Self-Centered Repentance


I came across an interesting sentence in one of John Owen’s dense paragraphs. This paragraph comes from Ch. 7 of Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers, where Owen stresses that a person must be a Christian before he can mortify the deeds of the flesh––before he can overcome a sin that has held him captive.

A non-Christian cannot mortify (that is, put to death) a sin, since only the Spirit can mortify a sin. It is, therefore, a distraction to the non-Christian to get him to focus on overcoming particular sins, when he should be focusing on the conversion of the whole soul.

In the midst of that discussion, Owen says this:

The business in hand being to awake the whole man unto a consideration of the state and condition wherein he is, that he might be brought home to God, instead hereof he sets himself to mortify the sin that galls him––which is a pure issue of self-love, to be freed from his trouble, and not at all to the work he is called unto––and so is diverted from it. (my emphasis)

That phrase grabbed my attention when I read it. Do some people repent out of self-love rather than a love for God? Is Owen right about this? I think he is.

Some people are so stricken with feelings of guilt that they do what is needed to rid themselves of that guilt. Their goal is to remove guilt, not to draw nearer to God. Is this true repentance? No. When the ultimate goal of repentance is to remove feelings of guilt, then it is not true repentance. If you, not God, is at the center of your motivation to repent, the you are self-centered rather than being God-centered.

When we repent, we are aiming to turn from a sin primarily because it is an offense to God. Our primary goal is not to rid ourselves of feeling guilty. This should occur, but it should not be the primary concern of repentance.

Why does John Owen call this “self-love”? It is because the sinner is moved to repent because he loves himself, not because he loves God. He is not moved to tears because he has been rebelling against his Creator. He’s moved to tears because he has been suffering under his guilty conscience. If he could rid himself of the guilt without being reconciled to God, he would do so. His one concern is his guilt, not God. He loves himself rather than God.

Four Characteristics of Repentance from Self-Love

Owen gives four characteristics of those whose repentance is from self-love rather than the love of God.

  1. He is more troubled by how he feels than what he’s done.
  2. He returns to the sin as soon as the guilt leaves.
  3. He is unwilling to change other sinful desires and actions; he only cares to reform the desire or action that is causing the guilt. Again, his main concern is getting rid of the guilt, not becoming more Christlike overall.
  4. He is not primarily concerned with being totally reconciled to God. He is only concerned with getting rid of his feelings of guilt.

My Experience

I’m sure there are more characteristics, but John Owen’s suggested characteristics are helpful. He shows us the type of person that, though he or she shows outward signs of repentance, is not truly turning toward God. Working in ministry, I can attest that several people I have encountered as a minister displayed these characteristics. Usually, the person is only confessing and repenting of the sin because they have been embarrassed when the sin comes into the light. So I think Owen is right about this.

Do you think that Owen is right in saying that repentance can be self-centered?

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