Legalistic Repentance vs. Gospel Repentance

By Jeremy Oddy

[Borrowed from Robert Cheong at Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, Kentucky. Adapted from Timothy Keller, “All of Life Is Repentance.”]

Repentance focuses on relationship.

  • Legalistic repentance focuses on the behavior.
  • Gospel repentance focuses on the offense against God.

Repentance flows from God.

  • Legalistic repentance flows from worldly sorrow that flows from man’s shameful or guilt-ridden will, resulting in despair and death.
  • Gospel repentance flows from godly sorrow according to God’s redemptive will, resulting in hope and life.

Repentance steps out by faith.

  • Legalistic repentance hesitates out of fear of judgment.
  • Gospel repentance steps out by faith believing that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ.

Repentance seeks Christ.

  • Legalistic repentance seeks to be made right through ongoing and various means of self-atonement (ex. Self-condemnation, extreme efforts to keep the law, relentless restitution, etc.).
  • Gospel repentance seeks atonement and forgiveness through the finish work of Christ alone while taking responsibility to right the wrongs as much as possible.

Repentance is honest and humble.

  • Legalistic repentance might be honest but proud, or humble but dishonest.
  • Gospel repentance discloses everything without defensiveness and leads the person to submit to whatever the gospel calls for so that one can be made right with God and others.

Repentance focuses on redemption.

  • Legalistic repentance is seen as negative and as something we avoid.
  • Gospel repentance is seen as positive and as something we pursue.
  • Here is a test: Whenever you hear someone’s repentance, do you focus more on the sin and what they need to do to avoid sinning in the future? Then you may emphasize the person’s performance rather than Christ’s perfect and finished “performance” on the cross.

Repentance results in gospel fruit.

  • Legalistic repentance results in little change and little relational intimacy.  Why? Because legalistic repentance leads to increasing legalistic efforts to improve performance with limited help.
  • Gospel repentance results in heart change and intimacy with Christ. Why? Because gospel repentance leads to increasing freedom to trust and draw near to the perfect Redeemer with the unlimited help of the Holy Spirit.
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