Thursday, February 29, 2024

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

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