April 13-15, 2010:
The late John Murray, former professor at Westminster Theological Seminary, provided a very helpful definition of repentance when he wrote, “Repentance consists essentially in change of heart and mind and will. The change of heart and mind and will principally respect four things: it is change of mind respecting God, respecting ourselves, respecting sin, and respecting righteousness”. This change of mind respecting sin is such that the truly penitent sinner sees sin as that which has alienated him from God whom he now desires and loves. He detests his offenses against God who has been good, forbearing and longsuffering in His dealings with him. He wants to be done with sinning like one who longs to be rid of a dreadful disease. David knew this detesting of his sin when he wrote, “My sin is always before me. Against You, You only have I sinned, and done this evil in Your sight – that You may be found just when You speak, and blameless when You judge” (Psalm 51:3-4). He would also write regarding his sin, “Innumerable evils have surrounded me; my iniquities have overtaken me, so that I am not able to look up; they are more than the hairs of my head; therefore my heart fails me. Be pleased, O Lord, to deliver me; O Lord, make haste to help me!” (Psalm 40:12-13). And these pleas for deliverance have their foundation in the hope of God’s pardoning mercy, out from which flows a sincere repentance characterized by sorrow for and abhorrence of sin.
As such, one mark of a true Godly repentance is that it emerges from a real loathing of sin. The true penitent sees sin as a barrier to his communion with God in his prayer life. When his sin is left un-confessed and un-repented of, he avoids coming into the presence of God in prayer because he’s ashamed. Like Peter he says, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!” (Luke 5:8). He keenly feels what God spoke to Israel: “Your iniquities have separated you from your God; and your sins have hidden His face from you, so that He will not hear” (Isaiah 59:2). He hates sin because he knows and feels it to be absolutely contradictory to that gracious new principle of life in Christ within him. Its remnants are the enemy within which act as an impediment to his carrying out the deepest desires in his heart for God. Like the Apostle Paul he says, “I find then a law, that evil is present with me, the one who wills to do good. For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man. But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:21-24).
The repentance of an unregenerate sinner is far different. His turning from his sin is only out of a heightened sense of fear and dread of impending judgment. His mindset regarding sin has only to do with the consequences of sin. The sinner in this case will often attempt to reform himself, but his efforts will not be out of love for God. Instead, self-love provides the only real motivation for his efforts to flee the wrath to come. King Saul provided a tragic example of this legal ungodly repentance on the occasion of his disobedience in the matter of the Amalekites. Samuel exposed Saul’s failure to obey God in utterly destroying them along with their livestock. To this Saul confessed, but attempted to excuse himself by saying that “I feared the people and obeyed their voice”. Further he pleaded with Samuel, “I have sinned; yet honor me now, please, before the elders of my people and before Israel, and return with me, that I may worship the Lord your God” (1 Samuel 15:24,30). Saul’s conscience was stricken, and he was sorry for what he had done, but his repentance came only out of fear and a desire to perhaps reverse Samuel’s pronouncement of the loss of the kingdom along with an anxious desire to keep up appearances before his subjects. There was no true sense of having offended God, no hatred and taking ownership of his sin, just fear and dread of the consequences of his disobedience. Saul even tried to draw Samuel into his disobedience by asking him to return and worship with him, to sacrifice the animals which should have been destroyed. In this way, Saul might have maneuvered Samuel into appearing as if he sanctioned this use of the spared animals.
Concerning this legal repentance, Scottish minister John Colquhoun (1748-1827) wrote, “Let conscience but be pacified, and the tempest of the troubled mind allayed, and these false penitents will return with the dog to his vomit, until some new alarm revive their convictions of sin and danger, and with them, the same process of repentance. Thus many sin and repent, and repent and sin, all their lives. Or it may be, distress of conscience makes a deeper impression, and fixes such an abiding dread of some particular sins that a visible reformation appears. Yet in this case the sinner’s lusts are only dammed up by his fears, and were the dam but broken down, they would immediately run again in, their former channel with increasing force”. And yet, many true penitents are able to look back and see how God used this legal ungodly form of repentance as a prerequisite to real Godly repentance in that they were graciously helped to see their utter inability to reform themselves and to be reconciled to God through the keeping of the law.