Repentance for Real

Every sinner effectually called by God receives the grant of repentance. God has mercifully provided a way for restoration His covenant of grace—a restoration that can overcome even our most grievous sins. This was the subject we saw last time in chapter 15 of the Second London Baptist Confession. Now the confession goes on to explain more particularly what repentance is, as well as its place, practice and relative priority in the life of the child of God:

This saving repentance is an evangelical grace, whereby a person, being by the Holy Spirit made sensible of the manifold evils of his sin, doth, by faith in Christ, humble himself for it with godly sorrow, detestation of it, and self-abhorrency, praying for pardon and strength of grace, with a purpose and endeavour, by supplies of the Spirit, to walk before God unto all well-pleasing in all things.

An Evangelical Grace

Repentance is, first of all, “an evangelical grace.” This language simply means a grace genuinely connected with the gospel and God’s power revealed in it. The Confession connects it with the “the Spirit of grace and supplication” poured out on those who look on the Pierced One of Zechariah 12:10, emphasizing the divine grant of repentance (Acts 11:18).

This also implies that there is a kind of repentance that is not saving. This is something that may appear to be repentance, but has no connection with the power of the Gospel, is not joined to faith, and does not issue in salvation. We see such false or empty "repentance" in the lives of men like King Ahab. Ahab humbled himself before God so that the punishment for his wickedness was postponed, but he was never a man of faith, and never tasted salvation (1 Kings 21:17–29). We also see it in Judas Iscariot, "the son of perdition" (Matt. 27:3–5) who, after betraying Christ, was filled with remorse and hung himself (Matt. 27:3–5).

Such false repentance may involve grief and remorse, a desire to avoid the consequences of sin, a terror of hell, and even outward reformation of life. But if it does not hold a hatred of sin as offensive and odious to the righteous God, it is not true repentance. And that's not all; true repentance also involves an apprehension (a real appreciation and grasp) of the mercy of God in Christ.

Saving repentance, then, grows in Gospel soil. It is not just a natural terror stirred up by the law. It is not a merely human response caused by fear of retributive justice to which the Almighty God is obliged to respond. Rather, it is the gift of God, a product of gospel grace. It is something worked by the sovereign God in the heart of the regenerate man (Acts 5:31; 11:18). Although true repentance does not consist solely in a sense of sin, we must realize that a true sense of sin is a fundamental part of true repentance.

Made Sensible by the Spirit

Such a sense of sin is something worked in a man by God’s Holy Spirit, who opens his spiritual eyes (1 Cor. 2:14) to understand something of the horror of transgressing God’s law. Older writers spoke of “the sinfulness of sin,” calling sin “the plague of plagues”[1] and “the evil of evils,”[2] in an attempt to communicate something of how foul a thing is sin. When a person is “made sensible of the manifold evil of his sins” (when he knows and feels the profound and varied evil of his own sins) he has more than merely an intellectual grasp of what sin is, and what its consequences are.

To understand something of what a man feels like when he sees his sin, look at the biblical examples: David’s groaning over his iniquity (Ps. 51); the psalmist’s appreciation of his vileness and guilt (Ps. 130:1–3); Job’s sense of the abhorrence of his sin before God (Job 42:5–6); the sense of unworthiness of the prodigal son (Luke 15:18–19); the deeply wounded hearts of the men of Jerusalem when Peter’s sermon was used to convince them that they had crucified Jesus, whom God had made both Lord and Christ (Acts 2:36–38).

To be sure, different people might respond differently, according to their God-given character or temperament, or the usual indications of grief in their culture. Some might be evidently full of outward weeping and groaning, others might have a less evident but no less real sense of these things. We should also say (see below) that some believers might arrive at a greater sense of their sin after conversion than before. However, something of this “godly sorrow, detestation of [sin], and self-abhorrency” will be true for every truly repentant person, however it is manifested.

Praying for Pardon

But alongside the grieving sinner’s sense of sin, and arising out of it, is a casting of oneself in faith upon God for mercy. Here again we see the intimate and necessary connection with faith. Observe that in most, if not all, of the examples above, there is also an explicit or implicit conviction that there is forgiveness with God (Ps. 130:4). David’s confession in Psalm 51 is a cry for mercy to the very God whom he has offended, and who alone is able to deal with his sin! The psalmist calls upon God’s people to hope in him because there is mercy and abundant redemption with him (Ps. 130:7–8). Job abhors himself and repents because he has seen the might and mercy of God.

The prodigal son, convinced of his unworthiness, nevertheless casts himself upon the forgiving love of his father. Peter’s congregation, cut to the heart, nevertheless ask “What shall we do?” and Peter calls on them to repent. God hates sin, this is true. And yet a sense of sin should not drive us from God, but to God through faith in Christ. This is because the God whom we have offended extends mercy to us in the Gospel. He is the One who has devised a remedy for our sins in the death of Jesus Christ His Son.

Satan often twists our guilt to make us feel that we cannot approach God, but true repentance contains this comprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, which carries us to the gracious Lord, to be cleansed of our transgressions, and washed thoroughly from our sins. True repentance therefore involves a crying out to God in faith, for pardon of sins, on the basis of his promises in Christ Jesus.

Walking with God

The heart of repentance is a turning from sin to God. It is more than simply being sorry for our sins; it is a fundamental and radical change of perspective, feeling, and desire (involving the intellect, emotions, and will). Our perspectives on God, ourselves, sin, and righteousness, undergo a radical transformation, from what was perverse and flawed, to what is right and true. The repentant person turns from sin with grief and sorrow over sin, and hatred for it, because it offends a holy God. He turns to a merciful God with a heart that desires to walk no longer in the paths of sin, but to be found in the ways of righteousness, and to walk in holiness, in dependence upon the Spirit of God (Phil. 2:12–13). This is why, alongside “praying for pardon” goes prayer for “strength of grace.”

The repenting sinner who has a true sense of sin appreciates his or her own weakness and inability to walk pleasing to God by natural strength and gift. He mourns over every manifestation of sin, crying out wholeheartedly for deliverance (Rom. 7:24). He cries to “the Spirit of grace and supplication” (Zech. 12:10) to grant the grace and strength to walk in the newness of life to which he has been delivered and to work out salvation by God’s strength and grace. He undertakes to put off the old man with his deeds, and to put on the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of the Lord who created him new (Col. 3:9–10) in prayerful dependence on the Spirit of God. We cannot “walk before God unto all well-pleasing in all things” without the grace of God enabling us to do so. This heartfelt pursuit of obedience is always joined with the heartfelt renunciation of sin.

We see all this worked out in the Thessalonian Christians, who had turned away from idols to serve the true and living God (1 Thess. 1:9). This was a complete reversal of attitude and lifestyle (Ps. 119:59, 128). This was true repentance.

The prodigal son did more than simply recognize his sin and his father’s mercy; he actually got up and went back to his father, and placed himself back under his father’s loving care and rule. For the believing and repenting disciple, the law of the Lord is now written on the heart (Ps. 119:6).

Editor's Note: This post has been adapted from A New Exposition of the London Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689, edited by Rob Ventura, slated for release by Mentor Books in November 2022.

Jeremy Walker serves as a pastor of Maidenbower Baptist Church, Crawley, and is married to Alissa, with whom he enjoys the blessing of three children. He has authored several books, and is grateful to preach and to write as opportunity provides.

Related Links

Podcast: "Confessional Subscription and the Minister’s Integrity"

"Repentance and Faith: Preaching Tips from à Brakel" by Jonathan Holdt

"The Ordo Salutis: Repentance" by David P. Smith

The Need for Creeds Today by J. V. Fesko

The Creedal Imperative by Carl Trueman


[1] Ralph Venning, The Sinfulness of Sin (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1993).

[2] Jeremiah Burroughs, The Evil of Evils (Philadelphia: Soli Deo Gloria, 1992).