your Father, just as God is Israel’s Father (Isa 63:16) and Jesus’ Father in heaven. The more intimate word “Abba” is the Aramaic for “Father.” Just as Jesus uses it to address God (Mark 14:36), we also as his children can use the word “Father” to address him. Question and Answer 26 of the Heidelberg Catechism is very helpful in explaining why, in the Lord’s Prayer, we may address God as “Our Father.” Because he is

whom I so trust as to have no doubt that he will provide me with all things necessary for body and soul; and further, that whatever evil he sends upon me in this troubled life, he will turn to my good; for he is able to do it, being Almighty God, and willing also, being a faithful Father.

Paul says that we can be assured of our legal and rightful standing before God as his children. This is because the Holy Spirit who indwells us also bears witness to our spirit (soul) of the reality of our standing as sons (verse 16). The indwelling Spirit is the “down payment” (“guarantee”) of our future inheritance, so we “were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory” (Eph 1:13-14).

Therefore, the Holy Spirit is the one who bestows and confirms to us the reality of our adoption as rightful heirs of all blessings and benefits in the heavenly places.

As a son, God gave Israel an inheritance, the Promised Land. But Israel was a foretaste of the church, which consists of many sons of God from all nations. And just as Israel as a son received an inheritance from their Father, as children of God, believers too are heirs of the glorious future Kingdom of the Father.

From Suffering to Glory
The positive aspect of being a Christian is being adopted children of God and fellow heirs with Christ. But there is a negative aspect as well. Paul says that we are “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided [if] we suffer with him.” A willingness to follow Christ in suffering is another evidence of being God’s heirs. In fact, the word “provided” or “if” could mean that suffering with Christ is a condition or requirement of a believer’s status as a fellow heir with Christ. Suffering is part and parcel of the Christian life. If the Spirit “predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories” (1 Pet 1:11), he also promises the same present sufferings and future glories for us. Our union with Christ through faith is not only with being children and heirs of future glory, but also with “sharing abundantly in his sufferings” (2 Cor 1:5; see also Phil 3:10; 1 Pet 4:3).

Jesus himself spoke of the sufferings that his followers will go through in this world. As he was persecuted, hated, ridiculed, and even martyred, so all his followers will suffer the same things. See what has happened to all Christians in all ages. Today, Christians are persecuted and ridiculed everywhere. In America and the West, Christians are ridiculed as bigots and intolerant of homosexuals. In Asia, Middle East and Africa, Christians are persecuted, their homes and churches burned, and many are martyred.

Paul always spoke of his sufferings in his letters. John’s book of Revelation is full of visions of the terrible sufferings of Christians all the way to the return of Christ (John 15:18-21; 16:33). And these sufferings consist not only of persecutions, but of terrible illnesses, loss of loved ones, financial troubles, and family problems.

How then can you be comforted in your Christian life when sufferings are your lot? Did not Jesus promise abundant life not only in the age to come, but also in this age (John 10:10; Mark 10:29-30), just as the heretical gospel of health and wealth teach in many megachurches? To be sure, there are some Christians who seem to enjoy material, physical, and even relationship blessings all their life. But these are very few and far between, exceptions to the rule of suffering as the lot of almost all believers in their pilgrimage in this sin-cursed world. To promise prosperity to everyone if they only would have “enough faith,” if they would only “name it and claim it” is against clear Biblical teaching. And how can these false teachers preach such false gospel in the midst of grinding poverty and terrible persecution of Christians in many places in the world?

No, your comfort is not your present abundance and prosperity in this life, but the glorious inheritance in the kingdom of God that awaits you. Paul assures you that you will be glorified, just as Christ is now glorified in heaven. “We know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort” (2 Cor 1:7). He encourages all believers because “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). So it is your great comfort to hear Paul say, “If we endure, we will also reign with him” (2 Tim 2:12).

Suffering, then, is not the final word, but only your transition from this life to the next. Your present life—70-80 years, even riches—pales in comparison with your eternal, glorious inheritance in the new heaven and new earth, where there will be no more tears, no more death, no more pain, and no more hunger and thirst (Rev 21:4, 6). This is why Paul says, “For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Cor 4:17). Your existence in this glorious state will be one in which you dwell for eternity in your resurrected bodies in the unimaginable riches of the new heaven and new earth, where God will dwell with you.

The catechism says that the Holy Spirit has given you faith and repentance. He also transforms your lives from “heartfelt sorrow for sin” to “heartfelt joy in God through Christ.”

You have joy because you have been given power to fight against your dead works and be alive to good works. You have joy because you have been redeemed from slavery to sin, and now you are children and heirs of God. You have joy because you look forward to the day when your present sufferings will end when Christ returns to take you to your glorious inheritance.

These are your assurances and benefits in Christ who has reconciled you to God.

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