The Westminster Confession of Faith contains an entire chapter on the subject of “repentance unto life.” (That alone might be surprising to some!) There it starts off by stating that this doctrine “is to be preached by every minister of the gospel, as well as that of faith in Christ” (15.1).
It is rare enough to hear the biblical doctrine of faith in Christ being clearly preached in our day; but perhaps even rarer still is the preaching of the doctrine of repentance. And if it is “to to be preached by every minister of the gospel,” it would seem that a great many are derelict in their duty.
The Lord Jesus Himself certainly preached repentance. Mark 1:14-15 says,
“Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (ESV)
And so our Lord Jesus proclaimed “the gospel of God” (v.14). And what did that gospel message include? The call to “repent and believe.” Some might think that the call to repentance somehow goes against grace, but that can hardly be the case if Christ Himself preached repentance! As Thomas Watson puts it,
“By some Antinomian spirits it [i.e. repentance] is cried down as a legal doctrine; but Christ himself preached it.” (The Ten Commandments, p.205)
Not only that, but the Apostles preached repentance as well. On the day of Pentecost the Apostle Peter preached to the crowds in Jerusalem, and what did he say to them? “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (ESV, Italics added). He called upon them to repent.
In Acts 20:21 the Apostle Paul reminded the Ephesian elders that he testified both to Jews and to Greeks “of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.” Again – faith and repentance.
So what does it mean to repent? The Westminster Shorter Catechism provides us with a helpful definition:
Q. 87. What is repentance unto life?
A. 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 unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavor after, new obedience.
What does such repentance involve? First, it involves a true grasp or understanding of two (2) things:
- Your Sin
- The Mercy of God in Christ
First, repentance unto life involves having a true sense of your own sin. In other words, you come to understand your need for the Savior. The Lord Jesus came to save His people from their sins (Matthew 1:21). Part of being saved involves understanding just what it is that you are being saved from in the first place!
Much preaching today seems to exclude this entirely. Often the appeal is made solely on the basis of felt needs instead of the need for forgiveness and cleansing from sin. Some preaching practically gives one the impression that the sinner himself is the victim, rather than the guilty party or perpetrator.
The second thing that we must grasp is the mercy of God in Christ. A true sense of our sin does us no good unless we also then understand and believe that there is abundant mercy to be found from God through faith in Jesus Christ. Notice that salvation from sin is the result of God’s mercy and grace alone.
That is why the Westminster Confession of Faith explicitly teaches us that repentance does not earn forgiveness:
“Although repentance be not to be rested in, as any satisfaction for sin, or any cause of the pardon thereof, which is the act of God’s free grace in Christ; yet it is of such necessity to all sinners, that none may expect pardon without it.” (15.3)
We are not to rest upon (i.e. trust in) our repentance, rather than upon Christ for salvation. No one is saved by repentance (as if it were the meritorious grounds for forgiveness), but no one will be saved without it either.
Having a true sense of one’s own sin, and a grasp of the mercy of God that is to be found in Christ, repentance then involves the sinner, “with grief and hatred of his sin,” turning from his sin unto God. It is a spiritual “about-face” of sorts. The Apostle Paul speaks of this in 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10,
“For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.” (ESV)
The Thessalonians turned to God from idols. (It is quite impossible to truly serve God and idols – Matthew 6:24.) And in doing so they came to “serve the living and true God” (v.9). And that is really the essence of what the last part of the answer to Q.87 speaks of when it tells us that repentance unto life involves the sinner turning to God “with full purpose of, and endeavor[ing] after, new obedience.”
It is a popular notion to define “repentance” by the etymology of the most common New Testament Greek term, which would then suggest that it is simply a “change of mind.” While repentance certainly does involve a change of mind (about one’s sin and about the mercy of God in Christ!), it does not stop there, does it? No, it involves a turning from our sins unto God, with the “full purpose of, and endeavor[ing] after, new obedience.”
Any sense of one’s sin that does not lead to a hatred of and a turning from those sins unto God, is something far less than what could rightly be called a “true sense” of one’s sin in the first place.
Last but not least, notice that the first thing that the answer to Q.87 mentions about repentance unto life is that it is a “saving grace.” So it too is a part of the salvation that God graciously gives to us in Christ. That is why the Scriptures speak of God being the One who alone grants repentance (Acts 11:18; 2 Timothy 2:25).