What Repentance Is

The Westminster Shorter Catechism defines repentance as “a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, does, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of and endeavor after new obedience.”

Repentance is not only turning from your sin. It is turning to God. It’s not just feeling sorry without changing. It’s feeling convicted and turning from sin to God. It’s being inwardly humbled and visibly reformed. It’s a directional change in your life from sin to God.

Repentance is one of the foundations of the Christian life. It’s mentioned over 60 times in the NT and Jesus’ first words when beginning his ministry were “Repent, and believe the gospel” (Mark 1:15). So, we need to know what it is. You can’t be a Christian without understanding repentance.

David shows us in Psalm 51 what repentance is. Repentance is three things.

First, repentance is turning from sin.

Look at verses 1-5.

1     Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
      according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
2     Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin!
3     For I know my transgressions
and my sin is ever before me.
4     Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight,
       so that you may be justified in your words
and blameless in your judgment.
5     Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,
and in sin did my mother conceive me.

We might be appalled at David’s actions. But be careful. We are capable of the same sin. Seeing the sin of others is easy. Seeing our own sin is hard. It took David nearly a year and a prophet from God to see it. But when he does, he uses strong words about himself. He refuses to blame-shift, or make excuses. He owns up. In verses 1-5 he admits his sin: “my transgressions,” “my sin,” “my iniquity.” In transgressing, he knowingly steps over the law. In sin, he misses the mark of righteousness. In iniquity, he twists what God has made straight. He calls these acts what they are: evil. In verse 5, he admits he’s always been a sinner. He was born with it. Personalizing our sin creates sorrow for our sin. Repentance begins when we start using I and my. We start hating our sin when we see what it does to our relationship with God, and you’ll never repent of a sin you don’t hate.

Sin is always first against God. That’s why in verse 4 David says his sin is against God alone. God is right to judge him. Notice what he’s saying. David committed adultery with Bathsheba, but the first sin of adultery he committed was against God. David didn’t go from perfection to murder. It never happens that way. We sin step by step, smaller to greater. The first step is always to cheat on God. What would have happened if David repented of his lust before he sent for Bathsheba? What if he repented of his self-assurance before he stayed home alone? What if he repented of his pride before he overlooked the city he ruled? The earlier we repent, the safer we will be.

Second, repentance is turning to God.

If we think of repentance as only turning from sin we won’t ever turn do it. We can’t. It’s too ingrained. What we need is a power greater than our sin. 19th-century pastor, Thomas Chalmers said we need the expulsive power of a new affection. We need a greater love to drive out our love of sin. We need to understand God’s heart toward sinners.

David understood. That’s why he could come to God in this moment of brokenness and plead, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love and abundant mercy.” He’s not demanding something from God, but pleading something from God. He pleads God’s own promises using covenant language, God’s “steadfast love”—the love he promised to have for his people for all time. He pleads for God’s abundant mercy—tenderness as a mother has with her child.

The lower we go in repentance, the clearer we see God. Sin clouds our vision. Repentance cleans the window. Old Testament scholar Bruce Waltke comments, “Standing in the deep, dark hole of his sin, David looks up and sees stars of God’s grace that those who stand in the noonday sunlight of their own self-righteousness never see.”

Look at verses 6-12:

6    Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being,
and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart.
7     Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
8     Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones that you have broken rejoice.
9     Hide your face from my sins,
and blot out all my iniquities.
10     Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and renew a right spirit within me.
11     Cast me not away from your presence,
and take not your Holy Spirit from me.
12     Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and uphold me with a willing spirit.

In repentance, God doesn’t abandon. He heals. But it’s not painless. In C.S. Lewis’s book, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, there is a selfish boy named Eustace. He loved his treasures more than anything else, and one night he falls asleep with a gold bracelet on his arm, so happy to have it. He transforms into a dragon, becoming an outward manifestation of his inward self. He’s driven from humanity and in a moment of loneliness begins to cry. Aslan, a great lion, the Jesus figure, arrives. He offers to help Eustace remove his dragon-ness by removing the dragon skin. Eustace tries himself but to no avail. Aslan offers to help.

“The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off...

Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off — just as I thought I’d done it myself the other three times, only they hadn’t hurt — and there it was lying on the grass: only ever so much thicker, and darker, and more knobbly-looking than the others had been. And there was I as smooth and soft as a peeled switch and smaller than I had been. Then he caught hold of me — I didn’t like that much for I was very tender underneath now that I’d no skin on — and threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but only for a moment. After that it became perfectly delicious and as soon as I started swimming and splashing I found that all the pain had gone from my arm. And then I saw why. I’d turned into a boy again...

After a bit the lion took me out and dressed me...in new clothes.”

To repent is to be de-dragoned, to be de-sinned. In repentance, we’re not asking God to be anything he isn’t. Aslan wasn’t unwilling to clean. It was Eustace who wanted to do things on his own. When Eustace finally asked for help it flooded in. In repentance, we’re asking God to be all that he promises to be to us: heart-cleanser, spirit-renewer, Holy Spirit-giver, joy-restorer, life-upholder, sin-remover.

God came as unexpectedly to David as David did to Bathsheba. Both encounters held serious consequences. But whereas David’s actions led to death, God’s actions led to life. That’s how he always works. You may not see what you need to repent of right now. But in God’s timing, he will reveal it. Repentance itself is a grace. The prime mover in your relationship with God is God, and he loves you too much to let you remain unrepentant. God created you; he loves you; he’ll bring you back to him.

Third, repentance is believing the gospel.

Repentance always moves us close to God. That’s why we must do it constantly. The gospel alone compels us to repent, and has power to change us. Only in the gospel do we have a message that says, “I know you’ve sinned, but your sin can’t keep my love from you because I paid the penalty for it.” We can deny our sin, we can beat ourselves up over our sin, or we can believe the gospel that God’s love has covered our sin. The greatest power for change is always love. So, here’s the goal. Let’s be a church staring at the love of God. He’ll call us to repentance, and we’ll have to think it through, and we’ll have to change, but we’ll have a power to change because the gospel never changes.