What is repentance? We could answer the question cynically by saying that repentance is something which is rarely mentioned, for in many churches today it is no longer preached upon, the truth of the gospel being watered down so much that sin and repentance are absent from most sermons. The seeker sensitive method of preaching is employed instead, leading men to preach only upon that which the people wish to hear. The need for sinners to repent is not popular, therefore it is disregarded and left out of the message. Yet however unpopular and unpalatable the doctrine of repentance many be to sinful man, it is a necessary part of true conversion and something which needs to be repeatedly brought to the attention of those who are outside of Christ. Question number 87 of the Shorter Catechism describes repentance unto life as '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 endeavour after, new obedience'. This statement gives a very clear description of what true repentance is, identifying five distinctive characteristics:
So often when we speak of repentance, we speak of it being something which we do of ourselves, yet the natural man has no power in himself to repent of sin, his nature being opposed to God's will and he being insensible of his sinful state. Repentance itself is but a grace given by God. Acts 11:18 says that 'Then hath God also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life'. 2nd Timothy 2:25 also states that the ability to repent is given by God, it is not something that man has in himself. We cannot repent of our sin but God give us the grace to do so, there is therefore nothing for us to glory in when we have come to the place of repentance and have left our sin behind us, but all the glory is given to Christ, for it is he who hath wrought a new work in us, and has given us that new heart to seek after him.
2. Repentance arises out of a sorrowful sense of our sin
Just as the drowning man will never seek aid unless he realise his condition, so the sinner will never seek repentance until they have a sense of their sin. Thomas Vincent says that the true sense of sin is 'in such an inward feeling of our miserable and low estate, by reason of the wrath and curse of God, and that eternal vengeance of hell, which for our sins we are exposed unto, as putteth us into great perplexity and trouble of spirit; so that our consciences being hereby pricked and wounded, can find no quiet, and take no rest in this condition'. Those who have a true sense of their sin must repent, if not they will remain miserable in their present condition. They see their sin, not only in its bringing ruin upon ourselves, but also in its bringing dishonour upon the name of God. Those who continue unconcerned in their sinful estate, with no sorrow of sin are far from repentance; oh that their sin would make them miserable, that they would see it as it is in the sight of God. When we have come to the place of the Psalmist David, putting on sackcloth and ashes, proclaiming 'I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me' that will be evidence of our having a true sense of our sin, without which we can never repent.
3. Repentance is motivated by an understanding of the mercy of God
No matter how convicted we may be of our sinful condition, no matter how much it may cause us anguish and despair, if there were no mercy in God then what cause would we have to repent. If there were no hope that God would forgive our sin then repentance would be pointless. It is only when we understand that the Lord is a God 'merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin' that we will understand the good of repentance. When we see that there is mercy provided in the Lord Jesus Christ then we will be driven to repent, we will come in the knowledge that God is ready to forgive the penitent sinner. A true sense of our sin will bring necessary despair, for we will realise our awful condition, yet an understanding of the mercy of God will then lift us out of that pit of despair, in the joyful hope of forgiveness of sin in Jesus Christ.
4. Repentance is a turning away from sin unto God
Repentance is not simply a realisation of our sin, but a forsaking of that sin in which we have previously indulged and a turning unto God. It involves a complete change, where we turn completely away from our sin, rejecting it and leaving it behind, instead seeking the Lord for salvation. Where one makes a profession of faith yet continues on in their sin it is surely evidence that there has never been a true work of grace done in their life. However where there is true repentance the drunkard will leave the bottle behind him, the thief will become an honest man, the liar a man of integrity, and the blasphemer a praiser of God's name. There is an evident change in the life of the one who has repented and been truly born again of God, for 'if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new'. Yet true repentance is not merely a forsaking of sinful habit and living of a moral life, it is a leavng of sin, truly repentant of those crimes which we have committed, and a turning to God.
5. Repentance results in a new desire for the things of God
The final evidence of true repentance unto life is that we will now have new desires, and will seek after a new obedience unto God. The one for whom so long we had rejected and opposed, we will now worship. The new desires which we have to serve the Lord, to be in the company of his people, to hear the preaching of his word and to know his presence in our lives are the evidences that there has been a real change in our life. Whilst we may come to Jesus as we are, having been to Calvary we will be new creatures, different and changed from what we were, desiring spiritual rather than carnal. Can there be true repentance where there is no desire so seek after the things of God? We would contend that it cannot be the case.
What then of repentance for you? As millions reject Christ, rushing on in their sin to a Christless eternity in hell, will you do likewise? Luke 13 says that 'except ye repent ye shall all likewise perish'. Oh today if you would 'repent, and turn yourselves from all your transgressions; so iniquity shall not be your ruin'.