Can You Repent Without Changing?

The Beginning of the End for Sexual Sin

by Dr. Harry W. Schaumburg

For more than 25 years, I have counseled Christian men and women who have lived in bondage to sexual sin. I’ve met with people who have hired prostitutes, had affairs, were addicted to pornography, lied, and blamed a spouse for their problems. I’ve listened while they described financial loss, job loss, sleep loss, and familial loss, all due to sexual sin.

As we look to the future, we see the spiritual and relational threats of sexual sin are even greater in the coming generation. Preteens are increasingly engaging in oral sex, and large numbers are likely to access porn (intentionally or unintentionally), often setting in motion a life of bondage. A few generations ago, dating relationships for teens moved from the front porch to the back seat, changing sexual behavior forever. Today, “friends with benefits” and sexting are becoming increasingly normal.

The already serious problem of sexual sin in the church is growing even more serious.

Diagnosis Dictates Treatment

Critical to addressing the increasing amount of sexual sin in the church is understanding that sinful behavior is an indication of a deeper problem.

Tragically, our therapeutic culture often wields greater influence on what needs to change, and how change occurs, than the church does. Contrary to what many believe, freedom from sexual sin doesn’t begin with addressing past painful experiences. Having counseled thousands of men and women, I find that the first step in overcoming sexual sin is to understand that sexual misbehavior is the heart’s arrogant attempt to deal with pain, and that the pain itself is not the problem.

A proper diagnosis should dictate the treatment method. If the diagnosis is wrong, the treatment will be ineffective. But if we believe in God, and trust his word, we can receive a correct diagnosis and know our Master Physician.

“Freedom from sexual sin doesn’t begin with addressing past painful experiences.”

Jesus clearly stated the core problem: “From within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality . . . adultery . . . sensuality” (Mark 7:21–22). In other words, when it comes to sexual sin, Jesus says our core problem is not what was done to us, but what resides in us.

If our primary problem is sin — and our corrupt, rebellious nature — then we know what primarily needs to be addressed. Since a diagnosis dictates the treatment, if sin is the diagnosis, it must be treated with faith and repentance. With sexual sin, real change can only begin with real repentance — a change of the heart.

Repentance Is Not Recovery

Heart change brings high motivation for behavior change. This is not the motivation of self-disgust or remorse over the harm done to others, but a higher calling. The deceitful heart is a self-centered machine that demands, “It’s my way in life, relationships, and sex. It’s all about me.” Therefore, the repentant sexual sinner gives up the illusionary control of personal desires, the control of life itself.

Let me say it as clearly as I can: When it comes to sexual sin and addiction, recovery is not repentance, and repentance is not recovery. Repentance is not merely human effort. It is not a self-help program. Repentance is God’s surgical procedure, in which he not only humbles the sinner, but works a change in him that is visible from the outside. Yes, the sexual sin stops, but a spouse says of a former sexual sinner, “He’s a different man,” or, “She’s a different woman.”

In repentance, the sexual sinner understands he has broken the law of God and is legally guilty in God’s court. The sexual sinner cries out for mercy, knowing that mercy rests entirely on God’s good pleasure. Biblical repentance not only renounces the sexual behavior; it renounces the world, the flesh, and the devil.

In repentance, the sexual sinner turns from self-seeking and self-trusting to their God. Her internal heart has changed and her controlling desire is for God’s purpose and glory. In other words, there is a new internal drive toward spiritual, relational, and sexual maturity, a striving “for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14).

Death Yielding Life

Repentance is a death. When a sexual sinner repents, self dies and God reigns. It is far more than merely giving up one’s sexual sin, but surrendering one’s whole life.

In this age, sin will always be present in us. But in true repentance, the sinner’s life is no longer controlled by his sexual sin. Instead, he is governed by a longing to obey God.

True repentance bears fruit, which goes beyond sobriety. It begins a change from the inside out. There is not only change in behavior, but everything begins to shift at all levels of one’s being. A man becomes a different man; a woman becomes a different woman.

And this transformation of heart brings a transformation in relationships. He becomes a different husband; she becomes a different wife. Where sexual sin was destroying a relationship, the fruit of repentance begins restoring a relationship, as each person considers the other more important than himself (Philippians 2:3)

Note: The above article was originally a blog post on on August 4, 2017.