Turning to God in Repentance

In The Confessions, Augustine famously prayed as a young man of nineteen for God to grant him the gift of chastity, “but not yet.” Augustine said he was afraid that God would deliver him from lust too quickly, “which I desired to have satisfied rather than extinguished.” God “granted” his prayer and it wasn’t for another twelve years that Augustine finally converted to Christianity. In the meantime, he fathered a child by a mistress and spent a few years within the heretical sect of Manichaeism. What seems to have been missing for him at the time was a turning to God in true repentance.

In The Doctrine of Repentance, Thomas Watson said: “Repentance is a grace of God’s Spirit whereby a sinner is inwardly humbled and visibly reformed.”  He went on to discuss what he described as a recipe with six special ingredients for true repentance: 1) the sight of sin; 2) the sorrow for sin; 3) the confession of sin; 4) shame for sin; 5) hatred for sin; and 6) turning from sin. He warned that if any one of them was left out, “repentance loses its virtue.”

So far we’ve looked at the first three ingredients in “On the Road to True Repentance” and “Confession and True Repentance.”  We’ve also seen what Watson thought about “Counterfeit Repentance.” Here we will look at the last three ingredients, with special emphasis on turning from sin.

Watson said it was a great shame not to be ashamed of our sin. If the sins of the godly are mentioned at all on Judgment Day, it will not be to shame them, but to show the riches of God’s grace in pardoning them. Shame for sin is the shame of realizing we were like beasts when we sinned—dogs that returned to their vomit; or pigs wallowing in the mud after they were washed (2 Peter 2:22). “God’s image is defaced, reason is eclipsed, and conscience is stupefied.”

“A true penitent is a sin-loather.” Their spirit is set against it. They hate all sin, for “sin leaves a stain upon the soul.” If you love sin instead of hating it, you are far from repentance. “To the godly, sin is a thorn in the eye; to the wicked, it is a crown on the head.” Sin reaches our soul. By sin we have lost our innocence. Our hatred of sin should be infinitely greater than our love for it ever was. Clearly Augustine at nineteen did not hate lust more than he loved it. He also did not turn from it.

In true repentance, we recognize our sin; we sorrow for our sin; we confess our sin; we are ashamed of our sin; and we hate our sin. These then lead us to the final ingredient: turning from sin. The day we turn from sin, we must commit to a perpetual fast from sin—“Dying to sin is the life of repentance.” Turning from sin should be so visible, that others see it. It’s as if another soul has lodged in the same body.

Our turning must include our hearts—not just our behavior. “The heart is what the devil strives hardest for.” Every sin is to be abandoned; every lust is to be destroyed. “Someone who indulges one sin is a traitorous hypocrite.” An individual may restrain from sin out of fear or design, but a true penitent does so because of their love for God. If sin were not such bitter fruit, if death were not it consequence, “a gracious soul would forsake it out of love for God.”

Turning from sin means a turning to God. “Unsound hearts pretend to leave old sins, but they do not turn to God or embrace his service.” True turning from sin means there is no returning. Returning to sin gives the devil more power than before. “A true turning from sin means divorcing it, so as never to come near it any more.”

Some people are only half-turned—they turn in their judgment, but not in their practice. They acknowledge the power of sin over them, and even weep over it. But they are “so bewitched by it that they have no power to leave it.” In this sense, they are powerless over it; the corruption of their sin is stronger than their convictions. Others are half-turned when they turn from many sins, but remained unturned from some special sin.

“If we turn to God, he will turn to us. He will turn his anger from us, and turn his face to us. It was David’s prayer, “O turn to me, and have mercy upon me” (Ps. 86.16). Our turning will make God turn: “Turn to me, says the Lord, and I will turn to you” (Zech. 1.3). The one who was an enemy will turn to be our friend.”

It could be that at nineteen, Augustine was only half-turned from lust. Through the graciousness of God, he did not remain half-turned, but became one of the most learned and important of the church’s theologians. Within his Book of Meditations, he wrote a “Prayer for the Gift of Tears,” asking that God would take from him whatever “offends the eyes of Thy goodness.”  God alone can renew what is ruined and fallen. Augustine prayed that God would pour into his heart the fullness of His love, so that he would not think of or desire what was carnal or earthly. “But rather love Thee alone.”  This was a full turning to God.


Confession and True Repentance

Psalm 51 has repeatedly drawn me back to read and meditate on it over the years. “Create in me a clean heart, O God” has been and will continue to be a foundational part of my prayer life. “For I know my transgression, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.” David would surely agree with Thomas Watson that the recipe for true repentance must include the ingredient of confession.

This is the third of a series of reflections on The Doctrine of Repentance, by Watson.  We’ve looked at “Counterfeit Repentance” and the first two of six essential ingredients for true repentance in “On the Road to True Repentance.” Here we will see what he has to say about the importance of confession for true repentance.

Thomas Watson David, Job (42:1-6), Isaiah (6:5) knew that when we come before God in true repentance, we must acknowledge our sins. Our confession of sin must be “self-accusing”—“Against you, you only have I sinned”; “I repent in dust and ashes”; “I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips.” Watson thought that because of this self-accusation, Satan could not indict us before God, as he did with Job—because we have acknowledged that we have sinned and done what is evil in His sight.  He gave four reasons to confess sin.

Confession is necessary in repentance because it reproves those who would rather hide their sins. “Many would rather have their sin covered than cured.”  However the person who confesses and forsakes sin will obtain mercy (Proverbs 28:13). Confession corrects those who would “confess the pennies but not the dollars.” When our heart accuses us of sin, it must be confessed. Confession also reproves those who would use arguments to defend or justify it. “When men commit sin they are the devil’s servants; when they plead for it they are the devil’s attorneys, and he will give them a fee for it.” Confession also reproves those who would try and point to extenuating circumstances for their sin, as Adam did (Genesis 3:12).

They do not deny they are sinners, but they do what they can to lessen their sins: they indeed offend sometimes, but it is just their nature, and it has been such a long time. These are excuses rather than confessions.

If we judge ourselves, truly, we won’t be judged (1Cor. 11:31). Some individuals like Judas and King Saul confess their sin, they judge themselves—but not truly. “Theirs was not a true confession,” according to Watson. He said that for our confession to be “right and genuine,” it must have the following eight qualities.

First, it must be voluntary. It should flow as freely from us as water from a spring. In contrast, the confession of the wicked is extorted, “like the confession of a man upon a rack.”

Second, true confession leaves heart-wounding impressions. Our hearts must deeply resent it. “It is one thing to confess sin and another to feel sin.”

Third, our hearts must go along with our confession—it must be sincere. A hypocrite confesses sin, but still loves it. The truly penitent person is convinced of the sins they confess, and abhors the sins that they are convinced of.

Fourth, true confession will particularize sin. After a diligent inspection of our hearts, if we see that a particular sin has been committed, “point to that sin with a tear.”

Fifth, a true penitent acknowledges the pollution of his nature. “Our nature is an abyss and a seminary of all evil, from which those scandals that infest the world come.”

Sixth, sin is to be confessed with all its aspects and dimensions. Sin soaks down into the marrow of our bones and cannot be confessed generally or superficially.

Seventh, confession of sin does not blame God. “We must acquit him and acknowledge that he has done us no wrong.”

Eighth, in confessing sin, we must resolve not to repeat them. It is vain to confess something sinful and still continue to do it. “Some run from the confession of sin to the committing of sin.”

David knew that God did not delight in the mere outward, tearful show of sacrifice and confession. True repentance requires a sense of brokenness in confession. “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God you will not despise.” (Psalm 51:17) The Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament said that the Hebrew word for contrite here is consistently used to refer to someone who is “physically and emotionally crushed because of sin.”

There is no room in true repentance for a showy, tearful eloquent confession of sin if it is not an outward expression of a broken and contrite heart. The legitimacy of a “right and genuine” confession will also take time to confirm. It should be demonstrated within a pattern of progressive steps away from the sin. Too often flashy demonstrations of regret are accepted as true confession. It takes a creative act of God to make a clean heart and renew a right spirit within us. And like David, that process begins with our confession of sin before a holy God.


On the Road to True Repentance

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.

  1. 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.”
  2. 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.”
  3. 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.”
  4. 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.
  5. 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.




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.