WCF 15: Of Repentance unto Life
At the start of his ministry the Lord Jesus used just two verbs to summarize the good news of his kingdom: “Repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). Paul condensed his ministry in a similar way: I testified “both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:21). Only by this kind of preaching was Paul “innocent of the blood of all” (Acts 20:26). He had delivered the essential message that had been committed to him.
Repentance, along with faith, belongs to the “elementary doctrine of Christ”—it is foundational for the Christian (Heb. 6:1). By faith we accept, receive, and rest upon Christ alone for salvation. By repentance we turn from sin to God with a commitment to new obedience.
We must repent. So we need to know how to do it. But lest we try to do something we don’t understand we need to first know what repentance is.
What Is Repentance?
Repentance is “an evangelical grace.” Like faith repentance is a gift from God. Only God can “grant … repentance” to those who err (2 Tim. 2:25). Church leaders summarized Peter’s evangelistic crusade like this: “God has granted repentance that leads to life” (Acts 11:18). Jeremiah understood this same truth. He prayed, “Turn thou us unto thee, O Lord, and we shall be turned; renew our days as of old” (Lam. 5:21 KJV). We are naturally enslaved to sin (Rom. 6:17). No one turns from sin apart from God’s energizing work.
Still, you and I must repent—“none may expect pardon without it.” “If a man does not repent God will whet his bow” (Ps. 7:12). Repentance isn’t meritorious. We don’t repent in order to gain God’s kindness. Penance isn’t how we pay for our sins. It isn’t the depth of our sorrow for sin, or the strictness of our turning from it that makes God favor us. Only the sacrifice of God’s sinless Lamb can do that. But to be pardoned you must repent.
To truly repent you must know sin’s misery. Penitent people see and sense sin’s danger. Some sins are patently dangerous—a life of violence is likely to end violently (Matt. 26:52). But a life of any iniquity will ruin you; it will kill you spiritually and eternally (Ezek. 18:30–31). Sin is dangerous because it violates God’s rules for your happiness. No sin can provide lasting joy—only ruin and destruction (1 Tim. 6:9). The wicked will “fall into their own nets, while” the godly “pass by safely” (Ps. 141:10).
Penitent people also see and sense sin’s filthiness. Sin is repulsive to the believer. It is contrary to God’s holy nature and violates his holy law. This is why every sin, even the smallest sin “deserves damnation.” So every sin should make us ashamed of ourselves (1 Cor. 6:5; 15:34). Sin makes us feel dirty—and we can’t make ourselves clean. This is why David’s most well-known penitential psalm hits hard on the theme of washing: “blot out my transgressions … wash me thoroughly from my iniquity … cleanse me from my sin … purge me with hyssop … wash me …blot out all my iniquities … create in me a clean heart” (Ps. 51:1, 2, 7, 9, 10).
But to make such bold requests guilty sinners must trust that God is merciful to the penitent. Repentance requires more than remorse (2 Cor. 7:11). Even unrepentant people can feel bad for what they have done, think Esau, Saul, and Judas. But repentance is turning to God from sin. And no sinner will turn to God unless they believe him to be merciful. Sinners naturally turn from God. Adam and Eve fled from the Lord after they sinned. Maybe you have felt that temptation. Sin makes us feel alienated from God. Our sin makes us imagine that he could no longer be interested in us. So remember, God has no pleasure in the death of anyone. He wants sinners to turn to him and live (Ezek. 18:32). So how do we do that?
How Do I repent?
Here are five basic rules for biblical, God-honoring repentance.
Don’t be like politicians who admit to generic indiscretions. Bland penitence makes us feel safe by not distinguishing us from any other imperfect person. True repentance is specific. Paul admitted that in his former life he “was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent” (1 Tim. 1:13). Hypocrites accused Zacchaeus of being a “sinner.” But Zacchaeus went further. He publicly acknowledge his greed and fraud. He committed to repaying his debts. And Jesus pronounced him a saved man (Luke 19:8–10).
Feel Your Sin
The most important feelings of penitent people are grief and hatred toward sin. Repentance should be accompanied with weeping and mourning (Joel 2:12). Penitence is similar to a funeral (Matt. 2:18) because sin is like a death. And because it is also like a murderer and thief we should hate sin. “The fear of the Lord is hatred of evil. Pride and arrogance and the way of evil and perverted speech I hate” (Prov. 8:13). It is easy for us to hate the evil in others. But we must hate our own too.
Turn from Sin
By repentance we forsake sin; we abandon, neglect, and desert it. True Christians follow Moses’ example and refuse to “enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin” (Heb. 11:25), knowing that sin brings death (Rom. 6:23). Instead we purpose and endeavor to walk with God in all the ways of his commandments. Repent of your idolatry and serve God alone. Renounce false worship and serve God as Scripture requires. Stop misusing God’s name and honor it completely. No longer violate the Lord’s Day but prioritize rest and worship. Instead of disrespecting your parents honor them. Turn from murder, adultery, theft, lying, and covetousness; and promote life, pursue holiness, protect your neighbors’ treasures, tell the truth, and be content. Repentance is more than words and feelings; it is godliness in action.
Talk to the Right People
Every sin requires confession to God (Ps. 51:4). But if you scandalize or truly offend others you should confess your sin to them also. Some sins do “or may mar the spiritual edification of another.”[i] If you steal another’s joy, disrupt their flourishing, make them sin, or disturb their conscience—you must confess your sin (James 5:16). When your sin is of a public nature you must confess publicly. And those hearing the confession, whether privately or publicly, “are thereupon to be reconciled to [the confessor], and in love … receive him” (see Luke 15:27–28; 2 Cor. 2:1–11).
Trust in Christ
We can admit our sin trusting that Christ Jesus came into this world for the explicit purpose of saving sinners (1 Tim. 1:15). The worst sinners receive more grace. Only fools live as if they have no need to repent. God’s children know they are sick. But they also know that God has sent Christ to be their great physician. So tell God how your sin has made you sick, commit to pursuing spiritual health, and expect Jesus to make you well.
William Boekestein pastors Immanuel Fellowship Church in Kalamazoo, Michigan. He has authored numerous books including, with Joel Beeke, Contending for the Faith: The Story of The Westminster Assembly.
[i] This definition is from James Durham, who was ordained to the ministry in Scotland in the year that the Confession of Faith was published. A Treatise Concerning Scandal (Dallas: Naphtali Press, 1990), 2.