Repentance always brings a man to this point: ‘I have sinned.’ The surest sign that God is at work is when a man says that and means it. Anything less than this is remorse for having made blunders, the reflex action of disgust at himself. (My Utmost for His Highest, December 7th)
This short quote from Oswald Chambers has been a personal favorite of mine for a number of years. Mostly, because I need to be reminded of it’s truth. But also because it captures the reality that true repentance demands more than a simple verbal response. To use a well-known recovery saying, you have to walk your talk. Getting a clear sense of what true repentance looks like and feels like is foundational for personal spiritual growth; and it is crucial when discipling and counseling others.
I’ve looked at Thomas Watson’s sense of “Counterfeit Repentance” in his work, The Doctrine of Repentance. Now I want to reflect on what he says about true repentance. According to Watson, “Repentance is a grace of God’s Spirit whereby a sinner is inwardly humbled and visibly reformed.” He proposed a recipe with six special ingredients for true repentance: 1. Sight of sin; 2. Sorrow for sin; 3. Confession of sin; 4. Shame for sin; 5. Hatred for sin; and 6. Turning from sin. “If any one of these is left out, repentance loses its virtue.” For now, we’ll look at the first two ingredients.
The Sight of Sin
Watson said the person must first recognize and consider what her sin is, and know the plague of her heart, before she can be duly humbled by it. Just as the first thing that God created was light, the first thing in a penitent is illumination. She must see her sin. “For at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of the light” (Ephesians 5:8).
“Where there is no sight of sin, there can be no repentance.” People are blinded by ignorance and self-love. Therefore they do not see what deformed souls they have. They see faults in others, but none in themselves. They don’t know their own heart, and don’t realize what a hell they carry around with them. “They do not see any evil in [their] sin.”
The Sorrow for Sin
There is a multi-facetted sense to sorrow for sin in true repentance. Watson suggests five aspects to true, repentant sorrow.
- This sorrow is not superficial. It is a holy agony whose purpose is to make Christ precious; to drive out sin; and to make way for solid comfort. Remember that not all sorrow is evidence of true repentance. “There is as much difference between true and false sorrow as between water in the spring, which is sweet, and water in the sea, which is briny.”
- Godly sorrow is inward. It goes deep, like a vein that bleeds inwardly. Its grief is for heart-sins that never blossom into action. “A wicked man may be troubled by scandalous sins; a real convert laments heart-sins.”
- Godly sorrow is sincere—it sorrows for the offense rather than the punishment. Here lies the heart of counterfeit repentance. “Hypocrites grieve only for the bitter consequence of sin.”
- Godly sorrow is intermixed with faith. “Just as our sin is ever before us, so God’s promise must ever be before us.” Sorrow apart from faith is the sorrow of despair, not the sorrow of repentance.
- Godly sorrow is sometimes joined with restitution. If you are able, you should recompense the person with whom you had fraudulent dealings. If you are not able to repay what you have taken, promise full satisfaction to the wronged party if the Lord makes you able.
So it is necessary to recognize and be sorrowful for sin in true repentance. Repentance requires that we die to self. We must see that we are not just a bit off track, but that we are utterly lost. The first step is to recognize and correct this misdirection, according to C.S. Lewis. “If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road.”
Lewis also noted that we are not just imperfect creatures in need of improvement—we are rebels who must surrender our arms. This laying down of arms, this surrender—saying we are sorry and admitting that we were heading in the wrong direction—is repentance.
Now repentance is no fun at all. It is something much harder than merely eating humble pie. It means unlearning all the self-conceit and self-will that we have been training ourselves into for thousands of years. It means killing part of yourself, undergoing a kind of death. (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity)
After making an about-turn and beginning to walk back to the right road, the repentant person will need to stay alert for the return of their self-conceit and self-will. And when they see it—work to avoid it at all costs. When you see this process at work, you know you’re on the road to true repentance.