I’ve recently undertaken a study on repentance. I read four books, which I’ll briefly review below, and then give some comments on the subject.
The Doctrine of Repentance by Thomas Watson (1668)
The Puritan Thomas Watson (c. 1620 – 1686) presumably provides a Reformed view of repentance. He writes that true repentance is made up of (1) sight of sin, (2) sorrow for sin, (3) confession of sin, (4) shame for sin, (5) hatred for sin, and (6) turning from sin. But it is not clear if in each of these six elements he means SOME or ALL. That is, is it only “true repentance” when a person turns away from ALL sin? If so, and if we are simul iustus et peccator (both sinner and saint) then has no one ever truly repented? Or does Watson’s view necessitate sinless perfection? It is this paradox or confusion that has driven me to study this very topic.
Watson notes that repentance is a grace; in fact he calls it one of two essential graces along with faith. But when he writes that “repentance is difficult” and “It is better to go with difficulty to heaven—than with ease to hell!” it sounds like he views repentance as a work.
The six elements of repentance Watson calls “ingredients.” From this it seems that he views these elements as preceding or producing repentance rather than being fruits that follow from repentance. Under each of the ingredients he notes a half dozen or more requirements that must be satisfied before that element is fulfilled. One must wonder if he was paid to write per point.
In making repentance so broad and enumerated with many points Watson obscures its essence. Granted he says much that is good and Biblical. But he just doesn’t seem to know what the essence of repentance is, what its relationship to faith is, or what things are fruit of repentance rather than integral to it.
Ultimately Watson’s presentation is almost devoid of the Gospel, emphasizing not the work of God’s grace in repentance but the work of man. As one Amazon reviewer noted, it is as if Watson’s whole approach to sin and repentance is simply “try harder.” For anyone who has tried—and tried harder, you’ll know all too well just how much you fail and how much you need the grace of God. I would hate for someone to read Watson and conclude that this is the Reformed view of repentance and that there is no Gospel among the Reformed.
True Repentance by Thomas Boston
Another look at a Reformed view of repentance is from Thomas Boston (1676-1732) in his True Repentance. Boston’s Reformed credentials are admittedly suspect as he was among the unwisely celebrated Marrowmen who brought in the error to the Reformed world of a desire in God to save those whom He does not save.
In the introduction Boston defines repentance as (1) being humbled for your sins, and (2) sincerely turning from them. In the first chapter he notes that repentance is a saving grace given to us of God. And true repentance is not quickly passing, but forever abiding.
In Chapter 2 he asks “Who works repentance, or is the author it?” And answers “that is the sanctifying Spirit of Jesus Christ.” Already Boston has much improved on Watson. He asks also “By what means does the Spirit work repentance?” And answers, “By the word whether read or preached.” The law convinces of sin and judgement; the Gospel changes the heart.” If only Watson could hear Boston: “the law requires repentance as a duty, in so far as it binds the apostate sinner to return to God, but in the meantime it gives no hope of mercy to the penitent, seeing its constant voice is ‘Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them.’”
Boston then defines repentance much differently than Watson, saying “repentance is an evangelical softness of heart, and bent of spirit to turn away from sin, and to turn to God wrought in a soul by the Spirit of Christ.” This makes repentance a disposition rather than a set of actions to accomplish or laws to fulfill. He writes “It is one thing to reform the life, another to reform the heart, by changing the will.”
In the third chapter Boston gives his third and most explicit definition of repentance. It is, he says, “a convinced believing soul.” Does this make repentance equivalent to faith? In the fourth chapter he says there are two parts to repentance, “humiliation for sin, and turning from sin unto God.” In these chapters Boston gets into the weeds and seems to unnecessarily complicate things. Perhaps it is just the language of his time, but I found the second half of the book almost unreadable.
Ultimately while Boston emphasizes more than Watson the grace of repentance and its essence as a change of mind, he regularly returns to the works or fruits of repentance confusing them with repentance itself.
Repentance by Charles Finney, 1851
Here I have intentionally chosen a non-Reformed author on the subject of repentance.
Finney, preaching from Acts 3:19 (“Repent ye, therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, when the times of refreshing shall come from the presence of the Lord.”) says the “primary signification” of “repent” is “to think again” or “to reconsider.” But while he first makes it something of the mind, next he makes it “to thoroughly change your course of conduct.” Here, it seems to me, like so many others, he confuses repentance and the fruits of repentance.
Being Arminian, Finney makes that fundamental error of his sect that because man has a duty (repentance) therefore man also has to ability to comply with the command. Finney makes repentance a condition of forgiveness. Repentance is a “free” and “voluntary” act.
Finney then gives reasons for repentance and some stories of interest, more attempting to portray repentance than defining it from the Scriptures. Ultimately Finney’s arminianism makes for a semi-pelagianism with God willing to forgive sins if you only repent, rather than a God who by his Grace both grants repentance and grace.
Certainly this Arminian is no improvement on the Calvinists reviewed above.
Repentance, The Most Misunderstood Word in the Bible by G. Michael Cocoris
Another non-Reformed view is Corcoris’s Repentance, The Most Misunderstood Word in the Bible.
Both in the introduction and in Chapter 1 Cocoris notes that repentance is necessary for salvation. But, he says “Repentance is the most misunderstood word in the Bible. What most think is repentance is not repentance at all.” (p. 9) As I’ve been contending in the previous reviews, Cocoris too notes, “What is often said to be repentance may be related to repentance, coming before it, or resulting from it, but is not the nature of repentance.” He then says “The definition of repentance is definitely a difficulty and so is the relationship of repentance to faith. Is repentance separate from, or inseparable from, faith?” Now he is asking the right questions!
Cocoris notes various definitions theologians have given to repentance: “To change your mind” (Chafer, Ryrie, Baker), “to be sorry for sin” (Barclay), “to be willing to stop sinning” (Erickson), “turning away from sin” (Berkhof, Hanson, Barnes), and “acts of penance” (Roman Catholic). Having looked at the 58 occurrences of “repent” and “repentance” in the Bible, the author concludes that it means “a change of mind.” (p. 14)
He also writes, “When some change their minds, there may be emotions—and there may not be. When people change their mind, a change of action is expected, but both of these things are results of repentance and not the nature of repentance.” (p. 17) This is (and should be) the Reformed view as well, as Berkhof is quoted saying “Confession of sin and reparation of wrongs are fruits of repentance.”
He then moves on to the relationship of repentance and faith. Here, in good form, he explains various views on the question. (Zane) Hodges sees repentance as “not a condition for eternal life.” Erickson has two steps to salvation, repentance and faith, the former being a prerequisite for the latter. Calvin (along with Berhkof and Spurgeon) has repentance and faith distinguished but not separated.
A paragraph in which Corcoris quotes Robert Wilkin, a Dallas Theological Seminary graduate and proponent of Free Grace Theology like himself, is worth repeating in its entirety:
“Calling the view that repentance is turning from sin ‘terribly dangerous,’ Wilkin says that instead of pointing people to Christ and the cross, it points their attention to their own efforts at reformation and it also ‘undermines assurance.’ Preaching that people must turn from their sin can cause genuinely saved people, especially perfectionists, to begin doubting the reality of their salvation, because in their opinion, they did not have enough tears or turning away from the sinful habits at the time they trusted Christ. … Repentance is a change of mind—period. A change of mind should result in a change in behavior, but the word repent looks at the change of belief, not the change in behavior. Repentance is the root, change in behavior is the fruit.”
The remainder of the book surveys those 58 occurrences of the word(s) previously mentioned. While one might question Cocoris bias in defending Free Grace Theology in each of the verses he looks into, I can say positively that his view has greater clarity that the other books.
As for a criticism of Corcoris, I should note his Arminianism when he writes “What does Paul mean by God granting repentance. It means that God gives people the opportunity to repent.” Here Corcoris makes repentance to be something of man, rather than a grace granted (gifted) of God. He sees God’s gift as a mere opportunity rather than a fulfilled reality.
Corcoris also butchers Hebrews 6, doing away with the Perseverance of the Saints. Faith is looked at as something of man rather than a gift of God. And faith being of man, it wavers and can be done away with. All the assurance of salvation that the Free Grace Theology seeks to give to a person who believes in Christ is done away with when they are told they can lose their salvation upon discontinuing belief. There is much more assurance in the Reformed view which says that if you believe, the Lord will keep you in belief.
What can I conclude from this study of Repentance? For one, there needs to be a better volume written. Perhaps there is one.
In the meanwhile, it is perhaps valuable to search through the indexes in Clark’s books for comments on repentance, as he is the clearest and generally best theologian I’ve ever found.
There is chapter 15 in Clark’s What Presbyterians Believe (1956) commenting on the Westminster Confession on “Repentance to Life.” There he writes:
“The first point is to describe what repentance is. Such a description is necessary because irreligious people and people of non-Christians religions do not know the Christian meaning of the word. These people often think that repentance means being sorry for your sins. Now it is true that repentance includes sorrow for sin, but it includes more. It is possible to be sorry for sin without repentance. A person may be sorry that he committed a crime because it got him into trouble. Such sorrow is not repentance. Repentance includes a godly sorrow for sin that recognizes sin for what it really is. And because the penitent recognizes sin for what it really is, namely, an offense against God, repentance also includes a turning to God. More specifically, it includes a turning to God because of the apprehension of God’s mercy in Jesus Christ. This turning is called conversion, so that conversion is part of repentance. Then further, hatred of sin and turning to God carries with it the desire to obey God’s commandments. These three aspects of repentance (sorrow, conversion, obedience) can be summed up in the etymological meaning of the word, which is, “a change of mind.” Repentance therefore is a change of mind with respect to sin and God. From this description it will be seen that repentance is not an act that occurs just one or several times sporadically: it is a lifelong habit, a continuing state of mind, a fixed disposition or temperament.”
“Second, repentance, so understood, can only be an evangelical grace and a gift of God. Human nature as totally depraved cannot voluntarily develop a holy hatred for sin nor turn to God. ‘There is none righteous, no, not one; there is none that seeketh after God.’ Hence repentance, like faith, is a gift. This is taught in Zechariah 12:10, and is explicitly stated in Acts 5:31; 11:18, and II Timothy 2:25. Since, as the Confession says, repentance is an evangelical grace, and this is clear from its description, it is given only to those who have been regenerated. The man who is dead in sin cannot have a changed mind; he cannot have a holy hatred of sin; he can only be at enmity with God. But regeneration initiates a new life, whose activities include repentance.”
“Third, the Scripture asserts definitely that repentance is necessary to salvation. Repentance is not necessary in order to be regenerated, as if regeneration were a reward for a prior repentance. It is the other way around, repentance is a necessary consequence of regeneration, it is a necessary part of the process of salvation. Justification, sanctification, and glorification are other parts. Now, justification includes pardon for sin, but God does not grant pardon unless a sinner repents.”
“Because of the necessary connection between repentance and pardon, the unitarians, modernists, and liberals have fallen into an error somewhat similar to a Roman Catholic error. Both groups mistakenly hold that repentance constitutes a ground for pardon and a satisfaction for sin. The liberals adopt a moral influence theory of the atonement and teach that God accepts man on the ground of repentance, understanding repentance more as mere sorrow for sin without much apprehension of God’s mercy in Christ. The Romanists take repentance to mean penance – a penalty prescribed by the pries, by which the sinner atones for his sin. This is an impertinent attempt to supplement the perfect satisfaction of Christ. Repentance, according to the Scriptures and our Confession, is not a satisfaction for sin; though there is no pardon without repentance.”
“Fourth and finally, a godly sorrow for sin leads to confession. We must confess our sins to God and beg pardon through Christ. Then too, when one of our sins particularly injures our neighbor, we are bound to confess that sin to him and seek his pardon. Or, if our sin is one that scandalizes the church, we should be willing to confess publicly. But the Scripture says nothing about confessing our sins to a priest. This is a non-Christian invention of Rome.”
Well, as to my own conclusions, they are still being formed but there are some things I’m keen to say about repentance:
(1) Repentance is a change of mind. That is the meaning of the term generally. As Clark distinguished between Faith and Saving Faith, so we might also distinguish between Repentance and Saving Repentance. Saving Repentance is a change of mind FROM faith in self, the world, or false gods TO faith in Jesus Christ.
(2) Repentance and Faith are closely linked. I don’t know the best way to explain their relationship. Clark has it that “repentance either follows after or accompanies faith. Repentance cannot precede faith.” I suppose he is speaking of both temporal and logical order. Yet I don’t follow his argument. It seems like repentance and faith happen simultaneously. I like the idea that repentance and faith are inseparable but should be distinguished.
(3) Repentance and the fruits of repentance must be clearly distinguished, so as not to see sinlessness or good works to be necessary for salvation, though repentance (properly defined) itself is necessary.
(4) Clark gives “three aspects of repentance” (sorrow, conversion, obedience). He says that “conversion is part of repentance.” Therefore, it seems he is saying there are “three parts of repentance.” I think with Cocoris that we should be careful here and ask whether these three are essential to repentance. It is not clear to me that we should say “conversion is part of repentance” any more than “repentance is part of conversion.” This leads me to doubt this “part” of repentance. Is not conversion the result of repentance or the process of repentance or something else? Again, I’m not presently able to do the relationship justice. Then, is sorrow essential to repentance? As Corcoris pointed out, sorrow led to repentance in 2 Corinthians 7:9. So wouldn’t sorrow be preceding or regularly accompanying repentance rather than part of it? And lastly, Clark has obedience as a part of repentance. But isn’t this actually a fruit of repentance? Clark even says “hatred of sin and turning to God carries with it a desire to obey God’s commandments” so that he would have the desire or disposition (not obedience itself) as essential to repentance. In all this I just keep going back to Romans 7. Did not the Apostle Paul repent? And yet he says “I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”
Another view, or at least a statement I quite like. J. Vernon McGee: “Turning to Christ is faith. Turning from the idols is repentance. And somebody says which comes first and which is more important. You can argue that all you want to, but I can’t turn the front of my hand without turning the back of my hand.”