One of the most important distinctives of true Christianity is repentance. William Plumer (1759–1850) once wrote that “repentance belongs exclusively to the religion of sinners. It has no place in the exercises of unfallen creatures…. The wickedness of the human heart makes it necessary.” The word “repent” (or some form thereof) is found almost eighty times in the English Bible and is one with which any professing Christian is deeply familiar. Job knew of his need to repent (Job 42:6) and John the Baptist came preaching the need for repentance (Matthew 3:2). Jesus himself came to call sinners to repentance (Mark 2:17) and, just before he ascended, called his church to do the same (Luke 24:42). The gospel that the apostles preached called for repentance and faith (Acts 20:21). Any form of religion that does not include repentance as a vital element of its message has no claim to biblical Christianity.
But while there is much talk about repentance, it is also necessary to define repentance. Plumer summarised it well when he said that “true repentance is sorrow for sin, ending in reformation.” He added, “Mere regret is not repentance, neither is mere outward reformation. It is not an imitation of virtue, it is virtue itself.”
Biblical repentance involves far more than mere verbalisation of sorrow. A high-profile pastor was recently removed from the pastorate of his church for marital infidelity. He was soon hired by another church (in a different capacity), but a few months later was removed from that position when it came to light that he had been involved in an even earlier extramarital affair while at his old church. A Christian media website, reporting on the recent revelations, noted that this man “publicly apologized for the pain he has caused his family.” But while an apology to those you have wronged is good and often necessary, repentance is deeper than a mere verbal apology.
Thomas Watson (1620–1686) wrote a book titled, The Doctrine of Repentance. Watson was concerned that knowing what repentance is, and actually repenting, are essential to true Christianity. He wrote, “Repentance is a grace of God’s Spirit whereby a sinner is inwardly humbled and visibly reformed.” Watson identified “six special ingredients” that comprise the “spiritual medicine” of repentance. If any of these ingredients is missing, he said, repentance loses its virtue.
In his commission to Paul, Jesus said that he was sending the apostle to the Gentiles “to open their eyes” (Acts 26:18). Before it is possible to come to full repentance, it is necessary to see your sin—and to see the gravity of your sin before a holy God. Jesus made the point in Matthew 7 that many are skilled at seeing the speck of sin in a brother’s eye while proving incapable of identifying the log of sin in their own eye. Before we can come to repentance, we must acknowledge our sin for what it is.
The sight of sin is more than the oft-heard refrain, “Nobody’s perfect.” The sight of sin means grasping that we are desperate sinners whose sin has affected us to the very core of our being. It means that we embrace Romans 3:9–18 as our own testimony. It comes as no surprise to those who see their sin in this way that they must frequently repent.
David wrote, “I confess my iniquity; I am sorry for my sin” (Psalm 38:18). Sorrow, as defined here, is not a superficial feeling. It is a broken and contrite heart (Psalm 51:17) and a torn heart (Joel 2:13). This inward sorrow is often shown in Scripture to be outwardly manifest: striking one’s thigh (Jeremiah 31:19); beating one’s breast (Luke 18:13); wearing sackcloth (Isaiah 22:12); tearing one’s garment and pulling one’s hair (Ezra 9:3).
It is, of course, possible to sorrow in a superficial manner. Paul spoke of “worldly grief” that produces “death” and contrasted it with “godly grief” that produces “repentance that leads to salvation” (2 Corinthians 7:9–10). Because sorrow is easily observed, it is easily counterfeited. Some sorrow not because sin is sinful but because it is painful. But that sorrow is worldly grief, which ultimately leads to death.
True sorrow for sin always manifests itself in confession. Confession, says Watson, is the way that sorrow vents itself. Many who have ultimately proven unrepentant have confessed sin, but theirs was not true confession. True confession takes ownership of sin. It does not mitigate, excuse, rationalise or blame.
Confession often flows after we are caught in sin, but Christian repentance also involves confession of sin of which no one else is aware. If there is no private confession but only public confession after we have been caught in sin, we do well to question the reality of our confession.
True confession is honest about our sin. While it does not glory in sin committed, it does not gloss over the depths of sin. True confession lays bear sin, it does not conceal it.
Watson notes that “blushing is the colour of virtue. When the heart has been made black with sin, grace makes the face red with blushing.” Ezekiel was called to so confront sin “that they may be ashamed of their iniquities” (Ezekiel 43:10). Ezra prayed, ““O my God, I am ashamed and blush to lift my face to you, my God, for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has mounted up to the heavens” (Ezra 9:6). The prodigal son was so ashamed of his riotous living that he felt unworthy to be called the son of his father (Luke 15:21).
Shame is a reality when it comes to sin, because sin makes us guilty and often proves us unthankful. Ultimately, our sins have put Christ to shame, and if that does not cause us shame when we sin, nothing will.
“Christ is never loved,” says Watson, “till sin be loathed.” Ezekiel warned his hearers that God’s goodness would lead them to “remember your evil ways, and your deeds that were not good, and you will loathe yourselves for your iniquities and your abominations” (Luke 36:31).
Watson notes several aspects of this hatred: (1) hatred is seen in a set determination against sin—in all forms; (2) hatred of sin is implacable; the sinner will not again turn to embrace the sin he once hated; and (3) hatred of sin hates both our own sin and the sin of others. If we only hate others’ sin, then our repentance is a mere performance. But when we hate our own sin first, we reflect something of God’s holiness and purity to others.
When we have experienced and expressed the first five ingredients of repentance, we must turn away from our sin (Joel 2:12–13). When we turn from sin, we forsake it (Isaiah 55:7) and put it far away (Job 11:14). Writes Watson,
The very day a Christian turns from sin he must enjoin himself a perpetual fast. The eye must fast from impure glances. The ear must fast from hearing slanders. The tongue must fast from oaths. The hands must fast from bribes. The feet must fast from the path of the harlot. And the soul must fast from the love of wickedness. This turning from sin implies a notable change.
There is a change wrought in the heart and the life. And there is great hope when we turn from sin, for when we turn from sin, we turn to the Saviour and he to us: “Thus declares the LORD of hosts: Return to me, says the LORD of hosts, and I will return to you, says the LORD of hosts” (Zechariah 1:3).
Repentance is essential to the Christian life. It is liberating, though it doesn’t always feel good at the time. But it is the necessary call to those who would follow Jesus Christ into life eternal.