Apologetics Index

Recovery or Repentance?

By David Kowalski

boy in hospitalBill Wilson, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, is one of many figures who presented our culture with a new model for changing life-controlling, sinful habits — the model of “recovery.” Wilson was heavily influenced by syncretistic spirituality that included mystical and occult elements, and the resulting program he developed was not thoroughly scriptural in its approach.

Wilson was the product of an eclectic organization known as the Oxford Group and he was also a product of the times. Before the advent of modern psychology, most people saw sinful habits as something bad the person chose to get involved with — not as a symptom of a disorder in the individual. The old idea of someone becoming ensnared in habitual sin was replaced in popular thinking by the notion of their having an addictive personality (somewhat like an allergy of the mind) that needed treatment. Repentance was replaced by therapy. Instead of turning from sin, one recovered from a condition.

To treat alcoholics, Wilson developed his famous 12 steps, many of which sound Christian when considered in isolation from the program as a whole. Over the years, researchers have sought to determine the efficacy of the 12 step recovery model, and no one has yet been able to say that it produces better results than spontaneous remission rates (including a recent study by the Italian Agency for Public Health in Rome) — and some research has indicated the dynamics of group dependency in 12 step programs may be counterproductive toward changing long-term behavior.

Closely related to the 12 step model is the therapeutic model which sees the “undesirable conduct” as a substitute for the meeting of someone’s deeper “needs.” One popular Christianization of this approach has been to tell pornography addicts that their problem is not lust to be repented of. Instead, their problem is with unmet “needs” for intimacy (exactly how they know this is unclear). If one can fill their “intimacy needs” they will “recover” from their addiction. This concept may appeal to those who prefer not to see themselves as guilty people who must repent, but it has no life changing power in it.

While some support groups, in which individuals encourage and exhort one another, have shown some favorable results, the therapeutic model of recovery from addictive behavior has been unable to produce anything more than anecdotal evidence. Anecdotal evidence may be interesting, but nothing is proven until long-term double-blind studies are conducted with favorable results — otherwise we are in danger of committing the post hoc fallacy (“after this, therefore because of this”). If, for example, someone stops using amphetamines while on a gluten-free diet, we cannot say what role the diet had in this change until larger, long-term, double-blind studies are conducted to test the efficacy of treating amphetamine abuse with a gluten-free diet. In the meantime, we only have a story — not evidence.

The entry on “sin” in the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology notes the effect of “New Thought” (a form of Mind Science cultism that morphed into such things as the self-help movement and the Word-Faith movement) on the popular view of sin:

“In some other strands of culture religion, also showing the impact of “New Thought,” sin is equated with sickness or instability. The cure lies in self – or group therapy rather than in a sacrifice for sin. The way to overcome sin is through catharsis rather than repentance.” (page 1106)Jesus did not come to call the unfortunate to recovery but to call “sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:32 NASB).

Paul’s approach to sin in the Corinthian church was to call them to godly sorrow and repentance:

“I now rejoice, not that you were made sorrowful, but that you were made sorrowful to the point of repentance; for you were made sorrowful according to the will of God, so that you might not suffer loss in anything through us. For the sorrow that is according to the will of God produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation, but the sorrow of the world produces death. For behold what earnestness this very thing, this godly sorrow, has produced in you: what vindication of yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what longing, what zeal, what avenging of wrong! In everything you demonstrated yourselves to be innocent in the matter.” (2 Corinthians 7:9-11 NASB)

One popular teacher has redefined repentance for his followers, using one sentence out of context from Thayer’s Greek Lexicon. Thayer’s is available in abridged formats on various websites, and the abridged definition given for “repent” (Gk metanoia [noun form]) andmetanoeo [verb form]) does seem to support this teacher’s idea that repentance is nothing more than believing you are forgiven. The full text of all Lexicons (including Thayer’s!), however, reveals that repentance involves a turning from sin that results from godly sorrow over one’s disobedience to God. The context of the word’s usage throughout the NT also confirms this.

The first “step” to changing a sinful habit is to stop seeing yourself as a victim in any sense. You have not chosen to sin as a substitute for anything. Filling the “void” with whatever you are “really looking for” will not “cure” you. Sin is indeed “addictive” in nature. The more we indulge in it, the more we develop a strong taste for it — to the point of very strong, emotional bondage. The answer, though, is not therapy but God, and we come to Him not seeking recovery but repentance.

I am not at all opposing Bible-based counseling (such as nouthetic counseling) for those who have ensnared themselves in habitual sin. It is, indeed, quite beneficial to confess our sins to another and receive godly advice. Truly biblical counseling is great for those seeking to repent. Biblically-neutral counseling can also be quite helpful for people with morally-neutral, psychological problems such as phobias. Sin, however, is not a disorder; it is disobedience. Restored obedience to God is found only in repentance that involves confession, prayer, godly counsel, accountability, and biblical wisdom.

Speaking of recovery or repentance is not a false disjunction (an unnecessary choice between two things which can harmoniously coexist). Recovery and repentance are not complementary models; they are contradictory ones. In one we see ourselves as victims of a disorder and in need of therapy from a professional. In the other we see ourselves as as willfully guilty of sin we must turn from with the power that comes only from God’s Spirit.


As a postscript, after writing this piece, someone showed me a mass media article which tentatively claimed some positive results for twelve step programs based on one study. While this information calls for further study, it  is still outnumbered by other studies which suggest otherwise.

© Copyright 2013, David Kowalski. All rights reserved. Links to this post are encouraged. Do not repost or republish without permission.

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First published (or major update) on Thursday, July 4, 2013.
Last updated on July 04, 2013.

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