How Seeing Repentance as a Gift From God Helps You in Counseling

A counselee taking active steps of repentance is a core part of the counseling process. In the counseling room, the counselor calls men and women to put off the old man and to put on the new (Eph. 4:22-24). Yet, as any counselor can tell you, that is not always how it goes. Sometimes a counselor labors over a counselee for weeks, and there is no change. The counselor may follow up the session with text messages of encouragement, spend time praying for them in the evening, and take other steps that they might not normally take—and yet to no avail. There are many reasons why a counselee may not take a step of repentance, but there is one not normally mentioned: that counselee was not granted repentance.

Repentance is a Gift that is Given by God

When Christ and Nicodemus are recorded talking in John 3, Jesus tells Nicodemus that unless he is born of “water and the Spirit” he cannot see the kingdom of God. Meaning that until God has done something in each and every person’s heart (that is, they must be born again or “from above”), they will always remain in their sin and unable to even SEE the kingdom of heaven.

Later, this same idea is picked up in Acts 11:18 when Peter is recounting his ministry to the Gentiles. The Jews who had believed on Christ were pretty upset at some of what Peter had been up to. The text says they, “took issue with him” (Acts 11:2). But when they heard Peter’s story, they responded, “Well then, God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life.”

This is born out elsewhere in Acts 5:31 and 2 Timothy 2:25. The point is this: repentance is a gift. It is something that is granted to us by God. We all need to see that when we choose to repent of our sin, either for our own salvation or for our own holiness: it is a gift given to us by God. And as with all gifts, there are some implications for our thinking.

You Can’t Choose Who Gets the Gift

In the parable of the workers (Mt. 20:1-16), we encounter what many feel is a seemingly unjust section of scripture that our minds cannot comprehend. One guy works one hour and gets paid the same as the guy who worked a full day. These men who worked all day in the sun “grumbled” and were thinking that this was just not fair. How did the master respond? “Is your eye envious because I am generous?” Boom. We should all feel the weight of that question.

God is the one who is giving out the gifts, not you and not me. Countless passages point out how our understanding of God’s providence is so limited. We know that He is working everything for His glory, and we know that He is working everything to make us like Christ (Rom. 8:28-29). However, we don’t understand the process, the means, or many of the other details that make up the plan. Which is why we are called to such a deep trust in Him.

If God is the one who is giving out the gift of repentance for His glory, every counselor needs to understand that the reason their counselee may not be changing is because God has not granted them repentance. We don’t know that God has not granted it to them, but if repentance is a gift, and they are not repenting, it only follows that they may not have been granted that gift.

Why Might God Withhold Repentance?

There are many probable answers to such a question, but none can be sure until we all behold Him with unveiled faces. For example, Paul highlights in Romans 11 that because of Israel’s rejection, you were welcomed in (Rom. 11:32). Why did God do it this way? We must cry out with Paul in the next verse, “Oh, the depth of the riches, both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His Ways!” (Rom. 11:33)

Did you catch that word unsearchable? You and I will never understand this side of heaven why God withheld repentance from someone. Rather, we are called to respond less with inquiry and more of awestruck worship. Instead of pondering why God would give repentance to one and not the other, adoration is the right response.

Conclusion and Application

There are two main applications and implications for counseling then. First, if we have been granted repentance, or we have a counselee that has turned from their sin, let us not boast. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 4:7, “What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?” Simply put, if counseling ever goes well, and they grow in holiness, let us remember, it was a gift.

Secondly, when counseling is going poorly, and it does not appear that God has granted repentance to our counselee…When we have done everything that we can think of…Then rest in God’s plan. Remember Paul’s words about Israel again, “What if God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction?” (Rom. 9:22) Trust that God is doing something that is beyond what we can fathom, and seek to cultivate humility in our own hearts.


Photo by Alex Shute on Unsplash

Joshua M. GreinerJoshua M. Greiner
Josh has been on staff with Faith since 2010. He graduated from Purdue University with a BA in Political Science (2008) and from Faith Bible Seminary with a MDiv (2013), The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary with a ThM in Biblical Counseling (2017) and is pursuing a PhD in Counseling from SBTS as well. He serves as the Pastor of Faith West Ministries, the Chaplin of the West Lafayette Fire Department, an instructor with Faith Bible Seminary, and a Fellow with the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC). He is married to his wife Shana, and they have four children together.