The Oft-Unopened Gift of Shame
In his classic work, The Doctrine of Repentance, the great Puritan Thomas Watson lists six ingredients necessary for true repentance:
- Sight of sin
- Sorrow for sin
- Confession of sin.
- Shame for sin.
- Hatred for sin.
- Turning from sin.
According to Watson, “if any one is left out it [i.e. repentance] loses its virtue.” If this is true, it's a good idea to think more deeply about #4. Indeed, it seems many today have failed to rightly understand the vital role that a godly shame for sin plays in true biblical repentance.
What is Godly Shame?
Shame is not the most pleasant of topics to discuss. Most often when discussing shame, we immediately seek to remind ourselves and others that on the cross, Christ took our shame, and we need carry it no longer. Just as God graciously covered the naked Adam and Eve in the garden, He has clothed our nakedness and covered our shame. Just as the second stanza of the beautiful hymn, “Man of Sorrows,” What a Name says:
Bearing shame and scoffing rude,
In my place condemned He stood;
Sealed my pardon with His blood;
Hallelujah! what a Savior!
However, for the Christian, this is not the only category we have for shame. Godly shame is a kind of “holy bashfulness.” A repentant sinner’s face cannot help but turn red, for “if Christ’s blood were not at the sinner’s heart, there would not so much blood come in the face.” Godly shame recognizes the great punishment that Christ endured as they mocked him, spat upon him, tore his clothes, bloodied him, and put him to wrongful death. No true Christian could look upon the blood-stained, crucified Savior and not feel great shame at their continual sins.
Reminding ourselves of this fact not only points us to truth of the Gospel, but also promotes holiness so that we may live a life that is pleasing to God (2 Cor. 5:9). Therefore, godly shame is a gift of grace from God, given in order that we would live out our new lives in Christ as new creatures (Gal. 2:20; 2 Cor. 5:17).
What Godly Shame is Not
Godly shame causes us to blush, points us to the Gospel, and promotes holiness. It therefore must not be something that celebrates or makes excuses for sin, nor ignores the coming judgment upon sin. As Watson points out, there are those who are “proud of their long hair.” In other words, what should be considered shameful to them, they wear proudly for all to see. They can also be ashamed of what should be their glory, such as the truth of the scriptures. Watson continues:
“Others are so far from being ashamed of sin that they glory in their sins: ‘whose glory is in their shame’ (Phil. 3:19). Some are ashamed of that which is their glory: they are ashamed to be seen with a good book in their hand. Others glory in that which is their shame: they look on sin as a piece of gallantry. The swearer thinks his speech most graceful when it is interlarded with oaths. The drunkard counts it a glory that he is mighty to drink (Isa. 5:22). But when men shall be cast into a fiery furnace, heated seven times hotter by the breath of the Almighty, then let them boast of sin as they see cause.”
Only hypocrites give a modest blush while still reveling in their sins. True repentance would seek to run as far in the opposite direction of the old and crucified man, not identify with it.
To paraphrase one PCA Teaching Elder, true repentance is not a PR tour. Yet so often, instead of leaving the dead man behind us, we seek to resuscitate him so that we may join in his wicked activities once again. Sometimes this is done with good intentions in mind. Often, we justify this behavior by claiming we are helping others, reaching out to a particular people group, providing support, or being missional. But these things easily become opportunities for Satan to strike. In our ministry to those struggling with sin, we must make every effort to avoid encouraging further rebellion. Our ministry should instead be that which snatches brands from the burning fire (Jude 23).
What We Must Do
Those who aim for true repentance, and feel deep shame for their sin, will then hate their sin and seek to turn from it. Sin must be truly hated, not celebrated. As Watson explains, sin becomes “odious” to the repentant sinner. The hatred of sin is akin to seeing a photograph (or a painting in his case) of a person you deeply despise. It doesn't matter if the photo is well-taken or aesthetically appealing; you cannot bear to look at it. Therefore, you turn from that sin in your repentance. This means you must aim to mortify the flesh by depriving yourself of that sin and anything that would cause you to fall into its trap.
“The very day a Christian turns from sin he must enjoin himself a perpetual fast.” We fast from sin so that we may feast more fully upon Christ. Let us repent, brothers and sisters, so that we may feast!
Derrick Brite serves as pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Aliceville, Alabama. He received his MDiv from Reformed Theological Seminary in Atlanta and is currently pursuing a PhD in systematic theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
"Confession," from A Method for Prayer by Matthew Henry
"Indwelling Sin: Is There Hope?" by Daniel B. Miller
"Pastor, Preach Repentance" by Jeremy Walker
Sanctification: The Long Journey Home, with Derek Thomas and Greg Gilbert
 Thomas Watson, The Doctrine of Repentance (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, repr. 2002), 18.
 Ibid., 39.
 Ibid., 44.
 Ibid., 44
 Ibid., 52