Thursday, February 29, 2024




1.  The Heart of Biblical Repentance

2. True and False Repentance

3. Repentance -  A New Testament Overview

4. Biblical  Repentance is a  Spiritual Medicine



Psalm 51

I (and I suspect, most preachers) find preaching on repentance difficult. It is a subject that easily comes across as harsh and heavy – and those preaching the subject often seem to come across as angry. A note to all preachers: this is not about us. This is about God. And we are one of them which are called sinners.   There is no doubt that there has been a reaction against such preaching in which the preacher sees himself as apart from his hearers. On the other hand, we find that preaching that urges repentance upon our hearers is hardly heard.  If we consider what we have said previously, then we cannot ignore this subject, lest we deprive our people of a necessary remedy for their healing. Jim Packer says that “repentance is the drainage routine on the highway of holiness on which God calls us to travel.”[1] 

Life in this sinful world demands continues cleansing. We need preaching that reminds us of this necessary spiritual discipline. George Whitefield (1714-1770) once heard the American Presbyterian Gilbert Tennent (1703-1764) preaching. Whitefield responded, "I never before heard such a searching sermon.[2]" By this he meant that the hearers were brought to conviction and repentance. Under Whitefield’s own ministry he saw much evidence of people responding to the gospel, repenting of their sin, frequently crying out as they were convicted of their sin. In a letter dated July 1739, addressed to the Bishop of Gloucester, George Whitefield complains that Anglican ministers generally do not mention this subject. He refers specifically to Dr. Stebbington, a noted Anglican minister of his day: “he does not speak a word of original sin or the dreadful consequences of our fall in Adam upon which the doctrine of the new birth is entirely founded.[3]

Little is said about the spiritual discipline of regular repentance in modern pulpits. This is a serious omission, because we have seen that the call to repentance was so central in the ministries of Jesus, John the Baptist and the apostles.  Note, that repentance was often also accompanied by physical healing. We suspect that there may be greater benefits to repentance than we may think.

Thomas Watson says that “Repentance is a spiritual medicine made up of six special ingredients”[4]. We shall find that repentance is a medicine that kills the sin virus. John Owen is famously attributed with the saying, Be killing sin before it kills you. 

He warns against[5]

(i)                  Being hardened by the deceitfulness of sin (Hebr.3:12-13)

(ii)                Coming under God’s chastisement  (Psalm 89:30-32)

(iii)              Loss of peace 

(iv)              The danger of eternal destruction

(v)                Grieving the Holy Spirit 

(vi)              Wounding the Lord Jesus (who died for sin) afresh.

(vii)            Taking away a man’s usefulness in his generation.

I will generally follow the outline of Thomas Watson’s   chapter on the nature of true repentance. 

1. Seeing sin for what it is

2. Sorrow for sin

3. Confession of sin 

4. Shame for sin 

5. Hatred for sin

6. Turning from sin  

I want to however add a 7th aspect from the 51st Psalm.  If you have discovered a good remedy for your soul’s healing, PLEASE HELP OTHERS by teaching others to turn from sin (Psalm 51:13)

1. First Ingredient: Seeing sin for what it really is.  We see this from the experience of David. When he was shown his sin by the prophet Nathan, he immediately owned it.  One further illustration from Scripture illustrates this point - The parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15:11-32.  This younger son who left his father’s house defiantly …“he came to himself” (Lk. 15:17). He saw himself for what he was, a sinner (15:18), and he confesses: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you.“ Note: not only against the earthly father but also the Father who is in heaven!

Before a person can be converted, they must firstly be helped to come to themselves.  Someone must put on the light. Thomas Watson very helpfully says, “The first creation God made was light. So the first thing in a penitent sinner needs is illumination“.  This is, as we have previously said, the work of the Holy Spirit. He works by the agency of God’s Word. The Word of God is a mirror for our soul, showing us the nature of our sin and also the remedy for that sin.  

2. Second Ingredient:  Sorrow for sin:  4 important aspects

(i) Brokenness. David was broken by the revelation of his sin. There must be real pain in the soul. Thomas Watson says, “A woman may as well expect to have a child without pain as one can have repentance without sorrow.”[6] David ‘s language in Psalm 51 makes it clear that here is a broken man who shows heartfelt sorrow for his sin: “Have mercy on me … wash me … I know my transgressions and my sin is ever before me … against you and you only have I sinned … my bones are broken …“. David here speaks of a brokenness of soul that may have well also led to physical manifestations. The Hebrew word “to be sorrowful’ is closely aligned with the thought of being crushed. So, he speaks of his bones being crushed/broken (51:8). That same word is also used in 51:17, where it is said that,  “a broken / crushed  and contrite heart, God will not despise”. What do we learn from such language? We learn that repentance is not a superficial emotion.  Thomas Watson says, “This sorrow for sin is not superficial: it is a holy agony. It is called in scripture ‘a breaking of the heart’…”  (Ps. 51.17). It is a hard, unpleasant experience.

(ii) Godly sorrow: Paul speaks about such godly sorrow in 2 Cor. 7:9. Godly sorrow is a sorrow of the heart. It goes deep. The people listening to Peter’s preaching on the day of Pentecost received these words deep into their hearts: “they were cut to the heart“ (Acts 2:37).  Paul continuously grieved for the fact that he saw sin in himself (Rom. 7:23).  We have seen that shallow repentance is mostly sorry that it has been caught out. Godly sorrow by contrast deeply grieves over the fact grieves that it has offended God. The essence of all sin begins with a rebellious heart against God.

(iii)  Restitution where necessary. (See Numbers 5:7). It is upon this principle that Zacchaeus the tax collector proved his repentance (See Luke 19: 1-10) “… if I have defrauded anyone, I restore it fourfold.” In David’s case the restitution is not explicitly stated, but following his repentance he took responsibility and did take care of Bathsheba.  He wept over the child that was conceived and died, with exceeding sorrow. God was His prime focus in that sorrow.

(iv) Consistent or habitual:  In Hosea 6:4 God through his prophet speaks to the insincere repentance of his people (see 6:1-3).  He says, “What can I do with you, Ephraim? What can I do with you, Judah? Your love is like the morning mist, like the early dew that disappears.”  Their repentance is not consistent. It is not habitual. To the woman caught in adultery (Jn.8:1-11) Jesus says – “Go and sin no more”. Be consistent in your repentance! Judging by David’s life as seen in the prayers of the Psalms we see this consistent habit in him. He was a repentant repenter.

3. Third Ingredient: Sorrow must have an outward expression. That expression we call confession. David confessed to God in the presence of the prophet Nathan, “I have sinned!“ (2 Sam.12:13). Achan confessed his sin in Joshua 7 against God and against the people. This is an admittance that sin is never private. Many had died as a result of Achan’s unfaithfulness.  How do we confess our sin? 

(i)      It must be voluntary and not forced. Confession must come as water out of a spring, freely.

(ii)    It must be felt.

(iii)  It must be sincere.

(iv)  It must be named. 

(v)    It must be owned. (This sin that possesses us is so deep that it begins at our conception (see Ps. 51:5).  While Satan is the tempter and incites us to sin, we cannot blame him for our sin.  We are sinful! We must take responsibility for our sin.

Confession, says Thomas Watson, “is like pumping at the leak; it lets out that sin which would otherwise drown. Confession is the sponge that wipes the spots from off the soul.”  Though it is primarily against God, there are cases when we need to make our confession before men. [7]Can you see that a life of confession and repentance is biblically therapeutic? Keep short accounts with sin. Keep your soul unclogged. This will bring true freedom. 

4. Fourth Ingredient: Shame for sin. Shame underlies the whole of Psalm 51.  Every sin makes us guilty, and guilt usually breeds shame. Adam never needed to feel ashamed while he was in the state of innocence.  Gen. 2:25 says “And the man and the woman were both naked and were not ashamed.”  As soon as they sinned and knew they were naked, they were ashamed, for they sewed fig leaves for themselves (Gen. 3:7).

Zephaniah 3:5 says that “the unjust knows no shame…”.  Have you noticed that the more callous and sinful a nation becomes, the less shame it has? In fact, it appears that the more ungodly people become, the more they glory in their shamelessness (Phil. 3.19). In such societies people usually boast in their sexual exploits. They boast how drunk they were over the weekend. They are not ashamed of their sin. 

A sense of shame is good for individuals as well as a nation. The more we are aware of sin, the healthier the individual or nation will be.

5. Fifth Ingredient: Hatred for sin. As soon as his sin was out in the open,  David hated what he had done. A true repenter will hate his own sin and the sin that he sees in others.   He knows that it comes straight from the devil (1 Jn. 3:8) and it makes people into devils. Through sin the image of God in man has become severely distorted.   It has ruined our purity and innocence before God. It has separated us from God and from one another, so that we do not know God as we ought to. We do not love and respect one another as we ought to.  But most of all, sin dishonours God (Rom. 2:23), and despises God. Sin is the reason why Christ was killed by crucifixion.    If this is what sin has done for us, we should truly hate it. Our repentance should be a reflection of this. 

6. Sixth Ingredient: Turn from sin. David firmly resolved to turn from sin. Dying to sin is the life of repentance. This starts on the very day on which you become a Christian. Watch what your eyes see. Watch what your ears hear - do not lend your ears out to slander. Watch what you say. Do not use your tongue to distribute gossip and lies. Let your feet stay on paths that are firm.  This turning from sin implies a notable change!  It is so visible that others see it.  Therefore, it is called a change from darkness to light (Eph. 5:8). This gives the devil no opportunity, no foothold to trip us up.  

These are the vital ingredients found in the medicine of repentance.  And now one more aspect:

7. Teaching others to turn from sin: David not only turned from sin, but he was now resolved to help others to turn from sin (see 51:13).  True Repentance is strengthened when we resolve not only to sin no longer, but when we have a desire to help others to do the same. Our society will improve under the application of this gospel medicine, as we help one another, graciously, one sinner patiently teaching another sinner to find spiritual remedies for our sin-stained souls.

We do ourselves no favour, and we do others no favour by ignoring this greatly important doctrine. In fact, it is the absence of preaching and teaching this doctrine with pastoral love and care that hurts our church and society. It is the chief reason why the church and society stagnates and regresses.  I repeat what Jim Packer wrote, 

“Repentance is the drainage system on the highway of holiness on which God calls us all to travel. It is the way we get beyond what has proved to be dirt, rubbish and stagnant floodwater in our lives. This routine is a vital need, for where real repentance fails, real spiritual   advance ceases and real spiritual growth stops short.”

[1] Jim Packer: A Passion for Holiness, p.

[2] George Whitefield’s Journals, p. 347

[3] ibid, p.300

[4]  Thomas Watson: The Doctrine of Repentance, Puritan Paperbacks, p.18

[5] John Owen: The Mortification of sin, Puritan Paperbacks, pp 65-75

[6] Thomas Watson: The Doctrine of Repentance, Puritan Paperbacks  p.  19

[7] See Watson , p.37




1.   The Heart of Biblical Repentance

2.   True and False Repentance

3.  Repentance -  A New Testament Overview

4.  Biblical  Repentance is a  Spiritual Medicine 

We have been considering Psalm 51 which is the reflection of a broken and contrite man, who when overwhelmed by His sin and guilt, turns to God with a broken and contrite heart and he finds his peace with God once more.  The doctrine of repentance is not well understood nor well applied in our Moralistic, Therapeutic, Deistic age. The preoccupation with user friendliness, pandering to people’s felt needs, the prevalence of pop psychology in counselling and preaching have displaced the doctrine of repentance.   We know this, since the fruit of repentance are very often absent from our churches. Our churches have many people who continue to live with unforgiveness and bitterness – all against the dictates of God’s Word. Our churches have people who love themselves, their families, their pleasures   more than God. Our churches are filled with people who have no regard for the principle of 7th day worship and rest in the Lord. Our churches are filled with broken families in which fathers and mothers are frequently cursed and despised. Our churches have people who are filled with murderous thoughts (“I wish you were dead!”). Our churches have people who lead secret lives in adulterous relationships and pornographic obsessions.  There are even some that steal. There are others that use their mouths to give false testimonies, gossip and slander against their neighbours. There are yet others that covet their neighbours house, spouses and things.   The root of sin is like weeds that spread below the soil and which pop up here and there, even reinforcing one another. Thus, envy and ambition, lust, pride, anger, greed, slothfulness, reinforce one another and they constantly require that we weed out those sins. That is where we need to practise a habit of daily watchfulness and to sit regularly under the Word of God and to realize again and again, “I have some repenting to do.”

These are no small issues. It is on account of these things that the wrath of a just and holy God, “… is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be made known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them (Rom. 1:18, 19).   It is on account of these things that the Holy Spirit is grieved in our churches. It is on account of these things that God has not blessed us   as families, as churches and as a nation (See 2 Chron. 7:14).   The evidence of countless broken homes, the prevalence of man- centred churches, and false religions   dotting our religious landscapes, the ineffective governance of our nations and the divisive spirit within our political ranks is rife.  Nothing is more needed right now than a spirit of true, heartfelt, humble and godly repentance.

We say that as many modern people think that the concept of repentance is an Old Testament concept. Some of you may even have listened to the list of modern   trespasses against the 10 commandments, and you, being influenced by an antinomian worldview, have thought to yourself – well that’s the narrow minded, overly strict, legalistic Old Testament. You pride yourself in being a grace driven man or woman. You pride yourself in being a NT Christian, having left the law of God behind. You think that the OT God is the angry, ‘repent or perish’   God, whereas the New Testament God is the God of mercy and love. And because of that  you take away the need for ongoing repentance, but in reality you are once beginning to heap up  sins  that   will call down the wrath of God!

What I want to do now is to simply illustrate from the Scriptures that repentance continues to be a major theme in the New Testament! And I want to remind you that our Lord Jesus did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfil the law (Matt. 5:17). The law was given by God to regulate sin. The 10 commandments deal with the heart of our sinful behaviour, and it remains God’s Word to us. We must take seriously the fact that trespassing the law   without repentance is equally offensive under the NT as it was under the OT.  It must form a part of our daily thinking; it must form part of our daily personal prayer (which includes repentance) -  otherwise  we may  well live under the bondage of deceit  (Jer.  17:9) and think that it is well with our soul, when in fact it isn’t. We must take seriously the fact that Christian growth is stunted where repenting from the heart has stopped.

Two words used in the New Testament help us understand the full meaning of repentance in the Bible.

1.      metamelomai, (meta “after” + melo “to care for”) which denotes a change of mind that produces regret or even remorse for wrongs done, but not necessarily a change of heart and action cf.  Matt. 27:3 describing the guilt Judas felt over betraying Jesus; In 2 Cor. 7:8 Paul uses this word to express regret not over the contents but regret that he had grieved the Corinthians with a strongly worded letter.

2.      metanoeo, (meta & nous - mind) means “to change one’s mind and purpose, as the result of after knowledge.” This verb and its related noun, metanoia, is used most often in the NT to denote true biblical repentance, which is characterized by four elements:

a.      It involves a sense of awareness of one’s own guilt, sinfulness, and helplessness.

b.      It takes hold of God’s mercy, through the gospel, in Jesus Christ.

c.       It involves a change of attitude and action regarding sin. The direction is away from sin and towards God.

d.      It results in a real desire for holy living, a walking with God in obedience to His commands (2 Timothy 2:19–22; 1 Peter 1:16).


·       John the Baptist – the forerunner of Jesus - his ministry was characterized by a consistent call to repentance (Matt 3:2, 8, 11).  Mark and Luke say that he preached “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins“  (Mk. 1:4 ; Lk. 3:3 also 13:24; 19:4 ) John  the Baptist insisted that those  that came to confess their  sin  in repentance  “ should produce fruit in keeping with  repentance“ (Lk.  3:8)             

·       The first sermon that Christ preached, and the first word that is recorded of His sermon was Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand …” (Matt. 4:17). Jesus came into a broken, confused, sin-soaked world.  His mission was to call that generation of sinners (and every subsequent generation) to repentance. He was speaking to those that felt the weight of their sin before a holy God and who were looking for a way out: “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance(Luke 5:32). His call to repent goes out to all people: “But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” (Luke 13:5). He reminds us of the high standard of holiness: “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees…” (Matt.  5:20) indicating that we cannot afford to lead an unexamined life.  In His farewell message to the disciples, Jesus commanded that they take His message of repentance and faith to all the nations (Luke 24:47). And when He was leaving to ascend to heaven in Lk.24:47, His last words to His disciples were that, repentance and forgiveness should be proclaimed in His name to all nations“.  The doctrine of repentance is a weighty subject in Jesus’ teaching and preaching (see Sermon on the Mount). And the consequences of ignoring that teaching are serious – see Matthew 7.  Eternal Hell awaits the unrepentant sinner!

·        The apostles of Christ in general continued to preach the necessity of repentance In Mk. 6:12 we find that Jesus sent His 12 apostles out, and we read, “So they went out and proclaimed that people should repent.”

·       Zacchaeus repented by declaring that half of his property would go to the poor, and all illegally gained money would be restored fourfold (Lk. 19:8)

·        When Peter preached on the day of Pentecost, the crowd was convicted of their sin, and asked, “Brothers, what shall we do?“,  Peter’s immediate answer was  “repent and be baptized every one of you  in the Name of Jesus Christ  for the forgiveness of your sins … “  (Acts 2:38).  Peter also illustrates the importance and urgency of repentance in 2 Peter 3:9: “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.

·       Paul said to the  Athenians,   God  now commands all people  everywhere ( i.e. the whole world)  to repent  - Acts  17:30,31.  When Paul  faces  King Agrippa  at his trial, needing to defend himself  from the accusation of the Jews,  he not only  shares his testimony of conversion (Acts 26: 1-18), but he loses no time to  inform Agrippa that  he preached the gospel  to  all  “that they should repent and turn to God , performing  deeds in keeping  with their repentance.”  (Acts 26:20). Those that had formerly   practised magic arts in Ephesus brought their books together and burned them in the sight of all (Acts 19:19)

·       The apostle John rarely uses the word “repentance“, but he frequently  uses the language of repentance. The most famous text in John’s gospel (Jn 3:16) is followed by 3:18 which tells us what will happen to sinners who do not turn to Christ in humble repentance, ”…whoever does not believe stands condemned already, because he has not believed in the Name of the only Son of God.”  Likewise, in his first letter he makes it clear that   a non-repentant lifestyle means that you are still in darkness (1 Jn.2:9,11).  “Whoever makes a practice of sinning (i.e. unrepentant behaviour) is of the devil.”  (1 Jn. 3:8). And in the Revelation of John we see in John 2 &3 that the churches that have deviated from their calling are called to repent. We also see how unrepentant mankind …  “those whose name was not found written in the book of life (i.e. not having repented of their sin), he was thrown into the fire.” (Rev.20:15)

Repentance is a major theme in the NT. And this remains a major truth about us:  we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. (See Rom 3:10ff). All of us are guilty. All of us need to be repenting repenters. Every act of repentance is a separate act and a distinctly moral effort, perhaps a major and costly one. Repenting is never a pleasure. It will continue as long as life lasts[1]. The act of leading a repenting life must become a reality, and not mere words. It is a difficult task. But it is necessary.  We would rather have one eye and one arm than miss heaven.  

[1] Jim Packer:  A Passion for Holiness, p. 122

EVANGELICAL REPENTANCE #2 : True and False Repentance



1.  The Heart of Biblical Repentance

2. True and False Repentance

3. Repentance -  A New Testament Overview

4. Biblical  Repentance is a  Spiritual Medicine


2. True and False Repentance

Psalm 51; 2 Corinthians 7:5-13

The subject of repentance can be a minefield if we do not make a careful distinction between true and false repentance. The doctrine of repentance is complicated by the fact that our great enemy, Satan, is a skilled imitator. He disguises himself after all as an angel of light (2 Cor. 11:14,15).  The magicians of Egypt likewise imitated many things that Moses did, but ultimately there were limitations to their abilities. There are counterfeit repentances. One of the most disturbing issues about our fallen, sinful human nature is the awful capacity that we have to deceive ourselves (Jer. 17:9) thinking that we have repented of our sin, when nothing of the kind is true before God.  For this reason, Augustine, in his Confessions wrote these words: “Repentance damns many.”  Superficial repentance damns many. It is therefore in our interest to understand this subject.  I have been greatly helped in this regard by the Puritan pastors. [1] [2] [3]  


1.  Trusting in man’s word for absolution from sin:  Many seek their absolution of sin from people and not from God Himself. A classic example is the Roman Catholic system of confession. You go to your priest and you tell him your sin. He then prays for you, tells you to say that and do this and he absolves you from that sin.  Protestantism has not escaped this tendency, as people come to their pastor with a sin burden, hoping that he will help them to get rid of it for them! This is a fundamentally false approach to repentance and we need to be helped in this regard by learning the biblical logic.

Please note that David did not make the prophet Nathan, his confessor. He did not first go to Bathsheba to say ‘sorry’.  When David’s sin was exposed by Nathan the prophet, he said, “I HAVE SINNED AGAINST THE LORD!“ (2 Sam. 12:13).  We learn that David went first to God and he said,  

“Have mercy on me, Oh God according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy“. (51:1).

He is not exempted from asking for forgiveness and making restitution from the person(s) against whom he had sinned.  What we are establishing here is the PRIMARY PRINCIPLE, namely that all sin is foremost against God, and must therefore be addressed by first going to Him. Please note David’s words again in this regard: “Against you, you only have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.”  (51:4).   Let this primary truth sink in: When we sin against others, we sin primarily against God. We sin when we go against God’s Word, God’s law. The law that says that adultery is wrong! The 7th commandment (Ex 20:14 )comes from God! And so, if David has committed adultery, then he must FIRST go to God against whom he has transgressed.

Incidentally, all that we have said about trusting in man’s word for absolution from sin is also true also for our first act of repentance, when we become a Christian. Many people think that their coming forward at a meeting to meet a pastor, their praying the sinners’ prayer is what repentance is all about.  It may include that but this isn’t the definitive mark of repentance. The definitive mark of repentance is that you come with ALL your sin to Jesus- your Saviour. There may be someone present to hear your confession, but it is to God that we direct our heartfelt repentance. That may involve tears, emotions, coming to see your elders and praying the sinner’s prayer. But the difference is this: your eyes must be not on your tears, on your emotions, not on the man who is praying with you and for you. Your eyes must be on the LORD – the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world – your sin! (Jn. 1:29,36).  This is the first thing we must know. Feelings or experiences can mislead us. People may give us false assurance!  But when we deal with God Himself, our repentance, made on the basis of His Word, and the promises of salvation by trusting in Christ’s merits alone, and sealed by the Holy Spirit, give us the desired assurance that our sins are indeed forgiven: 

Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away, behold the new has come.” (2 Cor 5:17).  

I know that Nathan gave a word of assurance to David, “The Lord has put away your sin; you shall not die”, but it was still the Word of the Lord through the prophet Nathan to David. And so, it must be for the rest of our earthly life. We must deal with Almighty God Himself every day concerning our sin.

2. Legalistic or shallow repentance: Here is a person who knows that she has sinned.  She is filled with guilt and remorse and she decides to repent, because she is sorry for what she has done.  She has seen the awful consequences of her sin. She does not want to do it anymore. She takes her Bible, and reads Psalm 51 and prays it word for word.  Now she concludes that she has done “penance“. She goes to church on Sunday and therefore she feels has fulfilled the law of repentance.  She has said ‘sorry’ to God.  On the basis of this she concludes that God must have forgiven her.  And so, she moves on in life.  Is this biblical repentance?    It is not that it was all wrong. Legally it was alright.  But what is missing here?   It is the broken and contrite heart that is missing: “Oh God, against you, you only have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.“ (Ps.  51:4).  

A case of shallow repentance is found in Hosea 6:1-3. See God’s response in 6:4-6

We must make this point because our sinful hearts are far more inclined towards a legal kind of repentance than a heartfelt repentance. Let me explain this by way of an example. I trespass the speed limit, and I must pay a fine.  I can do this in two ways: (i) The legal approach: I go to the magistrate’s court and pay the fine. A clinical process … I pay … I am absolved … but my heart is unmoved, and I am still inclined to trespass the law again.  (ii)  The repentant approach:  I go to the magistrate and pay the fine. I am absolved, BUT in my heart I am convicted to obey the law from now on. I have been liberated to obey the law from now on.  There is the difference!  

A biblical example to illustrate this difference between false and true repentance: 

Judas the traitor had a troubled conscience when he finally saw what he had done in betraying Jesus. In Matthew 27:3 we read,

“… when Judas, His betrayer saw that Jesus was condemned, he changed his mind and brought back the 30 pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders, saying ‘I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.“ 

At face value this was an act of repentance. The Bible says that he changed his mind. He brought back the money to the chief priests. But what did he do then? His sorrow over his betrayal of Jesus did not lead him to godly repentance.  In his despair he does not turn to God in faith and heartfelt contrition, but he turns to the ultimate act of human self- centeredness – which is   suicide.  He did show remorse – but it was not biblical repentance.  It was true guilt to be sure, that drove him back to the priests. But it was a legalistic attempt to settle the matter – and God wasn’t in it. He would not even have God take him out of this world. He died at his own hand.  

Another   example of this half-hearted, legalistic repentance is found in Jeremiah 2:20- 23 and Hosea 6:1-6.  Here the people of Israel make verbal acts of confession before the LORD.  They know what the law says.  But in reality they play fast and loose with God and continue to run after their idols.  What sort of repentance is that?  We see this so often when a person is in trouble e.g. when sick or in financial difficulties.  They ask others to pray that God will help them - and so very often, by God’s mercy, they do recover.  However, when they have recovered, what do they do? They are like 9 of the 10 lepers (Lk. 17:11-19). They had forgotten Him who healed them. They are thankless, and they carry on as before – if not worse!   Legalistic repentance is not induced by true remorse; not by a sincere weeping over the sinfulness of sin. There is no change of heart. There is no sense of God in it!

Mere words of repentance will not do before God. Biblical repentance depends a change of mind that leads to a change of heart. It leads us to   godly sorrow – a sorrow that has God in view (2 Corinthians 7:8-11)


“Against you and you alone have I sinned!”  We observe this very clearly in David’s  act of repentance in Psalm 51. When David was finally confronted by Nathan the prophet, his response was unconditional repentance. Not only was he deeply grieved by his sin, but he took himself to God and pleaded with God   not to cast him from His presence, pleading also that God would not take His Holy Spirit from him (51:11). He then prayed for the restoration of the joy of his salvation (51:12), which was gone at this time, for there can be no peace and joy for a sinning Christian. He therefore also prayed for a strengthening of his will (51:12), not only for courage to face the consequences of his sin (there were many consequences!), but also praying for a resolution to resist future temptations to sin.  Lastly, he commits himself towards helping others to turn from their sin (51:13).

One of the most valuable personal encouragements gained from the 51st Psalm is that God hears the prayer of the repentant sinner. God does not reject a broken and a contrite sinner (51:17). Jesus came to sinners (Matt. 9:12,13) – sinners who came to Him and begged Him to heal them.  He not only healed their broken bodies, but He restored their souls!  The gospel is good news for such broken people. Merely religious people will easily miss this!

True repentance is the work of the Holy Spirit (John 16:8-11), and if this is so, it is a grace gift from God. It proceeds from the power of God who comes to touch the heart and to humble the heart before Him. The direction and the impulse of your heart is changed toward sin and God. Unless it is of the heart, it is not the grace of repentance. It is behaviour modification.


1.      The basis of repentance: Christ’s atoning death. It is only possible because Christ made it possible for us to be able to repent. By His death He is able and willing to secure the salvation of every repenting sinner.  All repentant and believing sinners (whether from a N.T. or an O.T. perspective) are justified by the cross of Christ. The key phrase for David was, “according to your steadfast love“ (Hebr. “hesed”- covenant love) Ps. 51:1

2.      How is repentance applied?   By the Word and by the Spirit.

(i)                 The word of God preached is the engine which God uses to bring about repentance.  “When they heard this, i.e. the gospel preaching of Peter, they were cut to the heart ...” (Acts 2:37).  David was cut to the heart when the prophet Nathan brought the Word of the Lord to him.  

(ii)               The Holy Spirit who is central to the narrative of Acts 2 applies that Word in convicting power. True repentance is enabled by the work of the Holy Spirit (John 16:8-11), and if this is so, it is a grace gift from God. It proceeds from the power of God who comes to touch the heart and to humble the heart before Him. The direction and the impulse of your heart is changed toward sin and God. Unless it is of the heart, it is not the grace of repentance. It is behaviour modification. If the Holy Spirit does not act upon the Word, no true repentance will be effected in the lives of hearers.  It may actually even have the opposite effect. The same sun that melts the wax, hardens the clay. What is the reason that the word of God has such different effects in people?  It is because the Spirit of God carries in some the word to the conscience by way of conviction, and to others, whose hearts are not warmed it carries the effect of resentment. Ultimately, the preacher is just the instrument: “Ministers are but the pipes and the organs. It is the Holy Spirit breathing in them that makes their words effectual.“ (Thomas Watson)[4] This is well illustrated  in Acts  10:44 :

 “While Peter was still saying all these things, the Holy Spirit  fell on all who heard the word…”

David repented when the Word of the Lord came to Him via the prophet Nathan.  And David was very concerned that God’s judgment would be of such a nature that the Holy Spirit would be withdrawn from Him (51:11). David knew that the withdrawal of the Holy Spirit would mean that he would no longer be able to hear and feel the Word of God.  

The ultimate answer to an effective repentance is Grace in the soul.  The difference between the true and false believer is seen in how they respectively react to the discovery of their sin. The true believer, when convicted of sin immediately confesses their sin and repents and responds to God with heartfelt contrition and godly sorrow.

A false believer tries to cover up, wiggle their way out, make excuses, blame-shift or deny the fact that they have sinned. When caught out, they may show signs of sorrow, but that sorrow is not based on the heartfelt repentance of Psalm 51. This, we believe is the difference between Paul’s differentiation of godly sorrow and worldly sorrow (2 Cor. 7:9-11)

This is the difference between king David and king Saul, Judas and Peter.   

I trust that we are seeing something about the deceitfulness of sin, and the way that our warped minds and hearts so easily work to justify ourselves before God and man. We need to be absolutely certain that we understand the nature of biblical repentance lest we deceive ourselves and find ourselves condemned at the end.  Let me close by paraphrasing John 3:18

“He who believes in (looks to) the Son  is not condemned  (because he is truly repentant), but he who does not believe in the Son  (but looks to other means of justification – hence false repentance)  is condemned already , because he has not believed in the Name of the only Son  of God “

I freely acknowledge the help that I have received  from Thomas Watson, John Owen and John Colquhoun

[1] John Colquhoun (1748-1827) , former pastor New Church in South Leith, Scotland. Educated at Glasgow University

[2]  Thomas Watson (c. 1620–1686) was an English Puritan preacher and author. He was ejected from his London parish after the Restoration, but continued to preach privately.

[3] John Owen (1616 – 24 August 1683) was an English Nonconformist church leader, theologian, and academic administrator at the University of Oxford.

[4] Thomas Watson: The Doctrine of Repentance, Puritan Paperbacks, p.14


  OUTLINE 1.  The Heart of Biblical Repentance 2. True and False Repentance 3. Repentance -  A New Testament Overview 4. Biblical  Repentanc...