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 endeavouring to walk with Him in all the ways of His commandments.
Repentance that leads to life
The previous chapter in the Confession stressed the importance of faith in Christ for all of life and for the life that is to come. But when the Scriptures speak of life, they also speak of the repentance that leads to life, or 'repentance unto life' (Acts 11:18).
Repentance is a gospel grace or an evangelical grace because it is needed for salvation. Repentance is also a gospel grace because it teaches us to reflect on Jesus Christ. That seems to be the point the authors of the Confession may be making when they point readers to an ancient prophecy. Every Christian knows that true repentance involves a serious consideration of his own sin. But the prophet Zechariah explained that when the Holy Spirit would be poured out in a special measure, God's people would especially consider the cost of their sin as it was accounted on the cross of the Saviour. We mourn what sin required of the Son of God - indeed, Zechariah says, we 'mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a firstborn son' (Zech. 12:10). As we look on Christ, the one who was pierced for our transgressions, we begin to see the full measure of our sin.
Repentance is important for our salvation, and this fact 'is to be preached by every minister of the Gospel, as well as' the need for 'faith in Christ'. We see the importance of preaching repentance in the Bible. At the beginning of his ministry John the Baptist preached that the time had come for sinners to 'repent and believe the gospel' (Mark 1:15). At the end of his earthly ministry, our Lord himself sounded a similar note. He told his disciples that not only 'the forgiveness of sins' but also 'repentance' would 'be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem' (Luke 24:47). The Apostle Paul, too, testified 'both to the Jews and also to the Greeks' that they had need for 'repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ' (Acts 20:21).
Turning from sin and turning to God
So repentance considers our sin; and it considers the cost of our sin to the Saviour. We could add to this that repentance and faith need to walk together. But we can also say more. As paragraph two reminds us, people being led to repentance should really see and sense the danger of their sin. The Lord God himself urges his people to see their peril through the prophet Ezekiel. 'Repent!' he says, 'Turn away from all your offenses; then sin will not be your downfall. Rid yourselves of all the offenses you have committed, and get a new heart and a new spirit. Why will you die' (Ezek. 18:30-31)?
Here is a call that Christians wish every sinner would hear and heed. But we should not only see the danger, but also the filthiness and repulsiveness of our sins. That too was preached by Ezekiel. He spoke of remembering 'evil ways and wicked deeds'; he went on to say that there is place for us to 'loathe' ourselves for our 'sins and detestable practices' (Ezek. 36:31). These are strong words, but sin is a strong poison. Indeed, Isaiah compares the disposal of our cherished idols with the disposal of a menstrual cloth (Isa. 30:22). We must never forget that sin is a dirty affair because it is absolutely 'contrary to the holy nature' of God.
Sin is also a personal affair, for sin is set against God himself, the one to whom we ought to have been faithful. Is that not why King David was so stricken with grief when he was confronted by Nathan the prophet? 'Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight', he cried to the Lord. It was to God that he spoke when he confessed that his Maker was 'proved right' when he spoke, and 'justified' when he judged (Psa. 51:4; c.f., Jer. 31:18-19). All sin is to be judged, for it breaks the 'righteous law of God'. It is because we consider God's precepts to be right, that we come to 'hate every wrong path' (Psa. 119:128).
Sinners can sink to great depths of sorrow over sin, but not all remorse is real repentance. There must be what Paul calls a 'godly sorrow' that produces a God-ward change (2 Cor. 7:11). True repentance not only comes to hate sin, but also to see the Saviour. This is really very important for us to understand. As we consider what God thinks of sin, we must also consider his mercy to sinners. After all, he is the one who spoke through the prophet Joel, urging his people to 'Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity' (Joel 2:12-13). We can treasure the powerful understatement of Amos, who told his hearer to repent, for 'perhaps the LORD God Almighty will have mercy' (Amos 5:15). And as we consider God's mercy, we need to so grieve for and hate our sins, as to turn from them all unto God.
Is this not the most basic need that each one of us has? We were made to be with God, to fellowship with him. We want to be in a situation where we are no longer 'put to shame' when we consider our Creator's commands. We want to consider our ways, and turn our steps to walk according to God's statutes. Indeed, we want simply to follow God's righteous laws (Psa. 119:6, 59, 106). That is our purpose, our endeavour; to be upright in God's sight (Luke 1:6), and to turn to the Lord with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our strength, in all the ways of His commandments (2 Kings 23:25).
Let us pray that this would be the main purpose of our repentance. Let us not only cease our foolish wanderings, but by God's grace follow in the footsteps of our Saviour, until one day we find him in his glory, and sin will be no more.
Dr. Chad Van Dixhoorn is the associate pastor of Grace Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Vienna, Virginia. He is the editor of The Minutes and Papers of the Westminster Assembly, 1643-1653.