The Doctrine of Repentance (Part 1)

Have you ever started a book and immediately been caught up in it?  Within the first few pages, you know that this book will profoundly impact you, and you must reach the next page because the next golden nugget is waiting to be discovered.  As someone who greatly enjoys reading, I get excited, really excited, when I find one of these books. (Hold the nerd jokes to a minimum, please.)  The problem is that they are few and far between.

Today, and over the next few posts, I’d like to introduce you to one of those books: The Doctrine of Repentance by Thomas Watson.  This is my third time to read through the work, and every time I’m struck with new insights about biblical repentance.  Watson, a Puritan, ferociously fought after personal holiness, and we would do well to hear a voice from the past about our need to habitually throw off sin in the pilgrimage that is this life.

As the title suggests, Watson is outlining what true repentance is.  He starts by outlining what true repentance is not.  Biblical repentance is not:

1.) “The first deceit of repentance is legal terror.”  What he means by this is that anguish or bitterness over sin is not enough.  He explains, “If pain and trouble were sufficient to repentance, then the damned in hell should be most penitent, for they are most in anguish.  Repentance depends upon a change of heart.  There may be terror, yet with no change of heart.”  We all have felt guilty over a sinful deed, but that alone is not true repentance.  As we will see in the next post, sorrow over sin is one ingredient in the “spiritual medicine” that is repentance.

2.) “Another deceit about repentance is resolution against sin.”  The problem is that people often vow to leave a sinful habit “not because sin is sinful, but because it is painful.” This motivation is wrong in two ways.  First, it is wrongly motivated.  True repentance, as we will see, comes from a sense of guilt over sinning against God, not ultimately from the consequences of that sin, though that can get us heading in the right direction.  Secondly, repentance motivated by the consequences of sin, rather than the sinfulness of sin, often does not last.  How many college students have vowed to never drink again after a morning spent vomiting into a toilet, only to be found the next weekend “returning to their vomit?”  You see, simply vowing to avoid sin is not true repentance.

3.) “The third deceit about repentance is the leaving of many sinful ways.”  The fact that people leave certain sinful behaviors does not prove they truly have penitent hearts.  Why?  One reason was just discussed: motivation.  A man may stop cheating on his wife, not because it is a sin against God, but because it is ripping his family apart.  This is not to say that the man should continue in his adultery; rather, he should turn away from his sin because it is an offense to the Creator of the universe.  Secondly, a man may replace one sin for another.  For example, John Doe may stop cheating on his taxes, only to replace that with pride in his heart that he has stopped cheating on his taxes.

Ultimately, Watson is saying that true repentance affects the heart.  It is not simply “cleaning up your act.”  It is not simply making a vow that you won’t do something anymore.  It is not even feeling bad about your mistakes.  Repentance will involve your sense of guilt, a commitment to turn from sin, and an external change, but it is also much more than that.

In the next post, we’ll look at the six ingredients that make up true repentance:

  • sight of sin
  • sorrow for sin
  • confession of sin
  • shame for sin
  • hatred for sin
  • turning from sin

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