Ex-Mars Hill Pastor on Repentance & Forgiveness of the Leader: Leadership Culture (Pt. 1)

Editor's Note: Sutton Turner was the executive pastor and an executive elder of Mars Hill Church in Seattle. He spent several years in the business world, working in Texas and the Middle East before God called him to serve at Mars Hill. Turner oversaw the church's central operations and business functions, including finance, property, media and communications, and technology. He trained and mentored the executive pastors and deacons across all Mars Hill Church locations.

The Lessons of Mars Hill's Fall

As I look back at my experience at Mars Hill, one of my largest areas of personal sanctification and theological growth occurred in the area of repentance and forgiveness, especially in my role as a high-level church leader.

I am writing this post to help other leaders like me. I pray that someone — even just one person — can be spared the consequences of his/her own mistakes by paying careful attention to mine beforehand. I also pray that my public confession of sin and admission of mistakes will further enhance opportunity for reconciliation and restoration among those with whom I have experienced conflict.

Early on in my time at Mars Hill, I unfortunately operated in a sinful way that was consistent with the existing church culture that had grown and been cultivated since the early years of the church. Instead of being an agent of change for good, I simply reinforced negative sinful behavior. (I am responsible for my own actions, and do not blame my actions on the culture.) I am so thankful for the kindness of God that has led me to repentance, the grace of Jesus that forgave my sin, and the love of brothers who exhorted me during those necessary times of growth. Somewhere between 2012 and 2013, with the help of Pastor Dave Bruskas and others, change began to take root in my heart. These lessons continue to bear fruit in my life as the Holy Spirit grows me to become more like Jesus. I do look back on 2011 and 2012 with a lot of regret, but I'm also very thankful for the Holy Spirit and his ability to grow us all to be more like Jesus.


When the great reformer Martin Luther penned his 95 Theses, the first dogmatic statement about biblical Christianity that he chose to publically proclaim was that the whole life of the Christian should be one of continual repentance. There is no greater privilege that the redeemed, saved, adopted child of God has than to repent. Faith and repentance are the first acts that we do as a believer in Jesus Christ. Jesus gives us the faith to believe and makes us alive. Then our new hearts recognize our sinfulness and our need for him and we repent. We have a "change of mind" about our sin which is what the Greek word for "repentance" (metanoia) means.

Many verses focus on repentance (Acts 3:19, Acts 11:18, Matt 4:17, Luke 3:8-9, Matthew 3:1-2, Isaiah 30:15). Timothy even writes of its importance to the church leader:

And the Lord's servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will. 2 Tim 2:24-26

Paul clearly states that God grants repentance that leads to a knowledge of the truth, which then helps us escape from Satan's traps. (Side note: if we refuse to repent, we are willing joining the devil to do his will — not God's!) Additionally, Acts 11:18 also states that repentance is, first and foremost, granted by God. An unregenerate heart will not and cannot turn from sin. Without being granted a new heart by the Holy Spirit, a person remains dead in sin and does not pursue the things of God. If a person has been led to repentance by the beautiful kindness of God (Romans 2:4), it is a sign that his or her heart of stone has been transformed into a heart of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26). He or she is no longer an enemy of God, but one who has been made alive in Christ and is now friend, child, and heir of God with Christ.

God saves us as we are by his grace. He expects nothing of us to contribute to our salvation. However, Scripture is clear that he does not allow us to stay as we are! We are to be transformed into the likeness of his Son more and more (2 Cor. 3:18, Romans 12:2). We need to be seeking holiness, righteousness, and purity. We need to be constantly on guard against the enemy's schemes and putting our sinful flesh to death. As the great Puritan John Owen said, we need to be killing sin or it will be killing us. We will certainly stumble and fall and that is when we must repent. In fact, I believe that repentance is the "how" to killing our sin. The Apostle James says, "But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers" (1:14-16, emphasis mine). Our sin wreaks havoc on our lives when it grows because it goes unchecked, unevaluated, and unrepented. Do not be deceived about that.

Our sin leads to our death. But Jesus died for our sin

Therefore, through the power of the Holy Spirit, we can believe in him, have faith in him, and put sin to death for his glory and our good.

I have learned that repentance is confession of sin with your mind and mouth (Psalm 51:4). This confession is then followed by contrition of your emotions and expression (Psalm 51:1-3), which then leads to changes in your will and your acts (Psalm 51:12-13, 15). Confession to contrition to change. I challenge you to revisit Psalm 51 afresh in your time with the Lord today. Sometimes the most familiar Scriptures can unfortunately become the most overlooked.

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