Wednesday Words: Repentance

Over the last fortnight we’ve looked at grace and faith, and seen that what really saves us is Jesus Christ and Him crucified. But where does repentance fit into all this? After all, that’s what Jesus Himself preached – ‘repent and believe the gospel’ (Mark 1:14). Not only that, it’s what He commanded us to preach, commissioning His disciples ‘that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations’ (Luke 24:27). And then, later on, Paul told the Ephesian elders that he testified ‘to Jews, and also to Greeks, repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ’ (Acts 20:21). So repentance wasn’t only an important aspect of Christ’s preaching, but also part of what He commissioned the Church to preach and part of the preaching of the apostles, like Paul. 

But how does this repentance business fit in with being saved ‘by grace alone through faith alone’ (which, we’ve been seeing, really means ‘by the finished work of Christ alone’)? Is repentance something we do? But that would mean salvation wasn’t all about what Christ has done. Is repentance something we add to faith? But then salvation wouldn’t be ‘by faith alone’. So what is this repentance of which the Bible speaks, and how does it fit in with grace, faith, Jesus’ blood, and salvation? 

First of all, what is repentance? Well, for a start, it isn’t simply being sad or regretting. The right type of sorrow has a role to play, but sorrow isn’t repentance (2 Cor. 7:10). Neither is repentance fixing up our lives. Sometimes we can end up thinking of repentance like that – as turning our lives around so that they’re good enough for God. But that is the very essence of ‘not the gospel’. That would be salvation by works. That, in effect, would be attempting to save ourselves. And that is not biblical repentance. 

But, you say, doesn’t the Bible describe people’s lives being transformed through repentance. Well, read it carefully. The Bible talks about ‘fruits worthy of repentance’ (Matt. 3:8) or ‘works befitting repentance’ (Acts 26:20), but we mustn’t confuse repentance with its fruit. True repentance will lead to the fruit of a changed life, but that’s the result of repentance, not repentance itself. A transformed life is God’s work, not ours. It comes from grace alone, not our efforts. 

Repentance, in fact, is given to us by God in His grace (Acts 5:31; Acts 11:18; 2 Tim. 2:24-26). Dead in our sins, we could never have repented, unless God Himself granted us this gift of repentance. And this gift of repentance isn’t a one off thing, sometime in the past when we got saved. As Martin Luther put it in the first of the 95 Theses, ‘the entire life of believers [is] one of repentance’

So what is repentance? Repentance is a turning – a turning from and a turning to. That’s simple enough. But that’s also where we can make the mistake. Our temptation is to think of repentance as turning from sins to good works or good behaviour. And that’s when we end up collapsing the fruits of repentance into repentance. And that’s when we get confused between the necessity of repentance and sola fide. But that’s all down to a mistaken assumption about the turning. It’s not turning from sins to good behaviour, but turning from sin to Christ. 

Michael Horton sums up this turning from sin beautifully: ‘it is the revulsion of the whole soul toward its alliance with sin and death’ (The Christian Faith, p.578). That is a much deeper work than a mere stopping of some outwardly visible bad behaviour! And this turning from sin leads to a turning to Christ. We despair of ourselves, our lack of righteousness, and the sin and death we find in ourselves, but Christ turns us out from ourselves (remember, Augustine and Luther wrote that sin is being turned in on ourselves – incurvatus in se) to Him and embraces us with forgiveness and salvation. 

That turning to Christ then sounds a bit like faith. And that’s not an accident. Faith and repentance go together. True faith and true repentance cannot be separated. They’re two sides of the same coin. True faith is repentant faith. True repentance is believing repentance. 

Repentance may be something that God grants, but it isn’t a thing or ability that he gives us to merit forgiveness. No, the repentance He grants us is Christ turning us out from our sinful selves and to His saving embrace. 

I love the way the Heidelberg Catechism describes true repentance: 

88. In how many things does true repentance or conversion consist?

In two things: the dying of the old man, and the making alive of the new.

89. What is the dying of the old man?
Heartfelt sorrow for sin, causing us to hate and turn from it always more and more.
90. What is the making alive of the new man?
Heartfelt joy in God through Christ, causing us to take delight in living according to the will of God in all good works.

That’s true repentance: Christ shows us the sinfulness of our sin, leading us to hate it and turning us away from it to joy in God through Christ. And remember, repentance is most definitely not about making ourselves better, for ‘if you tarry till you’re better, you will never come at all.’ So: 

Let not conscience make you linger,
Nor of fitness fondly dream;
All the fitness He requireth
Is to feel your need of Him.