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What Is Repentance?

William S. Plumer (1802-1880)

Repentance belongs exclusively to the religion of sinners. It has no place in the exercises of unfallen creatures. He who has never done a sinful act, nor had a sinful nature, [does not need] forgiveness, conversion, or repentance. Holy angels never repent; they have nothing to repent of. This is so clear that it is needless to argue the matter. But sinners need all these blessings. To them they are indispensable. The wickedness of the human heart makes it necessary.

Under all dispensations,1 since our first parents were expelled from the Garden of Eden, God has insisted on repentance.Among the patriarchs, Job said, “I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6). Under the Law, David wrote the 32nd and 51st psalms. John the Baptist cried, “Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mat 3:2). Christ’s account of Himself is that He came to call “sinners to repentance” (Mat 9:13). Just before His ascension, Christ commanded that “repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem” (Luk 24:47). And the Apostles taught the same doctrine, “testifying both to the Jews, and also to the Greeks, repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ” (Act 20:21). So that any system of religion among men that should not include repentance would upon its very face be false. Matthew Henry2says, “If the heart of man had continued upright and unstained, divine consolations might have been received without this painful operation preceding; but being sinful, it must first be pained before it can be laid at ease, must labor before it can be at rest. The sore must be searched, or it cannot be cured. The doctrine of repentance is right gospel doctrine. Not only the austere Baptist, who was looked upon as a melancholy, [gloomy] man, but the sweet and gracious Jesus, Whose lips dropped as a honeycomb, preached repentance…” This doctrine will not be amiss while the world stands.

Though repentance is an obvious and oft-commanded duty, yet it cannot be truly and acceptably performed except by the grace of God. It is a gift from heaven. Paul directs Timothy in meekness to instruct those that oppose themselves, “If God peradventure will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth” (2Ti 2:25). Christ is exalted a Prince and a Savior “to give repentance” (Act 5:31). So when the heathen were brought in, the church glorified God, saying, “Then hath God also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life” (Act 11:18). All this is according to the tenor of the Old Testament promises. There God says He will do this work for us and in us. Listen to His gracious words: “A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them” (Eze 36:26-27)…True repentance is a special mercy from God. He gives it. It comes from none other. It is impossible for poor fallen nature so far to recover herself by her own strength as truly to repent. The heart is wedded to its own ways and justifies its own sinful courses with incurable obstinacy3until divine grace makes the change. No motives to good are strong enough to overcome depravity in the natural heart of man. If ever we attain this grace, it must be through the great love of God to perishing men.

Yet repentance is most reasonable…When called to duties that we are reluctant to perform, we are easily persuaded that they are unreasonably exacted of us. It is therefore always helpful to us to have a command of God binding our consciences in any case. It is truly benevolent [for] God to speak to us so authoritatively in this matter. God “now commandeth all men everywhere to repent” (Act 17:30). The ground of the command is that all men everywhere are sinners. Our blessed Savior was without sin, and of course, He could not repent. With that solitary exception, since the Fall there has not been found any just person who needed no repentance. And none are more to be pitied than those poor deluded men who see in their hearts and lives nothing to repent of.

But what is true repentance? This is a question of the highest importance. It deserves our closest attention. The following is probably as good a definition as has yet been given. “Repentance unto life is a saving grace, wrought in the heart of a sinner by the Spirit and Word of God, whereby out of the sight and sense, not only of the danger, but also of the filthiness and odiousness4of his sins, and upon the apprehension of God’s mercy in Christ to such as are penitent,5 he so grieves for and hates his sins that he turns from them all to God, purposing and endeavouring constantly to walk with Him in all the ways of new obedience.”6That this definition is sound and scriptural will appear more and more clearly the more thoroughly it is examined. True repentance is sorrow for sin, ending in reformation. Mere regret is not repentance; neither is mere outward reformation…He who truly repents is chiefly sorry for his sins; he whose repentance is spurious7 is chiefly concerned for their consequences. The former chiefly regrets that he has done evil, the latter that he has incurred evil. One sorely laments that he deserves punishment, the other that he must suffer punishment. One approves of the Law that condemns him; the other thinks he is [harshly] treated and that the Law is rigorous. To the sincere penitent, sin appears exceeding sinful. To him who sorrows after a worldly sort, sin in some form appears pleasant. He regrets that it is forbidden. One says it is an evil and bitter thing to sin against God, even if no punishment followed; the other sees little evil in transgression if there were no painful consequences sure to follow. If there were no hell, the one would still wish to be delivered from sin; if there were no retribution, the other would sin with increased greediness. The true penitent is chiefly averse to sin as it is an offence against God. This embraces all sins of every description. But it has often been observed that two classes of sins seem to rest with great weight on the conscience of those whose repentance is of a godly sort. These are secret sins and sins of omission. On the other hand, in a spurious repentance, the mind is much inclined to dwell on open sins and on sins of commission.8The true penitent knows the plague of an evil heart and a fruitless life; the spurious penitent is not much troubled about the real state of heart, but grieves that appearances are so much against him.

From Vital Godliness, Sprinkle Publications,


William S. Plumer (1802-1880): American Presbyterian minister and author; born in Greensburg, PA, USA.

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