Lesson 7 – Repentance Unto Life


Survey Studies in Reformed Theology

by Bob Burridge

Subjective Soteriology: Lesson 7 – Repentance Unto Life
by Pastor Bob Burridge ©1999, 2010, 2012

Lesson Index
Terms used for Repentance
The Grounds and Nature of Repentance
There is also a false repentance
Repentance is an Evangelical Grace
The Administration of Forgiveness

Westminster Confession of Faith XV


I. Repentance unto life is an evangelical grace, the doctrine whereof is to be preached by every minister of the gospel, as well as that of faith in Christ.
II. By it, a sinner, out of the sight and sense not only of the danger, but also of the filthiness and odiousness of his sins, as contrary to the holy nature, and righteous law of God; and upon the apprehension of his mercy in Christ to such as are penitent, so grieves for, and hates his sins, as to turn from them all unto God, purposing and endeavoring to walk with him in all the ways of his commandments.
III. Although repentance be not to be rested in, as any satisfaction for sin, or any cause of the pardon thereof, which is the act of God’s free grace in Christ; yet it is of such necessity to all sinners, that none may expect pardon without it.
IV. As there is no sin so small, but it deserves damnation; so there is no sin so great, that it can bring damnation upon those who truly repent.
V. Men ought not to content themselves with a general repentance, but it is every man’s duty to endeavor to repent of his particular sins, particularly.
VI. As every man is bound to make private confession of his sins to God, praying for the pardon thereof; upon which, and the forsaking of them, he shall find mercy; so, he that scandalizeth his brother, or the church of Christ, ought to be willing, by a private or public confession, and sorrow for his sin, to declare his repentance to those that are offended, who are thereupon to be reconciled to him, and in love to receive him.

Westminster Shorter Catechism question 87: What is repentance unto life?

Answer: Repentance unto life is a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, doth, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavour after, new obedience.

Repentance unto Life

Repentance is one of the graces implanted at regeneration. Speaking with God’s authority believers are to call the unregenerate to believe, to repent, and to obey. In their fallen nature they are unable to do any of these. When the Holy Spirit applies the benefit of the work of Christ, the lost soul is regenerated. Into that regenerated soul is implanted three basic spiritual faculties:

  • Saving faith: by which he trusts in the redeeming work of Christ
  • Repentance: by which he abhors his sin and flees toward holiness
  • Sanctification: by which he begins to grow in true obedience

Since repentance is both part of the gospel call to the unregenerate, and a continuing function implanted at regeneration, it is important that for God’s glory we understand its foundation, its nature, and its operations.

Terms used for Repentance

There are several primary terms used in the Bible which are translated by the word repent. The Holy Spirit chose to use words already known to the people at the time the books of the Bible were written. A study of the original meanings of these words is informed by how they were then used commonly. We need to look at the context of each use of these words in the Scriptures to see how the inspired writers used them. We also need to look at related words and teachings in the Bible to develop a true doctrine of repentance.

The primary Hebrew word is nacham (נחם). Dr. Girdlestone explains that the origin of the root of this word means “to draw a deep breath.” He then shows that the word became an expression used to describe a deep feeling either of relief or of sorrow. The verb is primarily used in the Niphal form in Scripture. In that form Benjamin Davidson in his lexicon gives the root meaning as having this range of meanings: “to mourn, grieve, be comforted, console, and to have compassion”. The Brown, Driver, Briggs lexicon (BDB) similarly says the root meaning is “to be sorry, console.” It traces it to ancient roots meaning “comfort, breathe pantingly.” In the Niphal form BDB translates it “to be sorry, moved to pity, have compassion, rue, suffer grief, repent, comfort, be comforted, be relieved, and ease oneself.” In the Piel form it is almost always translated “to comfort.”

When this word is used of God indicating that he “repented,” it should not be interpreted that he regretted or changed his eternal decree. This would be contrary to the immutable nature of God revealed in the Bible. Rather, according to the most common meaning of this word, it means that the sin of his creatures produces in God what we humans would best understand as deep emotion. When this word is used of man, it must carry with it some of this deep emotional response depending upon how it is used in the context.

Another Hebrew term is shuv (שוב). This term is an extremely common word in the Old Testament and appears in several conjugational forms. It primarily means “to turn, turn back, return.” The basic use of the word is of literal turnings and changes of direction. When used of repentance it has to do with a change in some course of action or attitude being expressed. That use of this word is more rare however.

The primary Greek verb is metanoein (μετανοειν). The noun form is metanoia (μετανοια). It was used in the Septuagint to translate the Hebrew word nacham. This established the technical use of the Greek word in the Jewish world before it came to be used in the New Testament. The Greek term also has a background in extra-biblical writings. Its linguistic origin indicates a change of mind, but the mind contains not only knowledge, but also the emotions. The latter aspect is most consistent with its established Scriptural use. Therefore it primarily represents a deep emotional response to something.

Another Greek term is metamelomai (μεταμελομαι). It is also used, though less often, for the Hebrew word nacham. It therefore becomes strongly flavored by the use of that Old Testament word. The stress of this common Greek term is also the change in the mind produced by what is observed, thought, or experienced.

When these terms are used relating to humans, they focus on the emotions being evoked regarding something made known to the person. Sin should evoke deep sorrow for offenses to God, and an understanding of the wonders of grace which should excite him to humble joy in the work of Christ. Therefore, by the work of the Holy Spirit in the regenerate soul, the concept of repentance ought to be present both in the sinner as he is brought to Christ, and in the believer confronted with his continuing sins.

The Grounds and Nature of Repentance

For the unredeemed to respond with true grief over his sin, a change must first take place in his depraved heart. The only grounds for such a change is the grace of God founded upon the redemptive work of Jesus Christ applied to the heart by the Holy Spirit.

There are three aspects of that which is changed in man when he is said to repent unto life:

There is an intellectual change. The regenerated mind is made able to see sin in a new way. Previously he could not comprehend it as more than a violation of a rule, or the cause of unpleasant consequences. But the regenerate heart sees sin as an offense against God. It includes an awareness of the moral element, and the judicial necessity of God’s wrath. Notice David’s more mature understanding of his sin when the Holy Spirit by the prophet Nathan opened his heart to understand his horrible offense against God;

Psalm 51:3-4, “For I know my transgressions, And my sin is ever before me. Against Thee, Thee only, I have sinned, And done what is evil in Thy sight, So that Thou art justified when Thou dost speak, And blameless when Thou dost judge.”

There is also an emotional change produced. When the nature of sin is revealed to the regenerate heart it produces deep responses of grief and spiritual pain to know how much God is offended by our transgressions. It also generates rejoicing over the comfort made available by grace. Again, notice David’s response when brought under conviction by the Holy Spirit;

Psalm 51:14, “Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, Thou God of my salvation; Then my tongue will joyfully sing of Thy righteousness.”

There is also a volitional change. The informed and convicted soul of a regenerate person desires God to change him, and desires the Lord to be merciful to him. David also shows this transformation in the same Psalm.

Psalm 51:11-12, “Do not cast me away from Thy presence, And do not take Thy Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of Thy salvation, And sustain me with a willing spirit.”

Psalm 51:15, “O Lord, open my lips, That my mouth may declare Thy praise.”

A. A. Hodge says that repentance unto life is, “a change of mind including evidently a change of thought, feeling, and purpose corresponding to our new character as children of God.”

Regeneration gives life to the lost soul, and produces a change which is often called conversion. One of the elements of this broad change of life is a true repentance. By it the regenerate apprehend both the horrors of sin as an offense against God, and the wonders of grace which show the mercy of redemption through the Messiah.

There is also a false repentance

There is the true godly sorrow for sin, and the sorrow common to the unredeemed which is more a regret for the consequences of sin.

2 Corinthians 7:10, “For the sorrow that is according to the will of God produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation; but the sorrow of the world produces death.”

The world sorrows over the inconvenience of sin and the trouble it produces. This grief is selfish. It is motivated by self-interest, not for concern about the offense against God. By putting his own interests above the honor of his Creator he only adds to his condemnation. The lost want to be free from the consequences of sin, not from the guilt of sin, or from its moral offensiveness.

Godly sorrow sees the evil of sin primarily in its offense against God. The redeemed soul understands that sin is wrong, not just that it produces unpleasant results in his life and circumstances. He sees the fleeting pleasures of sin as having no appeal to him at all when considered in the light of God’s honor (Hebrews 11:25).

When he sees his own moral weakness he wants his desires to be changed. The regenerate want to be free from sin and its bondage, rather than just from its personal consequences. He sees his condemnation as just and only removed by the merits of Jesus Christ. As the Apostle Paul learned to cry out in Romans 7:24-25, “Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! …”

Repentance is an Evangelical Grace

Since repentance is enabled by the work of regeneration it is not the cause of new life in Christ. The merit belongs to the Savior alone, and does not come from the regrets or feelings of the sinner. As an evangelical grace repentance must be preached as part of the gospel.

While it may not cause salvation, it is a necessary part of it. When the Holy Spirit applies the work of Christ, and restores a lost soul to fellowship with God, repentance is necessarily stirred to life and will be evidenced. The sinner must be directed to cry out to God for mercy through the cross. He should not be deceived into thinking that his deep feelings about sin could qualify him for redemption. This is obviously the teaching of the Apostle Paul in Romans 2:4, “Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance?”

A. A. Hodge explains, “Every Christian duty is therefore a grace; for without him we can do nothing ( John 15:5). And equally every Christian grace is a duty because the grace is given to us to exercise, and it finds its true results and expression only in the duty.”

The Administration of Forgiveness

As a free gift of grace enabled at regeneration and grounded upon the full satisfaction for the sins of the elect by the work of Christ, repentance does not in any way merit our forgiveness by God. Yet as a part of that which flows out of the renewed life by the work of regeneration, neither forgiveness nor pardon can be expected that is independent of the evidences of a true repentance in the believer.

The Romanist doctrine of penance is a perversion of and a departure from the biblical doctrine of repentance. I summarize A. A. Hodge who explains that the Roman Church teaches that repentance is an internal virtue which includes sorrow for sin, and a turning to God from each individual sin, as it is confessed to a priest. The penance of the Romanist is seen as a sacrament, an external expression of the inward state. This penance includes four elements as the Roman church sees them. My comments on each are in parentheses.

1. contrition: This is a sorrow and detesting of sin with determination to cease from sinning in the same manner again. (This is certainly a biblical element of a true repentance.)

2. confession: This is the self-accusation made to a priest who is seen as having jurisdiction of the keys of the Kingdom. The priest does not merely declare God’s promise to the sinner, he is seen as being able to actually grant true forgiveness from God. (Biblically the word “to confess” means “to agree with”. It is when we agree with God about our sins and admit them. It does not have to be expressed to a priest. Only God can actually forgive through Christ. No human can do that.)

3. satisfaction: This is some work assigned by the priest designed to satisfy divine justice as the efficient cause of the sinner’s pardon. (Biblically divine justice is only satisfied by the perfect Redeemer Jesus Christ.)

4. absolution: This is the forgiveness and judicial restoration granted by a priest himself acting for Christ. (God alone grants forgiveness and judicial restoration to the repentant sinner.)

The error of the Romanist teaching is evident from the previous chapters of the Westminster Confession which represent the teaching of Scripture. Repentance cannot be considered as a satisfaction for sin in any manner since that is wholly accomplished by the finished obedience and suffering of Jesus Christ for his elect. Human works are directly excluded by Scripture as having any meritorious power to remove the guilt of sin. To add the works of man as a cause of forgiveness implies an imperfection in the work of Christ.

God alone, the offended party and the only worthy Savior, can grant forgiveness on the grounds of that full judicial satisfaction made by Jesus Christ on behalf of all those for whom he died. Another believer or minister of the word may assure the believer of restoration by declaring the promises of God, but may not actually administer that forgiveness as an agent of God.

Note: The Bible quotations in this syllabus are from the New American Standard Bible (1988 edition) unless otherwise noted.

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