The Nature of Repentance
Arthur W. Pink
Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.
In view of these solemn words it is tremendously important that each of us should seek and obtain from God the repentance which He requires, not resting content with anything short of this. Hence, there needs to be the most diligent and prayerful examination as to the character of our repentance. Multitudes are deceived thereon. Many are perplexed by the conflicting teaching of men on this subject; but instead of that discouraging, it should stir up to a more earnest searching of the Scriptures. Before turning to the positive side of this branch of our theme, let us first point out some of the features of a non-saving repentance.
Trembling beneath the preaching of God’s Word is not repentance. True, there are thousands of people who have listened unmoved to the most awe-inspiring sermons, and even descriptions of the torments of the damned have struck no terror to their hearts. Yet, on the other hand, many who were deeply stirred, filled with alarm, and moved to tears, are now in hell. I have seen the faces of strong men pale under a searching message, yet next day all its effects had left them. Felix “trembled” (Acts 24:25) under the preaching of Paul!
Being “almost persuaded” is not repentance. Agrippa (Acts 26:28) is a case in point. A person may give full assent to the messages of God’s servant, admire the gospel, yea, receive the Word with joy, and after all, be only a stony-ground hearer (Matthew 13:20-21). Not only so, he may be conscious of his evildoing and acknowledge the same. Pharaoh owned, “I have sinned against the Lord your God” (Exodus 10:16). A man may realize that he ought to yield himself to the claims of God and become a Christian, yet never be more than “almost persuaded.”
Humbling ourselves beneath the mighty hand of God is not repentance. People may be deeply moved, weep, go home and determine to reform their lives, and yet return to their sins. A solemn example of this is found in Ahab. That wicked king of Israel coveted Naboth’s vineyard, plotted to secure it, and gained his end by causing him to be murdered. Then the servant of God met him and said, “Hast thou killed and also taken possession?” And we are told that “he rent his clothes, and put sackcloth upon his flesh, and fasted . . . and went softly” (I Kings 21:27-29). Yet in the very next chapter we find him again rebelling against God, and that he was cut off by divine judgment. Ah, my reader, you may have humbled yourself before God for a time, and yet remain the slave of your lusts. You may be afraid of hell, and yet not of sinning. If hell were extinguished, so would be the repentance of many church members. O mistake not fear of the wrath to come for a holy hatred and horror of sin.
Confessing sins is not repentance. Thousands have gone forward to the “altar” or “mourners’ bench” and have told God what vile creatures they were, enumerating a long list of transgressions, but without any deep realization of the unspeakable awfulness of their sins, or a spark of holy hatred of them. The sequel has shown this, for they now ignore God’s commandments as much as they did before. O my reader, if you do not, in the strength of God, resist sin, if you do not turn from it, then your fancied repentance is only whitewash—paint which decorates, but not the grace which transforms into gold.
You may even do works meet for repentance, and yet remain impenitent. A sinner may be convinced of the evil of his ways, turn from them, and go so far as to make restitution for the harm, which he has wrought, and yet perish notwithstanding. A clear proof of this is furnished in the New Testament. Judas confessed his sins to the priests, and returned their money (Matthew 27:3-5), and then he went out from the presence of those evil men. Was he saved? No, he went and hanged himself! O how this ought to make each of us tremble and search our hearts.
The Greek metanoeo, which occurs most frequently as the word rendered “repent,” signifies a change of mind; Matthew 21:29 both illustrates and confirms that definition. Yet let it be said very emphatically that saving repentance means far more than a mere change of opinions: it is a changed mind, which leads to action. Now this changed mind is not brought about by any intellectual process, but is the result of the understanding being wrought upon by the conscience, and that as the conscience has been supernaturally ploughed up by the Holy Spirit. In consequence of this there is a judging or condemning of self, a taking sides with God against myself.
Fallen man is not now on trial, but is a criminal already under sentence (John 3:18). “There is none righteous, no, not one: There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God. They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one” (Romans 3:10-12). That is God’s indictment against each of us. No pleading will avail, no excuses will be accepted. The present issue between God and the sinner is, Will man bow to, or endorse with his heart, God’s righteous verdict?
It is just here that the gospel meets us. It comes to us as those who are already lost, as those who are “ungodly,” “without strength,” at “enmity with God.” When the gospel first comes to the sinner it finds him in a state of apostasy from God, both as sovereign Ruler and as our supreme Good, neither obeying and glorifying Him, nor enjoying and finding satisfaction in Him. Hence the demand for “repentance toward God” before “faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:21). True repentance toward God removes this disaffection of our minds and hearts toward Him, under both these characters. In saving repentance the whole soul turns to Him and says: I have been a disloyal and rebellious creature: I have scorned Thy high authority and most rightful law. I will live no longer thus. I now desire and determine with all my might to serve and obey Thee as my only Lord. I subject myself unto Thee, to submit to Thy will.
Nor is the above all that a truly penitent soul says to God. He goes on: Hitherto I have been a miserable and forlorn creature, destitute of anything which could satisfy or make me truly happy. My heart has been set upon a vain world, which could not meet my real needs: it has flattered and mocked me often, but never contented me; it has “pierced me through with many sorrows.” I forsook the Fountain of living waters, and turned to broken cisterns which held none. I own and bewail my folly; I unsparingly condemn myself for my madness. I now betake myself to Thee as my present and everlasting Portion.
The gospel proclaims the amazing grace of God, which is the guilty and condemned sinner’s only hope. Yet that grace will never be welcomed until the sinner really bows beneath God’s sentence against him. This is why both repentance and faith are demanded of us. The two must never be separated. When our Lord was speaking to the chief priests and elders about their rejection of John’s message, the charge He preferred against them was: Ye “repented not afterward, that ye might believe in him” (Matthew 21:32). Repentance is the heart’s acknowledgement of the justice of God’s sentence of condemnation; faith is the heart’s glad acceptance of the grace and mercy which are extended to us through Christ. Repentance is not simply the turning over of a new leaf and a vowing that I will mend my ways: rather is it a setting to my seal that God is true when He declares I am “without strength”: that in myself, my case is hopeless, that I am no more capable of “doing better” than I am of creating a world. Not until this is believed on the authority of God’s Word shall I really turn to Christ and welcome Him—not as a Helper, but as Saviour!
Repentance is more than a conviction of sin or terror of the wrath to come. This is clear from Acts 2:37-38. Under Peter’s searching message, the Jews were made to realize their awful guilt before God: they were made conscious of the fearful fact that they had murdered the Prince of life, and so were in terrible fear of being cast into hell. Nevertheless, though already “pricked in their hearts,” when they cried out, “What shall we do?” Peter said, “Repent.” To a superficial mind, such a demand might appear needless: yet was it seasonable counsel. Their being “pricked in their heart” was legal terror, whereas saving “repentance” is an evangelical judging of self, mourning over sin out of a sense of God’s grace and goodness.
A prayerful and careful pondering of Acts 2:37-38 should correct more than one error, which is now, current in various circles. When the hearers of Peter were affrighted by their awful crime and fearful of eternal wrath, pricked in the heart—as though a sword had been run through their vitals— they cried out in anguish, “What shall we do?” The apostle did not say, “Be passive, there is nothing you can do,” thus encouraging the fatal inertia of hyper-Calvinists. Nor did he say, “Believe your sins are blotted out,” which is the counsel of many “physicians of no value” in our day. No, his reply was far otherwise, in substance amounting to this: “Take all the blame which belongs to you. Own the whole truth unto God. Do not gloss over, but confess your awful wickedness; let your uncircumcised hearts be truly humbled before Him. And then look by faith to the free grace of God through the blood of Christ for pardon, and in token that all your dependence is on His mediation and merits, be baptized in His name, and that shall be to you an external sign of the remission of your sins.”
“It is manifest from the nature of the case, that he who hath his eyes opened to see the glory of the divine nature, the beauty of the divine law, the infinite evil of sin, the need of an infinite atonement, and so to see his need of Christ: and at the same time, views God as the supreme, all-sufficient Good, ready to receive every sinner that returns to Him through Christ; it is manifest, I say, that everyone who is thus taught of God, will repent and return to God as his sovereign Lord and supreme Good, and return through Jesus Christ, who is the way to the Father, and the only way, in the view of one thus divinely enlightened. For in the clearer light the glory of the divine nature and law is seen, in exact proportion will be the sense of the infinite evil of sin, and the need of Christ’s infinite atonement and perfect righteousness. And so `repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ’ will be naturally and inseparably connected. Yea, they will be necessarily implied in each other.
He who repents in the view of the glory of God, the glory of the law, and of the atonement, will in his repentance look only to free grace through Jesus Christ for mercy, and he who looks only to free grace through Jesus Christ for mercy, in a view of the glory of God, law, atonement, will in doing so take the whole blame of his disaffection to the divine character, as exhibited in the law, and on the cross of Christ, to himself, judging and condemning himself and in the very act of faith, repent and be converted. When, therefore, it is said, `Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved’ (Acts 16:31), the same (inclusive) thing is meant as when it is said, `Repent ye therefore and be converted that your sins may be blotted out’ (Acts 3:19). For the apostolic faith implies repentance in its own nature, and their repentance implies faith in its nature. Sometimes they only mention faith, and sometimes only repentance, and sometimes both together; but the same thing is always intended. For in the view of the apostles, repentance and faith were mutually implied in each other. (Jos. Bellamy, 1750)
Giving a more full and formal definition of repentance, we would say: Repentance is a supernatural and inward revelation from God, giving a deep consciousness of what I am in His sight, which causes me to loathe and condemn myself, resulting in a bitter sorrow for sin, a holy horror and hatred for sin, and a turning away from or forsaking of sin. It is the discovery of God’s high and righteous claims upon me, and of my lifelong failure to meet those claims. It is the recognition of the holiness and goodness of His law, and my defiant insubordination thereto. It is the perception that God has the right to rule and govern me, and of my refusal to submit unto Him. It is the apprehension that He has dealt in goodness and kindness with me, and that I have evilly repaid Him by having no concern for His honor and glory. It is the realization of His gracious patience with me, and how that instead of this melting my heart and causing me to yield loving obedience to Him, I have abused His forbearance by continuing in a course of self-will.
Evangelical repentance is a heart-apprehension of the exceeding sinfulness of sin. It is the recognition of the chief thing wherein I am blame-worthy, namely, in having so miserably failed to render unto God that which is His rightful due. As the Holy Spirit sets before me the loveliness of the divine character, as I am enabled to discern the exalted excellency of God, then I begin to perceive that to which He is justly entitled, namely, the homage of my heart, the unrestricted love of my soul, the complete surrender of my whole being to Him. As I perceive that from the moment I drew my first breath God has sought only my good, that the One who gave me being has constantly ministered to my every creature need, and that the least I can do in return is to acknowledge His abounding mercies by doing that which is pleasing in His sight, I am now over-whelmed with anguish and horror as I realize I have treated Him more vilely than my worst enemy.
Oftentimes example is better than the most accurate definition. The New Testament furnishes quite a number of concrete instances, even where the term itself is not found. When the “publican” stood afar off and would not so much as lift up his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, “God be merciful to me a sinner” (Luke 18:13), we behold repentance in action. He recognized that awful moral distance which sin had taken him from God; he was deeply conscious of his utter unworthiness to gaze upon the Holy One; he unsparingly judged himself; he realized that his only hope lay in the sovereign mercy of God. So, too, the thief on the cross: in his words to his hardened companion, “Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation, and we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds” (Luke 23:40-41). There was no self-extenuation, but a ready owning of his sinnership and his desert to be punished.
Mark carefully the expressions of penitence used by David in Psalm 5 1. He talks not of his “failures,” “mistakes” or “infirmities,” but instead of “my transgression” (v. 1), “my sin” (v. 2), “this evil” (v. 4), “my iniquity” (v. 9), and expressly mentions the worst feature of his crime, namely, his “bloodguiltiness” (v. 14). True repentance abhors gentle names for sin, nor does it seek to cloak wickedness. That which, while being tempted, is thought of as no great offense, when (later) is truly repented of, is acknowledged to be heinous. Sin before its commission often appears unto the mind as a very small evil, but when grace acts in a way of repentance for it, then the false glamour disappears and it is viewed in its dreadful malignity and loathed accordingly.
True repentance is always accompanied by a deep longing and a sincere determination to forsake that course which is displeasing to God. With what honesty could any man seek God’s pardon while he continued to defy Him and would not part with that which He forbids? Would any king pardon a traitor, though he seemed ever so humble, if he saw that he would be a traitor still? True, God is infinitely more merciful than any human king, yet in the very passage where He first formally proclaimed His mercy, He at once added, “ . . . that will by no means clear the guilty” (Exod. 34:5-7) i.e., the guilty-hearted, those with false and disloyal hearts toward Himself, who would not be subject to Him in all things, and declined to have their every thought brought into captivity to obedience unto Him (II Cor. 10:5).
What has just been said needs to be strongly emphasized in this day of lawlessness, when, on every side, the very “grace of God” is being “turned into lasciviousness” (Jude 4). Many are the Scriptures, which set forth this truth, that there must be a forsaking of sin before God will pardon offenders. “There is forgiveness with thee, that thou mayest be feared” (Ps. 130:4). Were God to grant pardon to those in whom there was no change of heart to fear and obey Him, then there would be mercy with Him that He might be insulted and dishonored still further! God’s mercy is never exercised at the expense of His holiness! God never displays one of His attributes so as to dishonor another. To pity a thief while he continues his thievery would be folly, not wisdom. Well did the Puritan, Thomas Goodwin, say, “Resolve either to leave every known sin and submit to every known duty, or else never look to find mercy and favor with God.”
Of old it was announced that should any “bless himself in his heart, saying, I shall have peace, though I walk in the imagination of mine heart to add drunkenness to thirst [that is, one sin to another]: the Lord will not spare him” (Deut. 28:19-20). So, on the other hand it was declared, “If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land” (II Chron. 7:14; cf. 6:26). And the principles of God’s government have not changed! The death of Christ has not caused God to lower His standard—how unspeakably horrible and dreadful that anyone should suppose it has! No, what God demanded of old, He demands now.
Thus, repentance is the negative side of conversion. Conversion is a wholehearted turning unto God, but there cannot be a turning unto without a turning from. Sin must be forsaken ere we can draw nigh unto the Holy One. As it is written, “Ye turned to God from idols to serve [live for] the living and true God” (I Thess. 1:9). Thus, repentance is the sinner making his peace with God. We are not unmindful of the fact that that expression is derided by many, yet it is a Scriptural one: “Let him take hold of my strength, that he may make peace with me” (Isaiah 27:5). It is blessedly true that Christ “made peace through the blood of his cross” (Col. 1:20), yet it is equally true that no sinner ever enters into the saving good of Christ’s blood until he makes his peace with God; in other words, till he throws down the weapons of his warfare and ceases fighting against God. The Lord Jesus Himself plainly taught this in Luke 14; let the reader carefully ponder verses 28-33, paying special attention to verse 32 and the “so likewise” of verse 33!