It is not uncommon to come across statements on repentance on social media. Most of these come in the form of atomistic sayings. Some of these statements–though well-meaning–are simply theologically inaccurate. Others lack biblical nuance. Many fail to connect repentance to the good news of the gospel. Still others gives the impression that repentance is a legal and preparatory cause of the application of redemption. This is no novel error. The entire history of Christianity has, to some extent, been shaped by debates over the proper understanding and practice of repentance. What, then, do we learn from a consideration of historic treatments of repentance? And, how ought we to give biblical nuance to our definition of repentance?
Herman Bavinck, in his Reformed Dogmatics, noted the way in which an error in regard to the doctrine of repentance permeated the church in the early centuries after the Apostles. He wrote,
“In those first centuries, the doctrine of the application of salvation was not at all developed and in part already steered in wrong directions early on. Although there are a few ‘testimonies of evangelical truth’ here and there, on the whole the gospel was soon construed as a new law. Faith and repentance were generally regarded as the necessary way to salvation but were ultimately the product of human freedom. Though salvation had objectively been acquired by Christ, to become participants in it the free cooperation of humans was needed. Faith as a rule was no more than the conviction of the truth of Christianity, and repentance soon acquired the character of a penance that satisfied for sins. The sins committed before one’s baptism were indeed forgiven in baptism, but those committed after baptism had to be made good by penance. Penitence was frequently still viewed as sincere contrition over sin, but the emphasis shifted increasingly to the external acts in which it had to manifest itself, such as prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and so on, and these good works were viewed as a “satisfaction of work.” Soteriology was altogether externalized. Not the application of salvation by the Holy Spirit to the heart of the sinner but the achievement of so-called good—often totally arbitrary—works was regarded as the way of salvation. Christian discipleship consisted in copying the life and suffering of Christ, which was vividly portrayed before people’s eyes. Martyrs, ascetics, and monks were the best Christians.”1
This was not simply an error in the early centuries of the Christian church. The antithetical distinction between penitence and repentance lay at the heart of the Reformation. Luther’s ninety-five theses were not theological expositions of justification by faith alone (although they would later be inexorably linked to his theology of justification); rather, they were a corrective to the legalism of the Roman Catholic doctrine of penance.
In the post-Reformation era debates ensued over the nature of faith and repentance. For example, John Owen strongly opposed the neo-nomian (i.e, new law) theology of Richard Baxter, Johannes Piscator (1546-1625), and Thomas Gataker. In his work on the doctrine of justification, Owen persuasively argued that Baxter was wrongly placing faith and repentance in the place where the imputation of the active obedience of Christ belonged.
In the eighteenth century many considered repentance to be “the achievement of so-called good—often totally arbitrary—works…as the way of salvation.” Whereas, the Roman Catholic doctrine of penance focused on the “external acts in which [repentance] had to manifest itself, such as prayer, fasting, almsgiving,” protestant versions of penance focused on external acts of reading the Bible, prayer, worship attendance, good works, and holding others to whatever standard of holiness proponents thought themselves to have attained. There is perhaps no better example than that of John Wesley, Charles Wesley, and George Whitfield during their time in the Holy Club.
In the late 1730’s, Charles Wesley and his brother, John, had founded a religious group at Christ Church, Oxford. Students pejoratively named this group the Holy Club. Its members held themselves out as being exemplars of true Christian piety and service. Members of the Holy Club prayed often, submerged themselves into Bible reading, feeding the poor, visiting widows and orphans and fasting every Wednesday and Friday until 3 PM. Whitefield recounted his religious rigor in his diary where he wrote:
“I began to pray, sing Psalms three times a day and to fast every Friday and to receive the sacrament once a month.”
For years, Whitefield gave himself to this religious rigor in “The Holy Club.” There was, however, one distressing problem: there was no gospel in “the Holy Club” and the Wesleys and Whitefield were unconverted. One could just as easily apply Bavinck’s summary of medieval Romans Catholicism to the Holy Club: “Christian discipleship consisted in copying the life and suffering of Christ, which was vividly portrayed before people’s eyes. Martyrs, ascetics, and monks were the best Christians.”
It wasn’t until he read Henry Scougal’s little book The Life of God in the Soul of Man that Whitfield realized what he was missing in his soul. He wrote:
“God showed me that I must be born again, or be damned! I learned that a man may go to church, say his prayers, receive the sacrament and yet not be a Christian.”
As he came to meditate on the fact that Christ had cried out, ‘I thirst! I thirst!’ when He hung on the cross for sinners, Whitfield exclaiming, ‘I thirst! I thirst!’ For the first time in his life, Whitfield drank deeply the living waters freely offered by Christ. Only a sight of Christ crucified and risen will produce true evangelical repentance in someone’s heart.
The nature of true repentance is nowhere better captured than it is in question 87 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism. There, we read,
“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, does, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavor after, new obedience.”
Here then are those things of which “repentance unto life” (i.e., evangelical repentance) is composed:
- First, evangelical repentance is a saving grace. There is nothing legal or meritorious about repentance. It is not something that we can produce in and of ourselves. It is a gracious gift of God implanted in the souls of His people by His Spirit.
- Second, evangelical repentance necessitates that a man or woman have a true sense of his or her sin. There must be recognition of what sin truly is in all its heinousness. True repentance begins with the acknowledgment that we are guilty of transgressing all of God’s commandments. As Colquhoun put it, a person must be “deeply sensible of the exceeding sinfulness and just demerit of his innumerable sins.” There will be no true repentance apart from this.
- Third, evangelical repentance is animated by “an apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ.” Any true repentance will only ever be borne in our lives when we come to see that Christ was crucified for sinners and that He freely receives and welcomes sinners. A sight of God’s great mercy in Christ fuels saving repentance. It sees, as Richard Sibbes so eloquently put it, that “there is more mercy in Christ than sin in us.” Without this, anything that goes by the name “repentance” is nothing more than a legal attempt at moral reformation that falls short of the saving grace of God in Christ.
- Fourth, evangelical repentance includes a grief and hatred for sin in the soul of the redeemed. There is what the Apostle Paul calls a “godly sorrow” brought about in the soul. We are to be more grieved that we have sinned against God than we are over the fact that we suffer temporal consequences on account of our sin. The former produces sorrow unto life; the latter produces death (2 Cor. 7:10).
- Finally, evangelical repentance enables us to “turn from our sin unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavor after, new obedience.” True repentance involves a turning away from sin and to God. As the Prodigal Son came to his senses and thought to himself, “I will return to my father’s house,” so a repentant sinner flees from sin and into the arms of his loving and merciful Father in heaven. When the grace of God in Christ comes to a sinner, he responds to the call of God to return (Ezek. 18:30, 32). The fruit of evangelical repentance will be true, grace-motivated, gratitude-driven obedience before God.2
While we may learn to properly define repentance, the reality is that the experience of true biblical repentance will differ from person to person–both in the degree and quality of the experience. Bavinck again explained,
“The way upon which the children of God walk is one way but they are varyingly led upon that way, and have varying expe- riences. What a difference there is in the leading which God gives the several patriarchs; what a difference there is in the conversion of Manasseh, Paul and Timothy! How unlike are the experiences of a David and a Solomon, a John and a James! And that same difference we encounter also outside of Scripture in the life of the church fathers, of the reformers, and of all the saints. The moment we have eyes to see the richness of the spiritual life, we do away with the practice of judging others according to our puny measure.
There are people who know of only one method, and who regard no one as having repented unless he can speak of the same spiritual experiences which they have had or claim to have had. But Scripture is much richer and broader than the narrowness of such confines. In this respect also the word applies: There are diversities of gifts but the same Spirit; and there are differences of administrations but the same Lord. And there are diversities of operations, but it is the same God who works all in all (1 Cor. 12:4-6).
The true repentance does not consist of what men make of it, but of what God says of it. In the diversity of providences and experiences it consists and must consist of the dying of the old and the rising of the new man.”3
If our proclamations of repentance send the message that “not the application of salvation by the Holy Spirit to the heart of the sinner but the achievement of so-called good—often totally arbitrary—works is regarded as the way of salvation,” then we do not understand biblical repentance. If we detach the call to repent from the proclamation of what Christ has fully and freely accomplished by His death on the cross, we are promoting legal reformation rather than Spirit-wrought holiness. If we speak of repentance apart from the regenerating work of the Spirit, we turn repentance into a legal act rather than a gracious work of God in the soul. No one will ever truly live as a repentant sinner unless he first–like the prodigal son–come to an end of himself and returns to His gracious and loving father; and, no one will ever come to an end of himself, and turn from his sin to the gracious and loving father, until he is brought by God from spiritual death to spiritual life. When we are born of God’s Spirit we will live as new creatures–putting off the old and putting on the new–experiencing the ongoing grace of repentance in our souls.
1. Herman Bavinck, John Bolt, and John Vriend, Reformed Dogmatics: Sin and Salvation in Christ, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 508.
2. This is an excerpt from an article previously published at Tabletalk Magazine in October of 2019.
3. Herman Bavinck Our Reasonable Faith (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1956), 438.