There is an argument that Tiger Wood’s sexual immorality is private and none of our business. Fine. His very public apology, however, gives us an opportunity to think about the nature of repentance and faith. During his apology Tiger made reference to his wandering from his childhood faith, Buddhism. He apologized to all those people, including his fans, whom he offended and whom he disappointed. He pledged to do better, to return to the laws of Buddhism, including, one imagines, its requirement for various forms of self-denial. There is one, however, to whom Tiger did not apologize and there is a law to which he did not pledge obedience.That law is God’s law: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything which is written in the book of the law (Gal 3:10; Deut 27:26). The law of God requires “perfect and personal obedience” (WCF 7.2). The one to whom Tiger did not apologize, of course, is the thrice-holy God. However much Tiger may fear losing his wife, his family, or his endorsements, he has much more to fear from God who is a “consuming fire” (Deut 4:24).
Scripture does not know anything about apologies to God. Scripture only knows about perfect righteousness as the way to acceptance with God. As has been said often enough, God does not grade on a curve. Indeed, he does not.
Consider the wholly horizontal orientation of Tiger’s apology and the rather more, if you will, vertical orientation of David’s confession of sin in Ps 32. Discovered for the adulterer (and murderer) he was, David did not hold a press conference. Convicted by God’s Spirit of his sin against God (and Bathsheba and Uriah) he turned his face to God his judge. “Blessed is the man against whom Yahweh counts no iniquity” (Ps 32:2). The God-wardness of David’s repentance is perhaps even more pointed in Ps 51: “Have mercy upon me, O Godâ€¦blot out my transgressions” (Ps 51:1). “Against you only have I sinned” (Ps 51:4). In these moments David understood that sin is lawlessness (1 John 3:4) and “the day you eat thereof you shall surely die” (Gen 2:17). “The wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23).
True repentance, as distinct from mere apologies, begins with a recognition of reality, of who and what God is and of who and what we are. It begins with the knowledge of the greatness of our sin and misery. True repentance reckons with the law as the perfect expression of God’s perfect and unyielding righteousness. True repentance drives one to Christ, the only righteous man, the only man who ever actually kept the law, and true faith trusts in that one righteous man and in his “one act” of righteousness (Rom 5:18; i.e., his whole, perfect obedience) for his elect.
True repentance, i.e., genuine sorrow for sin against God and heartfelt desire to turn away from it, is born of true faith. Unbelievers don’t repent. Believers do. They know the greatness of their sin and misery. Tiger does not yet appear to know that. He seems to think that if he just focuses a little harder, is more disciplined, if he denies himself the pleasures of this world (his language), he can get everything back on track. Perhaps he can—as far as we can see. At the last day, however, it will not matter that Tiger recovered his public image, that he built more schools, that he regained the trust of his family and followers. At the last day it will only matter if he has satisfied the righteousness of God and I guarantee you that, as remarkable as Tiger is, he cannot do it. No sinner can.
The great good news for Tiger and for you is that Jesus has already done it and everyone who trusts in him and in his obedience for sinners is reckoned as if he himself had done all that Jesus did. God accepted Jesus’ righteousness. Jesus was vindicated by his resurrection (1 Tim 3:16). As certainly as Jesus was raised from the dead, so certainly will God accept Tiger and you and whoever turns to Christ in true faith, i.e., a certain knowledge and a hearty trust that Jesus obeyed and died “for me.”
From that true faith, a believer begins daily to die to his own desires and to live to Christ. He continues to sin for the rest of his life but now we know what sin is and we know what grace is. We know that in God’s free acceptance of sinners for Christ’s sake there is power and new life and real hope for real change; not perfection in this life but free acceptance with God (grace) and mercy and the work of the Spirit in our hearts, minds, and wills. By his grace the same Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead unites us to Christ, through faith, and is at work in us making us slowly, imperceptibly like Jesus.
Tiger pledged to do better. That won’t be good enough. Pray that Tiger and everyone else who heard his apology realizes the difference between “doing better” and doing “everything written in the book of the law” and that Christians understand the difference between an apology and true repentance.