When Martin Luther called for the church to consider changing some of the practices regarding teaching about salvation in 1517, the first thing he wrote about it was, “our Lord and Master Jesus Christ… willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”
Repentance, as Tim Keller writes in his book Prayer, “is the way we make progress in the Christian life.” However, even in our repentance, we can be legalistic.
Paul writes to the Corinthian church:
I am not sorry that I sent that severe letter to you… not because it hurt you, but because the pain caused you to repent and change your ways. It was the kind of sorrow God wants his people to have… for the kind of sorrow God wants us to experience leads us away from sin and results in salvation.
Tim Keller wrote that through legalistic repentance, “we try to convince God (and ourselves) that we are so truly unhappy and regretful that we deserve to be forgiven.”
True repentance, as Paul indicates in 2 Corinthians, results in sorrow for our sin and leads us away from further sin. Legalistic repentance only results in a self-righteousness that produces more sin. The heart of the matter is that we need to acknowledge the hardness of our hearts, and ask God for a new heart, for new desires.
The grace of God means that we are released from the need for performance. God will never owe us forgiveness. He will never give it to us as a result of how sorry we are for what we’ve done wrong. He will give us forgiveness because Jesus took the penalty for our sin. We receive it when we see that we need it. And the sorrow we experience results in a life of gratitude and a changed heart, and ultimately, in a deep and lasting joy!