What is Repentance?

What is repentance? Generally speaking the word ‘repent’ in the Old Testament is ‘shuv’ in Hebrew meaning to turn or to return. ‘Repent’ or ‘repentance’ in the New Testament is ‘metanoia’ in Greek meaning a change, a reversal, or a reformation of the heart. In this movement within the heart there is a double turn. Turning from sin and turning toward Jesus in faith.

To aid us today I want to give you a paragraph of the Westminster Shorter Catechism. Question 87 is as follows. “Question: what is repentance unto life? Answer: repentance unto life is a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, doth, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it to God, with full purpose of, and endeavor after, new obedience.”

Taking our cues from this question 87, repentance is four things.

a) Repentance is a Saving Grace

Here again we see the difference between saving grace and common grace. Both the saving grace and common grace of God are gracious gifts of God which He bestows according to His purpose and will. Repentance isn’t among the blessings included in God’s common grace that He gives to all men. How do we know this, well, common sense, because all men do not repent, therefore repentance isn’t a common grace. Rather, repentance is a saving grace God grants only to the elect. Paul affirms this in 2 Tim. 2:25 when he states “God grants repentance which leads to a knowledge of the truth.” Luke also affirms this in Acts 11 where he writes of Peter explaining to a group of Jews how God had worked among the Gentiles. After describing this moment Luke tells us how Peter’s hearers respond in Acts 11:18, “When they heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.” In this light, we see what repentance is something granted by God, a gift, that, when coupled with faith, saves and leads a sinner to a knowledge of the truth.

b) Repentance is Having a True Sense of Sin

Questions 87 says, “Repentance unto life is a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin…” and later it mentions that the sinner has “a grief and hatred for his sin.” This means repentance has a substantial element of sorrow to it. Paul makes a contrast on this point in 2 Cor. 7:9-10. “As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting. For you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no loss through us. For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.” Worldly grief or sorrow, like the sorrow of Esau (Hebrews 12:17), like the sorrow of Judas (Matthew 27:3-10), and like the sorrow of the Hebrews 6:4-8 person produces death and no hope.

In this false repentance there truly may be a grieving that’s taking place inside the soul but that grieving is more focused on the consequences of our sinful actions or the fear of punishment rather than the offense and grief we caused in God. On the other hand, godly grief or sorrow recognizes, embraces, and owns a true sense of our sin, of how wretched we are before the holy and just God, and how we’re under the penalty of sin and death for such sin. This kind of sorrow leads to a grief and hatred of our sin, an honest confession of our sin, and ironically brings soothing peace into the heart of a sinner.

c) Repentance is Having a True Sense of God’s Mercy in Christ

The catechism not only encourages us to have a true sense and hatred for our sin, it encourages us to have a true sense or “apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ.” This is one of the truly remarkable and truly beautiful truths to behold. That God, who is holy and just, who hates both the sin and the sinner, would be so gracious and merciful toward sinners in Jesus Christ is simply stunning. We must know this as well as knowing our sin. This is one of the great ironies of the gospel: only those who know they don’t deserve it, receive it and repent. So within the heart of someone who is truly repentant, there will be both a robust hatred for sin as well as a soothing sense of God’s mercy. What do these two things within the heart lead to?

d) Repentance is turning from sin to Christ and obedience to Him

After describing the true sense of our sin and the true sense of God’s mercy in Christ to us, the catechism ends its definition of repentance by saying the sinner “turns from sin to God, with full purpose of, and endeavor after, new obedience.” Knowing our sin and knowing God’s mercy leads us to this double turn. Away from sin, towards Jesus in faith. This is a change in purpose, a change in direction, and a change in living. We do not turn towards better behavior or better actions. No, we turn away from sin and toward Jesus Christ and the evidence that we’ve done this will be seen in that our new endeavoring to obey Jesus. This is why repentance must come after regeneration. No one can turn from sin toward Jesus while remaining in our natural hostile state. God must change our nature and enables us to do so. And once He does so, everything changes about how we live

Taking all four of these things together, can you now see why the shorter catechism calls repentance, ‘repentance unto life?’ From repentance comes life, and life delighted full of pleasure in God.

e) Do We Still Repent After Conversion?

Everything I’ve said thus far deals with repentance at the moment of salvation, isn’t there a continuing element of repentance in the Christian life? Yes, there is. Because we are not made perfect at salvation we’ll struggle with sin all our days. When we sin we must repent. We must turn back again, or return to the gospel. Growth will come, but it will look more like the slow growth of an oak tree rather than the fast growth of a weed. And as we grow, we may have seasons of rebellion or coldness to God. As we grow it may even seem from the outside it that we have our stuff together, but we know the truth. On the inside, where we encounter the motives and intentions of the heart, the battle rages on. So what do we do when we sin after conversion? We remember the promise of 1 John 1:9, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

So repentance and faith are the way we begin the Christian life, and repentance and faith are the way we live the Christian life. This is the entryway into the Christian life and the narrow way of the Christian life.

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