John Calvin, in his Institutes, defines repentance: “It is a true turning of our life to follow God and the path which he shows us, a turning produced by a genuine and unfeigned fear of God, and consisting in mortification of our flesh and of the old man, and in vivification by the Spirit.”
Such a definition is helpful to firm up the vagueness of repentance that lives in my mind, and no doubt in the mind of many Christians today. Too often I believe my repentance is a turning from my sin to the path I believe will take me back to God (entirely works righteousness) rather than going to the path which God in his mercy reveals. The path God shows takes us by the cross of Christ, whereby we see our sin nailed to the bloodstained wood upon which the Savior hangs, paying our sin’s penalty. To take my own made-up path spurns the work of Christ on the cross. God’s path upholds and confirms the seriousness of my sin in God’s sight, leading me to praise and thank him for his rescue of my soul from the wages of my sin.
Only the path revealed by God brings me to God. And only his path shows the death of Jesus, which is my death as well. It then leads onward to the resurrection, of which I too have become a partaker in newness of life. Therefore, repentance is much less a work I do than a journey on which God takes me back to himself. My part is the willingness to turn and face God so that he may lead me on this journey. Then, and only then, can the Spirit confirm to my heart God’s goodness in salvation.
I want to make repentance difficult because I really want to be my own savior. But God in his mercy won’t allow that to happen, because it can’t happen. In reality, repentance is much easier than we might think. Our sin is ultimately faithlessness in God. So the remedy is to look to him in faith. Jeremiah 3:22 puts it plainly, “Return, O faithless sons; I will heal your faithlessness.”