The Westminster Confession of Faith is a reformed statement of beliefs based on scripture. In this study, I want to use it to answer the question, what does true repentance look like?
To understand true repentance, we must understand at least three points: 1) The signs of repentance, 2) The scope of repentance, and 3) The source of repentance.
The Signs of Repentance
Let’s first look at paragraphs 2-3 of Chapter 15 of the Westminster Confession of Faith
II. By [repentance], a sinner, out of the sight and sense not only of the danger, but also of the filthiness and odiousness of his sins, as contrary to the holy nature, and righteous law of God; and upon the apprehension of His mercy in Christ to such as are penitent, so grieves for, and hates his sins, as to turn from them all unto God, purposing and endeavouring to walk with Him in all the ways of His commandments.
We see that first of all, when we are convicted of our sin, that conviction must come from scriptural truth. Repentance is repentance from sin against biblical truth, implicitly stated or explicitly stated. That means that also that repentance is not turning from the breaking of a man’s rule. No person may make up a rule that is an addition to or counter to scripture and make you feel guilty for it. It doesn’t matter if it’s an institution; it doesn’t matter if it is in a church; it doesn’t matter if it is your parents; it doesn’t matter if it is your children. If those are rules made up by people that are in addition to or counter to scripture, you must never feel guilty for breaking them.
It doesn’t mean that you must not keep them if you are in the workplace and the workplace makes a rule for you to keep. You should keep that rule to be a responsible member of the community. This may be a rule that is helpful to the institution, but it is not a scriptural law. Your mother or father may say, “you should do _____.” If it’s reasonable to respect them by doing that, you should certainly do that, but if it is something that is impossible to keep or an addition or contrary to God’s Word, though they attempt to make you feel guilty for it for the rest of your life, you must not. Only God’s Word must be obeyed, and when you cease to obey it, you must repent from that sin and turn from that unto God.
III. Although repentance is 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.
Scriptural truth is they which we must obey. If we are breaking scriptural truth, implicitly or explicitly, we must repent of it. It is appropriate to feel guilty for that and turn from it. In addition to that, if you feel vaguely guilty, you may be fairly assured that that’s not scriptural conviction from the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit wants you to repent of specific sins against specific principles of scripture because he wants you to live. He is more concerned with your living in a fulfilled way than even you are. Therefore, he is going to be very specific in convicting you of guilty that you might turn from it unto God. But if you are vaguely guilty, that’s not the Spirit working. The Spirit doesn’t work in vagueness.
So we’ve targeted two signs of repentance: 1) Based in scripture and 2) Specific guilt for a specific sin. 3) Thirdly, it will not be worldly sorrow – it will not be vain or empty.
There are seven characteristics that we find in 1 Corinthians 7 when Paul makes a distinction between true sorrow versus worldly sorrow that does not lead to life.
- There will be an earnestness of no regret. True repentance brings joy (Psalm 51:12).
- You will exonerate yourself. That is, you will give an account of yourself.
- There is no apathy (Psalm 7:3-8). There will be real indignation with yourself, no blame-shifting or mitigating circumstance – “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight (Psalm 51:4).
- There will be great alarm in response to what you have done to the reputation of Christ and to your fellow brothers (Psalm 38:1-3).
- There will be true longing for reunion with Christ and with your fellow Christians (Psalm 13).
- Deep concern – a hunger to be restored (Psalm 34:1, 4, 8).
- Strong sense of justice (Psalm 94) – you will desire to see righteousness accomplished in your life.
That’s contrary to worldly sorrow, what Martin Luther called Ein Galgenreue – “repentance on the gallows,” or “a gallows repentance.” In essence, it means you’re only sorrow because you were caught, and you’re only remorseful because you’re embarrassed or ashamed. That’s the kind of so-called repentance we often see in the south. We’re often only concerned because we’re ashamed or embarrassed. We tend to try to fight our way out of it and shift blame, pushing it on someone else, because the worst thing we can imagine is to be embarrassed.
True repentance is this: “I realize that I have sinned against God and that is the greatest sorrow that I can experience. And I will go to any length to root the sin out of my life. I’ll submit to all discipline, that I might turn fully from it, back to my savior, and life.
The signs of true repentance are a specific, scripturally-based, deeply sorrowful response to sin.
The Scope of Repentance
Let’s go back to chapter 15 of the Westminster Confession of Faith:
IV. As there is no sin so small, but it deserves damnation; so there is no sin so great, that it can bring damnation upon those who truly repent.
V. Man ought not to content themselves with a general repentance, but it is every man’s duty to endeavour to repent of his particular sins, particularly.
What a great, wonderful promise. Though there is no sin so small that without repentance it could lead to Hell, there is no sin so great that if you repent of it, you will not be restored. That’s the principle we find in Jeremiah 18 that I referred in my sermon on Luke 3:1-9, “God’s Enabling Power.” In Jeremiah 18 God says that he always sends the threat of judgment in order to drive us to repentance. His delight is not in the calamity and the judgement; his delight is in our turning. And no matter what calamity he has promised on us and no matter what sin we have committed, if we repent, it arrests the judgment. Every sin that you repent of, there is forgiveness and restoration.
Repentance, C.S. Lewis says, is “not something God demands of you before he will take you back in which he would let you off if he chose. It is simply a description of what going back looks like. Repentance is not something by which you earn God’s favor. It’s just the description of returning home as a prodigal.
The Westminster Confession of Faith continues:
VI. As every man is bound to make private confession of his sins to God, praying for the pardon thereof; upon which, and the forsaking of them, he shall find mercy; so, he that scandalizes his brother, or the Church of Christ, ought to be willing, by a private or public confession, and sorrow for his sin, to declare his repentance to those that are offended, who are thereupon to be reconciled to him, and in love to receive him.
This is one of the most neglected sections of the Westminster Confession as well as one of the most neglected parts of the doctrine of repentance by evangelicals. We have come to privatize our Christianity so much that we think that any form of public confession is not only unwarranted, but wrong. I would dare say that there has been no aspect of my ministry as a gospel minister where I have endured criticism than applying this doctrine of repentance, that repentance must be appropriate to the nature of the sin. And the more public the sin, the public is the need for repentance. That’s not just in our confession; it’s throughout scripture, especially in 1 Corinthians 5. We must repent to everyone against whom we have broken covenant. If we have broken covenant privately with God, then we repent privately. If we have broken covenant with our spouse, we must repent to our spouse. If we have broken covenant with our family, we must repent to our family. If we have broken covenant with our business, or school, or society, or church, then we must repent to those bodies.
Now, the more public the repentance, the more painful it is, especially for us as southerners because we’re okay with telling God that we’re sorry. We’re okay with acknowledging that we have sinned against a holy God, but there is nothing more painful for us than to admit that we are sinful before our peers. And yet, by not repenting in that way, we cut ourselves off from important means of grace, such as the fellowship of the saints where you confess your sin to the appropriate body, and there, under the guidance of the gospel, that body welcomes you and embraces you. This is what Paul said should happen in the Corinthian church. The man who sinned against the church in 1 Corinthians 5 apparently repents after Paul is very strong with Corinthian church. In 2 Corinthians 2, he urges them to welcome him back so that he’s not discouraged. Put your arms around him. Bring him into the community. He’s going to be a target for the devil. The more public your sin, the more public your repentance.
Paragraph I of the Westminster Confession of Faith:
I. Repentance unto life is an evangelical grace, the doctrine whereof is to be preached by every minister of the Gospel, as well as that of faith in Christ.
The doctrine of repentance is not the doctrine of law. The doctrine of repentance is the gospel. Therefore, the Confession says that ministers must preach it because they are ministers of the gospel. I am not preaching good news to you if I tell you that it’s okay to stay in your sin. That’s not good news. Christ was raised to life so that you would not have to die. Christ was raised to life to move inside of you and to give you the same principle of resurrection power and to release you from sin. I am not preaching good news to you if I do not say, “repent.” Because when you do, you will live again.
Repentance unto life is a gospel doctrine. It is a gospel doctrine, first of all, because it is a gift. It is called a gift in the Old Testament in several places: Psalm 80:3, 7, 9; Jeremiah 31:18; Lamentations 5:21.
Restore us to yourself that we might return (Lamentations 5:21).
Literally, he is saying “repent us to yourself, that we might be restored. Grant us repentance so that we might live again.”
The New Testament speaks of repentance the same way: Acts 5:31; Acts 11:18; 2 Timothy 2:25.
When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, “So then, even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life (Acts 11:18).
Paul prays similarly in 2 Timothy that God would “grant” them repentance.
I want you to see here that when I tell you to repent, I’m telling you to do something you can’t do. When I tell you to have faith in Christ, I’m telling you to do something you can’t do. You must cry out to Christ for the gift of repentance as much as you cry out to him for the gift of faith. It is a gift that Christ delights to give.
“Repent me O Lord that I might be restored. Grant me repentance that I might escape the snares of the Devil. I’m being held captive by him to do his will, and unless you turn my heart, I will never turn. Grant me repentance.” This is the way we should pray.
Secondly, the source of repentance is grace. This is indicated by the benefits that come that are spelled out in scripture. When you are turned from your sin by Christ, life is always better. Sin is always a flight from the rational. Sin is always irrational. Sin is always miserable. Sin is always dehumanizing, and as long as we’re in it, we don’t really realize it. But when we are released from it, we come to life.
I’ve seen it a thousand times – someone is holding onto their sin, holding onto that negative thinking; holding onto that judgment; holding onto to that gossip; holding onto that precious sin; holding onto that pornography or that sexual aberration; holding onto that hate for that person…and they don’t want to let go of it. There’s a reason the Puritans called them “bosom sins,” or those that we embrace to our chest and hold dear. But when they are released and you are set free, you wonder why you ever wanted to stay there.
True repentance sets us free. True repentance is the gospel!