Did I mean it? How sorry was I? Do I really want to change? Many have nagging doubts over their repentance. That’s often valid. Paul tells us that there is true and false repentance (2 Corinthians 7:10). Paul also makes clear that repentance isn’t just sorrow; that can also be genuine or false. Repentance involves our feelings. But if we only ever assess it by our feelings our conclusions about whether it is genuine will always be subjective. How do we get beyond this?
It’s important to have a serious attitude about this. If we aren’t confessing our sin, what are we saying? That we have no sins? That we haven’t sinned? Then we are making God a liar (1 John 1:8). It would also mean neglecting the blood of Jesus Christ that continually cleanses us from all sin. We need to keep coming in repentance because we keep sinning. If we keep sinning without repenting we harden ourselves in it and cannot have true fellowship with God.
It helps to establish first what we mean by repentance. James Durham gives a helpful definition. Repentance is a work of sanctifying grace, arising from the sense of sin forgiven and hope of future mercy. It makes the heart both indignant against past sin and warmed with desire and love towards the mercy they expect. This repentance goes along with faith, which acts to attain the hoped for forgiveness with a thorough impression of the freeness of forgiveness alongside the person’s felt sinfulness. This is the godly sorrow which is spoken of in 2 Corinthians 7:11 and in other places where repentance is required in order sin to be forgiven. It also involves turning from sin and seeking to obey God.
In the following updated extract, Durham goes on to speak about how we can identify genuine repentance. It isn’t simply about what kind of feelings we have and to what extent they are experienced. There are more objective ways to identify whether repentance is the real thing or not.
1. Genuine Repentance is Not a Particular Degree
The Lord does not require some categorical degree of repentance, but He does require sincere repentance together with the fruits that naturally accompany it.
2. Genuine Repentance is Not a Particular Emotion
You cannot judge the sincerity of your repentance only by the sorrow, horror or grief that sometimes accompanies it. Nor can you judge it by how long you continue in such emotions while repenting. Repentance can be genuine even when there is little sense of these things. Experience demonstrates this. Repentance may be unsound when there is a great deal of felt sorrow, even over a long period of time.
3. Genuine Repentance has the Right Causes and Effects
The best way to judge the sincerity of repentance is by its causes and its effects. It is a good sign if repentance is caused by a concern about God’s honour. The effects of this concern are that: sin becomes hateful to you, you are humbled in yourself and you value and esteem God’s grace in Christ Jesus so highly that you are in love with it. This is turning, properly understood, and it includes all the essential features of repentance whatever may be the degree of sorrow.
4. Genuine Repentance May be Explicit or Implicit
Repentance is explicit when people know that specific things are sins and that they themselves are guilty of these sins. They then expressly and explicitly acknowledge this and turn from these sins. Other times, repentance is implicit. This is when people are moved with the sense of their sinfulness in general. They may still be guilty of some things which they do not realise are sins, or they do not realise they are guilty of these sins. There are also many matters of fact which people forget, or did not notice, or do not think about. The psalmist prays to be cleansed from secret sins (Psalm 19:12). Implicit repentance is necessary for pardon, but it is not necessary that repentance should be explicit for every particular sin someone is guilty of.
5. Genuine Repentance May be Actual or Implied
Sometimes repentance is actual for particular sins. For example, when Peter repented of his denial, and David repented of his murder. Other times, repentance is implied. Someone may have a heart concern about some particular sin and for the corrupt inclination and body of death which it sprang from. Yet there may be other particular sins which they either do not realise are sin or they are not particularly thinking and repenting about. They do have an implied repentance for these sins. This is because: (a) They repent of all sin in its root and seed. This implies a loathing for all the sins which branch out from this root; (b) The sins they do repent of are repented of due to what is common to all sin–lack of conformity to the law of God. They detest the essence and defining characteristic of sin as such, and in this sense they repent of all sins by implication. It is this principle that is necessary for true repentance.
6. Genuine Repentance May be Passionate or Perceptive
Repentance may be impassioned when the heart experiences a high degree of sorrow. Other times, repentance is perceptive. This is when sin is seen and acknowledged and (although there may not be such intense sorrow) sin is still regarded as something to sorrow for. Indeed the heart is sorry that its sorrow for sin is not deeper and the person realises they are so far under the power of spiritual deadness that they cannot even repent as far as they see they should. This perceptive repentance has the essential effects of repentance (namely, that the person hates sin, is humbled, and loves God’s mercy in Christ). Intense passionate feelings may not always, however, have these effects.
7. Genuine Repentance May be Complete or Confined
Sometimes repentance is all-encompassing, taking up the whole person in their affections and actions. This can be seen in David’s experience in Psalm 51. Other times, repentance is limited to the renewed (regenerate) part of the person. The renewed part may be lamenting sin and the tyranny of the body of death, even while it is kept in bondage by it. This constrained repentance is what Paul shows in Romans 7:15, where he condemned what he did but was overcome by his own sinfulness. Despite this he like Ephraim bemoaning himself (Jeremiah 31:18) was a true penitent.
8. Genuine Repentance May be Obvious or Hidden
Repentance may obvious to everyone or to the person themselves, because they have been clearly recovered from sin. This was the case with the repentance of David, Peter, and Manasseh. Other times, repentance is known only to God. Even when there are no visible evidences to others, or indeed even any change of which the person themselves is conscious, repentance may be genuine. This may be said of Solomon and Asa, their change is not very discernible because the Lord has left them under something of a cloud in His Word. Yet we cannot doubt that they did genuinely repent because they were pardoned.
This has been ordered by the Lord in His deep wisdom: (a) partly to chastise their backsliding; (b) partly to terrify others from their backsliding path and (c) partly to make all men cautious about passing judgement on the state of others despite their condition. For the Lord Himself alone must make the sovereign and infallible decision about whether they are truly penitent and believers or not. He can produce faith and repentance and recover and renew as and when He pleases.
We don’t want to think we have repented while actually just putting our conscience to sleep while we continue in sin. We want a repentance concerned about God’s honour and glory. We want genuine repentance that hates all sin in principle, that humbles us and values God’s grace in Christ above all.