Dr. Ray E. Heiple, Jr.
What Is Repentance
Now after John was put in prison, Jesus came to Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.”
Mark 1:14-15 NKJV
Question 76 of the Larger Catechism, asks, “What is repentance unto life?” It gives the answer, “Repentance unto life is a saving grace, wrought in the heart of a sinner by the Spirit and word of God, whereby out of the sight and sense, not only of the danger, but also of the filthiness and odiousness of his sins, and upon the apprehension of God’s mercy in Christ to such as are penitent, he so grieves for and hates his sins, as that he turns from them all to God, purposing and endeavoring constantly to walk with him in all the ways of new obedience.” Last week we saw how God and the believing sinner both participate in the sanctification process. This week we consider the Biblical doctrine of repentance. Notice how the Westminster Divines carefully describe the doctrine of repentance so that we would not misunderstand their meaning. The doctrine they are defining is not any temporal or surface turning from sin. It is a sincere repentance from the heart; a repentance “unto life.” Second, we see that this repentance unto life is a saving grace. A saving grace is something that God gives in bestowing salvation upon a sinner. Grace is the unmerited favor of God. By definition we do not and cannot “deserve” grace from God. Grace is never deserved. Justice is deserved. As sinners we deserve to go to Hell. That is what God should give to us. It is what our sins deserve. But in His perfect life and atoning death, Jesus Christ earned salvation for us. He merited God’s favor in His perfect obedience and He quenched God’s wrath in His atoning death. Thus, God is able to save sinners who, in and of themselves, deserve to be damned, but in Jesus Christ deserve (yes, deserve!) salvation. God brings this salvation to His elect by bestowing upon them certain saving graces through which He frees them from all of sin, not just from its guilt but from its power.
In bestowing the gift of repentance unto life upon a sinner, God puts life, as it were, in the sinner’s heart. He causes the sinner to look at his own sin the way God looks at it. As the Catechism puts it, this repentance is “wrought” (worked) into the heart of a sinner by the Holy Spirit and the Word of God. The Holy Spirit causes the sinner to see his sin differently than he saw it merely in his flesh. The sinner now sees the “danger” of his sins. He sees that they will lead him to Hell and destroy him forever. What before looked only to be “good… pleasant… and… desirable,” (Gen. 3:6), now is seen in its true nature of filthiness and odiousness. The Spirit causes the sinner to believe what God’s Word says about sin, instead of what his flesh, the world, and the devil are saying about it. Thus, true repentance is the gift of God, which He gives in salvation (Acts 5:31; 11:18). In giving repentance, God causes the sinner to rightly see sin. He causes the sinner to see the truth.
Sin works by deception. In causing the Fall, the devil deceived Eve who then tempted Adam. Sin has been deceiving man ever since. However, we are not innocent victims in this deception. We are willing participants in it. Scripture makes it clear that sinful human beings “suppress the truth in unrighteousness,” because they truly know God (Rom. 1:18-19). Having clearly seen God in His creation (Rom 1:20), and in our own consciences (Rom. 2:15), we are without excuse (Rom. 1:20). It is not that we were not aware of God and turned to idolatry accidentally. The Scripture again declares that we willingly “exchanged the truth of God for the lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator,” (Rom. 1:25).
The amazing thing about the grace of God is that in spite of all of our guilt in being willing participants in the lie of sin, God wonderfully and graciously puts the truth in our hearts. That is what repentance really is. It is God putting the truth in our hearts so that we not only know the truth (which we did before) in our minds, but we now embrace the truth in our hearts. As we have seen this week, we embrace the truth about our sins. And as we will look at next week, we embrace the truth about Jesus Christ!