Last time, (Dec. 15), I defined repentance as the believer’s sorrowful turn from sin unto God in the seeking of remission. Now I want to go to the Scriptures to elaborate.
A right understanding
First of all, genuine repentance begins in the renewed mind as the seat of true spiritual knowledge and understanding. This is evident from one of the key biblical words for repentance (metanoia) which, as you might recall, means, “change of mind.” The turning of repentance commences when the spiritually enlightened mind apprehends both the awful reality of sin and the wonder of God’s mercy in Christ.
The penitent sinner has the true knowledge of his sin (Rom. 3:20). He understands that his sin is sin—a vile transgression of the righteous law of God, worthy of extreme, that is, everlasting punishment of body and soul. He understands something of the filthiness, odiousness, and grievousness of his sins before the holy nature of the Holy One. This true and personal understanding of sin is captured in the publican of Jesus’ parable, for no man smites his breast in agony (Luke 18:13), or, as the Form for the Lord’s Supper puts it, “humbles and abhors himself before God,” unless he has first grasped something of the horrible reality of sin—his sin. Likewise, this spiritual understanding is captured in the cries of David, “Against thee and thee only have I sinned and done this evil in thy sight!” (Ps. 51:4). Evil! Evil against God! Evil in God’s sight! The sinner understands that when he has sinned, he has said or thought or done something that is not an excusable mistake but evil, and that he is by nature someone evil. Additionally, David cried, “Cast me not away from thy presence!” (Ps. 51:11), because he understands that just one sin is so awful he deserves to be cast away by God and banished from His presence everlastingly in hell.
Furthermore, the penitent sinner understands that to him, and to all those who repent, God is, for the sake of Christ’s perfect atoning sacrifice, “The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (Ex. 34:6-7). When we plead with penitent David, “Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness, according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions” (Ps. 51:1), we are confident that God is tender in mercy to us. The call to repentance even includes with it the explicit publishing of this mercy in order to excite the soul unto repentance, “And rend your heart, and not your garments, and turn unto the Lord your God; for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repenteth him of the evil” (Joel 2:13), and, “Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the Lord, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon” (Is. 55:7).
That the turning of true repentance begins with this right understanding of sin and mercy indicates that true repentance presupposes and is born of true faith. As Synod 2021 stated, “repentance is always born of faith,” and “Repentance arises out of a faith that is persuaded that God is plenteous in mercy and that He abundantly pardons for Christ’s sake” (Acts of Synod 2021, p. 123). Repentance is the believer’s sorrowful turn from sin unto God in the seeking of remission.
Without faith in the Word of God, it is impossible for a man to repent because he does not have a true and proper understanding of his sin. He does not believe about his sin what God in His Word says about that sin. When our faith is weak, as David’s was while he was on the palace rooftop, then we are tempted and drawn away of our own lusts. Then we think wrongly and in harmony with the Tempter’s enticing, “How pleasing and satisfying this will be, and how small a matter this really is, and how I have the right to do this and I deserve this and can explain this.” As long as that thinking continues, there will be no turning from sin but only continuance in it. But when there is repentance born of faith, then the sinner understands who he really is before God, just like the prodigal son who “came to himself” (Luke 15:17). We might say of a lawless and impenitent sinner who spurns the admonitions of the Word, “You are out of your mind. This makes no sense. You are like an intoxicated fool, or one of the demoniacs in Jesus’ day, a mad man. Don’t you see what you are doing to yourself, your life, others around you, the church, and the name of the Most High? Come to yourself!” However, a sinner cannot “come to himself” and stop deceiving himself unless God quickens within him a true faith so that his eyes are opened to who he really is and what he really is doing according to the Word.
Additionally, a mere surface-level recognition of having done something that is not good is not sufficient: faithless Pharaoh, Saul, and Judas Iscariot all uttered the same three words, “I have sinned” (Ex. 9:27; I Sam. 15:24; Matt. 27:4), but they did not truly repent. Although they took the word “sin” upon their lips, their souls were empty of any faith in God’s Word whereby they could understand their sin for what it really was.
Nor did those three men believe in the pardoning mercy of God in Christ. Without saving faith and the personal knowledge of God’s mercy, we might recognize our sin, but we will only have a sense of the dreadfulness of God’s wrath and will only regard God as an inexorable Judge. If we did not believe that God made Christ to be sin for us at the cross, we would never return to Him in repentance. Instead we would flee, fashioning coverings of our own making in a desperate attempt to escape the sword of justice. What excites our soul unto genuine repentance is the understanding that no crime of ours against God is too atrocious for His boundless goodness in Christ.
Because true repentance commences with a right understanding of sin and mercy, God does not work true repentance merely by means of the strict preaching of the demands of the moral law and its condemnation of sinners. Those who walk down crowded streets holding signs that say, “Repent or perish! Turn or burn!” are missing something. The sinner must hear the gospel of Christ, for Christ “is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world” (I John 2:2). Even in Nineveh when Jonah preached “Yet forty days and Nineveh shall be overthrown,” Jonah delivered a gospel word of mercy and it was revealed to Nineveh in Jonah’s person (Matt. 12:41). Jonah himself was a sign of God’s miraculous and gracious deliverance in Christ (for more, recall “A greater than Jonah,” Standard Bearer, Nov. 15, 2021).
A deep feeling
Secondly, the turning of genuine repentance includes the intense feeling of sorrow in the heart. This sorrow is not the false sorrow of the world (II Cor. 7:10), which is the sorrow of getting caught, of being made to suffer consequences, of suffering public humiliation, of losing worldly goods and privileges, or simply a sense of selfpity. Rather, the penitent sinner has a broken spirit and contrite heart (Ps. 51:17) because he knows his sin is committed against God (Ps. 51:4). His heart breaks in utter agony because he knows that his sin is nothing less than a hideous return of base ingratitude unto his faithful God and Father for all His goodness. The penitent sinner mourns over his sin (Joel 2:12; Zech. 12:12) and often that inner sorrow and profound sense of grief comes to expression in sackcloth, dust and ashes (Job 42:6; Jonah 3:6; Matt. 11:21), tears (Luke 7:38) and bitter weeping (Matt. 26:75). Beware, however, for Esau is proof that tears do not guarantee genuine repentance (Heb. 12:17). Genuine sorrow includes a deep feeling of guilt (Luke 18:13), helplessness (Ps. 51:11-12), and shame (Ezra 9:6, “blush to lift up my face to thee;” Dan. 9:7, “confusion of faces”) in which the sinner abases himself (II Chron. 7:14). The degree of sorrow may differ from one soul to the next according to age, character, and circumstances, but there is no repentance without godly sorrow, for “godly sorrow worketh repentance” (II Cor. 7:10).
A turn away
Third, repentance is fundamentally a turn, a turning away from sin. Scripture often emphasizes this truth with the call “repent and turn,” where “turn” emphasizes the point that to repent is to turn away from sin. Ezekiel 14:6, “Therefore say unto the house of Israel, Thus saith the Lord God; Repent, and turn yourselves from your idols; and turn away your faces from all your abominations.” Ezekiel 18:30, “…Repent and turn yourselves from all your transgressions; so iniquity shall not be your ruin.”
Whatever intense feelings of shame, guilt, sorrow, and grief one might possess over his sin, he has not truly repented if there is no turning from sin. The turning is not a mere external and temporary reformation of conduct whereby the slanderer retains his venomous heart but closes the door of his filthy mouth for a while, or the harlot retains her flaming heart of lust but stays off the streets for a week or two. This turn from sin is a deep, internal turning of the mind and heart. Jehovah declares, “Turn ye to me with all your heart” (Joel 2:12). With a heart of love for his covenant God, the penitent sinner hates his sin as God hates it (Amos 5:5; Ps. 119:128, 163) and even loathes himself as a sinner (Ezek. 36:31; Job 42:6). In his heart he turns away from his sin as something despicable and loathsome to him.
This turning includes a forsaking of sin so that when the sinner turns to God and cries for pardon, he has turned from his sin. He does not seek pardon from God like a shameless hypocrite clutching his sin tightly in his bosom or trying to conceal it behind his back. “He that covereth his sins shall not prosper: but whoso confesseth and forsaketh them shall have mercy” (Prov. 28:13; see also Is. 55:7). In genuine repentance there is always an irrepressible desire to create as much separation as possible with one’s sin, all sin, the life of sin, and the way of sin. How vividly this forsaking is illustrated in the prodigal son (Luke 15:11ff.). He was wallowing like a pig in the filth of his iniquity, but when he arose to go pour out his penitent soul to his father, he left his wicked ways behind in hatred for them. The sinner’s forsaking of his sin within will be unmistakably evident to all around him in the holy life that follows his repentance and restoration as the fruit thereof. According to the Canons of Dordt, restored sinners “more diligently work out their own salvation with fear and trembling” (V.7), have regard for piety, and are “careful and solicitous to continue in the ways of the Lord” (V.13).
A turn unto
Whatever turning from sin there might be in repentance, it is not true repentance if there is no turning unto God. Repentance is not turning away from sin unto a pope or any other man, a church or any other institution, but unto God. God is the One with whom we have to do, and the One against whom we have sinned. Paul preached “repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:21). The Lord Himself declared in Joel 2:12, “Turn ye even to me with all your heart, and with fasting, and with weeping, and with mourning.” Even when sin is committed against another, such as David murdering Uriah, that sin is ultimately committed against and must be brought before and confessed to God, even as David cried, “against thee and thee only have I sinned and done this evil in thy sight” (Ps. 51:4).
The penitent sinner who turns to God in true repentance always takes words with him. Hosea 14:1-2, “O Israel, return unto the Lord thy God; for thou hast fallen by thine iniquity. Take with you words, and turn to the Lord: say unto him, Take away all iniquity, and receive us graciously: so will we render the calves of our lips.” The penitent sinner says with the prodigal son, “I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven and before thee” (Luke 15:18). The penitent sinner confesses his sins to God (Ps. 32:5; Prov. 28:13; I John 1:9). He makes no excuses but acknowledges, “Woe is me for I am undone” (Is. 6:5), and I “am no more worthy to be called thy son” (Luke 15:21). The words he takes concern no one but himself personally, “Is it not I that commanded the people to be numbered? Even I it is that have sinned and done evil indeed” (I Chron. 21:17).
Turning to God, the penitent sinner cries, “Have mercy upon me, O God” (Ps. 51:1), “Forgive” (Matt. 6:12), “God be merciful to me a sinner” (Luke 18:13). Coming to God in faith seeking remission, the penitent, heart-broken sinner renounces all his works and worthiness, disavows all confidence in himself and anything he has ever done, and casts himself wholly upon the Lamb of God: “Jesus, thou Son of David, have mercy on me” (Luke 18:38). The penitent sinner has “repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:21).
Does not Scripture’s presentation of repentance make you say, “Astounding. Simply astounding. No wonder the angels of heaven rejoice. And my own repentance… how weak it is. I need to repent of my sickly repentance.”
And, what explains this wonder of repentance? Next time, the sovereign and glorious grace of God.
At the annual RFPA society meeting this past September, a decision was made to print in the Standard Bearer my address entitled “2021 in the PRC: Whom the Lord Loveth, He Chasteneth.” However, in my preparation I never intended the speech to be published in written form, nor was I of a mind to do so after the meeting. What I wanted to communicate to the churches, I wanted to speak, and I did. Therefore, I inform the readers that with the concurrence of the RFPA Board I will not be publishing my speech in the Standard Bearer. Those interested in the speech can access the RFPA’s YouTube channel.
Prof. B. Huizinga