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The concept of repentance is per­vasive in Scripture, yet it can be difficult to define. On the one hand, repentance is the most natural thing sinners can do; on the other hand, repentance is a most spiritual thing. On the one hand, repentance is a punctiliar activity; on the other hand, as Martin Luther wrote in the first of his Ninety-Five Theses, it’s a lifelong activity. On the one hand, repentance isn’t meritorious; on the other, it is the unique portal through which the kingdom of God and its benefits are open to us, and therefore “none may expect pardon without it” (Westminster Confession of Faith 15.3). On the one hand, it is a simple invitation; on the other, it encompasses the whole person—one’s intellect, heart, will, soul, and body.

These paradoxes highlight the helpfulness of systematic definitions that account for the richness of the Bible’s teaching. The Westminster Shorter Catechism commendably defines repentance as one of two inseparable graces that constitute true conversion:

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. (Q&A 87)

We can note a few things from the catechism about what true repentance is not as well as what true repentance is.

what repentance unto life is not

The writers of the Westminster Standards speak of repentance as “repentance unto life.” This language is derived from Scripture. For example, in Acts 11:18 we read that “to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.” This assumes that there’s a repentance that does not lead to life, of which Paul speaks when he says, “Godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death” (2 Cor. 7:10). Cain (Gen. 4:12), Esau (Heb. 12:17), and Judas (Matt. 27:3) are examples of such carnal grief; their sad stories reveal that true repentance is more than remorse. It isn’t merely a strong emotion of guilt, like that of pietistic revivalism. We can be sad over the consequences of sin without grieving our sin and turning from it unto God.

True repentance begins in the heart, but it never remains confined in the heart.

Moreover, true repentance is not penance, wherein we receive absolution in accordance with our level of contrition and subsequent duties. Lest we think that penance is solely a Roman Catholic phenomenon, evangelicals are not immune to the temptation to trust in the intensity of our sorrow or our resolve to compensate for our spiritual shortcomings. Repentance is also not merely an intellectual response whereby the mind acknowledges imperfection without having to strive after new obedience. At the other extreme, we might reason like a perfectionist, thinking that true repentance means that we will never sin again, at least not in the same way. But mortification of stubborn sin can be a long process.

what repentance unto life is

The catechism speaks of repentance unto life as a saving grace. It is saving because of what it leads to—salvation (i.e., new life). It is a grace because it is granted by God alone (see 2 Tim. 2:25). In regeneration, God grants the new man faith and repentance. This repentance is, simply put, a turning away from sin and a turning to God in faith. This faith is an apprehension of God’s grace offered in the gospel accompanied by a repentance that involves a hatred of the sin from which we’re turning. The faith that saves is a repentant faith, and the repentance that leads to life is a trusting repentance. They are inseparable, though faith logically precedes repentance. Herman Bavinck states:

We should not dare to turn around towards God if we did not trust inwardly in our souls through the Holy Spirit that as a Father He will accept our confession of sins and forgive us. True repentance stands in inseparable connection with the true, saving faith.

We turn from sin unto the God we have offended only if we are first convinced that He will forgive. While God grants faith and repentance together in the regenerate soul, “faith is already resident and at work in repentance,” as Geerhardus Vos notes.

True repentance, then, begins in the heart, but it never remains confined in the heart. It will, in due time, manifest itself externally in one’s conduct as fruit that is in keeping with repentance (Matt. 3:8). The Spirit-delivered package of faith and repentance is the inevitable surfacing of the new nature whereby the regenerate person becomes active in the work of mortification of sin and the vivification of righteousness. The true Christian thus can’t help but repent. Our relationship to sin has changed. The Christian is keenly aware of his sin and has cast himself on the mercy of God in Christ. Christians battle indwelling sin, but we grieve that sin, and we continually turn from it to God, like the Prodigal Son running home to his father. Luther was right that repentance begins the Christian life (what we might call repentance in conversion) and it characterizes the entire Christian life (what we might call repentance in sanctification).

While the essence of repentance is the same for every person, our experience of repentance can vary. Hence, we might ask, How do I know whether my repentance is genuine? The catechism’s definition helps us ask searching questions: Do I have a sense of and hatred for my sin? Do I reach out for the mercy of God in Christ? And do I endeavor, however imperfectly, to walk in new obedience? If so, dear Christian, rejoice. For you have been granted the saving graces of faith in Jesus Christ and repentance unto life.

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From the February 2024 Issue
Feb 2024 Issue