REPENTANCE UNTO LIFE
(See Westminster Confession of Faith chapter 15)
(Excerpted from my eBook: HOLDING FAST OUR CONFESSION - https://www.amazon.com/HOLDING-FAST-CONFESSION-Cullan-McKinlay-ebook/dp/B006ZSV90Q/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8
Some two thousand years ago something wonderful happened. To be sure the most wonderful thing that happened two thousand years ago was the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. There would be no Good News if Jesus Christ were still stuck in a tomb somewhere. But, on account of His being raised from the dead, the Good News is being spread. And that’s the wonderful thing that I want to draw to your attention in the following.
Since the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ the Good News of God’s grace is no longer restricted to the one little nation as it was before Christ’s resurrection. Now the Good News is to go out to all nations. For the Lord’s Apostle under inspiration of the Holy Spirit says in Acts 17:30&31, “Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent, because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man He has ordained. He has given assurance of this by raising Him from the dead.”
So we see then that “all men everywhere” are to repent. Does “all men everywhere” exclude anyone? No! Therefore, every person in every nation is to repent. Now, you may ask: Where’s the Good News in this? What’s so good about the fact that God has commanded everyone everywhere to repent? Well, the Good news in this is found in Acts 11:18, “When they [i.e., the Hebrew people Peter was talking to] heard these things they became silent; and they glorified God, saying, ‘Then God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance unto life.’”
That’s the aspect of the Good News, i.e., the Gospel we’re looking at. God commands all people everywhere to repent. But, as we can see, God has granted also to the non-Hebrews, (i.e., the Gentile nations) what He has commanded. Therefore, repentance unto life is part of the Good News to all the nations. And as such, even repentance is an evangelical or a Gospel grace.
In other words, repentance unto life, like saving faith is a gift of God. And that gift is wrapped up in the Person and works of His Son. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
The Nature of Repentance
Repentance is an evangelical grace related to faith. You can’t have true faith without having true repentance. Therefore repentance unto life and saving faith are glue on glue. Like love and marriage going together like a horse and carriage, you can’t have one without the other.
When Jesus came into His ministry He preached the Good News among the Hebrews. Mark 1:14&15 says, “Now after John was put in prison, Jesus came to Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.’”
So we see that the Lord expects people to repent and believe in the Gospel. And, He expects preachers of the Gospel to proclaim repentance as He did. For there is no greater preacher of the Gospel than Jesus Christ – it’s His Gospel. Therefore repentance must be preached if people are to know what to do to be saved.
Now, we’ve already noted the fact that the Gospel is not just for the Hebrew people of Jesus’ day. We’ve already noted that God has commanded all people everywhere to repent. And we’ve already noted that God has granted the Gentiles repentance. Therefore we can see that the grace of God has come upon all men, not just Old Testament Hebrews. So, we need to define repentance if we are to know what we are to do. Well, repentance is about receiving a gift from God.
Repentance is about receiving everlasting life from God on His Son’s account. Keep in mind that in our unregenerate state we have turned our back on God. If you have your back to God then everything you think, say, and do is tainted by sin. In other words, your works are not done in the light of God, but rather in the shadow of your sin. If God is the Light, and your back is to that Light, then everything you do is done in the shadows. Your sin, if you will, is having your back turned God.
Don’t you see this kind of thing when someone wishes to disagree with a speaker? The protestor stands with his or her back to the speaker to demonstrate his or her disagreement with the speaker and what the speaker is saying. Scripture makes it plain that all mankind has turned its collective back on God. Well, repentance is a turning back to God – a returning to God.
Repentance includes a change of mind, a change of heart, to have a new desire. Repentance is the realisation that you have been wrong about God and the things of God. Repentance is the realisation that God and what He is saying is right. Therefore repentance is about pirouetting. It’s about turning from your sins. It’s about turning away from your sins to face God. And since facing God is the last thing fallen man wants to do, we can see that repentance unto life is an evangelical grace.
We see in 2 Timothy 2:25 that in humility a servant of the Lord is to be “correcting those who are in opposition, if God perhaps will grant them repentance.” It is God who enables the sinner to turn from his sins and face Him. And He does this by the Holy Spirit working with the Word in the sinner’s heart. In other words, repentance unto life, like saving faith, is the result of the Spirit’s work of regeneration.
Now, repentance involves a true sense of sin. To be sure, there are all sorts of people that are remorseful about things they’ve done. Two that spring to mind in the Bible are Esau and Judas Iscariot. Esau sold his birthright to his brother Jacob for a free meal ticket. And Judas Iscariot sold Jesus for thirty pieces of silver. Truth be known, these acts of Esau and Judas were a turning their backs on God. But, afterwards they began to grieve over what they had done. However, their remorse apparently wasn’t true repentance of the kind we speak.
True repentance is not about grieving over the harm you’ve done yourself. True repentance is not about moping over the fine mess you’ve gotten yourself into. True repentance is about God, not you. True repentance is about you saying with King David after he realised the greatness of his sin with Bathsheba, “For I acknowledge my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. Against You, You only have I sinned, and done this evil in your sight” Psalm 51:3&4b.
We see that David was aware of his sin. And we see that David was aware of who he had sinned against. Therefore true repentance includes knowledge of what sin is, and knowledge of the One who declares what sin is.
Sin is thinking, saying, and doing anything contrary to God’s Moral Law, as summarised in the Ten Commandments. And, as we know, God wrote His Moral Law on mankind’s collective heart when He made us. Therefore, every reasoning adult has a basic concept of right and wrong. But, when God by His grace grants a person true repentance, that person knows he has sinned against God, and therefore seeks God’s forgiveness in Jesus Christ.
True repentance, therefore, grasps the mercy that God has provided in Jesus Christ. That is what the Gospel is – it’s the proclamation of the mercy of God found only in Jesus Christ. Therefore every preacher of the true Gospel is obligated to preach repentance, because people need to repent and believe in the Gospel if they are to ever be forgiven their sins.
Collective fallen humanity is like the disobedient child who holds his breath to get his own way. Well, repentance is surfacing for air! True repentance unto life is surfacing to humbly ask God for air. But truth be known, fallen man would rather die than surface and ask God for air. The Bible teaches us that this means that man is dead in his trespasses and his sins. It means that he will not, and therefore cannot, come to God for the breath of life. So God the Father and God the Son save the elect by sending them the ‘Breath’ of God.
It is the Holy Spirit therefore who brings the gift of repentance to the individual and the nations. Therefore true repentance is the reaction of the person into whose nostrils the Spirit of Christ has breathed new life. The gift of repentance, so to speak, is akin to God bringing back to life those wicked Egyptians who perished in the Red Sea while pursuing Moses and the Israelites. The gift of repentance, if you will, is akin to God bringing back to life the wicked who died in the great Flood of Noah’s day.
God, some two thousand years ago granted repentance to the non-Hebrew Gentile nations, (Acts 11:18). That’s why God has been bringing wicked people, such as you and me, back to life. The nature of repentance is that it is an evangelical grace
The Necessity of Repentance
Though no man can be saved without repentance, repentance does not save. Repentance is not the ground or basis for our salvation. Nor is repentance the cause of our salvation. Our salvation is based totally on the grace of God. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast” Ephesians 2:8&9.
So, even though repentance is necessary for salvation, it’s not your repentance that saves you. So, what then is it that saves you? It’s the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ that saves you. And that is what is being proclaimed in the Gospel. His life was lived to keep perfectly the Ten Commandments of God on behalf of those to whom God would in time grant true repentance. And His death was to pay for the breaking of the Ten Commandments of those to whom God would grant true repentance. And His resurrection was to justify God granting them true repentance. For how could God grant anyone true repentance if Jesus Christ’s body is mouldering in a tomb?
Where would the justice of God be if there was an innocent Man dead in a grave? Are you getting this? The Bible says, “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” Romans 6:23. Did Jesus ever sin? No? Then how could God leave Him dead in a tomb? For death is the wages for sin. And how could He give the gift of eternal life to others if His Son’s body lay a-mouldering in the grave? Therefore, it’s on account of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ that God grants us repentance unto life.
And repentance unto life is necessary for our salvation, because true repentance is our turning from death to life. And since we cannot bring ourselves back to life, we see that it is God who grants repentance. Check the history of the world. Has there been anyone anywhere who has brought himself back to life after being dead and buried? There has only ever been one Man who has done this. He’s the One who said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” John 2:19. How could Jesus say this? And even more to the point, how could He do this? Well, it was because He was without sin that He could say and do this.
We can’t say and do this because sin is what has killed us. But it was God who killed Jesus, even though He was murdered by wicked hands. In other words, it wasn’t our sins that killed Jesus on the cross. Rather, it was God who poured out His fiery wrath on Jesus on the cross that killed Jesus. But, the Good News is that all our sins were consumed by Jesus on the cross. Therefore, because the sins of the world have been taken away by Jesus Christ on the cross, God is now at liberty to grant repentance to whosoever He chooses (i.e., has chosen in eternity past). And we’ve heard already that God has chosen to grant repentance to the nations. And we’ve heard that repentance is necessary for salvation.
So, here’s how it all works: It was necessary that God raise Jesus from the dead. Why? It was necessary that God raise Jesus from the dead because He was righteous, i.e., without sin. Likewise, it is necessary that God grant repentance to those who had their sins taken away by Christ. Think about it: God declared Jesus Christ righteous by raising Him from the dead. By raising Him from the dead God was declaring that He was satisfied that all Christ’s works were perfect, i.e., in keeping with His Law.
When we are justified we too are declared righteous by God. Of course we are declared righteous by God upon the same righteous works that belong to Jesus. (This, of course, impacts on our future resurrection on the Last Day). But here’s the point, it’s because we are righteous that God cannot leave us dead in our trespasses and sins awaiting physical death. Death is the wages of sin, but death cannot hold the righteous, as we see with Jesus Christ. Therefore, repentance which is the fruit of regeneration, is God’s way of turning from death to life those for whom Christ died; i.e., those who have been declared righteous.
Repentance is God’s way of lifting you out of the tomb of sin. Repentance is akin to Daniel being safely lifted out of the lion’s den. It’s akin to the Lord lifting the Prodigal’s head out of the pig trough to return to his father. Repentance is turning from sin to righteousness. It’s turning from darkness to light. It’s turning from Hell to Heaven. It’s turning from self to God. It’s turning from death to life. It’s turning from everlasting death to everlasting life.
Repentance is a turning away from all danger. Therefore rejection of repentance is to destroy oneself, for repentance is necessary for salvation.
The Nurture of Repentance
Those who are truly repentant hate their sins. They sense sin to be something that clings to you, like coal dust to a miner. Therefore, the repentant sinner seeks cleansing for his sins. And he seeks it daily – he surfaces from the coal mine daily. He can just about smell sin clinging to him, like the smell of a dog that has been rolling itself on a dead animal.
To be sure, the Christian must be careful not to become obsessed with his own sinfulness. Otherwise he may be in danger of denying the mercy God has granted him in Jesus Christ. However, this doesn’t mean the Christian ought to be slack in his repentance. For true repentance requires thoroughness both general and particular.
General repentance is acknowledging the fact that you are a sinner by nature and then repenting of it. Even non-Christians are willing to acknowledge that they are less than perfect. “To err is human” and all of that. But Christians are not to be content with a general repentance. But rather we are to repent of our particular sins particularly. The Lord lifted little Zacchaeus out of the pit of his sin. He was thief, but when God by His grace, regenerated him, he paid back fourfold those whom he had robbed.
This paying back the folk he’d wronged is particular repentance. It’s an illustration of true repentance, i.e., repentance unto life. Therefore true repentance is nurtured by righting past wrongs where possible. To be sure, the toothpaste cannot always be put back into the tube. Nor can the lid of Pandora’s Box be closed after being opened. Nor can the cat be put back in the bag once let out. Nor can the horse be placed back into the barn after it has bolted. Nor can the tin of worms be resealed after opening. So, damage done is damage done.
But we should know that, just as there is no sin so small that it doesn’t deserve everlasting destruction, neither is there any sin so great that it can bring condemnation on the truly penitent. Therefore we must not torment ourselves with our past sins that cannot be remedied by us. Rather, once we’ve confessed our sins to God we ought to believe He has forgiven them. We must not keep on digging up old skeletons in the closet. Repent of them and believe the mercy of God in the Gospel.
Now there might be opportunity for you to make a public confession to other believers for wrongs you’ve committed against them. You ought to be willing to, and to actually confess your sins to those you’ve sinned against, whether individuals, or even the church itself. In other words, reconcile yourself to your brother or sister in Christ. Or if it’s the church you’ve sinned against, seek reconciliation with the elders, or Presbytery or whatever – whoever you’ve sinned against. We ought to do these things because restitution is evidence of the reality of repentance.
And if anyone comes to you all repentant, seeking your forgiveness, receive them in love. As Jesus says in Luke 17:3&4, “Take heed to yourselves. If your brother sins against you, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins seven times in a day, and seven times in a day returns to you, saying, ‘I repent,’ you shall forgive him.” We’ve already noted that it is God who grants repentance. True repentance is a sign of God’s forgiveness. Therefore we ought to forgive those whom God has forgiven.
Nurture repentance through the study of God’s Word and prayer. That way you’ll learn more and more what needs to be repented of.
Let us be truly thankful that God has granted us repentance. For, this means that our repentance is true repentance. It means that our repentance is more than just remorse. It is true that Martin Luther once said that we need to repent even of our repentance (for even our repentance is tainted by our sin). But God is the One who has granted it. Therefore God is the One who is working repentance in us.
And if God is the One working repentance in the world, then there is hope indeed for the world. The Lord has been pleased to pour out the Spirit of grace and supplication (as the prophet Zechariah puts it), that we may look on Him who has been pierced, that we may “mourn for Him as one mourns for his only son, and grieve for Him as one grieves for a firstborn” Zechariah 12:10.
So, don’t delay, “Repent, and believe in the gospel” today!