Counterfeit Repentance

I think one of the greatest needs for the practice of discipleship and biblical counseling is a clear understanding of what repentance looks like. I’ve known of tearful confessions of wrong doing to spouses and church leaders that had the appearance of sorrow, but failed to last. There wasn’t a true heart change aligned with the expression of sorrow. The thought and writings of the Puritans are full of the riches on how to discern and produce true repentance. What follows are just a few of the gems ready to be mined if you take the time to search for them.

One of the devotionals I regularly read is Day by Day with the English Puritans. Within there, the reading for November 14th, was a passage quoted from the work of Richard Stock (1569-1626). He lectured at several churches in London and is buried in St. Paul’s Cathedral. He said there that:

Repentance is the constant turning of a man in his whole life from all sin unto God, arising from true faith and the true knowledge of a man’s own spiritual estate, ever joined with true humiliation.

Given a modern sense of language, it is better to substitute the word “humility” where Stock said “humiliation.” The person who looks deeply into the mirror of their own heart, and sees clearly what God sees, will always have a sense of their unworthiness joined with the wonderful knowledge of their forgiveness before God. Along with Isaiah, we will express our woe. For we are people of unclean lips who have seen the Lord of hosts. But He will see that our guilt is taken away; that our sin is atoned for (Isaiah 6:5-7).

In The Doctrine of Repentance, published in 1668, Thomas Watson examined the topic of repentance in great detail. We’ll look here at some of what he has to say about counterfeit repentance. You can get a paperback of his work on Amazon, or turn here for an online, updated language version.

Watson said the two essential graces in this life were faith and repentance. By them we fly to heaven. “Faith and repentance preserve the spiritual life just as heat and radical moisture preserve the natural.” He went on to discuss repentance, saying that in order to discover what is true repentance, he would first show what it is not—how a person may delude himself with “counterfeit repentance.” Watson felt there were three “deceits” in counterfeit repentance.

The first counterfeit for repentance is legal terror. Let’s say there was a man who remained in his sin for long time. Finally, God shows him what a desperate hazard he has run and the man is filled with anguish. The storm of conscience blows over, and again the man is quiet. He may believe that he is a true penitent because he has felt some bitterness in sin. “Do not be deceived; this is not repentance.” A sense of guilt can breed terror, but an infusion of grace breeds repentance.

If pain and trouble were sufficient for repentance, then the damned in hell would be the most penitent, for they are most in anguish. Repentance depends upon a change of heart. There may be terror and yet no change of heart.

A second counterfeit for repentance could look like resolution against sin. Watson observed that a person could be resolved to not sin and still not truly be repentant. Such a resolution arises because sin is painful, not because it is sinful. This resolve will vanish. It could also proceed from a fear of death and hell. Self-love, Watson said, is at work here and the love of sin will prevail against it. He warned, “Do not trust to a passionate resolution; it is raised in a storm and it will die in a calm.”

A third counterfeit for repentance is wrapped up in leaving some sinful ways. Here Watson means that a sin might be truly abandoned, but not because of repentance. He agreed that it is a good and great thing for a person to put away sin. However, the individual could part ways with some sins and keep others. The husband who ceases to physically abuse his wife, but continues to demean and criticize her is such a person.

A second leaving could be where an old sin is abandoned, but a new one taken up. This is merely an exchange of sin, for the heart, again, remains unchanged. The person who reforms his delinquent youth, but becomes a corrupt banker as an adult. “So a man moves from one vice to another but still remains a sinner.”

A third leaving is from prudence, not from grace. A woman may realize that while her sin is a pleasure, it could ruin her good name, prejudice her health and impair her wealth. So counting the cost, she decides to stop using drugs. In all these leavings, the initial sin is left, but not because of repentance. “True leaving of sin is when the acts cease because of the infusion of a principle of grace, just as it ceases to be dark when there is an infusion of light.”

In future posts, we’ll look at the true nature of repentance, according to Watson and other Puritans. We’ll close where we started, with Richard Stock.  Above, we noted that Stock said the life of a believer is one of constant repentance. And it seems he walked his talk. Within The Lives of the Puritans, Volume 2, it was said of Richard Stock that he was the means of bringing many persons to the saving knowledge of the truth. “Though many ministers preached to others, and not to themselves, Mr. Stock practiced what he preached. His life was one uniform practical comment upon his doctrine.” He lived a life of true repentance.


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