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.