On 31 October 1517, Martin Luther famously nailed (or possibly pasted) his 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg castle, thereby igniting the flame that eventually became the Protestant Reformation. While Protestants celebrate this event every year, comparatively few know the content of the theses. In essence, Luther’s theses formed a list of propositions for an academic disputation regarding the Catholic practice of selling indulgences. The first thesis read, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’ he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” Theses 2–3 then develop the thought that repentance has less to do with the Catholic sacrament of penance and is, in actuality, an inner reality in the believer’s life that manifests itself in “various outward mortification of the flesh.”
Confession 5.3 develops this matter of Christian repentance, recognising that true repentance stems from God, recognises the need for forgiveness, and endeavours to follow Christ in obedience.
Evangelical repentance is a gift of God which is inseparable from saving faith. In repentance a person perceives that he or she has offended a holy God (Psalm 51:1–6; Acts 2:37–38), yet grasps that God in Christ is merciful to penitent sinners (Isaiah 55:7; Joel 2:12–13; Mark 1:4–5; Luke 15:17); this leads to a turning from sin towards God, with the full purpose of and endeavour after obedience in all that God has commanded (Luke 3:8–9; 15:18–20; Acts 26:20; 1 Thessalonians 1:9). (Sola 5 Confession 5.3)
True repentance is not possible apart from God’s initiative. As the Confession states, “evangelical repentance is a gift of God which is inseparable from saving faith.” The truth of divine initiative in prayer should have practical implications in the way we evangelise and confront sin. Paul told Timothy that the servant of God must correct his opponents “with gentleness” in the hope that God will grant them repentance (2 Timothy 2:25–26; cf. Acts 11:18). As we recognise that repentance is a divine gift, it enables us to confront sin—whether evangelistically or edificationally—with prayerful gentleness, trusting God to do his work in the lives of his people in his time.
The Confession speaks of “repentance” and “saving faith” being “inseparable.” The 1689 Confession—the larger document on which the Sola 5 Confession is based—speaks of “saving repentance.” There are many who think that saving faith is little more than believing some biblical statements and praying a prayer or moving forward during a public invitation. They then suppose that they are saved, even if there is little or no evidence of salvation in their life. The New Testament does not allow for repentanceless salvation.
Biblical repentance begins with an important recognition: “In repentance a person perceives that he or she has offended a holy God.”
According to its heading, Psalm 51 was written by David “when Nathan the prophet went to him, after he had gone into Bathsheba.” David sinned against Bathsheba, Uriah, and even Nathan (by not immediately confessing his sin). But when he prayed, he said, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight” (v. 4). He recognised that, ultimately, sin against others is so evil because it is a violation of God’s law. This does not minimise the reality of the hurt that we cause others when we sin against them, but it does highlight the fact that violation of God’s law is what ultimately condemns us.
David’s confession of sin against the Lord was a sign of grace at work in his life, as it is in the life of every believer. Unbelievers may feel sorry that they have been caught in their sin, and may genuinely feel sorry that they have hurt others they love, but only a Christian cares about the fact that his sin offended God.
The Confession speaks of the recognition that our sin is against “a holy God.” John 16:8 tells us that God gave the Holy Spirit to convict the world of sin. While the human instrumentality may differ, ultimately a person can only come to a realisation of sin by the convicting work of the Spirit. The Spirit uses the law of God, as revealed in the Bible, to do this, but only he can do it.
Conviction of sin is evidence of God’s love. It shows us that God loves his elect too much to leave them in their sin, which leads to eternal destruction. He is committed to saving those whom he has chosen.
Acts 2:37–38 recognises the importance of repentance in response to conviction when we are “cut to the heart” over sin. The same text ties baptism to repentance. Baptism is a public admission that inner repentance has taken place. Baptism is not meritorious—it does not save—but it is a necessary act of obedience that follows true repentance and testifies to the reality of the gospel that Christ has applied to the repentant and faith-filled sinner. Ordinarily, repentance and baptism are inseparable.
Not only does repentance recognise a sinner’s offence against a holy God; it also “grasps that God in Christ is merciful to penitent sinners.” Repentance says something about the sinner (that he stands rightly condemned under God’s law) and about God (that he is merciful and willing to forgive).
Isaiah 55:7 tells us that God is willing to “abundantly pardon” the “wicked” and “unrighteous man” who repents. “Abundant” pardon reminds us that, no matter how deeply we have sinned, there is grace available at God’s throne for those who repent. God does not expect us to reform before he will grant forgiveness. Instead, he abundantly pardons anyone who expresses genuine faith and repentance.
Joel 2:12–13 tells us that God is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,” and therefore urges heartfelt repentance. Some people—usually without explicitly saying it—seem to have the attitude that it is God’s job to simply overlook sin. There is, to their minds, no need for forgiveness. Sin can instead be ignored. Joel ties God’s compassion to genuine recognition of sin and heartfelt repentance. If we believe God’s revelation of who he is, we will respond with appropriate contrition and repentance.
The Confession next highlights the two side of repentance: “a turning from sin towards God, with the full purpose of and endeavour after obedience in all that God has commanded.” Repentance is more than mere acknowledgement of wrongdoing; it is genuine sorrow for doing wrong, accompanied by a commitment to walk in obedience to God. The gospel, in other words, separates us to God (Romans 1:1).
Jesus told his hearers that they must bear fruit appropriate to repentance (Luke 3:8–9). Those who do not bear fruit are destined for destruction. They are like a tree that will be cut down and cast into the fire. Lack of repentant fruit, in other words, indicates that repentance is shallow and artificial, and no evidence of saving faith.
Acts 26:20 likewise ties repentance with performing “deeds in keeping with their repentance.” Deeds “in keeping with” repentance is not the same as deeds that produce repentance or earn forgiveness. Works that are “in keeping with” repentance follow repentance; they do not precede forgiveness. Such works display the reality of the professed repentance.
For example, Paul commended the Thessalonians because they had “turned to God from idols” (1 Thessalonians 1:9). There was tangible evidence that this was true. According to the same verse, they turned from idols “to serve the living and true God.” In other words, their evidence of repentance was obedience to God.
The idols from which the Thessalonians turned included literal stone and metal idols. We may not face the temptation to the same sort of idolatry in our setting today, but the temptation to idolatry, and the need to repent of idolatry, is nevertheless as real for us as it was for them. In our culture, idolatry may take the form of people, things, or ideologies that take priority to us over our relationship to God. Christians should consistently ask whether they can truly say that their relationship with God is the most important thing to them. Idolatry in 1 John (see 5:21) is presented as a superficial view of Jesus Christ. The false teachers of whom John wrote had rejected God’s self-revelation in Christ and John’s readers were tempted to do the same. When we reject Christ as he has revealed himself to be, or elevate one aspect of his self-revelation above other aspects of his self-revelation, we are guilty of idolatry. Christians should consider what God reveals of himself and worship and obey him accordingly.