Christians often talk about repentance, but what does it really mean? What are the signs that a person has truly repented? What are the fruits of repentance?
We continue our study of of “Great Doctrines of the Bible (vol. 2)” by Martyn Lloyd-Jones (MLJ) by looking at chapter 13, “Repentance.”
A Complete Change
In Matthew 21:28-32, Jesus tells a story of two sons who were told to work in the vineyard. The first said ‘no,’ but later changed his mind and went. The second said ‘yes’ but did not go.
This story provides a picture of repentance. To repent means to change one’s mind and conduct. The first son refused, but he changed his mind and decided to go. True repentance means both the thinking and the action must change.
Such a change can come about by grace: “repentance is a gift of grace, leading to action on our part. And the way in which God does this is through the teaching, the preaching, of the Word” (130).
The Whole Person
True repentance involves the whole person. “So many people seem to think that the way to call people to repentance is just to press them to do something. They address the will only. But the will comes last, not first” (131).
Instead, MLJ argues that one begins by addressing the mind. This is often referred to as the “law-work.” Man must understand his transgression before God and the breaking of God’s law. There must be conviction of sin that leads to repentance…one cannot skip this step (see Job 42:6; Luke 18:13; Romans 7:24; 2 Cor. 7:11).
Such understanding of the mind brings about the proper emotions. One must become poor in spirit and feel a “godly sorrow” (2 Col. 7:10). Then the will is properly affected. After understanding our transgression and being broken over it, the next step is a change of action (Isaiah 55:7; Joel 2:13; Acts 26:14). “Christian people, the trouble with us is that we are much too healthy; we have never really groaned because of our sinfulness; we have never felt it. We are much too light: that is the trouble in the Church” (133).
Signs of Repentance
How do we know if we have truly repented? What are the signs of repentance?
First, MLJ argues that our view of God will change. We naturally have wrong view of God, but if we’ve repented then those views will change.
The more Christ is formed in us, the greater will be our conception of God and we shall reflect it in our humility. Somehow a sense of God seems to have vanished from us. We are so glib and superficial; we talk about ‘being converted’ and so on, but we forget that we are brought to a holy God (135).
The person who has repented also develops a hatefulness of sin. They strive for holiness instead of seeing how close they can get to the ways of the world. Such a hatefulness of sin will lead to a longing for deliverance. It will lead to confession of sin and a complete dependency on God for mercy and forgiveness. We’ll cry out with the tax collector: “God have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Repentance and Remorse
There is a difference between remorse and repentance. Paul differentiates between the two in 2 Cor. 7:9-10:
As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting. For you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no loss through us. For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.
Notice, godly grief leads to repentance but a worldly grief leads to death. So, what is the difference between true repentance and worldly remorse? MLJ answers:
True repentance, differing from remorse, includes these elements. It gives us a sense of having offended God and having grieved Him and hurt Him. It gives us a sense of pollution and of utter unworthiness…It gives us a longing and a determination to be rid of sin…a hunger and thirst after righteousness. It makes us desire to be like Christ… (138).
While often viewed in a negative sense, repentance actually leads to life. Only once we have confessed our sin, been convicted of it, and cried out for mercy can we truly find healing and forgiveness in the mercy of Christ.