The Apostle Paul wrote about himself, “Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14-15). Paul knew he was fully justified before God, having had the righteousness of Christ credited to his account and having had His sins put away at the cross. But he was also anxious to enter into the fullness of his salvation in not only being declared righteous, but in truly being righteous. That was the “prize” he labored to obtain, the working out of his own salvation in fear and trembling which consisted in his daily exercising of faith and repentance as God worked in him both to will and do for His good pleasure (2:12-13).
Just like Paul, every true penitent knows and takes delight in God’s intention for His children that they “be conformed to the image of His Son” (Romans 8:29). Scottish minister John Colquhoun wrote that the true penitent “watches and strives against all the corruptions of his heart, and labors after increasing conformity to God, in all holy conversation and godliness. He does not renounce one lust and retain another, nor content himself with devotional duties, in neglect of strict honesty and unfeigned benevolence; neither can he rest till this is his rejoicing, even the testimony of his conscience, that in simplicity and godly sincerity, not with fleshly wisdom but by the grace of God, he has his conversation in the world. All the actings of his mind, as well as his external conduct, fall under his cognizance and inspection; and his daily exercise and desire are to improve himself to Him who knows his thoughts afar off”.
The reformer John Calvin referred to this ongoing “desire to live in a holy and devoted manner, a desire arising from rebirth; as if it were said that man dies to himself that he may begin to live to God”. This is entirely consistent with what the Apostle Paul testified concerning his experience of new life: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, Who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). The true penitent will settle for nothing less than full conformity to the Savior he loves. The Puritan John Owen wrote, “There must be no end of repentance until there is a full end of sin. All tears will not be wiped from our eyes until all sin is perfectly removed from our souls”.
By way of contrast, the Pharaoh of Moses’ day exhibited a repentance which was only temporary. After the seventh plague of hail, Pharaoh called for Moses and Aaron and said, “I have sinned this time” and after the eighth plague of locusts he said to them, “I have sinned against the Lord your God and against you. Now therefore, please forgive my sin only this once, and entreat the Lord your God, that He may take away from me this death only” (Exodus 9:27; 10:16-17).
When the thunder was flashing, the lightening was striking the earth and very great hailstones were falling mixed with fire such as had never been seen before, and when swarms of locusts were devouring the trees left standing after the hail and filling their houses, Pharaoh confessed he had sinned. But after Moses interceded for him with God to stop the hail and remove the locusts, his stubbornness returned as strong as ever, thus showing his repentance to be only temporary. The influences of his hardened heart quickly re-emerged. As Charles Spurgeon put it, “The repentance that was born in the storm died in the calm”. It was a repentance that only wanted the removal of the catastrophic circumstances, not the removal of sin. Bible commentator Adam Clarke wrote, “What a strange case! And what a series of softening and hardening of sinning and repenting! Had he not now another opportunity of returning to God? But the love of gain, and the gratification of his own self-will and obstinacy prevailed”.
This principle of on-going and comprehensive repentance in the true penitent tends to increase as he spiritually matures. God’s sanctifying dealings with His children are such that He progressively reveals more and more of their corruption as they progress. In this way, they come to see and experience more clearly the great mercy they have been graciously given. Jesus illustrated this on the occasion of the woman “who was a sinner” who washed Jesus’ feet. He told his host, Simon the Pharisee, who was offended by the woman, the story of two debtors who were forgiven by their creditor. Jesus asked, “Tell Me, therefore, which of them will love him more?” Simon replied, “I suppose the one whom he forgave more” (Luke 7:37, 40-43).
The prophet Isaiah had a sight of God sitting on His throne with seraphim crying out, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts”, and could only say, “Woe is me, for I am undone”. He had experienced a complete spiritual unraveling which drove him to a new level of confession: “I am a man of unclean lips”. After his lips were touched with a live coal and he was told his iniquity was taken away and his sin purged, the Lord asked, “Whom shall I send?” to which Isaiah displayed his true repentance in answering, “Here am I! Send me” (Isaiah 6:1-8). Isaiah had come to a new level of understanding of his sin and corruption. He saw himself as unclean, vile and loathsome. His past sins appeared as even more grievous to him. In referring to his unclean lips, he seemed to more deeply comprehend what Jesus would say: “Not what goes into the mouth defiles a man; but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man” (Matthew 15:11). Isaiah recognized that sin was pervasive, and when cleansed, he was more intensely desirous to serve God out of thanksgiving.
Concerning this passage, R. C. Sproul wrote, “We are fortunate in one respect: God does not appear to us in the way He appeared to Isaiah. Who could stand it? God normally reveals our sinfulness to us a bit at a time. We experience a gradual recognition of our own corruption. God showed Isaiah his corruption all at once. No wonder that he was ruined”.
This gradual uncovering of corruption is much like the gradual pealing back of the layers of an onion. In this way, the true penitent progressively sees more clearly the loathsomeness of past sins and the tremendous degree of purifying that still needs to be brought about. He then comes into a fuller and deeper comprehension of “what is the width and length and depth and height… the love of Christ which passes knowledge” (Ephesians 3:18-19).
By God’s grace may our repentance be the true godly and on-going repentance of putting off the old man, and putting on the new man until that Day when we enter into the fullness of our being renewed into the image of Him who created us.