Luke 11:24-26 – 24 “When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, and finding none it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ 25 And when it comes, it finds the house swept and put in order. 26 Then it goes and brings seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there. And the last state of that person is worse than the first.”
Have you ever had difficulty repenting? Likely you have, but only if you’re human. We all have trouble turning away from sin and not finding ourselves eventually sliding back into the old sinful patterns of thought or behavior. In fact, one of the most discouraging things that can happen to a Christian in his or her life is for him or her to boldly “repent” of a sin one day, and then to fail and restart the pattern again the next.
I believe that, in the passage above, Jesus gives us a hint as to how to defeat the cycle of sin, confess, sin again. While the most obvious context of the passage may have to do with false Jewish exorcists who pretended driving out demons from people, thus leading those people to worse conditions than they had previously experienced, , I believe that there is more in the pattern that Jesus describes. But first, let me make this disclaimer: Your sin is not the result of the work of demons. Your sin is not the result of your body chemistry. Your sin, and mine, is the result of our hearts’ darkness. While anything may contribute to what we do, we hold ultimate responsibility for our thoughts and actions.
So, here’s the pattern. You find a sin in your life. It is ugly, and you hate it. You are sad about it. You hurt because of it. So, you reject that pattern. You turn away. You strive to take off the sin like a filthy garment (cf. Colossians 3:5-9). And, for a while it works. For a while you feel good. For a while, you stand strong. Maybe it’s a day. Maybe it’s a month. Maybe it’s several months. For a while, you feel good.
Then it happens. Something, who knows what, recharges your sinful desire. You look up and find yourself back in the place you were just a few days, weeks, or months before. You thought you had repented. You tried with all your heart. Yet, when you examine yourself now, you are back in the sin you tried to put off. In fact, you might even be in it more deeply.
What happened? What did you miss? What did you fail to do? In a word, you failed to “replace” your sin.
To biblically understand repentance, you must grasp three major concepts. Repentance includes thinking, feeling, and turning. One part of repentance includes to recognize your sin as sin, to understand that it is truly wicked. Another part of repentance is to feel sorrow, godly sorrow, for your sin (2 Corinthians 7:8-11). And, the most common definition of repentance is to turn from your sin, putting off the old evil practices.
Where we most often fail is in the turning. Why? We forget that to turn from sin should necessarily involve a turning to something. When you turn from a sin, you must turn to righteousness. When you take off a sin like a filthy garment, you must put on righteousness like clothes (cf. Colossians 3:10-ff); otherwise you find yourself naked and vulnerable to attack. Or, to use Jesus’ imagery from Luke 11, you clean the house, but do not fill it. You allow it to be re-occupied by the evil that you drove out because you have not filled the house with a righteous alternative.
When I counsel church members on repenting of sin, I use a three word definition that often is helpful. If we are to repent, we must recognize, reject, and replace our sin. We must recognize our sin for what it is. We must reject our sin, feeling a disgust for it and what it stands for, which naturally leads to putting off that sin. But, and do not forget this, we also must replace our sin, putting on righteousness where there was previously sinfulness.
Let me give one example. Let’s say that a person is struggling with the sin of gossip. He is talking too much, too negatively, too destructively about too many people in the church. What should he do? Well, he will not repent until he first sees what he is doing is a breaking of God’s commands. Second, he must feel true conviction, true heart-sickness over what he has done to the glory of God and the church. Then he must willingly confess and turn away from this practice. But, and here is the major problem, he also must put on righteous practices. He must learn to speak with righteousness. HE must learn to speak good of people, not simply trying to avoid speaking evil. Otherwise, the vacuum will be refilled by his heart’s sinful desire to gossip. (there will be other issues he needs to cover, e.g. the pride of his heart that leads him to gossip, but this is a basic sketch of how he must begin to repent of a sin if gossip were the problem.)
So, don’t sweep a house and leave it empty. Don’t think you can just stop evil and that be enough. The key to true repentance is to also replace what is evil with what is righteous. Learn to recognize, reject, and replace your sin, and you will find victory over the pattern of sin and falling. No, I’m not guaranteeing an easy road with no bumps or failures along the way. I am, however, hoping that you and I will at least have a more biblical approach to turning from our sin, with God’s help, for God’s glory.