The Life of True Repentance

Intro: What is repentance? A clarification of some modern errors

One of the modern errors that you frequently find in American churches is the idea that repentance is not needed to become a Christian, and repentance is not needed once you are a Christian. And it mystifies me why Christians can think this, because the Scriptures are so clear. John Calvin points out that the message of the prophets can be summed up in the one word “repentance.” This was John the Baptist’s main message (“Repent”); this was Jesus main message (“repent and believe the gospel.”). The apostles were commanded by Christ to bring exactly the same message. And the result in Mark 6:12 is: So they went out and preached that people should repent. Over and over the New Testament calls for repentance. And so there has to be almost a kind of blindness for people to miss this.

Now part of the reason for a lack of a message of repentance is the carnality of the church and the carnality of the preachers themselves. Part of the problem is the focus on attracting people in the church growth movement. I talked to one man who is an expert on church growth. He had taken over a small struggling congregation and had brought that church from 50 people to over 1000 in a few months. I asked him what his strategies were. And he told me that he removed anything offensive or uncomfortable from worship. The hair on my neck was already standing on end. But he went on. He said that he didn’t have the people sing. The choirs did all the singing. He said that he removed references to blood and repentance from hymns, Bible readings and his sermons. And when I challenged him on that, he said, “You need to hook ‘em before you can crook ‘em.” He said that real church was on Wednesday nights. That’s when they had their communion, their discipleship, their emphasis on holiness. One of the professors at Westminster asked him how many people came to the Wednesday night meetings when real church happened, and he sheepishly said 50. That was the true church: it was the 50 who were counting the true cost of discipleship. The others were simply being entertained and made to feel comfortable in their sins. And so, the church growth movement is part of the problem. Carnality in the church is part of the problem.

But part of the problem is also theological. A form of dispensationalism has taught over the past 50 years that repentance was only for the Jews; that Gentiles don’t need it. We just need to believe. And of course, those folks would often relegate the book of James to the Jews as well. But the author of this book wasn’t just concerned about Jews. In Acts 11:18 the same James who wrote this book told the church, “Then God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance to life.” God has granted to the Gentiles repentance. I mean - that is pretty clear. The last words of Jesus to His disciples included this commandment: that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem (Luke 24:47). All nations. It’s not just for the Jews. I don’t know how you can get around that. According to Acts 26:20, Paul’s whole message was to declare first to those in Damascus and in Jerusalem, and throughout all the region of Judea, and then to the Gentiles, that they should repent, turn to God, and do works befitting repentance. That’s Acts 26:20. And so that’s just a bit of housekeeping that I need to get out of the way in case you have run across those who try to pit Paul against James on this issue. And I think those Scriptures make it clear that (once again) James stands in solidarity with Jesus, with the twelve apostles, with Paul. And for that matter, with John the Baptist who called Roman soldiers to repent. And the prophets of the Old Testament who called the heathen nations to repent.

But we are not quite finished with our housekeeping yet. What is equally disconcerting to me is the false definition of repentance in some circles. Some people (in my view) completely define repentance away in two ways: first, by making repentance simply an intellectual change of mind with respect to doctrine. Secondly, by making repentance a synonym for faith. And I think what is going on here is that Satan will do everything he can to short-circuit the kind of deep-seated repentance that has always led God’s people to revival, empowerment and joy. Pentingill was C.I. Scofield’s right hand man at the Philadelphia School of the Bible, and he said, “Strictly speaking, the word repentance means ‘a change of mind.’ Since it is not possible for an unbeliever to become a believer without changing his mind, it is therefore unnecessary to say anything about it.”1 His conclusion is that repentance and faith are really synonyms, and because we might get the wrong idea if we use the word repentance, we won’t ever use the word when talking to people. Unfortunately, I have run across two or three Reformed Writers in our generation who have bought into this false definition, and because you read their books, I think it is important that you know about it. John Robbins says, “The act of faith is the act of repentance... repentance and belief are the same thing.”2 He says that they are different words, but they mean exactly the same thing. They are synonyms. E. Calvin Beisner makes the same mistake. And I love this guy, but this is a big mistake. It’s a huge mistake. He says, "repentance is faith, and faith is repentance."3

Well, let me tell you something. That is not the Reformed view, and it is certainly not the Biblical view and it can lead to serious errors in two opposite directions. First, it’s not Reformed. And there are thousands of quotes I could give on this, but let me just give two. John Calvin said in his Institutes, book II, chapter II, paragraph 5, “There he reckons repentance and faith as two different things... though they cannot be separated, they ought to be distinguished.” The Westminster Confession and Larger and Shorter Catechisms are equally clear. Not only do they define the two quite differently, the Confession says, “Repentance ... is to be preached by every minister of the Gospel, as well as ... faith in Christ” (WCF 15.1). Two different things. Both must be preached. So it’s not Reformed.

But more importantly, it is not Biblical to confuse repentance and faith. First, the words of Jesus: “Repent, and believe” (Mark 1:15). He doesn’t say that repentance is belief. Instead He said that people must have both repentance and belief. Paul sums up his ministry in Acts 20:21 in these words, testifying to Jews, and also to Greeks, repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ. Now I have no problem whatsoever with saying that repentance and faith are inseparable and that where one exists, the other will always exist, or with saying that they are flip sides of the same coin. I have often said that. Reformed people have always said that, and on the back of your worship notes there’s a great quote from Spurgeon to that effect. He says that they are Siamese twins, and when one is sick, the other is always sick. Repentance and faith are part of the same act of conversion, and throughout our lives they act in concert. But Scripture does distinguish the two. Hebrews 6:1 speaks of the foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God; one foundation, but two things in it. “The foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God.”

Please bear with me. I’ve got two last items of housekeeping before we look at this passage. And the first is to say that there are serious ramifications if we do not make these distinctions. Obviously, if we do not have genuine repentance, we will miss out on the rewards that are implied in this passage. But in your outline I mention another serious problem. The failure to distinguish faith from repentance has ironically led to errors that are on extreme opposite sides of the spectrum. You’ve got the traditional Reformed view in the middle, and the extremes have both adopted the definition that faith and repentance are the same. For example, John Robbins and Norman Shepherd don’t get along too well. They are on the extremes, when it comes to the Reformed continuum. John Robbins rightly criticizes Norman Shepherd for failing to distinguish between justification by works and justification by faith. They are both important, but they have to be distinguished (as James so clearly does). They have to be distinguished for either doctrine to bring its intended result. But what Robbins fails to realize is that Shepherd holds to his error because Shepherd confuses faith with repentance just like Robbins does. He defines them differently, but he confuses the two. Shepherd disagrees with Robbins’ easy believism, but fails to realize that if faith and repentance are the same, Robbins is forced to his error by the same logic in order to avoid Shepherd’s error. In chapter 2, James can clearly distinguish between justification by faith alone in verse 23 and justification by works alone(that came many years later) in verses 21-22 because he knows the distinctions between faith and the repentance the faith produces. If you don’t follow all of this, don’t worry about it, because if you maintain the Biblical distinctions, you will avoid both errors. But for those of you who have done reading in this area, I just wanted you to be aware of it.

The moment a person is regenerated, God gives that person by degrees repentance and faith, and no true faith can exist apart from repentance, and no true repentance can exist apart from faith. So Scripture is clear that apart from repentance, no one can be saved. But it is equally clear that faith alone lays hold of God’s salvation. When Robbins identifies faith and repentance as being the same thing, he is also forced to redefine both as being purely intellectual issues.

But let me read you one Scripture which defines repentance, and you will see that mind, emotions and will are very much involved. 2 Corinthians 7:9-11. Now I rejoice, not that you were made sorry, but that your sorrow led to repentance... For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death. For observe this very thing, that you sorrowed in a godly manner: what diligence it produced in you [and here comes a listing of the components of repentance. The godly sorrow produced repentance, he says. Now he is listing that repentance that the sorrow produced.] what diligence it produced in you, what clearing of yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what vehement desire, what zeal, what vindication!...

Look at the definitions of repentance in your outlines. The Confession indicates that God-given repentance has at least three major parts: The underlined parts show 1) an understanding of the filthiness and odiousness of our sins as contrary to God’s holy nature (and so it is an illumination of our understanding toward the sinfulness of sin and the holiness of God). That paragraph goes on to give a second component: 2) a sense of the filthiness and odiousness of sin, and a grieving for and hatred for sin. There’s the emotions: the sensations. 3) The third component they list is: a turning from sin and turning to God. There’s the will.

Let me quickly read the other two definitions and you will see that they are parallel. The first is by A. W. Pink. He said, "Repentance is a supernatural and inward revelation from God, giving a deep consciousness of what I am in His sight, which causes me to loathe and condemn myself, resulting in a bitter sorrow for sin, a holy horror and hatred for sin, and a turning away from or forsaking of sin." And then the last definition. "Repentance is a heartfelt sorrow for sin, a renouncing of it, and a sincere commitment to forsake it and walk in obedience to Christ."4

The last housekeeping item that I wanted to deal with is to correct the misunderstanding that repentance is a once only deal. We don’t just repent at our conversion. Because we don’t arrive to total perfection till heaven, our whole life on earth is a life of repentance and restoration in God’s grace. Just as our whole life must be a faith walk, our whole life is also a repentance walk. If we lack faith and repentance, we are not saints. We are Pharisees. And so if you feel discouraged that you can never join the club of the perfect, make your mind at ease. There is no club of the perfect at this church. There is a club of people who hate their sins, and long for perfection, and daily receive forgiveness from God and from each other. There is a club of people who are pursuing after holiness, and are grieved when they make a step backwards, and are moving on the path of holiness forwards. But none of us thinks we have arrived yet.

Submission/yielding to God (v. 7a)

Well, now we have cleared away some housekeeping baggage. And the evangelical house was pretty dirty. So we had a lot of housekeeping. Now I want to highlight the descriptions James gives of this true repentance. And this can be a kind of self-examination as to where our hearts are at. Do we evidence true repentance or a counterfeit? The first key word in our vocabulary should be submission or yielding to God. The first part of verse 7: Therefore submit to God. Submission is not just an outward response, but is an inward attitude as well. The outward can be manifested through obedience. Let me read this definition of repentance from Christ’s parable of the two sons. Jesus said, A man had two sons, and he came to the first and said, “Son, go, work today in my vineyard.” He answered and said, “I will not,” but afterward he repented and went. Then he came to the second and said likewise. And he answered and said, “I go, sir,” but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said to Him, “The first.” Jesus agreed. Compliant attitudes are not always a sign of submission. The less compliant child in this case was the one who obeyed and submitted. However, Scripture indicates that a person can comply outwardly and totally lack submission as well. If a child says, “Soorrryy!! would you please forgive me?” but his facial expressions, the tone of his voice and body language show rebellion and hostility, is that child submitting? No. God looks at both the heart and the action to see the level of our repentance. And Richard Mannhalter lent me an excellent book that helps you to examine yourself on your repentance. It’s called Returning to Holiness, and I highly recommend it. I think it would be an excellent book for the whole church to work through.

One of the things that shows no submission is to ask ask forgiveness of God as a matter of course, but make no plans to quit. Look at the back of your worship notes at the fourth quote down, by William Gurnall. And let me retranslate that into modern English. He says:

Take heed that you do not pray with a reservation; be sure that you renounce what you want God to remit [or cancel out]. God will never remove the guilt as long as you entertain the sin... It is the highest foolishness to desire God to forgive what you intend to commit. You might as well speak out, and ask permission to sin without any consequences."5

There was a cartoon several years ago that someone emailed to me, in which George Washington has an ax in his hand smugly standing over yet another cherry tree he has chopped down. You’ve got all these chopped down cherry trees. He has made his statement, “I cannot lie.” And his father is standing there exasperated saying, "All right, so you admit it! You always admit it! The question is, when are you going to stop doing it?"

Proverbs 28:13 says, "He who covers his sins will not prosper, But whoever confesses and forsakes them will have mercy." There is no submission without the beginnings of obedience. Yes, you may fall into sin again, but after confession, have you gone out to obey? That’s the question. Have you made any steps on the road of obedience? The words submit and obey are used interchangeably in the Scripture. A wife who does not obey her husband is not submitting to her husband. Well, in the same way, when we do not obey God’s calls on our life, we are not submitting to Him. And that means that we lack true repentance; which means we lack true faith; which means we aren’t even saved. The moment God regenerates, He gives the grace of repentance. If there is no repentance, there is no regeneration. Repentance is always there in the heart of the true believer. And so these verses can be a test of the presence of God’s grace in your lives. Can you go for months on end without every sensing any need to repent of your failure to submit to God? Where there is repentance, there will be submission.

But here is the cool part though. Each one of these commandments has an implied reward. The word “therefore” harks back to verse 6. And I believe that the implied reward is more grace. But He gives more grace. Therefore He says, "God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble." When you submit to God, you find His grace flowing; more grace, abundant grace. Though there is a cost to repentance (and boy does it hurt; boy does it cost!), God never shortchanges us. You can never outgive God. When you give your sins to Him and commit to doing things His way, He gives you the grace that you need to accomplish it. But God gives no grace to those who don’t intend to use it. Why would He give more grace when your heart is already set against the grace of conviction that He has given. And so there is a reward to those who submit. And what a liberating, freeing thing it is to experience God’s grace after we have mortified ourselves in confession. In your worship notes someone said, “When a soul has laid down its faults at the feet of God, it feels as though it had wings.” Grace, more grace. Liberty grace. Freeing grace.

Resistance/Antithesis (v. 7b)

But the second step is resistance. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Resistance is one of those inescapable things. Verse 4 had said that if you are not resisting the world, the flesh and the devil, you are resisting God. But this verse indicates that if you are submitting to God, the next step is to resist the devil. You are always going to be resisting one thing or another. Don’t think you can get away from resistance. It is inescapable. You are either going forward or backward, resisting God or resisting Satan.

Another way of saying this is that repentance always restores our thinking and our actions to a clear cut antithesis. Where previously things were fuzzy and gray,all of a sudden, God gives us insight into the true battle lines. And if we are not willing to resist the world, the flesh and the devil, it is evidence of a counterfeit repentance.

And so we need to ask ourselves: “After I confess my sins to God, does my repentance lead me to a holy hatred of Satan and all that Satan stands for? Does my repentance stir me up to the kind of zeal and anger against sin that 2 Corinthians 7 talks about?” It will, if it is true repentance. It will usher you into resistance to Satan. Repentance is evidenced by a renewed willingness to fight temptation by God’s grace.

But there is a cool promise appended here as well. The promise is that Satan will flee from you. It’s not going to be a futile resistance. Charles Spurgeon gave these cool words of encouragement. He said, “Satan has no weapons of defense, and so when we resist him he must flee. A Christian man has both defensive and offensive weapons. He has a shield as well as a sword. But Satan has fiery darts and nothing else. I never read of his having any shield whatever. So when we resist him, he is bound to run away. He has no defense for himself, and the fact of our resistance is in itself a victory.” That’s a cool thought.

So how do we resist the devil? Though there are other ways of doing so, the two principle means are listed in Revelation 12. It says, "they overcame him by the blood of the lamb and by the word of their testimony." The principle offensive weapons are Christ’s blood and the Word of our testimony. Claim Christ’s cleansing blood and apply that blood to your mind, your emotions, your body your home and all that you have and are. Set them apart to God and tell Satan that he has no place with you because you are covered with the blood. Rebuke him with the blood and claim that blood’s victory.

Second, make affirmations of faith from Scripture of your authority over Satan, Christ’s victory over Satan, Satan’s sure defeat at the cross and that greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world. This is the word of your testimony. This is how Christ resisted Satan. He said, “Get behind me Satan for it is written” and He quoted Scriptures. When the Scriptures become the Word of our testimony we are saying by faith that they are true. We are standing on them. We are wielding them as a sword. The Bible does not have power to slay unless the sword is unsheathed and used by our mouth; by our testimony. And these affirmations strike blows at the enemy. Every time Christ did that, Satan left.

Relationship/Restoration/Dependence (v. 8a)

The third feature in true repentance is the desire to draw near to God. Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. This drawing near implies restored relationship. If someone apologizes to you, but they avoid you, don’t talk and don’t hang around, you have good reason for wondering if the relationship really has been restored. So this drawing near implies relationship. But it also shows that you are no longer depending on yourself. You have repented of self-reliance and self-rule. Instead, you are approaching the throne and bowing before it. Though ashamed, your shame does not drive you away from God. Instead it makes you cling to God and draw near to Him in dependence.

Again, this is a good test of genuine repentance. The world’s repentance according to Paul is a sorrow that leads to death or that separates. The fifth quote from the bottom on your worship notes is from the Puritan writer George Swinnock. He used this point to distinguish between a false repentance that leads to despair and a true repentance that leads to restoration of relationship and a renewed dependence upon God. He said, “A stroke, from guilt, from wrath, broke Judas’ heart into despair; a look from love, from Christ, broke Peter’s into tears.” Though Peter weeps, you don’t find him running.

But how do we draw near? Last week we pointed out that it is through the means of grace, such as prayer, Bible reading, listening to the preached word, assembling together, fasting, memorization of Scripture, meditation, etc. There are many different means of grace that God uses. When people have been restored to God, they have a restored hunger for His Word, a hunger for His presence, for His people, for worship. And so that’s another test of our repentance: does it drive us to God or drive us away. Does it make us have a renewed zeal for the means of grace or do we ignore them.

The reward is that God draws near to us. Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. And isn’t that the longing of our hearts when we have sinned? David cried out, “Take not Thy holy Spirit from me.” Well, this verse promises that when we draw near in repentance and the means of grace, He won’t take the comfort of His Holy Spirit away; He will draw near to us.

Cleansing (v. 8b,c)

Of our outward actions (“hands”)

Of our inward motives, goals and thoughts (“hearts)

The fourth word associated with repentance is cleansing or seeking God’s grace. And James divides it up into two parts. Cleanse your hands, you sinners [that’s dealing with the outward physical actions. And then he goes on] and purify your hearts, you double minded. [That’s dealing with the inward attitudes.] True repentance isn’t purely outward or purely inward. It encompasses the whole man.

But the order of the words that are used imply that we are not engaging in self-Reformation. We draw near to God first, because only God can enable us through Christ to have cleansing. And since we can only approach the throne through the merits of Jesus Christ, James implies that the cleansing water comes from God’s temple, just as the priests cleansed themselves in the temple. In fact, self-Reformation means nothing to God. It is only what Christ lives through us that counts. We plead the merits of Jesus Christ. Again, this book Returning to Holiness is excellent on this issue of radical cleansing. It shows you the process by which you systematically examine your outward and inward life. Another phenomenal book that I recommend you go through is Measure Your Life by Wesley Duewel. Repentance is concerned with being clean before God in all that we are and do.


The fifth feature is sorrow. Verse 9 is such a bold rebuke to those who treat their sins lightly and flippantly; or who confess their sins as if they were thoughtlessly flicking a speck of flint off their shirts. No, James says to us, Lament and mourn and weep! Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Don't be flippant; don't be laughing when you've got sin. Do those seem like extreme words to you? Do they seem overly emotional and exaggerated? If they do, it is evidence that you do not understand the vileness of sin in God’s sight. True repentance is a God-given understanding of your own wretched nature, and you cannot help but weep over your sin when you see it as God sees it.

A. W. Pink says that this is why no one can have true repentance unless God gives it to them, and opens their understandings to the true nature of sin and righteousness. He also said:

True repentance abhors gentle names for sin, nor does it seek to cloak wickedness. That which, while being tempted, is thought of as no great offense, when (later) is truly repented of, is acknowledged to be heinous. Sin before its commission often appears unto the mind as a very small evil, but when grace acts in a way of repentance for it, then the false glamour disappears and it is viewed in its dreadful malignity and loathed accordingly.

And so this is another test of whether the repentance we have is what the Westminster Confession calls an evangelical grace, or whether it is purely self-wrought. True repentance goes deep. It isn’t satisfied with outward appearances. It sees the dirty inner chambers of the heart and cries out to God in sorrow. That’s why we must prayerfully seek God as we read through those books and ask, “God, grant me a heart of true repentance. Grant me a heart of revival. Change my mind, my will and my emotions to line up with your word. Help me to hate the things that you hate and to love the things that you love.” Since God alone gives it, prayer alone can receive it. Pray for the kind of full repentance that leads to full revival.

Now the implied reward is the opposite of sorrow: namely comfort and joy. Jesus said, Blessed are those who mourn, [literally, “Happy are those who mourn. Why?] for they shall be comforted. Neither carelessness nor despair can be comforted. God only finishes what He starts. He doesn't finish what your heart starts. And When He start repentance, He ushers us into His joy and comfort. David said, “Restore to me the joy of your salvation,” and that is exactly what happened.


And then finally, James says that true repentance evidences humility. Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up. Humbling oneself involves exposing and crucifying our pride, seeing ourselves as God sees us and even (sometimes) afflicting ourselves. In the Scripture, frequently humbling oneself or afflicting one’s soul is a synonym for fasting. But the chief characteristic is seeing yourself as God does. And that makes sense if repentance is in part an illumination or opening of our minds.

Horatius Bonar, the author of “Not what my hands have done” and other hymns exalting God’s grace, said this:

In all unbelief there are two things - a good opinion of self and a bad opinion of God. So long as these things exist, it is impossible for an inquirer to find rest. His good opinion of himself makes him think it quite possible to win God’s favor by his own religious performances... The object of the Holy Spirit’s work, in convicting of sin, is to alter the sinner’s opinion of himself and so to reduce his estimate of his own character that he shall think of himself as God does.

It takes a great deal to destroy man’s good opinion of himself, and even after he has lost his good opinion of his works, he retains a good opinion of his heart; and even after he has lost that, he holds fast his good opinion of his religious duties.6

A person who is hot and arrogant and defensive has not yet tasted of God’s gift of repentance. John the Baptist did not believe the false repentance that the Pharisees brought. He told them to bring forth fruits meet for repentance.

May we have this grace of repentance in such great measure that we enter into God’s streams of revival in great measure as well. The way to be lifted up is by going down. And may He lift us up in the streams of His grace. Amen.


  1. William Pettingill, Bible Questions Answered, enlarged edition (Findlay, OH: Fundamental Truth Publishers, n.d.), pp. 215-216.

  2. John Robbins, The Trinity Review, May-June 1993.

  3. E. Calvin Beisner, Chapel Talk, Knox Theological Seminary Chapel, October 22, 2002.

  4. Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, p. 713.

  5. William Gurnall: "Take heed thou prayest not with a reservation, be sure thou renouncest what thou wouldst have God remit. God will never remove the guilt as long as thou entertainest the sin... It is desperate folly to desire God to forgive what thou intendest to commit. Thou hadst as good speak out, and ask leave to sin with impunity, for God knows the language of thy heart, and needs not thy tongue to be an interpreter... Hypocrisy is too thin a veil to blind the eyes of the Almighty. Thou mayest put thy own eyes out, so as not to see Him; but thou canst never blind His eyes that He should not see thee."

  6. Horatius Bonar, God’s Way of Peace, pp. 26-27.

The Life of True Repentance is part of the James series published on February 1, 2004

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