Repentance is at the forefront of sound gospel preaching. The Lord Jesus commenced and concluded His ministry with a command to repent: “Repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” From this emphasis on repentance by the Savior and His disciples, we understand how vital repentance is to our salvation.
What does it mean to repent? Is it enough to say “sorry”, and then expect to have God’s full forgiveness for sin? No, the Bible-taught Christian knows that a mere “sorry” is not genuine repentance; in fact, the Bible warns about spurious repentance that is merely a pretense or, at best, a short term cover-up for sin.
The apostle Paul warned of the “sorrow of the world” which “worketh death” (2 Corinthians 7:10). This false repentance can be defined “not toward God.” It may be toward man or even toward self in a form of self-pity, but it is not the kind of repentance which invites God’s salvation into the soul.
There is also a kind of repentance which is simply turning over a new leaf: a determination to be different. A change in lifestyle can take place in one who has never repented toward God. A reformed alcoholic or a chronic gambler can “kick the habit” so that his life is very different, but the state of his heart remains the same. His guilt for past deeds still clings to him!
A religious change can occur without spiritual repentance that comes from regeneration. In Acts 8 we read of Simon who accepted the facts of the gospel into his mind, was baptized, and remained loyal to Philip the evangelist, but he was not truly saved. His impenitence was soon revealed when he sought to acquire spiritual gifts by offering money to the apostle Peter (Acts 8:20-23). Changing one’s way of life does not necessarily indicate evangelical repentance. Men and women may reform their lives to a great degree without truly turning from sin and turning to God.
Gospel repentance is not a form of regret. Prisons are full of those who regret their crimes. A drunkard with a hangover may regret his drinking binge; a gambler with his loss of fortune at the casino may regret his foolishness with hard-earned money; a prostitute with a contracted disease may regret getting into the lowest trade of society; or a thief with his stolen goods may regret being caught. All of these may deeply regret their consequences, but not the cause! Consider Herod, who may have been sorry for John the Baptist’s execution, but he proceeded with the death sentence nonetheless to satisfy those who dined with him (Matthew 14:9). Herod regretted the ghastly consequences of his actions, but he did not repent in his heart! Mere regret is not godly sorrow.
Evangelical repentance means to grieve over sin because it is sin. A man’s conscience may torment him while he fails to repent of his ungodliness. For instance, Judas confessed his crimes against the Son of God to his fellow men, but not to God. Not every one in the Bible who said, “I have sinned” was a true believer. The eyes may be wet with tears while the heart is as hard as stone. Remorse with its pangs of conscience is not repentance!
So, what then is true repentance? What are the key marks of turning from sin and turning to God? The first sign will be faith in a Savior for sin that accompanies sorrow for sin. Repenting and believing are inseparable. When the Lord went into Galilee preaching the kingdom of God, He proclaimed: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel”(Mark1:15). He linked faith with genuine repentance.
Repentance must be accompanied by faith to lead to a sincere confession of sin and its evil against God. The prodigal son said, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and in thy sight.” The repentant sinner makes no excuses for his sin, but freely confesses his guilt as a grief to his own soul as well as a grief to God.
In the regenerate soul a radical work takes place which creates a strong desire to break with the past and seek a new life that pleases God. Though there cannot be “sinless perfection” in the believer, genuine repentance will show itself in newness of life.
“Repentance is to leave the sins I loved before,
And show that I in earnest grieve by doing so no more.”
True repentance is also practical: “Do works meet for repentance.” The life of the true Christian is no longer dominated by sin. One Puritan wrote, “There is a great difference between a sheep that falls off the path into the mire, and a hog that jumps into the mire to wallow in its filth!” The pig will be true to its own nature, but not the sheep. The Lord’s sheep do not want to go on living in the mire of sin! Those who truly repent will hate sin and flee from it.
Repentance is imperative because heaven is for holy people, not rebels! The state in which we leave this life will be our eternal state: “He that is unjust, let him be unjust still: and he which is filthy, let him be filthy still: and he that is righteous, let him be righteous still: and he that is holy, let him be holy still (Rev.22:11). If you do not love God now, you will not suddenly begin to love Him in eternity. You must repent here in this life, if you are to be in Heaven.
Sadly, repentance may be sought after too late. Puritan Thomas Watson said, “The longer ice freezes, the harder it is to be broken.” Therefore, it is vital to repent without delay! Turn away from sin and turn to God through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ as the only Savior who can deliver you from your sin. That’s true repentance and its — the kind that will save your soul.
Rev. Stephen Hamilton is minister of Allentown FPC, Walnutport PA