Posted by Mark Herzer

The Larger Catechism

Question 76

76.       Q. What is repentance unto life?

A. Repentance unto life is a saving grace,[320] wrought in the heart of a sinner by the Spirit[321] and Word of God,[322] whereby, out of the sight and sense, not only of the danger,[323] but also of the filthiness and odiousness of his sins,[324] and upon the apprehension of God’s mercy in Christ to such as are penitent,[325] he so grieves for[326] and hates his sins,[327] as that he turns from them all to God,[328] purposing and endeavouring constantly to walk with him in all the ways of new obedience.[329]

Scriptural Defense and Commentary

[320] 2 Timothy 2:25. In meekness instructing those that oppose themselves; if God peradventure will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth. [321] Zechariah 12:10. And I will pour upon the house of David, and upon the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the spirit of grace and of supplications: and they shall look upon me whom they have pierced, and they shall mourn for him, as one mourneth for his only son, and shall be in bitterness for him, as one that is in bitterness for his firstborn. [322] Acts 11:18, 20-21. When they heard these things, they held their peace, and glorified God, saying, Then hath God also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life…. And some of them were men of Cyprus and Cyrene, which, when they were come to Antioch, spake unto the Grecians, preaching the Lord Jesus. And the hand of the Lord was with them: and a great number believed, and turned unto the Lord. [323] Ezekiel 18:28, 30, 32. Because he considereth, and turneth away from all his transgressions that he hath committed, he shall surely live, he shall not die…. Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways, saith the Lord GOD. Repent, and turn yourselves from all your transgressions; so iniquity shall not be your ruin…. For I have no pleasure in the death of him that dieth, saith the Lord GOD: wherefore turn yourselves, and live ye. Luke 15:17-18. And when he came to himself, he said, How many hired servants of my father’s have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee. Hosea 2:6-7. Therefore, behold, I will hedge up thy way with thorns, and make a wall, that she shall not find her paths. And she shall follow after her lovers, but she shall not overtake them; and she shall seek them, but shall not find them: then shall she say, I will go and return to my first husband; for then was it better with me than now. [324] Ezekiel 36:31. Then shall ye remember your own evil ways, and your doings that were not good, and shall loathe yourselves in your own sight for your iniquities and for your abominations. Isaiah 30:22. Ye shall defile also the covering of thy graven images of silver, and the ornament of thy molten images of gold: thou shalt cast them away as a menstruous cloth; thou shalt say unto it, Get thee hence. [325] Joel 2:12-13. Therefore also now, saith the LORD, turn ye even to me with all your heart, and with fasting, and with weeping, and with mourning: And rend your heart, and not your garments, and turn unto the LORD your God: for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repenteth him of the evil. [326] Jeremiah 31:18-19. I have surely heard Ephraim bemoaning himself thus; Thou hast chastised me, and I was chastised, as a bullock unaccustomed to the yoke: turn thou me, and I shall be turned; for thou art the LORD my God. Surely after that I was turned, I repented; and after that I was instructed, I smote upon my thigh: I was ashamed, yea, even confounded, because I did bear the reproach of my youth. [327] 2 Corinthians 7:11. For 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. [328] Acts 26:18. To open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith that is in me. Ezekiel 14:6. Therefore say unto the house of Israel, Thus saith the Lord GOD; Repent, and turn yourselves from your idols; and turn away your faces from all your abominations. 1 Kings 8:47-48. Yet if they shall bethink themselves in the land whither they were carried captives, and repent, and make supplication unto thee in the land of them that carried them captives, saying, We have sinned, and have done perversely, we have committed wickedness; And so return unto thee with all their heart, and with all their soul, in the land of their enemies, which led them away captive, and pray unto thee toward their land, which thou gavest unto their fathers, the city which thou hast chosen, and the house which I have built for thy name. [329] Psalm 119:6, 59, 128. Then shall I not be ashamed, when I have respect unto all thy commandments…. I thought on my ways, and turned my feet unto thy testimonies…. Therefore I esteem all thy precepts concerning all things to be right; and I hate every false way. Luke 1:6. And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless. 2 Kings 23:25. And like unto him was there no king before him, that turned to the LORD with all his heart, and with all his soul, and with all his might, according to all the law of Moses; neither after him arose there any like him.

 

Introduction

We tend to think of repentance unto life as the work of grace in the heart that emerges right at conversion. Faith and repentance go together. Quite often, we focus on those two in terms of one’s conversion, justification, etc.  Yet, the LC lists justification (#70), adoption (#74), and sanctification (#75) prior to “repentance unto life.” This question assumes that the person is justified, adopted and in Christ sanctified. Repentance unto life is an expression of sanctification, a development of “those graces…stirred up” (#75). After sanctification, the SC does not ask the question about repentance unto life until later on. The phrase is not used in the SC until #85 & 87. In those questions, the divines highlight its initial expression in conversion, “What doth God require of us, that we may escape his wrath and curse due to us for sin?” (#85) Repentance unto life is part of the answer and it is defined in #87.

It seems clear that repentance unto life is expressed at the beginning of our spiritual lives as well as subsequent to it. That is, repentance unto life permeates our entire existence because full sanctification (glorification) awaits us. Repentance exemplifies true believers. Zachary Crofton said that repentance “is a habit, power, principle, spring, root, and disposition; not a bare, single, and transient action, as the Papists and some ignorant souls do imagine…Repentance is not the work of an hour, or a day; but a constant frame, course, and bent of the soul, on all renewed guilt flowing afresh, and bringing forth renewed acts.”[1] This observation is important because repentance reveals the true bent of the soul. All can profess faith but genuine repentance cannot be mimicked because it springs from a renewed nature. It is not perfection but penitence that matters; it is not regret unto despair but repentance unto life that matters.

 

Repentance is a Saving Grace

Like all of these questions, repentance unto life is also a saving grace. Repentance unto life is not the work of man though it is his duty; he is required to do what he cannot perform. Because man is a sinner, he must repent. It is not something that can be side stepped or rushed through; it is at the heart of the sinner and saint coming to grips with who he really is. Repentance unto life implies that there exists a form of repentance that is not unto life. Vain regrets, despairing remorse, etc. abound in our lives. Not one person can look at his life and claim he has nothing to for which he must repent. Paul distinguishes between a “godly grief” and a “worldly grief” in 2Cor. 7:10, “For godly grief (ἡ γὰρ κατὰ θεὸν λύπη, literally, grief or sorrow according to God) produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief (ἡ δὲ τοῦ κόσμου λύπη) produces death.” The Corinthians “grieved into repenting” (2Cor. 7:9, ἐλυπήθητε εἰς μετάνοιαν) and verse 11 explains what that repentance looked like: “For see what earnestness this godly grief has produced in you, but also what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what longing, what zeal, what punishment! At every point you have proved yourselves innocent in the matter.” That is the kind of repentance we are to exhibit.

Repentance is not natural to us; we are naturally adverse to it. Therefore, God must grant this ability. In 2Tim. 2:25, 26 Paul says to young Timothy, “God may perhaps grant them repentance (μήποτε δώῃ αὐτοῖς ὁ θεὸς μετάνοιαν) leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.” It is God who must give or grant repentance. Repentance is God’s gift and it is up to Him to bestow it if and when He pleases (“perhaps” μήποτε). Also, the phrase literally translated means “repentance unto the knowledge of the truth” (μετάνοιαν εἰς ἐπίγνωσιν ἀληθείας). In this context, it is not enough to simply repent of error but also to affirm the truth. Both steps make up the one repentance. When God grants repentance, He enables a man to admit his error and to embrace the truth. That is what the LC underscores in its answer.

 

The Spirit and Word in Repentance

Since repentance unto life is a saving grace, it follows that God produces it: wrought in the heart of a sinner by the Spirit and Word of God. In the OT, The Holy Spirit will enable the sinner to cry out unto God for mercy and mourn (Zech. 12:10): “And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and pleas for mercy, so that, when they look on me, on him whom they have pierced [cf. Jn. 19:37], they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn.”[2] We see this pouring out in Acts 2. The Spirit enables them to repent and He convicts them. The “Spirit of grace and pleas for mercy” (or, “of grace and supplication”), means that new believers will be enabled to ask for mercy — which is another way of expressing repentance.

This Spirit of God is one of “grace and supplication.” “Grace” (hen) is often used to denote the favor a person receives and enjoys with another person (e.g., Gen. 30:27), even someone in authority over them, such as the king (e.g., Est. 8:5) or God (e.g., Gen. 6:8). “Supplication” (tahanunim) is linked to the same root as the first term, but in this case denotes seeking favor from God (e.g., Ps. 28:2, 6), which in the later period of Israel’s history appears in texts guiding the penitential response of the people (2 Chron. 6:21; 31:9; Dan. 9:3, 17, 18, 23). These terms highlight two aspects of the ministry of God’s Spirit: granting his people favor with himself through renewed relationship and invigorating them to respond to him in penitence.[3]

As the Spirit convicts, He also uses His truth. The Spirit often brings about repentance unto life with His truth. Vos says, “Repentance unto life is not wrought by the Spirit alone without the Word, nor by the Word alone without the Spirit, but by the two together, the Holy Spirit using and applying the truth of the Word.” (171) The divines use Acts 11:18, 20-21 to prove this point. The setting is most instructive. The angel told Cornelius to go to Joppa, “Send to Joppa and bring Simon who is called Peter; he will declare to you a message by which you will be saved, you and all your household.” (Acts 11:13, 14) When the Spirit fell on them, the judgment of the church was, “When they heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying,  “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.”” Here is the exact phrase; the granting of the Spirit through the preaching of the message all meant (as they received it) that “God has granted repentance that leads to life” (ὁ θεὸς τὴν μετάνοιαν εἰς ζωὴν ἔδωκε). The Gospel was preached; the Spirit was poured out and this event is summarized as God granting repentance unto life.[4]

The Spirit uses the truth to grant repentance; it is not a work that happens in a void. Something has to impact the mind and heart of a person. Repentance is wrought in the heart by the Spirit as He takes the truth preached, read, brought to mind, etc. Every feeling of guilt does not indicate the granting of repentance. We are created in God’s image and our moral sense of right and wrong, feeling guilty and feeling righteous, etc. only reveal we are human beings created in God’s image.

 

Sight and Sense of Sin[5]

Repentance always has to do with sin. In fact, we come to terms to the true nature of sin: “whereby, out of the sight and sense, not only of the danger, but also of the filthiness and odiousness of his sins…” Two elements included in this answer must always be present. The first is the sight and sense of the danger of sin. The person realizes his course of action is no longer safe. His happy-go-lucky life turns to a life of alarm bells and warning signs.  From the preaching of the Word, the sinner recognizes that death and ruin await him (cf. Ezek. 18:28, 30, 32, text above). This is not the only thing but it is part of it. Notice how the divines phrased it, “out of the sight and sense, not only of the danger…of his sins.” He sees his path of life differently; he has a clear sight of it; he senses dread and danger awaiting him.[6] The Ninevites saw and sensed what was threatened. They “believed God” (2:5) and repented and said, “God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.” (2:9) There was a sight of that danger! That is not enough but it is necessary. Many are afraid of the consequences of their actions because of the shame and dishonor it might bring them; they see some danger in their actions and turn from it only because of the consequences. That is good but not sufficient. As Ridgeley said,

Repentance, of what kind soever it be, includes a sense of sin. But if the sense of sin be such as an unregenerate person may have, it includes little more than a sense of the danger and misery which he has exposed himself to by sins committed. The principal motives leading to it are the threatenings which the law of God denounces against those who violate it. Destruction from God is a terror to him who has such a sense of sin; and if this were not the consequence of sin, he would be so far from repenting of it, that it would be the object of his chief delight.[7]

The second is the sight and sense of the sheer filthiness and odiousness of our sins (“out of the sight and sense…of the filthiness and odiousness of his sins”). The repenting sinner sees and senses sin’s danger and sin’s depravity. They not only fear sin’s consequences but also see sin for what it is, its wicked filthiness (its nature) and how obnoxious it is to God (odious to themselves as well as to God). Let us reflect on the verses used to support this definition. Ezek. 36:31 says, “Then you will remember your evil ways, and your deeds that were not good, and you will loathe yourselves for your iniquities and your abominations.” One commentator said that “the people will remember their former practices, immorality and idolatry, and will “loathe” themselves (v. 31). This terminology was used in 6:9 to describe Israel’s repentance in exile. Here and in 20:43 it describes their feeling of revulsion after the return when they would recall their former life-style.”[8] We don’t boast about our sins against God; we see them and a “feeling of revulsion” grips us. This breeds humility and praise. We see it and are humbled; we see its sheer wickedness and adore God for his matchless mercy. If we do not see its odiousness, then we be drawn back to it. We must labor to see its filthy and odious nature.

The other verse used to support the definition of repentance is Isaiah 30:22, “Then you will defile your carved idols overlaid with silver and your gold-plated metal images. You will scatter them as unclean things. You will say to them, “Be gone!”” The repenting sinner defiles his darling wicked sins he once treasured and nursed. The beautiful idols (“with silver and gold-plated metal images”) will be treated with disdain. Repentance means the person sees his sins for what it is.

 

Legal and Evangelical Repentance

A vast difference exists between legal and evangelical repentance.[9] Though the LC does not utilize those terms yet the LC definitions faithfully render what has traditionally been called legal and evangelical repentance. Legal repentance takes into account only the threats and judgments (some speak of seeing the gospel as a “fire insurance”); out of fear and dread, the sinner repents. This legal repentance is always short lived. This also could be called “law work” (and may in fact be preparatory to evangelical repentance).  Edward Veal in his sermon “What is the Danger of Death-Bed Repentance?” speaks of evangelical repentance proceeding from “an apprehension and belief in the mercy of God in Christ Jesus to them that do repent.” Furthermore, he adds:

Though the terrors of the law may help to drive men from sin, yet there must be gospel-attractives to draw them to God, either in a way of faith or repentance. Who will dare to trust him from whom he expects no mercy, or care for serving him from whom he looks for no acceptance? Hence it is that God’s mercy is used as the grand motive to persuade men to repentance: “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matt. 3:2.) And, “Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the Lord, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.” (Isai. 55:7.)[10]

This is how our LC defines evangelical repentance — and upon the apprehension of God’s mercy in Christ to such as are penitent…” This is indispensable. One may bewail his sins and yet never change. “They are full of conviction and seeming contrition; but never reach unto conversion. They lament sin; but lie in sin…”[11] The sinner must also apprehend God’s mercy in Christ or his efforts will be in vain. With a knowledge of our sins is the firm belief in and sight of God’s mercy in Christ. Notice how Joel 2:12-13 says it, ““Yet even now,” declares the LORD, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.” Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster.” We return to Him who is gracious and merciful. We recognize that God will be merciful to us in Christ.

In Bunyan’s famous and moving autobiography “Grace Abounding,” one reads of this lengthy and heavy law work of humbling. His apprehension of God’s mercy in Christ did not come until later. Though conviction of sin often precedes repentance, it must also come with an apprehension of God’s mercy in Christ to the penitent. The last three words are critical, it is to the penitent, to the one who repents and looks to God’s mercy in Christ. Why is this important? Too often, God is simply always forgiving, pardoning, etc. A person simply must accept the fact that God is love and accepting. People may condemn but God doesn’t, we are told. He is ready to forgive; you need to come to terms with this. Don’t condemn yourself; haven’t you heard that there is therefore no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus? All these statements have a thin sliver of truth to them. God is merciful to us in Christ far more than we dare imagine or can even fathom but it is to those who repent. A person defiant and presumptuous will not receive mercy.

Yet, we must restate the point. He is merciful to us in Christ. We must believe that and not despair. He is gracious to us not on the merit of our penitent but merciful to us on account of His mercy in Christ, that his, on the basis and merit of Christ’s finished work. That is the only basis for pardon and mercy.

 

Grieving and Hating

Of course, the repenting believer also grieves for and hates his sins: “he so grieves for and hates his sins…” That is, genuine repentance entails grief for sin and hatred of the sin. This is different from what we addressed above. The phrase “out of the sight and sense, not only of the danger, but also of the filthiness and odiousness of his sins” has more to do with our estimation of the sin before God. We judge it as God does. But grieving and hating it pertain to our personal reactions to sin. We grieve over it because we sinned against God (and not find satisfaction in having committed it). For example, an adulterer may recognize his sin was dangerous and odious and yet in his heart, he feels quite relieved and satisfied in the wickedness in which he indulged. A child may realize he offended his mom for eating the cookie he was told not to but secretly conclude that the offense was worth the pleasure of eating the chocolate chip cookies.

Of course we never grieve over them as much as we need to nor hate them as much as we should. There has to be personal grief over the sin as Jer. 31:18, 19 states, “I have heard Ephraim grieving, ‘You have disciplined me, and I was disciplined, like an untrained calf; bring me back that I may be restored, for you are the LORD my God. For after I had turned away, I relented, and after I was instructed, I struck my thigh; I was ashamed, and I was confounded, because I bore the disgrace of my youth.’” In these verses, God hears Ephraim grieving. In these verses, Ephraim combines grief with his recognition of God’s just dealings with him. Grief expressed itself in seeing his defection (“like an untrained calf”):

Ephraim expressed godly sorrow for his sins (vv. 18-19). He prayed for the Lord to help restore him. In grief over his own waywardness, he reviewed the Lord’s dealings with him. He admitted that he has been brought under control by the chastisement of the Lord. At last he recognized the need for repentance before restoration. He was formerly like an untrained calf, refractory and in need of training. Through the Lord’s judgments he learned discipline.[12]

With that grief is hatred towards one’s sin (we saw this in 2Cor. 7:11, see above). Here is where we can easily stumble. What if we love our sins? We grieve over it and we are appalled by the way our hearts lust after the wicked sin for which we are repenting. What do we do? Shall we not repent of that also? Yes! Bewail your dark heart. Bewail your shallow repentance and cast yourself upon Him by saying, “Lord, I pray to you to enable me to hate this sin — I protest against my heart and cry out to you for deliverance. This taint and infection of sin is so deep, I do not hate it as I ought. Will you not forgive? Will you not deliver me from my wicked self? I hate my lack of hatred. O Lord forgive! O Lord help!”

 

Turning to God

With the grieve and hatred, the Larger Catechism includes in its definition of repentance the following act: “as that he turns from them all to God,” In repentance, one does not simply go back to the way he was. He turns from the sins for which he repented and turns toward God. We read that Paul preached to turn sinners “from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God…” (Acts 26:18). We are to turn away from those things that God hates (Ezek. 14:6) and must return unto the Lord (1Kings 8:47-48).[13] This is no small matter.

Both of these acts of the heart and will found in repentance. It is not enough to say, “I’m not going to do it again.” and then continue to entertain the same sin. We flee, we turn away from it so that the temptation is no longer there and with humility we also turn to God. For example, a drunkard might turn away from the bar and life of drunkenness and just try to “sweat” it out. A positive act must also emerge; he must also go to church (as it were) [of course, he in fact needs to turn to God]. We turn from sin and turn to God.

 

New Obedience

Lastly, the LC adds, “purposing and endeavouring constantly to walk with him in all the ways of new obedience.” This is not a life of perfection but the heart’s purposing. Godly resolutions, effort, attempts, purposing, contriving, etc. fill the hearts of the repentant (see the verses cited). “This purpose to walk with God does not so much respect what a person will do hereafter; but it contains a resolution which is immediately put in execution; and so is opposed to the penitent’s former obstinacy, when determining to go on in the way of his own heart.”[14] A great example would be someone like Josiah (2K. 23:25), “Before him there was no king like him, who turned to the LORD with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his might, according to all the Law of Moses, nor did any like him arise after him.”


[1] James Nichols, Puritan Sermons, Volume 5 (Wheaton, IL: Richard Owen Roberts, Publishers, 1981), 373.

[2] “While it is possible to construe “spirit” in the sense of “disposition,” it seems preferable to follow the NIV margin (and Perowne above) and see here a reference to the Spirit of God. This would be more in keeping with what appear to be parallel passages (Isa 32:15; 44:3; 59:20-21; Jer 31:31, 33; Ezek 36:26-27; 39:29; Joel 2:28-29). Because of the convicting work of God’s Spirit, Israel will turn to the Messiah with mourning” (Kenneth Barker, Zechariah (EBC 7; ed. Frank E. Gaebelein and J. D. Douglas; Accordance electronic ed. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1985), n.p.).

[3] Mark J. Boda, Haggai, Zechariah (NIVAC; Accordance electronic ed. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 472.

[4] In 2Tim. 2:26, God grants repentance unto the knowledge of the truth (μετάνοιαν εἰς ἐπίγνωσιν ἀληθείας) and in Acts 11:18, God granted repentance unto life (μετάνοιαν εἰς ζωὴν). In both, God grants repentance from something unto something else (unto the knowledge of the truth; unto life).

[5] The Shorter Catechism summarizes these points with “out of a true sense of his sin” (#87).

[6] Again, we dare not argue that a certain defined amount of seeing and sensing must accompany each person; that he sees and senses it is sufficient.

[7] Thomas Ridgeley, A Body of Divinity, Volume 2 (New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1855), 149.

[8] Lamar Eugene Cooper Sr., Ezekiel (NAC 17; ed. E. Ray Clendenen; Accordance electronic ed. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1994), 317.

[9] For example, see John Owen, Works, 6:369.

[10] James Nichols, Puritan Sermons, Volume 4 (Wheaton, IL: Richard Owen Roberts, Publishers, 1981), 348.

[11] James Nichols, Puritan Sermons, Volume 5 (Wheaton, IL: Richard Owen Roberts, Publishers, 1981), 396.

[12] Charles L. Feinberg, Jeremiah (EBC 6; ed. Frank E. Gaebelein and J. D. Douglas; Accordance electronic ed. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986), 570.

[13] “Notice the conditions of restoration: a change of heart, i.e., a repentant spirit that leads to confession of sin; a turning back to God with all her heart and soul; and a praying toward the land of her fathers and the temple (trusting in God’s promise; cf. Dan 6:10)” (Richard D. Patterson and Hermann J. Austel, 1 and 2 Kings [EBC 4; ed. Frank E. Gaebelein and J. D. Douglas; Accordance electronic ed. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988], 88).

[14] Thomas Ridgley, A Body of Divinity, Volume 2 (New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1855), 151.


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