Subject Three: Repentance

 •  13 min. read  •  grade level: 7
Questions by P. Brown; answers by H. P. Barker.
Sometimes in seeking a correct definition, the force of a thing is lost. I fear it is so, very often, with repentance.
I remember hearing a preacher of the gospel mention a visit which he paid to a certain man.
“I have only one message for you,” he said, “and it is that you must repent.
“And what is repentance?” asked the man.
“Well,” replied the preacher, “when you think of your guilty life and the necessity of your meeting God by and by, if you don’t know what repentance is, I can’t tell you!”
Still, I will try to make its meaning clear. Briefly, the word signifies a change of mind, but it is a change of mind that affects a man’s moral being to its deepest depths. It is a change of mind that causes him to turn from his sins with loathing and to hate himself for having committed them. A repentant sinner thus takes sides with God against himself.
Suppose a Man Has Not Committed Any Very Dreadful Sin, Is There the Same Necessity for Repentance in His Case?
Before we speak of what would be necessary for such a man, produce him! The fact is that all sin is dreadful in God’s sight, and there is not an individual living who has not sinned. Hence the need for repentance is universal. God “now commandeth all men everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:3030And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men every where to repent: (Acts 17:30)).
I suppose you could hardly find a man freer from the grosser excesses of sin than Job was. God Himself bore record that there was “none like him in the earth,” and that he was “a perfect and an upright man [that is, in his outward conduct], one that feareth God and escheweth evil.”
If any man could be supposed not to need repentance, surely Job was that man. He could truthfully say of himself, “I put on righteousness, and it clothed me: my judgment was as a robe and a diadem. I was eyes to the blind, and feet was I to the lame. I was a father to the poor” (Job 29:14-1614I put on righteousness, and it clothed me: my judgment was as a robe and a diadem. 15I was eyes to the blind, and feet was I to the lame. 16I was a father to the poor: and the cause which I knew not I searched out. (Job 29:14‑16)).
Dear, noble, kindhearted, charitable man! Did he need to repent? Let him answer for himself. While speaking of his outward life and character, he could rightly claim preeminence in goodness, but when he refers to his state and condition before God, listen to his words: “Behold, I am vile ... .Mine eye seeth Thee. Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 40:4; 42:564Behold, I am vile; what shall I answer thee? I will lay mine hand upon my mouth. (Job 40:4)).
We Sometimes Hear of “Deathbed Repentance.” What Is Meant by That?
There are those who live all their life careless and Christless. If the importance of their soul’s welfare is pressed upon them, they say they will consider the matter “someday,” and thus they put it off again and again and go on with their sins and their pleasures. At last, when they find themselves on the brink of the grave, they become alarmed and begin to cry to God for mercy and make a profession of faith in Christ. That, I suppose, is what is called a “deathbed repentance.”
But deathbed repentances are very unsatisfactory things. I am far from denying that a man, even at the eleventh hour of life, if he really turns to the Saviour and puts his trust in His precious blood, will find mercy. The grace of God is infinite, and I have no doubt many will be in heaven who were saved on their deathbed.
But in many cases, persons who thought that they were dying and professed to be repentant have recovered. With renewed health came a renewed love of sin. Their impressions wore off, their alarm vanished, and their so-called repentance proved to be unreal, the mere result of terror at the thought of death.
It is easy to see that the folly of putting off repentance to one’s dying hour is great indeed. Even if permitted to have a deathbed (which is by no means certain), can it be the best time to think of one’s soul when the body is racked with pain and the mind enfeebled by continued suffering?
Besides, does it not seem a very mean thing to devote all one’s best years to the service of sin and self, and then when strength is failing and life ebbing away to turn to God because one can no longer pursue one’s own way?
What Is the Difference Between Repentance and Remorse?
In remorse there is no real loathing of sin. A man may be full of remorse for what he has done without having much sorrow for the sin itself. In such a case the soul turns in upon itself in bitterness. There is no turning to God in self-judgment.
Judas was full of remorse for his treachery when he beheld its awful results. But there was no true repentance, no real turning away from sin and self to God. In the bitterness of his soul he went and hanged himself.
The truly repentant soul is affected by the love and goodness of God. It does not plunge into the darkness of despair but feels that, in spite of its terrible sin and depravity, it must cling to Christ. Like Peter in Luke 5, the sinner who is truly repentant feels that he is unworthy to be noticed by the Saviour and cries, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord,” and yet at the same time casts himself at Jesus’ feet.
How May One Know When One Has Repented Enough?
I strongly suspect that anyone asking that question is making a saviour of repentance. He thinks perhaps that the sincerity of his repentance will induce God to be gracious to him. Now it cannot be too much emphasized that when God blesses a sinner, it is not on account of the depth of his repentance or the strength of his faith, but because of the atoning work of Christ on the cross.
Repentance is never as deep as it should be, but if a repentant sinner turns from self to Christ, then his repentance has taken the right direction. He need not further be occupied with it, but he will find peace and blessing in putting his confidence in Christ and resting on His finished work for salvation.
If God Is Not Willing That Any Should Perish but That All Should Come to Repentance, Why Does He Allow Men to Die Without Repenting?
God never forces His blessings on men, nor does He treat them as if they were mere machines. It is the “longing soul” that He satisfies. The gospel offer of salvation is made to all, and all are commanded to repent. But if a man willfully closes his ears to the call of grace and turns his back on God’s mercy, he has no one to blame but himself, if he miserably perishes in his sins. All that divine love could give has been freely given for him; all that divine righteousness claimed has been freely offered; all that was necessary to be done has been fully accomplished. What more can a man expect?
What Would You Look for in a Man Who Says That He Has Repented?
I should expect him to “bring forth ... fruits worthy of repentance.” It is useless for anyone to say that he repents of his sins while he continues in them. A man that is genuinely repentant not only confesses his sins, but forsakes them (Prov. 28:1313He that covereth his sins shall not prosper: but whoso confesseth and forsaketh them shall have mercy. (Proverbs 28:13)).
Among other signs of true repentance we shall observe a willingness to make restitution to anyone who has been wronged.
We see this in the case of Onesimus. He had wronged his master, Philemon, by running away. After his conversion, he seeks to make compensation, as far as he can, by going straight back to his master. In Zaccheus we have another instance of this. When the Lord Jesus responded so graciously to his desire to see Him and brought salvation to his house, Zaccheus said, “If I have taken anything from any man by false accusation, I restore him fourfold” (Luke 19:88And Zaccheus stood, and said unto the Lord; Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have taken any thing from any man by false accusation, I restore him fourfold. (Luke 19:8)). That is a case of bringing forth fruits worthy of repentance.
Is there anyone that you have wronged? Anyone whom you defrauded many years ago by dishonesty that has never been discovered from that day to this? Anyone you have wronged with your tongue, whose character you have damaged by slander and gossip? Is there such a person? Don’t tell me that you are repentant, then, unless you are willing to do what you can to make amends.
A lady who was converted at one of our meetings had been employed, in her younger days, in a fabric store. She had bought a new hat and needed some ribbon to trim it. Not having the necessary money, she was tempted to take a yard from her employer’s shop. No one was the wiser; the ribbon was never missed.
When that lady was converted, the circumstance recurred to her mind. Taking her pen, she wrote to the forewoman of the shop somewhat like this:
“Dear ______: While an assistant at the fabric store, I am sorry to say that I stole a yard of pink ribbon. I am now a Christian, by the grace of God, so I enclose payment in stamps and ask that you will accept this expression of my sincere regret.”
That is the sort of thing we expect to see when anyone professes repentance.
If a Man Says, “I Would Like to Repent, but I Feel That My Heart Is so Hard, and I Don’t Grieve Over My Sins As Much As I Should,” How Would You Help Him?
I would tell him that I was very glad to hear that he felt the hardness of his heart so much and that he was so unhappy because he didn’t grieve as much as he should. How often it is that we find people in a state like that, sorry because they are not more sorry, grieving because they don’t grieve more. But what lies at the bottom of all that is self-occupation. Now, never yet has a sinner been turned away from the Saviour because his feelings were not deep enough about his sins, nor has a sinner ever been received and saved because his heart was sufficiently melted and his grief sincere.
If there is anyone troubled because his heart is so hard, I would say to him, “The hardness of your heart is another reason why you should go to Jesus at once. He can soften it.” If the man protests that his grief over his sins is not deep enough, I would say, “All the more reason why you should lose no time in turning to the Saviour. Trust in Him, think of His dying love on the tree, and if that does not cause you to grieve over your sins, no brooding over your own condition ever will.”
When the Jailer at Philippi Asked, “What Must I Do to Be Saved?” Why Did Not Paul and Silas Say Anything to Him About Repenting?
Because it was as a repentant sinner that he asked the question. Notice how greatly he had been changed during the course of a few short hours. From a brutal, hard-hearted man, he had been transformed into an anxious inquirer for salvation. What had made the difference? Terror, no doubt. But there was another influence at work, which seems to have touched his heart and produced a measure of repentance. What influence was that? The goodness of God.
When, in desperation, that jailer was about to take his own life, a loud voice fell upon his ear, “Do thyself no harm.” That voice revealed to him the fact that there was someone who cared for him. The care and interest which Paul and Silas showed for their cruel keeper was the echo of the interest and love of God Himself. It was a revelation of God’s goodness to the man’s soul, and it broke him down and wrung from his lips the cry of a repentant sinner, “What must I do to be saved?” Repentance was there; all that was needed now was that he should be pointed to the Lord Jesus Christ as the One whom he might trust for salvation.
If a Man Dies Unrepentant, Will There Be Any Chance of His Repentance After Death?
It is the goodness of God that leads to repentance (Rom. 2:44Or despisest thou the riches of his goodness and forbearance and longsuffering; not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance? (Romans 2:4)). When a man dies in his sins, he passes forever out of the sphere where God’s goodness is active. There may be remorse in the regions of the lost, but no repentance. On the contrary, the weeping and the wailing is accompanied by “gnashing of teeth,” which is a very different thing from repentance. There is nothing in hell to change a man’s heart. Scripture is clear that “now is the day of salvation.” It is in this life that our eternal destinies are settled.
In Luke 16, the rich man in hell is represented as desiring that his brethren should be warned. He says, “If one went unto them from the dead, they will repent.” But he never says such a thing as, “I will repent.” The lost in hell realize that the day for their repentance is gone forever.
You Say It Is the Goodness of God That Leads Men to Repentance. but Are Not Men Ever Induced to Repent by Fear?
I have no doubt that the fear of coming judgment has been the means of awakening many. Some of the most richly blessed servants of God have seen hundreds turn to Him as they made their audience consider the realities of hell. Different men are affected in different ways. Some can be gently drawn; others need to be driven. With some the “still small voice” carries most weight; others are more moved by the peal of thunder and the crash of the tempest. Some hearts are melted under the sweet story of God’s love; some are broken under the awful warning of death and judgment. The Lord’s servants have to deal with men differently, and they must always keep near to their Master, that they may know how to speak. But God’s goodness is seen as much in the messages of warning as in the messages of grace. It is His mercy that warns. So in that way it always remains true that the goodness of God leads to repentance.
What Is Meant by the Scripture in 2 Corinthians 7 Which Says That “Godly Sorrow Worketh Repentance to Salvation”?
The repentance and salvation spoken of there are the repentance and salvation of Christians. The believers at Corinth had grievously erred, and the Apostle Paul had written a letter of faithful remonstrance. This letter (1 Corinthians) had produced the desired effect. Godly sorrow had taken the place of shameless glorying in evil, and this sorrow for their sin had wrought repentance in that it had led the Corinthian believers to turn from their evil course and clear themselves from the wrong that they had countenanced. Thus repenting, they were saved from going further down the hill of declension. In this way “repentance to salvation” was wrought by their godly sorrow. It shows that when a believer sins, his repentance should be as real and as practical as one expects a sinner’s repentance to be at the first. It is a good thing to be so anxious to be clear of sin and to be kept from grieving the Holy Spirit that it can be said of us, as of the Corinthians, “Ye sorrowed after a godly sort, what carefulness it wrought in you, yea, what clearing of yourselves, yea, what indignation, yea, what fear, yea, what vehement desire, yea, what zeal, yea, what revenge! In all things ye have approved yourselves to be clear in this matter” (2 Cor. 7:1111For behold this selfsame thing, that ye sorrowed after a godly sort, what carefulness it wrought in you, yea, what clearing of yourselves, yea, what indignation, yea, what fear, yea, what vehement desire, yea, what zeal, yea, what revenge! In all things ye have approved yourselves to be clear in this matter. (2 Corinthians 7:11)).