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Sin had captured Biff, and after a season of struggle, he repented. But Mable was unsure if Biff truly changed because Biff did not appear to be different. He was not doing what he did before—praise God, but that was about it. Mable had a low-grade, gnawing anxiety that Biff would return to his old ways. It was not the first time he had “repented” of sin, so her hope for change 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 as she placed less faith in God than in her husband’s ability to stay changed.
Mable appealed, “If I could have assurances that he will not do it again. Is that too much to ask? Has he repented this time? Like, for real?” It’s not too much to ask, but let me ask 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 is uncaught by sin? Paul gives us our answers in Ephesians. Let’s take a look at his wise words, and then we can break them down to examine genuine repentance.
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).
There are several things to consider from Paul’s teaching, but I will only choose two: he was talking to Christians, and they had a former manner of life. Did you catch that? He talked 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 seduces us to yield to moments of weakness.
He called 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). The implication for us is clear: we are not entirely sanctified, so Paul’s teaching on transformation as a post-salvation Christian is helpful, leading to a few practical questions for our mutual self-examination.
Paul informs us in the remaining verses what to look for in a genuinely changed person. Here is his sequential logic:
Paul did not want to leave us with an incomplete application of authentic right living and true holiness, which is what would have happened if he had stopped at Ephesians 4:24. We need more than conceptual language; we need functional language. Without application, we would have to speculate on the kind of repentance he asked us to put on. Fortunately, we will not have to guess. He gives four practical illustrations of what it means to authentically and effectually put off, renew, and put on a new lifestyle.
One thing you perceive in this passage is that transformation is incomplete if we 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 us stop sinning. He had a higher vision. He wants us to go beyond the putting-off phase of our sanctification. Repentance is more than conceptual; it is practical. Actual repentance moves a person from selfishness to selflessness. Real change is long-term and sustained, others-centered living for the glory of God.
Note Paul’s carefulness. He knew religious people could do good work. He used to be one of those religious people (Philippians 3:3-6), which is why 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. Anyone can do good works; we call it behavioral modification, but only a person riveted to and motivated by the gospel can consistently glorify God through their works.
Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you (Ephesians 4:32).
Paul connected our 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 ensure he did not create 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 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 we must not miss Paul’s gospel connection. 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 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 for 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 for practical transformation. Love believes all things and hopes all things, but love is not naive regarding Adamic tendencies (1 Corinthians 13:4-7).
Let’s say that Biff has not repented, and Mable is correct. It’s possible. He artificially and temporarily put on a new self but retreated to his former manner of life shortly thereafter. In such a case, we want to examine why there is no sustainable change in Biff’s life. Here are six possibilities that shed light on a person’s lack of repentance, which should govern our hearts before we uncharitably judge someone because they have yet to change.
1 – He May Not Know How to Repent: Do not be surprised by this. Our children did not know how to repent when they were younger. 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 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. We are to be part of the process. Many Christians caught in sin do not know how to escape (Galatians 6:1). Caught people have difficulty 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 our help.
3 – The Lord Is Maturing Mable: Paul tells us to guard our hearts when helping people caught in sin (Galatians 6:1-2). If we do not protect our hearts, we will be culpable as we pile on someone else’s sin. It is easy to sin against those we love, like when they do not change according to our timetable, expectations, desires, or agendas. The wise and humble person will ask, “What can I learn from this? What does the Lord want to teach me as I hope and pray for Biff’s change?”
4 – The Lord Is Submitting Mable to Her Calling: Perchance Biff does not change. If so, she must remember her 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. The unchanging soul becomes an instrument of righteousness in the Lord’s hands to mature you.
5 – What You Need Will Control You: The thing we believe we need will control us, and we will know what rules us by how we respond to life’s situations or the difficult people in our lives. When I sin against my wife, I believe I need whatever I am angry 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 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 has captured me. My wife—at least for now—is being used by God to reveal my idolatry. God can use sin sinlessly, and if I am sinning due to unmet expectations from another person, be sure to know Sovereign God is working for me by calling me to repentance.
6 – You Must Know God Is Good: Regardless of how this shakes out, Mable must be aware that God is good and that He is working in her life—even if she cannot perceive it. Moses could not have put up with the shenanigans of Pharaoh if he was not “in faith,” believing God was working out something good for him and others. His faith was rooted in God alone, and ours 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 our affection is in God alone, we will be okay regardless of what others do.
Rick launched the Life Over Coffee global training network in 2008 to bring hope and help for you and others by creating resources that spark conversations for transformation. His primary responsibilities are resource creation and leadership development, which he does through speaking, writing, podcasting, and educating.
In 1990 he earned a BA in Theology and, in 1991, a BS in Education. In 1993, he received his ordination into Christian ministry, and in 2000 he graduated with an MA in Counseling from The Master’s University. In 2006 he was recognized as a Fellow of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC).