Whatever Happened to Repentance?

Repentance.   It’s a word that is largely absent as I’ve listened to prospective church members share their testimonies with me over the last decade.  They mention sin, separation from God, the atoning work of Christ and the subsequent forgiveness it brings, but largely leave repentance out of their stories regarding their “conversion” experience. I’ve even heard some church leaders speak of their moral failure as if they were indifferent bystanders observing something being forced on them from an outside source. They talk about “fresh starts”, “new beginnings”, “forgiveness”, and others being “judgmental”, yet never seem to take responsibility for their own sinful actions or offer any testimony regarding how they repented of them.

In the absence of any mention of repentance, Christ’s preaching of the gospel becomes increasingly striking to the modern American Church.  He preached, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.  Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15 CSB)  Clearly, from Jesus’ preaching, repentance is an essential element of the gospel message and conversion.  But what does it mean to repent?

As I’ve walked through the meaning of repentance in my own spiritual walk, the Puritans have been helpful in clarifying the meaning of the word repentance.  In particular, Thomas Watson’s work entitled The Doctrine of Repentance has been very helpful and convicting.  Watson writes that true repentance involves:

  1. Sight of sin.
  2. Sorrow for sin.
  3. Confession of sin.
  4. Shame for sin.
  5. Hatred for sin.
  6. Turning from sin.

Sight of sin  

Watson stresses that true repentance involves the individual seeing himself/herself as a sinner.  Along with this awareness comes taking responsibility for one’s sin—owning it.

Sorrow for sin

He asserts that sorrow for sin is a godly sorrow that is more than grief over the sin being found out.  It is a sorrow of the heart.  This sorrow is mixed with faith.  It is a deep sorrow.  Sometimes such sorrow calls for restitution regarding the offended party or parties.

Confession of sin  

True confession, Watson claims, charges ourselves and clears God.  Confession is self-accusing, voluntary, sincere, and with compunction.  It includes an acknowledgement and confession of the impact our sin has had on others.  Such confession also involves resolving not to act in such a sinful way again.

Shame for sin

We should be more ashamed as believers because we sin as ones who have light and are not blind human beings walking in spiritual darkness.  We feel shame because our sin brings the name of Christ to shame.  Our guilt naturally causes us to experience shame.  Absence of such shame coincides with an absence of true confession and repentance.

Hatred for sin

Watson writes, “Christ is never loved till sin be loathed.  Heaven is never longed for till sin be loathed.”  Believers who undergo true repentance possess a universal hatred for sin in all forms—especially sin in themselves.

Turning from sin

The biblical meaning of repentance is to turn away from sin and towards Christ.  This turning involves both the heart and our actions.  It involves resolving to turn away from all sin and stems from a love towards Christ rather than from fear of judgment.  It involves a pattern and intent of following Christ and distancing ourselves from sin.

These reflections on Watson’s words regarding repentance remind me of my need often to repent of my repentance.  They point me back to the hope of the gospel and to Paul’s words, “They help further the role the Puritans have played in my life as physicians of the soul.  They also reinforce my need to preach repentance as I present the gospel and to see repentance as a necessary element of conversion.

(If you enjoyed this post, you can read more on Tim McKnight’s website.)