Lost Tails and Bruised Reeds: The Grace of Divine Discipline and the Joy of True Repentance

Fantastic Mr. Fox, Revisited

       Three weeks ago, I wrote about how the protagonist of the film Fantastic Mr. Fox is an accurate representation of the unrepentant. [1] However, for all that the essay said about what repentance is not—making excuses, hating the consequences of sin but not sin itself, making confession without changing, and even having some understanding of the seriousness of sin—I failed to explain what repentance actually is. In particular, the essay lacked a biblical explanation of repentance. Without a biblical understanding of repentance, one could get the impression that all that Mr. Fox needed to do was to stop stealing from the farmers and pay restitution, however costly—and deadly—that price may be. While true, biblical repentance would require such actions, such actions in and of themselves would not be true, biblical repentance. True repentance, while it must manifest itself in repentant actions, must begin in the heart—and if it does not begin in the heart, the repentance is not true. 

       True repentance is not mere behavior modification. Even the film seems to know the futility of expecting behavior modification to lead to real heart change. Mr. Fox has already tried behavior modification. “Twelve fox-years ago,” when they were on the brink of death for trying to steal some chickens, Mrs. Fox made her husband promise to reform. Mr. Fox said, “OK”—but without any conviction. For a time, Mr. Fox stops stealing, not because he now hates stealing, but because the consequences for stealing are too high. There is behavior modification, but no true repentance. There is a point where Mr. Fox recognizes that his problem is greater than fingers that itch to steal. His problem is a heart that craves glory from others and self-satisfaction at any cost. However, though for one moment it is brought out into the open, this heart condition is never healed. 

       Thus, even if the film had ended with Mr. Fox doing the right thing, the resolution would still ring as false as it does when it ends with him robbing a supermarket. The implication would be that repentance is merely external, or that repentance can be self-made, or both. I hope my previous essay has not given that impression. 

       Believing that outward piety can save us from our sins, or that we can save ourselves by enacting our own repentance, is just as false as believing that one can sin boldly without fear of a final judgment—in fact, the former lies are probably harder to shake, and have probably been the ruin of more souls, than the latter. This is why we must clarify what true, biblical repentance is.

1. True Repentance Must Be Coupled with a True Understanding and Conviction of Sin

       Sin, first and foremost, is against God. Sin is the defiant rejection of God’s good and righteous rule and the usurping of His throne. Sin justly deserves the full wrath of a holy God. If sin is anything less than this to us, we will not hate our sin as God hates it, and we will not truly repent of it. Instead, like Mr. Fox, we will hate the inconveniences of sin’s consequences and not sin itself. We will grieve a lost tail but not the reason it was lost.  

       Consider what King David declares in Psalm 51:4: “Against you, you only, have I sinned / and done what is evil in your sight.” [2] David committed adultery with another man’s wife, then had that man—a friend and a loyal servant—murdered. He sinned gravely against two people. What is more, he morally failed his entire nation again and again, from the beginning of the scandal until the bloody cover-up. Nevertheless, David says it is against God “only” that he has sinned. When he sinned against Bathsheba, he was ultimately sinning against God. When he sinned against Uriah, he was ultimately sinning against God. When he sinned against Israel, he was ultimately sinning against God. David’s statement is shocking, yet only those who are able to sincerely echo his words are truly repentant.       

2. True Repentance Must Be Coupled with Faith in Christ for Salvation

       Our sin against a holy God is so great and so pervasive (John Calvin called it total depravity) that nothing we can do can atone for it or redeem us out of it. In fact, the thought that we could somehow save ourselves is so arrogant and proud as to be sinful itself. Our only hope is that Christ, “whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood,” took our sin upon Himself, and God “made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (Romans 3:25; 2 Corinthians 5:21). It is only in Christ, through faith in Him,  that sinners can be justified by the grace of God (Romans 3:22–24). True repentance from sin does not exist where there is not faith that Christ alone can save us from our sin. The two must always go together (Mark 1:15;  Acts 20:22). 

3. True Repentance Must Be a Work of God’s Sovereign Grace

       True repentance is not a work of man’s own willpower. Acts 11:18 and 2 Timothy 2:25 tell us that repentance is something that God must “grant.” Ephesians 2:1 tells us we are dead in our sin—and dead men do not raise themselves. John 3:19 is even more shocking: it tells us we love our sin. We would not choose repentance of our own volition unless God made us alive, opened our eyes and hearts, and changed our affections so that we hate sin and love His holiness (Ephesians 2:5; 2 Corinthians 4:4–6; Acts 16:14). Faith and repentance, from first to last—from our first inklings of a conviction of the nature of our sin against a holy God, to the final day when Christ will “present [us] blameless before the presence of his glory”—is all a work of the sovereign grace of God (Jude 24).   

4. True Repentance Must Be Sought

       Repentance is all a work of sovereign grace, but this does not mean that we are to receive it passively. Scripture commands us to “turn away from evil” (1 Peter 3:11), and to “repent” (Acts 2:38, 3:19, 26:20). We are still responsible and accountable for our own repentance. We must “work out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling,” not because God is not working repentance in us, but precisely because He is (Philippians 2:13). We must to pray earnestly to God, like David did, that He would “have mercy” on us and change our hearts (Psalm 51:1–2). We must seek after repentance now and urgently, before it is too late (Hebrews 12:17; 2 Corinthians 6:2). 

5. True Repentance Must Be Evidenced by Good Works 

       Again, true repentance, after beginning in the heart, must manifest itself in repentant actions. We are to “bear fruits in keeping with repentance” (Luke 3:8). We are to “repent and turn to God, performing deeds in keeping with [our] repentance” (Acts 26:20). If anyone continues “[making] a practice of sinning” and “does not keep his commandments,” there is strong reason to question his or her claim to have repented and believed (1 John 2:4, 3:9).       

6. True Repentance Follows Divine Discipline

       In 1630, the Puritan pastor Richard Sibbes published a short book titled The Bruised Reed. One of the many blessings of this beautiful little book, filled to the brim with words of comfort for all those weakened and discouraged by sin, is that it shows how divine discipline, or bruising, is a gift of grace that can lead to true repentance. 

       Sibbes writes, “It is a very hard thing to bring a dull and evasive heart to cry with feeling for mercy.” [3] Therefore, God disciplines us for our sin, so that “by misery [we are] brought to see sin as the cause of” our bruising. [4] All who are saved must first be bruised. He writes, 

This bruising is required before conversion that so the Spirit may make way for himself into the heart by levelling all proud, high thoughts, and that we may understand ourselves to be what indeed we are by nature. . . . [T]his bruising makes us set a high price upon Christ. Then the gospel becomes the gospel indeed; then the fig-leaves of morality will do us no good. [5]

When God disciplines us, we come to see the seriousness of our sin and the greatness of God’s grace. “A man truly bruised judges sin the greatest evil, and the favour of God the greatest good.” [6] This bruising is “a gracious, good work.” [7] 

    Mr. Fox knows something of bruisings for sin. He loses his tail, his house, and endangers relationships and lives because of his return to a life of theft. But the tragedy of the fantastic Mr. Fox is that he does not see what “the heavenly Doctor Sibbes” sees, that the bruising is meant to lead to repentance and restoration. [8] 

7. True Repentance Results in Joy  

       After the grace of divine discipline comes the joy of true repentance. God wounds that He might heal. [9] This is why David prays, “let the bones that you have broken rejoice” (Psalm 51:8). Repentance is painful, yet the pain leads to relief. Another Puritan, Jonathan Edwards, writes, “How much soever of a paradox it may seem, it is true that repentance is a sweet sorrow” (italics added). [10] God will use whatever means it takes to wake us up to the danger of our sin and bring us back to the joy that can only be found in Him when we live in whole-hearted trust and obedience. 

Concluding Thoughts on Mr. Fox

       The joy of true repentance is a joy that Mr. Fox does not know. It is a joy far better than the adrenaline rush of a perfectly executed heist, and far greater than “the fleeting pleasures of sin” (Hebrews 11:25). However, I did not write this lengthy two-part repudiation of Mr. Fox’s actions because I want an alternate ending where Mr. Fox “gets saved.” Leave Fantastic Mr. Fox as it is. I prefer the way the film ends with unsettling ambiguity. I, at least, have been the better for it. 

       Mr. Fox has caused me to ponder my own repentance. He should cause us all to—biblically, Christianly—examine ourselves. Do we understand the seriousness of sin and hate it, or do we ignore its seriousness and love its thrills like he does? Do we rely on our own ingenuity to save ourselves, like he does, or throw ourselves upon the mercy of Christ? Do we seek repentance earnestly, or begrudgingly and insincerely like he does? Are we actually changing, or do we return to old patterns, like he does? Do we stop at grieving for a lost tail, like he does, or see the reason behind the bruising? Do we know the joy that comes when a saved sinner lets go of his or her sin and clings to Christ? Are we—by the sovereign grace of God—repentant?      

I am greatly indebted to my friend Anthony, who introduced me to Sibbes’ book and with whom I have had valuable conversations about the nature of true repentance. 

* * *


  1.  Robert Brown, “The Fantastic Un-Repentance of Mr. Fox,” Robert Brown Presents, February 10, 2017. www.robertbrownpresents.com/essays/2017/2/10/the-fantastic-un-repentance-of-mr-fox  
  2. Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway. Used by permission. All rights reserved.  
  3.  Richard Sibbes, The Bruised Reed  (The Banner of Truth Trust, 2011), 4. 
  4.  Ibid., 3–4.
  5.  Ibid., 4. 
  6.  Ibid., 11. 
  7.  Ibid., 6. 
  8.  Ibid., viii. 
  9.  Ibid., 11. 
  10.  Jonathan Edwards, “The Pleasantness of Religion,” The Sermons of Jonathan Edwards: A Reader, ed. Wilson H. Kimnach, Kenneth P. Minkema, and Douglas A. Sweeney (Yale University Press, 1999), 18–19. Quoted in John Piper, “A God-Entranced Vision of All Things: Why We Need Jonathan Edwards 300 Years Later,” A God-Entranced Vision of All Things: The Legacy of Jonathan Edwards, ed. John Piper and Justin Taylor (Crossway, 2004), 30.