True Repentance

God’s gift of salvation includes the gift of repentance.

The Word of God employs a number of words to describe the many facets of salvation. Many of these words describe God’s sovereign work in man’s salvation. Other terms are used to set forth the conditions of salvation. Faith and repentance are conditions of salvation. Scripture asserts that even the ability to lay hold of salvation is a gift of divine grace. Faith is granted by God to the elect (John 6:65, Ephesians 2:8,9, Philippians 1:29). Repentance also is granted by God’s grace (2 Timothy 2:25, Acts 11:18).


Faith and repentance have their counterfeits.

It is a sobering truth that both faith and repentance have their counterfeits. Many profess to have believed savingly when no change in their nature has taken place. They may assent to the historical facts of the gospel, but do not exercise moral trust in Christ for righteousness. Where true repentance is absent, salvation in Christ is also missing. Scripture reserves some of its strongest warnings for hypocrites.

True repentance has imitations. So subtle are the machinations of pseudo-repentance, that God alone is able to determine the genuineness of each case. The pastor, counselor and Christian worker ought to apply certain biblical tests of true repentance to the professions of those counseled and discipled. Certain traits of false repentance will be obvious. Others will be more difficult to detect.

The marks of false repentance.

Evangelical Christians sometimes refer to false repentance as “penance” or “legal repentance.” Those two designations acknowledge that both true and false repentance share many of the same attributes. Jonathan Dickinson, first president of Princeton College notes some of the similarities that exist between the two.[i][1] Both may exhibit a distress connected to a sense of divine displeasure. Both may have strong impressions of the danger of outward sin. Both may involve a course of personal reformation.[ii][2] Both may be gripped with anguish and remorse over past sin.[iii][3]


False repentance is man-centered, not God-centered.

Jim Elliff in his article on The Unrepenting Repenter describes the substitutes for true repentance. Actions may undergo change while the heart remains unchanged. The great deception issues from the self-congratulation a man may embrace for his outward change while his unchanged heart is still in love with his sin (Mark 7:1-23). Those who fail to repent may confess the words of a true repenter and yet be lost (1 John 2:4, 4:20). Saul gave a model confession in 1 Samuel 15:24-26, but showed no fruits of genuine repentance.[iv][4]

Elliff cites other substitutes as well. Many assume that emotions of fear and/or sorrow guarantee that their repentance was genuine. King Saul’s tears and confession looked genuine, but soon after he resumed his attempts to murder David (1 Samuel 24:16-22). Saul’s second confession to David is equally articulate but also false (1 Samuel 26:21).[v][5]

Some offer an imitation repentance for the love of friends, family or religious leaders. Love to God is absent as a motive. Many temporarily turn from sin because of urging of loved ones. Lot’s wife left the city of Sodom at the urging of her husband. She left for the love of her family, but her heart had never turned (Genesis 19:12-26; Luke 17:32).[vi][6]

A counterfeit repentance may also show itself in tirades against finished acts of sin while continuing to make provision for the flesh. Though King Ahab appeared to repent of his great wickedness, be continued to make provision for sin by keeping false prophets in his court. He eventually preferred their lying words to the Word of God (1 Kings 22:14-23).[vii][7]


The hatred of sin is a missing element in false repentance.

Puritan Thomas Manton gives a poignant commentary on the motives that often accompany false repentance. “If an unregenerate man should leave off sin under fear of death or hell, it would not be out of hatred of sin, but out of the fear of the punishment, as the bird is kept from the bait by the scarecrow.”[viii][8]

How is it that a man may sorrow, confess, reform, fear and mourn, and yet fail at true repentance? The following observations are aimed at the above question. It is this author’s intent to elucidate the reasons why penance falls short of true repentance. G.W. Bromiley remarks that the Reformers cut through the whole falsification of repentance by insisting that Scripture requires penitence, not penance.[ix][9]


Penance is the religious counterfeit of true repentance.

Penance flows from an aversion to God’s commandments. The natural man dreams of a land where every thought and deed would be beyond the scrutiny of God’s law. Penance does not attain to the love of God’s law. There is an unchanged disposition that resents that there is a divine standard that calls for the punishment of cherished sins.[x][10]

True repentance is inseparably joined to faith. Penance exists apart from faith. It flows from unbelief. Faith’s object is the person and work of Christ. Penance has for its object of trust its own duties and reforms. Therefore it is preoccupied with self.[xi][11]

The individual who exercises penance trusts in his own efforts, but distrusts God. Amidst his sorrow is a legal, slavish, craven fear that can be easily eclipsed by despair and despondency. At the prospect of Christ’s return and the immediate destruction of the earth, men of all classes will cry out for annihilation by rocks and mountains rather than face God (Revelation 6:12-17).[xii][12]


Penance is an attempt to pacify the conscience.

Penance is ultimately aimed not toward God, but toward the conscience. The man who exercises penance seeks to manage the accusations of conscience by sorrow, duties and reform. His duties are not driven by gospel gratitude and trust, but by fear and discouragement. He does his accounting not by the gospel, but by works of penance designed to bribe and quiet his conscience. These “dead works” are legal and temporary. When conscience is temporarily pacified, the man may assure himself that he has attained mercy. In this state of false comfort, the man is careless and secure. Cold formality characterizes his religious duties.[xiii][13]

Dead works by definition are legal works divorced from faith in the gospel. Penance seeks to parade a change in behavior before the eyes of conscience. This is done in order to quiet its accusations. The workings of penance are performed without any concern about the power of godliness (2 Timothy 3:5). Penance like Adam’s fig leaves is an attempt to cover the nakedness of moral deformity. Adam attempted to avert judgment by covering his nakedness. Every sinner’s natural response is self-vindication. By penance the sinner works to vindicate himself and reduce his judgment.[xiv][14]


Penance avoids the cross of Christ.

Penance competes with the atonement by seeking to become an atonement itself.[xv][15] Penance is but a band-aid placed upon a corpse. Nothing short of a resurrection can effect the needed change (Ephesians 2:1-5).

The legal repenter works at self-vindication through sorrow, duties and self-reformation. But, he has never given glory to God by fully embracing his moral ill desert. Achan before his execution glorified God by exalting God’s justice in his confession of sin. In so doing, Achan cleared God of all suspicion and, he affirmed the divine justice meted out in the execution of the death penalty (Joshua 7:19-21).

Gardiner Spring’s remarks on this topic are appropriate, “No man, indeed, ever arrived to any just view of his sins by the mere process of human reasoning, or by anything short of the illuminating and convincing power of God’s Spirit.”[xvi][16] As interested parties men are not fit to judge their own cases. There is far too much of a conflict of interest.[xvii][17] Nature alone cannot comprehend the level of ill desert that sin against God demands. An unawakened man might as well be asked to build a stone courthouse in which he will be found guilty. And then to construct an iron cell to incarcerate him, and finally to construct the gallows upon which he will be hung.


The “sorrow” accompanying penance is not true repentance.

The natural man secretly quarrels with the verdict of the law and with God’s right to judge him. In that self-vindicating state, he will not accept the gospel.[xviii][18] A man convinced that he may patch himself up and placate God thereby will not abandon his case to Christ. The legal repenter never repents of unbelief.[xix][19]

Penance has a kind of sorrow. Paul refers to it as “the sorrow of the world,” (2 Corinthians 7:10). Worldly sorrow is self-centered. Godly sorrow is centered in God and His immutable holiness. The truly repentant are afflicted by reason of their sin and its offense to God. Not only are they broken over particular deeds of sin, but also over the very nature that produces it.[xx][20]

Esau and Judas plumbed the depths of regret but did not find repentance because their concerns were not in harmony with what God requires in godly sorrow.[xxi][21]

A pastor whose messages contained little of Christ, the gospel or divine enablement asked one of his deacons what he thought of the preaching. The courageous deacon answered that the congregation by listening to such browbeating sermons had little motivation to change. “They have done their penance by sitting through your sermons.” So also, the legal repenter attempts to atone for guilt by carrying guilt. He never has cast a believing look in Christ’s direction (John 3:14, 15).


True repentance is inseparable from faith in Christ.

By contrast, the true penitent takes all the blame for his sin, and then looks to Christ. He resolves to leave off all sin and he expects to find mercy. He condemns himself, vindicates God, and looks in reliance upon free grace. Such hearty approval of God’s law and such clear apprehension of God’s mercy presupposes regeneration.[xxii][22]

The true repenter knows God is ready and willing to forgive. His repentance is joined to this confidence.[xxiii][23] God’s calls to repentance are annexed to His offers of mercy. The fully awakened individual is driven into the arms of Christ by his sense of sin. Such a turning to God in Christ involves an apprehension of God’s love. When the prodigal began his journey home, he thought upon his father’s love. Desire for his father’s love, mercy and favor was not diminished by the knowledge of his father’s ways and rules.[xxiv][24]


The Holy Spirit enables believers to practice ongoing repentance.

Thomas Watson defines repentance as a grace of God’s Spirit, which enables a sinner to be inwardly humbled and visibly reformed. Such a gracious work moves a man to recognize and consider the wickedness of sin. He is thereby humbled and is moved to sorrow for his sin. This godly sorrow is not superficial, but “is a holy agony” (Psalm 51:17, Joel 2:13). The sinner then confesses specific sins, which he has committed against God. He also confesses his sinful nature itself (Psalm 51:5). Scripture says that a truly repentant person is ashamed of his sin (Romans 6:21). And that he hates the sin he once loved and excused (Ezekiel 36:31). Such a hatred of sin is universal. The penitent has seen its cursedness and vileness. He declares war upon it and turns from it to God. He does so from the heart (Isaiah 55:7, Acts 26:20).[xxv][25]


True repentance loves God’s holiness.

True repentance is accompanied by a sight of the beauty of God’s holiness and the desirability of the life of holiness. The man enmeshed in penance never has had this view of God’s moral majesty. Therefore he has not the same aversion to sin as the penitent. He is not burdened by his failure to keep God’s law. The penitent’s self-love has been displaced by self-loathing over personal sin. Such loathing is inseparable from a genuine desire to be delivered from sin. Evangelical repentance begins a new life of striving against lust. The penitent is heavenly-minded, longing for the day he will be forever delivered from indwelling sin. Those who are heavenly-minded exhibit a present dependence upon Christ as sanctifier.[xxvi][26] Those who long for the blessed state of sinlessness (the glory to come), manifest that desire by seeking purity (1 John 3:3).


The repentance that accompanies salvation is joined to faith in Christ’s mercy.

If true repentance is absolutely essential to salvation, the question may arise concerning its relationship to saving faith. Is it necessary that the sinner exercise true repentance and be conscious of having repented in order to have a right to take Christ as Savior? The answer begins with the understanding that Scripture joins faith and repentance together. They are granted at the same point of time in regeneration (Zechariah 12:10, Mark 1:5). Repentance is not offered to God apart from believing. Should a man wonder if he has repented thoroughly enough to have a right to Christ? This is to separate repentance from faith. Though the two are distinct, they are inseparable.[xxvii][27]

A man will not repent who is yet an enemy of God under divine wrath. True repentance shows that an act of saving faith is joined to it. Those who come to God repenting come by Christ. Mourning for sin begins with Christ. Thus, true repentance is not a qualification to come to Christ. It is a capacity granted along with faith. Scripture sets forth the promises of grace and the object of faith. These are powerful motives to exercise true repentance. Faith apprehends mercy and grace in Christ and brings the soul to true repentance.[xxviii][28]

John Murray brings out this union of the two in stating that faith and repentance are interdependent. Faith is permeated with repentance, and repentance with faith. In repenting, the penitent apprehends the perfect suitability of Christ for his sinnership.[xxix][29] The glory that floods the soul of the fully awakened person is that Christ’s sufficiency as Savior is coterminous with the devastation sin has wreaked upon the man.


Seven marks of true repentance.

A changed heart always leads to a changed behavior. Arthur Pink lists seven marks of true repentance. 1.) A hatred of sin; 2.) A deep sorrow for sin; 3.) Ongoing repentance and confession of sin; 4.) Turning from sin to God; 5.) Restitution where applicable; 6.) Permanent fruits of a changed life; 7.) A realization that repentance is never perfect in this life.[xxx][30]


The necessity of preaching repentance.

The doctrine of repentance is of utmost importance in preaching. Every minister should strive to gain an excellent understanding of this truth. The soil of the human heart is self-righteous to the core. Too many cry grace before the granite of the heart is broken up by a sight of sin. Preaching that ignores the doctrine of repentance may flatter sinners and imply that the duties of Christianity lie within their power. Those who crowd into churches without repenting have an unmortified pride. It never crosses their mind that they have no fear of God, that they do not serve God, and that they slight the blood of Christ.


Preaching repentance involves proclaiming the law of God.

This author renews afresh his commitment to preach repentance. It is a New Testament command (Acts 17:30). Sinners are told to turn from sin that they might have eternal life. The moral law of God ought to be brought to bear upon the consciences of sinners (1 Timothy 1:9-11). The sinner’s whole being and existence is an offense to God. The law reveals how criminal the sinner’s ways are.[xxxi][31]

No man despairs of his own righteousness and efforts without a radical vision of his sin. It is convicted sinners who see they are liable to divine wrath. They alone see they need a Savior. The law is a schoolmaster to bring men to Christ through repentance (Galatians 3:24). Self-love runs so deep, men have no sentiment whatsoever that God is worthy of infinite eternal glory. As a result, the gospel is pared down to fit the world’s tastes. Repentance is the first truth to be cut off. Repentance is seldom preached by those who hesitate to condemn man-centeredness. The sense of God’s supreme moral government is lost without the preaching of repentance. True repentance is designed to make the heart loathe sin. By design it moves a man to take a violent stand against himself. By design it moves to broken-heartedness over failure to keep God’s law.[xxxii][32]

As those who will preach Christ to this generation, it must always be remembered that salvation is not just from the consequences of sin, but also from sin itself. Those who will be saved through Christ must repent of sin if they are to be saved from it. They will be saved by way of a strong hatred of sin and an intense desire to be delivered from sin.[xxxiii][33]

Repentance issues forth in a changed mind, heart and life. True repentance renews the intellect, the affections and the will. Scripture asserts that repentance produces radical change in all three areas; the mind (Matthew 3:2, Mark1:15); the heart (Matthew 21:29,32, Hebrews 7:21); the will (Matthew 3:8; 9:13; Acts 20:21).[xxxiv][34]


The failure to preach repentance results in serious consequences.

Failure to preach repentance has contributed to the errors of “easy-believism” and “cheap grace.” Yes, God is glorifying His grace, but He is doing so by making men holy through Christ. Repentance alone keeps the subject of salvation within the context of deliverance from sin. Repentance sets a man on a course of mortifying sin. It preserves the truth that God is purifying for Himself a people (Titus 2:14).[xxxv][35] Repentance must be preached if these truths are to be understood.

The burden of evangelical preaching must be repentance toward God. There is no lasting change or conversion without it. The counselor must urge repentance as well. He will not be able to see into hearts, but he will be able to observe the fruits of repentance. Genuine change will be accompanied by. 1.) Confession of sin; 2.) Seeking forgiveness; 3.) Forsaking of sin; 4.) A new course of life with an accompanying change in thought life. The person receiving counsel must exert strength in order to rid himself of every sinful influence. He must cease making provision for sin (Romans 13:14). The faithful pastor and counselor will call for these fruits.[xxxvi][36]

Scripture gives startling accounts of how far some individuals traveled in a direction of false piety before their absence of repentance was exposed. Jeremiah 42:1-6 explains how the leaders of the Judean remnant approached the prophet requesting his intercessory prayer. They vowed to obey God’s counsel through the prophet no matter how difficult. When Jeremiah brought back the words of direction and correction, their response revealed the unrepentant condition of their hearts. Their retort to Jeremiah and to God is cited in Jeremiah 44. It is one of the most blasphemous speeches ever recorded by professing believers.


The message of repentance should always be joined to the Gospel.

Though our message of repentance must never be reduced or compromised, it must always be joined to the gospel. True repentance makes for a deep sense of the preciousness of the gospel. It prepares a man to hold fast to Jesus as Savior and sanctifier. It rejects all other foundations of trust and credits Christ with authorship of salvation. True repentance subjects the soul to Christ’s lordship (whereas a dead impenitent “faith” remains disobedient and unrenewed). Repentance joined to saving faith works love to God and to man.[xxxvii][37] “The wicked do but weep for sins past, but the godly purpose to sin no more,” Henry Smith.[xxxviii][38]


The superlative advantages of a clear conscience.

True repentance brings the priceless fruit of a clear conscience. The Apostle Paul, in his testimony before Felix, stressed the importance of a clear conscience before God and men (Acts 24:15, 16). Paul lets believers know that a clear conscience is absolutely essential to maintaining a confident hope in view of the coming resurrection.

The advantages of a clear conscience are as follows: 1.) It gives one the power to step out on the promises of God. With the clear conscience comes a deep conviction of God’s blessed intentions towards you. 2.) It gives one the power to suffer for the sake of righteousness (without fainting, murmuring, or turning to evil). 3.) It gives one the power to worship unhindered. 4.) It lifts us above defensiveness. It is joined to the power of meekness and love. 5.) It clears the way to speak of God’s holiness with boldness. It prepares us to preach Christ crucified and to call others to repentance. 6). It is essential if we are to be able to admonish others, confronting their sin. 7.) It is joined to the ability to delight in God, to enjoy God and to consent to be loved by Him. 8.) It becomes a source of unspeakable joy and peace (the Holy Spirit works through a clear conscience, convincing us of the beauty of holiness). 9.) It issues forth in love to Christ whose blood purges the conscience and floods it with joy and peace. 10.) It is the source of a united heart that is resolute, stable, and established in the pursuit of holiness.

End Notes

[i][1] Jonathan Dickinson, The Marks of True Repentance and Saving Faith,

(Pensacola: Chapel Library, n.d.) 1.

[ii][2] Ibid., 1-3.

[iii][3] Jay Adams, How to Help People Change, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan

Publishing House, 1986), 143.

[iv][4] Jim Elliff, The Unrepenting Repenter, (North Little Rock: Christian

Communicators Worldwide, 1994), 2.

[v][5] Ibid.

[vi][6] Ibid., 3.

[vii][7] Ibid., 4.

[viii][8] I.D.E. Thomas, A Puritan Golden Treasury, From “Repentance,” (Carlisle:

The Banner of Truth Trust, 1975), 239.

[ix][9] G.W. Bromily, “Penance,” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, Walter A.

Elwell ed., (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1984), 835.

[x][10] Dickinson, The Marks of True Repentance, 7-9.

[xi][11] Ibid.

[xii][12] Charles Hodge, “Repentance,” The Way of life, (Grand Rapids: Baker Book

House, 1977), 228-235.

[xiii][13] Dickinson, 9-11.

[xiv][14] Philip E. Hughes, 2 Corinthians, The New International Commentary on

The New Testament, (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.,

1962), 273-274.

[xv][15] John Calvin, “Our Regeneration by Faith: Repentance,” Institutes of the

Christian Religion, (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 1:3:3:3, 595.

[xvi][16] Gardiner Spring, The Attraction of the Cross, “A Stumbling-Block

Removed,” Carlisle: The Banner of truth Trust, 1845), 137.

[xvii][17] John Colquhoun, “The Priority of the Acting of Saving Faith to Exercise of

Repentance,” Evangelical Repentance, (Publisher unknown, 1826), 19.

[xviii][18] Gardiner Spring, The Attraction of the Cross, 150.

[xix][19] John Colquhoun, Evangelical Repentance, 1, 13.

[xx][20] Hughes, “2 Corinthians,” 273-274.

[xxi][21] Jay Adams, How People Change, 143.

[xxii][22] Arthur W. Pink, Repentance, (Choteau, Gospel Mission, 1986), 14-18.

[xxiii][23] D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Out of the Depths, (Bryntirion: Evangelical Press

of Wales, 1987), 37,43.

[xxiv][24] Samuel E. Waldron, “Of Repentance unto life and Salvation,” A Modern

Exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, (Durham: Evangelical

Press, 1989), 202-203.

[xxv][25] Thomas Watson, The Doctrine of Repentance, (Carlisle: The Banner of

Truth Trust, 1987 rp., first published 1668), 18-58.

[xxvi][26] Dickinson, 15-18.

[xxvii][27] Colquhoun, 1,18.

[xxviii][28] Ibid., 17, 18.

[xxix][29] John Murray, “Faith and Repentance,” Redemption Accomplished and

Applied, (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1955),

106, 113.

[xxx][30] Pink, Repentance, 28-30.

[xxxi][31] Walter, Chantry, “Preaching Repentance Toward God,” Today’s Gospel:

Authentic or Synthetic, (Carlisle: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1970), 47-


[xxxii][32] Pink, Repentance, 19-24.

[xxxiii][33] John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied, 113-115.


[xxxiv][34] Pink, 29.

[xxxv][35] Charles Hodge, The Way of Life, 242-243.

[xxxvi][36] Jay Adams, How People Change, 144-146.

[xxxvii][37] Dickinson, 16-24.

[xxxviii][38] I.D.E. Thomas, Henry Smith on “Repentance,” A Puritan Golden

Treasury, 238.

39 Samuel E. Waldron, A Modern Exposition, 199.