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Repentance: Attrition or Contrition?

Bible teachers often distinguish between two kinds of repentance. The first kind is what they call attrition. It isn’t heartfelt sorrow for wrongdoing, but a selfishly motivated response to potential punishment. It avoids further discipline. It’s external, self-preserving, and even self-centered.

The second kind of repentance Bible teachers talk about is contrition. Contrition is true repentance. It entails heartfelt sorrow for offending God and others. It involves not just turning away from disobedience, but also turning toward obedience. It’s an external change motivated by an internal change. It’s self-sacrificial. It’s God-centered.


False repentance, or no repentance, leads to bitterness, anger, and unwillingness tosurprised-by-grace2 acknowledge wrongdoing. Until we can recognize our own wrongdoing, we’ll continue to be mastered by this self-centered bondage. Our relationships will continue to be strained and frayed. Freedom comes only with true repentance.

When true repentance is offered, God promises to forgive and restore. True repentance is the means by which God brings about real restoration, a restoration that brings the deepest experience of peace.

Modified from Surprised by Grace by Tullian Tchividjian. Learn more.

August 26, 2010 | Posted in: AAA - BLOG UPDATE,Life / Doctrine,Sanctification,The Christian Life | Author: Crossway Staff @ 6:00 am | (3) Comments »


  1. Someone recently asked me if humility is required for receiving salvation. I asked him if a proud person would ever truly desire salvation? Would a proud person admit that his sin is so great that it separates him from God and required the death of Jesus to remove it?



    Comment by Steve Cornell — August 30, 2010 @ 4:05 pm

  2. I’m sorry to have to disagree with the quotation above: “True repentance is an external change … it’s self-sacrificial …”. Be advised, the Roman Catholic Church would have absolutely NO problem with this definition. However, those who understand Scripture should recoil in horror.

    Why? Because, the NT Greek word for repentance is “metanoia”; which means “to change one’s MIND”. Repentance is internal, not external. (Most “Evangelical” Christians have forgotten, or never knew, this.) Repentance is a consequence of faith, of being convinced that a “new” way is superior to the “old” way. Just as faith is internal, so is repentance. (“Create in me a clean heart, O, Lord.”)

    One who repents will (eventually) experience a change (hopefully, for the better) in his behavior. But this often takes a long time; sometimes years or decades. To define repentance as “an external change” doesn’t eliminate slavery, it simply applies gold-leaf to its chains.

    Consider this: if repentance is an external change, how can an individual know he has really changed? How can you possibly measure it … accurately? (“The heart is deceitfully wicked. Who can know it?”)

    Plus, if we insist that repentance is visible and sacrificial (as defined in the quote), then one can NEVER be assured that he will have done ENOUGH to please God (or anyone else). Please don’t assume that repentance is like Jell-0: “There’s always room for more”. Rather, realize that repentance is like so many other things in the Christian life – it’s counter-intuitive: what we think ought to work and accomplish the task of making God pleased with us, these are almost always exactly opposite of what He requires.

    Here’s a good rule of thumb to consider: Any mind-set or action(s) which takes our focus off what Christ has ALREADY accomplished on behalf of sinners is something to be avoided, at all costs. If we want to experience/see a change in behavior, we need a personal change in our THINKING. True sanctification takes place only when we stop thinking – “It’s all about me and what I can accomplish”. Change will begin only when we look away from ourselves, and start seriously contemplating the Person and Work of Christ Jesus. After all, “God was IN CHRIST, reconciling the world to Himself.”

    We all would do well to stop trying to use the caboose to pull the train. That’s why there is an engine.

    Comment by Lee — July 7, 2014 @ 6:47 pm

  3. Hi Lee,
    I agree, Catholics would not disagree with “True repentance is an external change … it’s self-sacrificial …”. But you did something dishonest. You left out a key part: “It’s an external change MOTIVATED BY AN INTERNAL CHANGE.” What is there to recoil from? By misquoting, you constructed a straw-man, which you then burn down in style. It places ‘external’, without qualifiers, as a sign of ‘attrition’, which is then put in juxtaposition with ‘contrition’, which is ‘an internal change which motivates external change’. Isn’t that what you are preaching? (And yes, it is self-sacrificial, as we aim to forgo immediate satisfaction and gratification, to obtain a good that is higher than the mere material)

    Comment by Wim — August 14, 2014 @ 8:07 pm

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