What is Biblical Repentance?
From Except Ye Repent
by H.A. Ironside
“And Jesus answering said unto them…except ye repent,
ye shall all likewise perish.” (Luke 13:2-3)
More and more it becomes evident that ours is an “age of sham.” God desires truth in the inward parts. The blessed man is still the one “in whose spirit there is no guile.” It is forever true that “He that covereth his sins shall not prosper; but whoso confesseth and forsaketh them shall have mercy.” It can never be out of place to proclaim salvation by free, unmerited favor to all who put their trust in the Lord Jesus Christ. But it needs ever to be insisted on that the faith that justifies is not a mere intellectual process- not simply crediting certain historical facts or doctrinal statements; but it is a faith that springs from a divinely wrought conviction of sin which produces a repentance that is sincere and genuine.
Our Lord’s solemn words, “Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish,” are as important today as when first uttered. No dispensational distinctions, important as these are in understanding and interpreting God’s ways with man, can alter this truth. No one was ever saved in any dispensation excepting by grace. Neither sacrificial observances, nor ritual service, nor works of law ever had any part in justifying the ungodly. On the other hand, neither were any sinners ever saved by grace until they repented.
Shallow preaching that does not grapple with the terrible act of man’s sinfulness and guilt, calling on “all men everywhere to repent,” results in shallow conversions; and so we have a myriad of glib-tongued professing Christians today who give no evidence of regeneration whatever. Prating of salvation by grace, they manifest no grace in their lives. Loudly declaring they are justified by faith alone, they fail to remember that “faith without works is dead”; and that justification by works before men is not to be ignored as though it were in contradiction to justification by faith before God. We need to reread James chapter three and let its serious message sink deep into our hearts, that it may control our lives.
No man can truly believe in Christ, who does not first repent. Nor will his repentance end when he has saving faith, but the more he knows God as he goes on through the years, the deeper will that repentance become. A servant of Christ said, “I repented before I knew the meaning of the word. I have repented far more since than I did then.” Undoubtedly one great reason why some earnest Gospel preachers are almost afraid of, and generally ignore, the terms “repent” and “repentance” in their evangelizing is that they fear lest their hearers misunderstand these terms and think of them as implying something meritorious on the part of the sinner. But nothing could be wider of the mark. There is no saving merit in owning my true condition. There is no healing in acknowledging the nature of my illness. And repentance, as we have seen, is just this very thing.
What Repentance Is Not
But in order to clarify the subject, it may be well to observe carefully what repentance is not and then to notice briefly what it is. Repentance is not to confused with penitence (regret or remorse over one’s sinfulness), although penitence will invariably enter into it. But penitence is simply sorrow for sin. No amount of penitence can fit a man for salvation. On the other hand, the one who is not penitent will never come to God seeking His grace.“Godly sorrow,” we are told, “worketh repentance… not to be repented of,” or, “not to be regretted.” (2 Corinthians 7:10). On the other hand, there is a sorrow for sin that has no element of piety or salvation in it: “the sorrow of the world worketh death.” In Peter’s penitence we see the former; in the remorse of Judas, the latter. Nowhere is man exhorted to feel a certain amount of sorrow for his sins in order to come to Christ. When the Spirit of God applies the truth, penitence is the immediate result and this leads on to repentance, but should not be confounded with it. This is a divine work in the soul.
Let us also remember that reformation is not repentance, however close it appears to spring out of it. To turn over a new leaf, to attempt to supplant bad habits with good ones, to try to do good instead of evil, may not be the outcome of repentance at all and should never be confounded with it. Reformation is merely an outward change, whereas repentance is a work of God in the soul. It is not to be considered synonymous with joining a church or taking up one’s religious duties, as people say. It is not DOING anything.
What Repentance Is
What then is repentance? It is the Greek word metanoia, which is translated “repentance” in our English Bibles, and literally means a change of mind. This is not simply the acceptance of new ideas in place of old notions. But it actually implies a complete reversal of one’s inward attitude. How luminously clear this makes the whole question before us. To repent is to change one’s attitude toward self, toward sin, toward God, toward Christ. And this is what God commands.
John the Baptist came preaching to publicans and sinners, hopelessly vile and depraved, “Change your attitude, for the kingdom is at hand.” To haughty scribes and legalistic Pharisees came the same command, “Change your attitude,” and thus they would be ready to receive Him who came in grace to save. To sinners everywhere the Savior cried, “Except ye change your attitude, ye shall all likewise perish.” And everywhere theapostles went they called upon men thus to face their sins-to face the question of their helplessness, yet their responsibility to God-to face Christ as the one, all-sufficient Savior, and thus by trusting Him to obtain remission of sins and justification from all things.
So to face these tremendous facts is to change one’s mind completely, so that the pleasure lover sees and confesses the folly of his empty life; the self-indulgent learns to hate the passions that express the corruption of his nature; the self-righteous sees himself a condemned sinner in the eyes of a holy God; the man who has been hiding from God seeks to find a hiding place in Him; the Christ-rejecter realizes and owns his need of life and salvation.
Which Comes First, Repentance Or Faith?
In Scripture we read, “Repent ye, and believe the gospel.” Yet we find true believers exhorted to “repent, and do the first works.” So intimately are the two related that you cannot have one without the other. The man who believes God repents; the repentant soul puts his trust in the Lord when the Gospel is revealed to him. Theologians may wrangle over this, but the fact is, no man repents until the Holy Spirit produces repentance in his soul through the truth. No man believes the Gospel and rests in it for his own salvation until he has judged himself as a needy sinner before God. And this is repentance. Perhaps it will help us if we see that it is one thing to believe God as to my sinfulness and need of a Savior, and it is another thing to trust that Savior implicitly for my own salvation. Apart from the first aspect of faith, there can be no true repentance. “He that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is the rewarder of them that diligently seek him.” And apart from such repentance there can be no saving faith.
Yet the deeper my realization of the grace of God manifested toward me in Christ, the more intense will my repentance become. It was when Mephibosheth realized the kindness of God as shown by David that he cried out, “What is thy servant, that thou shouldest look upon such a dead dog as I am?” (2 Samuel 9:8). And it is the soul’s apprehension of grace which leads to ever lower thoughts of self and higher thoughts of Christ; and so the work of repentance is deepened daily in the believer’s heart. The very first evidence of awakening grace is dissatisfaction with one’s self and self-effort and a longing for deliverance from chains of sin that have bound the soul. To own frankly that I am lost and guilty is the prelude to life and peace. It is not a question of a certain depth of grief and sorrow, but simply the recognition and acknowledgment of need that leads one to turn to Christ for refuge. None can perish who put their trust in Him. His grace superabounds above all our sin, and His expiatory work on the cross is so infinitely precious to God that it fully meets all our uncleanness and guilt.