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Background: I had a discussion with my church leadership and their position is that without the Holy Spirit there can be no repentance.

The issue in more detail: My proposal was to do a service where a big chunk of the service is dedicated to writing down your sins, asking God for forgiveness, and throwing that paper in the fire afterwards. I know it's a bit confrontational but I thought, given how important repentance is for the relationship with God, I thought dedicating a service with a special event might be a good idea.

  • Their objection was that repentance is something that cannot be planned in a service, because to do repentance you need the Holy Spirit, which you cannot control.

  • My position is that repentance is an act that you as a person do by confessing your sins and asking God for forgiveness. If the Holy Spirit is active and convicts one of sin, then that is nice but it still starts with oneself. I would even go so far as to say that for a full repentance you do need the Holy Spirit because one is blind to one's own sin, but I don't think you need the Holy Spirit to start repenting.

Biblical examples:

  • In the story of the prodigal son I don't see a passage where the Holy Spirit convicted the son. He found himself in the dirt, went back to his father and showed remorse, and asked for forgiveness. (Luke 15:14-21)

  • David, when confronted by the prophet Nathan, asked for forgiveness for killing Uriah, which he did without the Holy Spirit. (2 Samuel 12:13)

  • The Parable of the Tax Collector does not mention the Holy Spirit or anything similar. The important part here is having a remorseful and a humble heart. (Luke 18:9-14)

  • The guy next to Jesus at the cross also only asked to think of him when Jesus goes to heaven. (Luke 23:40-42)

To repeat: I am not saying that the Holy Spirit does not convict people of sin but I do not think He is necessary for repentance. Hence my question: Is the Holy Spirit necessary for starting repentance?


Edit (since I was asked about the denomination for this question): We are a small church that would classify as Charismatic. However, I am open to and I value the opinions of all denominations, since I think that is one good way to find the actual truth. Furthermore, I think this topic should be basic enough that we can find a consensus beyond a single denomination.

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    You may have to specify a denomination for this question or answers will be all over the place. Commented May 24 at 10:02
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    @MikeBorden added that info.
    – telion
    Commented May 24 at 10:26
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    We should clarify what the word "repentance" actually means. Repentance is not to "turn from sin". From the Greek word μετανοέω, to repent actually means to "think differently" (Strong's G3340), or "change your mind". Turning from sin occurs after salvation, not before. We repent before salvation...before hearing and believing the gospel. We change our minds about our need for God, then believe the gospel of God's grace, which is Christ crucified for us. "Turning from sin" will not get our sins forgiven. Our sins were forgiven through Christ's blood. Salvation occurs upon belief in this. Commented May 24 at 15:23
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    @GratefulDisciple Yes, but saying the "sinners prayer" and "asking Jesus to become their Lord and Savior" is not how one becomes saved. It is by God's grace that we are saved through faith...not of ourselves (Eph 2:8-9). 'Saying', 'asking', 'turning' would be of ourselves. Do we follow "the grain of evangelical practice", or do we follow the final authority of God which is His written Word to us? Eph 4:14 "That we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive;" Commented May 24 at 18:00
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    This question really needs to be scoped. There are some who believe they can save themselves by their own good intentions and penitent thoughts. There are some who believe this is not possible for natural man, born of Adam, and who believe that 'salvation is of the Lord' from first to last. There will be responses across this spectrum of belief and there will be no possibility of a 'consensus'. There has been a divide for centuries over this very subject and there is no sign of it closing.
    – Nigel J
    Commented May 24 at 18:08

4 Answers 4

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To have a wrong view of what biblical sin and repentance is will lead to wrong ideas about how to repent, and the role of the Holy Spirit in that. So, let me try to briefly show what biblical sin is. First, please read Psalm 32, plus Psalm 51:10-12 (David's writings). Now here are the relevant literal English and Hebrew (italicized) words he uses with regard to his sin and how God deals with properly repented-of sin. The word nasa is significant. We have all heard of the North American Space Agency = NASA. And it certainly does what it says - it uplifts (rockets into space). Bear that in mind with what God does with our sin.

Blessed pesha nasa, chataah kasah. [Blessed transgression forgiven, sin covered]

Blessed the man unto whom the LORD chasab not avon [imputeth not iniquity]

I yada my chattath unto thee [I acknowledged my sin unto thee]

And mine avon have I not kasah [iniquity have I not hid]

I said, I will yadah my pesha unto the LORD [confess my transgressions]

And thou nasa the avon of my chattath [forgavest the iniquity of my sin]

"The AV translators, according to Robert Young, have translated nasa "forgive" 16 times. But they have translated the same word as "carry, bear or lift up" 318 times... David says that when he purposed to confess his sins - before he even did so, but with the very heart intention of it - God uplifted them. David roared... David was pressed sore upon by God. David refrained from speaking. David's moisture dried up. Until such a time that he, finally, purposed to - and thou uplifted the iniquity of my sin." The Burden of Sins, Nigel Johnstone, pp. 18-19, 2013, http://www.belmontpublications.co.uk

The Bible shows that it is God who makes a provision for sins; then he visits sinners to make them aware of those sins and of his provision to uplift the burden of them from them. Without the realisation of the enormity of our sins, we cannot appreciate the massive remedy for our sins. To sin is not merely to "miss the mark" (as if the archer just needs more practice and patience to finally hit the bull's-eye).

David did not have such a wimpish view of his sin. Before he was afflicted, he went astray. Then; blessed affliction. And blessed be he whom the Lord loves and chastens. Blessed be he whom the Lord will bring to a full realisastion of his sins. That he might truly, actually, genuinely appreciate what it really means to be burdened by them. Then he may receive the deliverance Jesus came to preach and provide, as per Luke 4:18 - to set at liberty the bruised; to deliver the crushed. The Greek for this deliverance is aphesis.

"This is what sins do [shatter, break] Or, more particularly, this is what they do - if there is a real appreciation of what they are, in the sight of Almighty God.

The realisation of what sins are, and what their consequence is, does this. It shatters a man to pieces such that he will never, ever, be put back the way he was. Broken; permanently. And this - this only - is the state to which a preacher comes, preaching aphesis. For this state God notices. And God, Himself, does something about it." (Ibid. p. 30)

We learn what God does in the account of Job. He was aware to some degree that he was in a sinful state (7:20). But at that point he had not plumbed the depths. By 42:5 he realizes (with the singular eye of faith) that he needs to abhor himself in dust and ashes, because he had finally grasped something profound about the enormity of the holy and righteous God he worshipped, in relation to his sinfulness.

"But he was also conscious that God had not 'forgiven' him. The word is not 'forgive' [in Job 7:2]. It is nasa, as we saw in David's psalm. North American Space Agency. Nasa. Uplift. Against gravity. Against an immense force that reacts in the opposite direction. With a power that is able to contradict the pull of a massive force. With a mighty ability to overcome forces that, naturally, hold something firmly, totally and permanently in place.

Nasa. Uplift... God does this. Job is the recipient of it. (Ibid. pp. 35-36)

The Holy Spirit is involved in all of this; first by convicting (or, convincing) us of our sin. This is to drive us to our knees before God (not other people) confessing to him, in faith believing that he alone can unburden us from our sin, by lifting them up, up and away. For no human power can do that. Only the Holy Spirit's work achieves all of that.

The proof of the vital need for the Holy Spirit working that in us is realized by each individual who truly grasps God's abhorrence of their sin, and is so burdened, that crying out to God in repentance gives them that relief - the sure awareness that God has given them a new mind. It's not a changed mind. It's a new mind - the mind of Christ. Only the Holy Spirit can give us that.

If your idea for that service is (basically) a paper exercise with a visual of burning the bits of paper, then I agree with your elders that it would not give due reverence to the role of the Holy Spirit. As they rightly say, "repentance is something that cannot be planned in a service, because to do repentance you need the Holy Spirit, which you cannot control." Read Psalm 51:10-12 again.

I became a member of a small Protestant group after having come to private biblical repentance in my mid-20s after Holy Spirit conviction that I was committing the sin of deliberately refusing to worship my Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.

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  • So I think you made good points about what sin and God's forgiveness is. But then you just say "The Holy Spirit is involved in all of this;" to which I only partly agree (or it's more about how you and I think about his involvement). So obviously God/The Holy Spirit is involved by doing the "forgiving". But I still think that humans are doing the "repenting". How we get to be aware of our sins can vary. E.g. I don't need a spiritual awakening to know that murder is a sin, so I can just go ahead and repent it. The discussion is about how the Holy Spirit is necessary for repentance.
    – telion
    Commented May 24 at 15:52
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It is absolutely impossible to repent without faith. Repentance is first and foremost turning from unbelief to belief, that’s the only change of mind God approves of. Without faith repentance is actually wicked and irrational because you would be turning away from one thing and turning towards another that you would not be sure is good. Anything not of faith is sin.

Faith of course means ‘faith in the gospel’. There is no other kind of faith. Faith that your conscience can be cleansed in Christ, apart from the works of the law, is the only kind of faith. So the question must quickly be rephrased to, ‘Can you have faith in the gospel (or renewed faith in the gospel) without the Holy Spirit.?’

The answer to this question can be seen where faith is first noticed:

Matt 16 ESV

15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.

and

1 Cor 2 ESV

11 For who knows a person's thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. 12 Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. 13 And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.

The answer is therefore conclusive. We can’t repent without faith and we can’t have faith in the gospel revealed to us but by the immediate working of the Spirit illuminating our mind.

John 6

44 No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.

Therefore the way it really works, is that if the sermon manifests the glory of God in the gospel, faith and repentance are normally followed almost automatically so. Unless we have a wicked heart of unbelief that under constant falling of sweet rain, thorns and thistles are produced.

With respect to all your examples where the Holy Spirit is only presumed but not mentioned directly, it is evident that they all exercised faith. Repentance is the negative mirroring of the exercise of faith. For example, the prodigal had faith in the love of his father otherwise he never would have turned towards him. The older brother apparently had little faith if any. Furthermore, repentance is not about turning way from mere external things but having our desires changed. The change of our desires is the peculiar work of the Holy Spirit. (Gal 5:17, Ezekiel 36:26)

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  • I am not sure where you are getting at. Maybe we talked past each other but my question was not about faith. Faith is an obvious presupposition to any relationship with God of course including repentance. My question was whether the act of repenting needs the Holy Spirit to even start. Now if you are in a church, dealing with this topic, I also don't assume that the person has never heard of God, quite the opposite. I think that Christians are also in need to repentance, because its so easy to relax and sin again, thinking you are set for life.
    – telion
    Commented May 24 at 13:31
  • Maybe the problem are the definitions. Maybe you have a specific understanding of the word faith that differs from mine. Same with repentance. So faith for me is the belief that God in his Trinity exists, loves us, revealed himself in the Bible, and died for our sins at the cross and rose again. Now having Faith enables me to receive the Holy Spirit but I would say that receiving the Holy Spirit and having Faith are 2 separate things. I also would argue that repenting of sin is necessary to receive the Holy Spirit but is also necessary to keep the Holy Spirit or at least not grieve him.
    – telion
    Commented May 24 at 13:36
  • @telion. I think you are correct about different definitions. I do not think there is a any denomination that thinks it is possible to repent without the Holy Spirit. I do not see faith as something that happens once, it is something generated by the Holy Spirit that happens over and over in anything good that we do. Man does not live by bread alone but every word that proceeds from the mouth of God, by faith. Repentance is just sin, no matter how righteous, unless motivated and produced in a moment-by-moment faith and reliance on Christ and his Spirit and his word through the gospel.
    – Mike
    Commented May 24 at 14:15
  • @telion - However when we talk about the Spirit, their is the initial conversion of the sinner where the Spirit falls upon them from without to open their eyes and have faith initially. Once they believe they are justified and the Spirit unites them into the body of Christ, and indwells in them, so faith from believer is from the Spirit within., whereas in the initial step is what from the Spirit without. In addition your pastors are talking about a third meaning. The transient operations of the Spirit in the ministry which is not predictable. The indwelling Spirit is predictably there.
    – Mike
    Commented May 24 at 14:19
  • @telion - So in conclusion your pastors, thought giving good advice relatively speaking, would have even been better to say ‘We do not know if the Spirit will enable the preacher to preach a very good sermon under the power of the Spirit, so we can’t predict that everyone will have an unusual ability to repent.’ In any case the Lord's choice of practice is not burning paper in fire but actually just take part in the Lords supper and remind ourselves that Christ died for us. to redeem us from the Law. This is the best ritual because we always forget the value of this single event.
    – Mike
    Commented May 24 at 14:23
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Holy Spirit → Grace → Repentance → Free will → Faith → More repentance

In this answer I'm speaking for Charismatic groups (which theologically descended from Wesleyan / Arminian theology). There are 2 wills operating here: God's will and our own will. Our will is wounded, so cannot repent or have faith in Jesus on our own, so the Holy Spirit needs to supply the grace (prevenient grace) in the form of

  • light to enlighten our mind so we realize we are sinners and in need of repentance, and
  • power to move our will so it is minimally alive and healthy enough to want to make Jesus our Lord and Savior, a.k.a. have "faith" in Jesus

Once we become a believer (thus "born again"), the Holy Spirit starts dwelling in us permanently.

  • Some Pentecostal / Charismatic groups postulate a subsequent event after "born again" called "Baptism of the Holy Spirit"
  • Others say that once we are "born again" the Holy Spirit immediately dwells in us
  • Others say that Baptism seals the faith decision and that's the point where we are "born again" and also when the Holy Spirit dwells in us.

Regardless of the timing of when the Holy Spirit dwells in us, we STILL need to repent of post-conversion sins, and also pre-conversion sins that we neglected to confess because our soul has received more and more light since conversion. So in a sense, we owe ALL repentance to the grace of the Holy Spirit. But then, the Holy Spirit merely convicts; we need to exert our sanctified will to decide to repent.

Going back to your issue, I think you and your church leaders are both right. What's important is to remember that repentance is a conscious decision, but by that time our will has already received the grace previously provided by the Holy Spirit unconsciously. Thus, when designing the church service, which provides an environment to invite and facilitate congregation for repentance, it's important for the congregation to understand this teaching. Thus the pastor can simply say:

"For those who have felt the prompting of the Holy Spirit to repent, you are invited to write your sins down in the paper provided, pray for forgiveness, and then celebrate God's forgiveness by coming forward to throw the paper in the fire because once confessed God will forget our sins. But if you are not ready, we invite you to ask God to reveal your sins in the coming days. We will have another service like this next {month / year}."

Example

The church I'm attending (Christian and Missionary Alliance), which is halfway between Methodist and Pentecostal/charismatic (GotQuestions: "moderately charismatic") is big on repentance. They believe that the Holy Spirit has a role to help one to be convicted of sin, which then leads to conscious repentance.

Just for ideas of how my church provides an environment for repentance:

  1. This is an annual practice. During the Sunday service after a sermon on repentance, the pastor asks everyone to pick up a 3"x5" card (already provided at your seat) and write down the single most sin you want to repent but not your name (anonymous). In the next few weeks you can drop it on your way out in a basket. A few weeks later they collated the cards and report the top 5 sins that the congregation has submitted, and collectively pray for repentance.

  2. In a 4 day workshop they promote for diagnosing your spiritual health, they ask each one to fill out a "Spiritual Inventory" card and check off the bad habits that you are working on. You do this at any time of your choosing during the workshop (spread over 2 weekends). In the final session, there is a ceremony where everyone is invited to come to the front (not required) to announce in front of everyone the type of sin you have repented and what you resolve to do, rip apart the card, and throw the pieces in the recycling bin to signify that God no longer remembers your repented sin.

That is why, to honor the timing for the Holy Spirit to work in us, they provide at least 2 weeks time for us to pray, inviting the Holy Spirit to give light to us so we can be aware of our sins, which then prompt us to make a decision to repent in another prayer. In that way, the church does their best to honor the free will of BOTH the Holy Spirit AND the believer.

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  • That is the best answer so far, at least it makes the most sense to me. Thank you very much.
    – telion
    Commented May 24 at 15:34
  • @telion Glad I could help. Welcome to C.SE. Feel free to accept this answer or let me know if there is an aspect I still need to address. Commented May 24 at 16:23
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Repentance, (changing your mind) about God, and yourself (being a sinner), is what happens prior to receiving the indwelling holy Spirit. It is this goodness of God, His grace displayed through Christ crucified for us (found in God's written Word), that leads us to repentance. The Spirit is the author of God's Word and where we find the love of God, but guidance from the indwelling Spirit Himself does not occur until after salvation, which is when we are sealed by Him and with Him for eternity upon having faith alone in Christ alone.

Romans 11:29

For the gifts and calling of God are without repentance.

Romans 2:4

Or despisest thou the riches of his goodness and forbearance and longsuffering; not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance?

It is when one hears the gospel and believes the gospel that the Spirit then indwells them until Christ returns for His purchased possession.

Ephesians 1:12-13

That we should be to the praise of his glory, who first trusted in Christ. 13 In whom ye also trusted, after that ye heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation: in whom also after that ye believed, ye were sealed with that holy Spirit of promise,

Ephesians 4:30

And grieve not the holy Spirit of God, whereby ye are sealed unto the day of redemption.

What is the gospel that we must hear and believe for this to occur?

1 Corinthians 15:1-4

Moreover, brethren, I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received, and wherein ye stand; 2 By which also ye are saved, if ye keep in memory what I preached unto you, unless ye have believed in vain. 3 For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; 4 And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures:

It is when we believe that our sins were forgiven on the day that Jesus Christ shed His blood on the cross for the world, was dead and buried, but defeated both sin and death for our justification on day three that we are then sealed by and indwelt with the holy Spirit of Promise.

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  • To follow up: Does your answer change if repentance is focused on repenting sin, which Christians should also do after they received the Holy Spirit? Unless I missed the part where we Christians become perfect people after becoming Christians. Or would you just say, "Well after they sinned the Holy Spirit left and through repentance the can get him back in?"
    – telion
    Commented May 24 at 11:34
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    @telion Our position with God changes once we have faith alone in Christ alone. God no longer sees who we see when we look in the mirror (sinners trapped in a sinful carnal body), He now sees Christ in us. We work to remove the sin nature of our carnal lives because of the love God gave us through Christ. We do not remove sin from our lives as an effort to receive God's grace (that occurred at the cross). Christ was "perfect" for us and His righteousness is imputed to us upon having faith in Him. We are "sealed unto the day of redemption", not just until we sin again...which we will. Commented May 24 at 12:25
  • Ok, let's say you have sinned as a Christian that received the Holy Spirit. What do you do? (Also keep in mind that this question comes from a daily life perspective, where you don't make a little mistake and don't know what to do next, but the accumulation of sin from day to day, of which you are aware of but don't bother to confess or repent them). Because it sounds like as soon you have the Holy Spirit you are set for life, which I disagree with, seeing that even the best Christians commit various sin.
    – telion
    Commented May 24 at 13:21
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    @telion What you would do is thank God for the forgiveness that He gave you for that sin at the cross. We are not sinners because we sin, we sin because we are sinners. Repentance is realizing this truth and a need of help (a savior). The gospel is then presented to us as our means of escape from who we are, to who we spiritually become. Through our faith in Christ, we accept God's gift of eternal salvation. Rom 3:25 "Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God;" Commented May 24 at 13:40
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    @telion To "repent" means to change our mind or way of thinking. So, with that definition, repentance will occur throughout the life of a believer. They will constantly experience the inner battle that Paul himself describes in Romans 7. The Spirit, through our conscience, shows us a righteous path. We still retain the free will choice of right or wrong, but our eternal salvation is not in jeopardy when we sometimes "quench the Spirit". 1 Cor 6:12 "All things are lawful unto me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any." Commented May 24 at 15:34

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