I’ve wrestled with this question a lot.
Though I was saved at an early age, I didn’t fully understand the gospel (especially the eternal security of believers) until I was in college.
As a kid, I truly wanted to live a Christ-like life, I knew I was a sinner, and I believed that Christ died for my sin. I struggled, though, with the notion of what Jesus’ forgiveness looked like.
It seemed both logical and desirable to repent regularly, both of known and unknown sins. Yet for several years, the need to ask for forgiveness consumed me.
Each night I would fall asleep praying for forgiveness over and over again. I was terrified that if I died in my sleep, God would send me to hell because my last thought might be a sinful one.
My young mind essentially created its own penitential system for dealing with sin. Instead of trusting God to forgive all of my sins by grace through faith, I established a means of working off my sins through the constant and repetitive asking of forgiveness. I was heaping up empty phrases, hoping to be heard for my many words (Matt. 6:7). It was an attempt to barter for grace instead of receiving grace through faith.
Once For All
A trip to New Mexico one summer changed everything.
I don’t remember who preached or what text they preached, but after worship service, I sat on a pew and understood (for the first time) the significance of Christ dying once. As common sense as it might seem, I never truly considered that Christ’s death paid for ALL of my sins– past, present, and future.
And it was the future sins that really got me.
On that cross, all of my sins were future sins, but He died for them. This meant that He knew them, even the ones that will come decades from now. None of my sins came as a surprise to Him, and because of that once-for-all sacrifice, I could be truly certain of my forgiveness and salvation.
But that isn’t to say that we should stop repenting of sin.
In many ways, repentance is the great mark of a true Christian.
We are called to repent of sin continually, not just initially (Matt. 3:8).
However, laying my cards on the table, the question “Must I repent after each sin?” is a loaded one. The word must implies an obligation, a requirement, or even a coercion to do something, but as followers of Christ, we get to repent of our sins, knowing that God is faithful and just to forgive us. It is a joy to ask our Father for forgiveness and strength to turn from sin because we already know what His answer will be.
While studying to preach on Christ’s relationship to the Old Testament Law, I finally came to understand why Paul calls us captives under the Law before Christ came (Gal. 3:23).¹
Laws are necessary, but by nature, they merely rein in our sin. A law’s power is equal to the consequence for breaking it, and those punishments leverage our sinful nature for the benefit of society. For instance, if the consequence is severe enough, most people will not risk stealing. Or we could ask, how many killings are prevented simply because the fear of punishment hinders an act of blind rage?
Laws confine sinful behavior by establishing a punishment as a reason to refrain from sin.
Because of this, obeying a law does not make me a inwardly moral person; it only means that I am outwardly behaving according to the law.
Outward obedience does not necessarily correlate with an internal godly morality.
This is why Jesus’ teachings so angered the Pharisees. They nearly perfected outward obedience, but Jesus called their bluff. He knew their hearts didn’t line up with their actions, so He called them what they were: hypocrites (Matt. 23:25).
Fortunately, Jesus had a better answer to the problem of sin than the Law could provide.
Jeremiah describes Jesus’ followers as having the law written on their hearts (Jer. 31:33). This means that they would no longer be compelled to obey God’s law out of fear of punishment; instead, they would actually want to obey.
Our captivity to the law is broken on two fronts.
First, Jesus’ death decisively eliminates the eternal punishment of sin, allowing us to live in the joy of knowing that we will never suffer the wrath of God, only His loving discipline.
Second, we have a joy from obeying the law because Christ has now written it within our hearts. We, therefore, no longer feel obligated to obey God; instead, we joyfully obey Him with thanksgiving!
Jesus has erased the must, the obligation, from obedience and from repentance.
So, in answer to the original question, if a Christian dies immediately after sinning, they are still in Christ because God already justified them once for all. The lack of time to repent of a particular sin will NOT override God’s grace.
But of course, given time, Christians will naturally desire to repent.
Repentance is what we do.
And that desire will come from gratitude to God, not requirement or mere necessity.
My younger self’s brokenness over sin and desire for obedience was certainly a good sign of truly following Christ, but I’m immeasurably thankful for the grace of knowing the gospel’s truth and assurance more fully.
Does repenting of sin ever become a requirement in your heart instead of being a desire, delight, and grace?
1) Charles Leiter’s The Law of Christ has helped me tremendously to understand our New Covenant relationship to the Old Testament laws. Hopefully, the brief discussion of the topics in this post will encourage you to study them more deeply in Leiter’s book.