Why Repentance Should Be Lifelong and Particular
Saving repentance grows in gospel soil. It is not simply a natural terror stirred up by the law or a fear of retributive justice; it is the gift of God, a product of gospel grace. Real repentance (as we saw last time) comes from the Holy Spirit, and results in grief over sin, prayer for pardon, and turning to God for strength to walk in newness of life. The Second London Baptist Confession goes on now in paragraph four to speak of the ongoing nature of this repentance:
As repentance is to be continued through the whole course of our lives, upon the account of the body of death, and the motions thereof, so it is every man's duty to repent of his particular known sins particularly.
Again, we must not imagine that, in order to remain justified, we must keep repenting of our sins, as if every time we sin, or think of a sin not confessed and repented of, we lose our justification. Justification is a once-for-all declaration by Almighty God, the God-given faith that receives and rests on Christ being the sole instrument of this justification. It is true that we are once and once-for-all justified (in which saving faith in Christ will have been joined with repentance). Nevertheless, the work of repentance in a believer’s life does not end with his justification (see Chapter 11, “Of Justification,” especially paragraph five of that chapter) but is also a part of his sanctification.
The reason that the authors give for this ongoing repentance is “the body of death, and the motions thereof.” In other words, although we have been redeemed from sin and death and hell — although the reign or dominion of sin in the Christian has been ended — there is sin remaining in the Christian which needs to be mourned over and mortified. We still have inclinations towards sin and towards actions which are sinful. Repentance, therefore, is a lifelong task. The Christian is a saved sinner who is a new creation in Christ, one who has put off the old man and put on the new. However, the habits of the old man still need to be put to death, and the habits of the new creature cultivated and protected. Grievously, there is still sin, and will be until the believer dies and his soul is made perfect, or until Christ returns and the resurrection and glorification of the saints occurs, whichever happens first.
Here the confession seeks to steer us clear, on the one hand, of self-deception: there must be an ongoing forsaking of sin in the life of a true saint of God. Someone who is consistently unwilling to acknowledge, confess, and forsake sin shows few indications of walking in newness of life (Mark 1:4–5; Ps. 51:1–4; Matt. 3:8; 1 Thess. 1:9–10). On the other hand, we are steered away from unbiblical and unreasonable expectations of perfection in this life. Forsaking sin is not the same as perfect obedience: it is the pursuit of and desire after full obedience, out of love for God with all one’s heart and mind and soul and strength, with repentance over our failings and shortcomings.
A wise Christian once said, “There’s nobody perfect — that’s the believer’s bed of thorns; that’s the hypocrite’s couch of ease.” The Christian is not perfect, but would be if he could, and mourns over his imperfections. Hypocrites do not care about full and heartfelt obedience. A Christian is concerned not to sin at all, rather than not to sin too much.
Observe also that the authors bring their exposition of God’s word right to the heart of the individual. Repentance is much more than a general change of mind, or a vague awareness of sin. It is relatively easy to assault sin generally, to speak with fervor against sins in the plural, but true repentance deals with particular, individual, specific sins. Charles Hodge writes that
“no man has any right to presume that he hates sin in general unless he practically hates every sin in particular; and no man has any right to presume that he is sorry for and ready to renounce his sins in general unless he is conscious of practically renouncing and grieving for each particular sin into which he falls.”
True repentance, then, involves dealing not simply with sin in general, but with our sins in particular. Most of us have what might be called ‘constitutional sins’. These are sins which, in their form, occasion, regularity, or manifestation, are peculiar temptations to ourselves, and to which we might be particularly prone. In some, it might be envy; for others, covetousness; others struggle with sexual lust; some with gluttony. For most of us, it might be several such sins. The list might go on and on.
Our Bibles are particular about sin: they do not allow vague concepts of sin to float around ‘out there’. Sin is brought to bear upon our individual consciences with regard to its particular manifestations in us. The Thessalonian believers had, before their conversion, been conspicuous for idolatry. Their repentance was demonstrated in their turning to God from idols. The evidence of their alienation from God was idolatry, and the specific sphere of their repentance was in turning from that specific sin (1 Thess. 1:9–10).
So it must be with us, at the beginning of our Christian life and as we go through it. Though truly redeemed, we engage in a battle with sin and must identify, repent of, and mortify the particular sins to which we are particularly prone, naming them and seeking God’s grace to fight free of them and kill them.
Here, then, is a forsaking of sin that is both comprehensive and specific, particular and ongoing. Repentance is a turning from all known sin generally and every known sin particularly, with faith in Christ for mercy from God.
Every Bible-minded Christian knows the reality of this ongoing battle. The redeemed person sets out to be well-pleasing to God in all things, and soon discovers much with which God is not pleased. Old sins are recalled, new sins come to light. New circumstances create new temptations, and new spiritual awareness and insight reveals not just the breadth of sin but the depth of sin, as an instructed conscience identifies more and more what is ungodly, and strips away our ignorance about sin (Ps. 19:12–13). Repentance is a continual, near-constant, daily experience for the God-aware, Christ-centered, sin-aware Christian.
There may be incidents that call forth or demand particular and focused acts of repentance. This might be the old sinner who comes to a recognition of his lifelong wickedness, or the believer who falls into particularly grievous sin. Or, it may be the Christian who is reforming in his faith and life and comes to see that there is some area of his believing or living that has previously been largely untouched by Scripture, or a particular demand for repentance on the part of a church or nation.
However, repentance is not a one-off or temporary experience (see 1 John 1:9, in which the language implies an ongoing and constant work). Christian experience holds a biblical hatred of sin alongside a biblical understanding of the mercy of God in Christ. To be unaware of the horror and just punishment of sin that is not dealt with is unreal and illusory, and a delusion; to be unaware of the glorious mercy of God held out to the repentant sinner is crushing and destructive. They must go hand in hand. Sadness and sorrow arise out of our convictions of sin; joy and gladness arise out of our thankfulness for the mercy and goodness of God. Weeping endures for a night, but joy comes in the morning (Ps. 30:5), and there must be a night of repentance as well as a morning of gladness (Ps. 32:3–5).
We might summarize what we have considered so far by using the illustration of a tree. True repentance grows in the gospel soil of God’s sovereign grace working in the lives of sinful men and women, effectually calling them from death to life. The roots of true repentance are this biblically-informed grief over sin on the one hand, and a biblically-informed apprehension of God’s mercy in Christ on the other. The trunk and branches of true repentance are this turning from sin and turning to God. The fruit is this pursuit of and endeavor after new obedience, in dependence upon the Holy Spirit.
From this point, the Confession examines the necessity of preaching repentance in the light of what we know about sin. This we will examine further in our next post.
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.
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 John M. Brentnall (ed.), ‘Just A Talker’: Sayings of John (‘Rabbi’) Duncan (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1997), 129.
 Charles Hodge, The Westminster Confession: A Commentary (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2002), 216.