Repentance is the Gift of Grace by Martyn Lloyd Jones
All the passages below are taken from Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ book “God the Holy Spirit.” The sermon was preached at Westminister Chapel, London, from 1952 to 1955 and first published in 1997 and this edition in 2002.
Repentance, as we have seen, always comes before faith in our response to the gospel, so we will now look at repentance. The best way to start when considering all these doctrines—a method we have consistently adopted—is to notice the meaning and the connotation of the terms that are used. Now the word repentance means `to think again’, `to think once more’. So whereas you had dismissed this whole subject of religion, and had given up thinking about it, repentance means that you think again. `Repent’ is, of course, a Latin word which we have taken over into the English language and as far as it goes it is all right. Yet in many ways it is a great misfortune that this particular word is the one that we use most frequently and the one that we find in our various translations of the Scriptures because the original Greek word, metanoia, used in the New Testament is a much bigger word than its Latin equivalent. Metanoia, repentance, does not merely mean to think again. Itcarries with it a much more significant element, which is that this thinking again results in our changing our minds. And that is a vital addition.
Jesus told a parable which states this perfectly.
A certain man had two sons; and he came to the first, and said, Son, go work to day in my vineyard. He answered and said, I will not: but afterward he repented, and went. And he came to the second, and said likewise. And he answered and said, I go, sir: and went not. Whether of them twain did the will of his father? They say unto him, The first. Jesus saith unto them, Verily I say unto you, That the publicans and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you. ForJohn came unto you in the way of righteousness, and ye believed him not: but the publicans and the harlots believed him: and ye, when ye had seen it, repented not afterward, that ye might believe him. (Matthew 21:28-32)
Now the point I am making is shown very clearly in the case of the first son. When the father asked him to go and work in the vineyard, he refused: but afterwards he repented and went. So what happened to him? Well, he obviously reconsidered it. Having said in that brusque, impolite manner, `I will not,’ and having walked away, probably in a rage because his father was interrupting his plans, he came back to it again and he thought again about it. It does mean that—that is the first step. You go back and re-examine the thing you have already dismissed. You think again. Ah yes, but not only that: he thought differently. He changed his mind. He now went and worked in the vineyard, which he formerly had refused to do.
But that does not exhaust the full content of this great term. You change your mind, yes, but in changing your mind, you must be conscious of a sense of regret for the wrong view that you had taken previously and the wrong conduct that had emanated from that wrong view. So clearly, this element of regret is also present. This young man, when he thought about it again, must have said, `It was very wrong of me to have spoken like that to my father.’ Not only did he change his mind, he regretted that he had said and thought the wrong thing. So we see that generally the best way to discover the meaning of New Testament terms is not so much to consult dictionaries as to consult the context. Our Lord defines what He means by His terms in a parable like this.
Then there is another element which is vitally essential in repentance and that is a change of conduct: `Afterward he repented, and went.’ The action was a part of the repentance. If the son had merely changed his point of view and had felt sorry that he had spoken to his father in the way he did, but then had just sat down, or had gone to spend the afternoon at the seaside with his friends, he would not really have repented. That would have been remorse. It is a vital part of the process of repentance that we do the thing that we formerly were refusing to do. There, then, are the essential elements of this condition, this attitude, this new something that comes into being when people hear the call of the gospel effectually and respond to it.
The next question is: What leads to repentance? In a sense, we have already answered by saying that it is the effectual call. Yes, but that is not enough. We must analyse it still more. What produces repentance in us? And the answer of the Bible to that question is the blessed word grace. Repentance is a gift of God which leads to an activity on the part of men and women. Take Zechariah 12:10 where God says that `the spirit of grace and of supplication’ will be poured out on His people. That is it. Without grace and supplication there cannot be repentance.
Then come to the New Testament. `Him’ says Peter, ‘hath God exalted with his right hand to be a Prince and a Saviour, for to give repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins’ (Acts 5:31). Had you ever noticed that Christ gives repentance quite as much as He gives forgiveness of sins? Then in Acts 11:18 we read about the reaction of the people who had listened to Peter’s story of the conversion of Cornelius. They were amazed that the Holy Spirit had descended upon these Gentiles exactly as He had done on the Jews on the Day of Pentecost. And, we are told, `When they heard these things, they held their peace, and glorified God, saying, Then hath God also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life.’ Repentance is the gift of grace, the gift of God.
Moving on to Paul, he writes to Timothy, `In meekness instructing those that oppose themselves; if God peradventure will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth’ (2 Tim. 2:25). Paul is telling Timothy what to do with people who have become heretical, people who have gone astray and Paul says that Timothy must instruct them in meekness. And this is Paul’s reason: `if God peradventure will give them repentance’. You notice where repentance comes from.
So 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. The Bible is full of this. The gospel is preached, the word is proclaimed, calling men and women to repentance. `[God] commandeth all men every where to repent’ (Acts 17:30). How? By the preaching of the word. You have a great instance of that in the Ninevites. There is another in Acts 2 when the apostle Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, was preaching at Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost. And as he preached, and as the Holy Spirit applied the word, the people cried out saying, `Men and brethren, what shall we do?’ (Acts 2:37). That is an indication of repentance, and it was the preached word that did it. It is the presentation of the truth that produces this condition of repentance.
And Paul again, in reminding the Thessalonians of what had happened to them, tells them that the gospel that he had preached had come `not unto you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Ghost, and in much assurance’. And what was its effect? They `turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God’ (1 Thessalonians 1:5, 9). It produced repentance.
Now that brings us on to our third principle. We have considered the terms, and how repentance is brought about, and now we must ask this question: What is it in men and women that is engaged or involved in repentance? We are now trying to measure and to estimate the greatness of repentance and my reason for doing this is not only that it is something that is plainly taught in Scripture but that furthermore while these lectures are called discourses and addresses (and I call them that myself), I cannot forget that I am a preacher. And a man who can forget that he is a preacher when he is handling the word of God needs to repent, because this is not to be considered theoretically, it is something very practical. We must consider this matter because, surely, the thing that accounts more than anything else for the state of the Church, as well as the state of the world today, is our failure to realise the full content of what is meant by repentance. This is the note that is missing. Very often people are rushed to decisions without knowing what repentance means. We have not taken the biblical view of repentance in its height and depth and length and breadth.
Let me show you, then, what is engaged in a man or woman in repentance, what is involved. And the answer is, of course, the whole person. Repentance must include the whole person or it is not really repentance. Now the classic statement of this is in Romans 6:17: `But God be thanked,’ says the Apostle, `that ye were servants of sin, but ye have obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine which was delivered you.’ Or `the form of sound words’, it does not matter which way you translate it.
So let us analyse that. What is engaged? Well, first and foremost, the mind, the intellect. 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. Again, there is another statement of this in Romans 3:20: `By the law,’ says the Apostle, `is the knowledge of sin.’ That is what the law is for. Now I do trust that nobody gets tired of my constant references to the Puritans; it will be a sad day when people do tire of them! But I refer to them for this reason: they always believed in doing what they called `a thorough law-work’ before they applied the message of the gospel. They took time, in other words, to see that people were truly convicted of sin. This preliminary law-work was equally characteristic of the preaching of George Whitefield and of John and Charles Wesley. Indeed, it continued to be the characteristic of true evangelical preaching until the end of the nineteenth century.
Now ‘law-work’ meant just this: `By the law is the knowledge of sin.’ And that is the function of the law. The law `was added because of transgression’ (Galatians 3:19). It was never introduced in order to provide people with a way of salvation, it could not do that because it was `weak through the flesh’ (Romans 8:3). So, then, why the law? Well, it was introduced to show the exceeding sinfulness of sin (Romans 7:13). Men and women do not like this idea of sin, they rebel against it, they hate it. And that is the very reason why they need to be held under the law. They need to be convicted of sin, they need to have their mind addressed and enlightened with regard to their condition. So preaching about repentance starts with the intellect and the understanding. It you exclude the intellect and the mind, it means you are excluding the law as well, and that is a terrible thing; for it is God Himself who gave the law and He gave it for this specific purpose.
`Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes,’ says Job (Job 42:6). Consider also Psalm 51 and notice the deep feeling expressed by David. Then take the famous parable spoken by our Lord about the Pharisee and the tax collector. We are told that the tax collector, `smote upon his breast’ (Luke 18:13). He not only felt that he could not look up into heaven, that he had no right to speak and could only stand afar off, but he smote his breast. Romans 7:24 says, `O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?’ And in 2 Corinthians 7:11 there is an extraordinary description of the emotions involved in true repentance. But our blessed Lord Himself has said the whole thing in one of His beatitudes, in the Sermon on the Mount: `Blessed are they that mourn’ (Matthew 5:4); they are not only poor in spirit, they mourn. Now is this not something that somehow or other has been overlooked by us? How often at the present time do you see people in agony because of sin? How many of our converts know anything about an anguish of soul? How often today are men and women seen to be shedding tears because of their conviction of sin? How many people have you known who have groaned because of their sinfulness? Have we, I wonder? But all these are to be found in the Scriptures.
Repentance includes the heart and the feelings. It is not a passing sorrow; it is not some desire for something. No, no, this law-work leads to profound emotion. As I have said, the intensity of the emotional manifestation will vary from case to case. We differ emotionally as we differ in every other respect, but what I am concerned to emphasise is that there always must be this powerful element of emotion; and it is not true repentance if it is not there. Think of Charles Wesley’s great hymn: ‘Jesu, lover of my soul’. Let us never forget that it was that godly, moral and religious young man who said,
Just and holy is Thy Name,
I am all unrighteousness.
Vile and full of sin I am.
You feel the emotion; he is conscious of it. There must be a kind of anguish, a sense of fear and dread. The emotions are always engaged in repentance; as Paul says `a godly sorrow’ (2 Corinthians 7:10).
And then, thirdly, repentance also includes the will. This is vital. As Isaiah said, `Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thought’ (Isaiah 55:7). He must forsake it. He is not only to feel sorry, he is not only to see his sin, he must leave it. `Rend your hearts, and not your garments, and turn unto the Lord your God’ (Joel 2:13). Do something about it. Having seen the sin, the law-work having been done, your mind having been persuaded, having thought it—act upon it! I might have included the text from Joel 2 equally well in the previous section, under emotion. 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. But this is the scriptural definition of repentance.
Then that brings us to Luke 3, with John the Baptist’s preaching: `Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of repentance, and begin not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, That God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham’ (Luke 3:8). You have got to do something about it, said John. It is just not enough to feel something while I’m preaching, `Bring forth fruits worthy of repentance.’ And then John went into details. The people came to him in deputations asking him, `What shall we do?’ (Luke 3:10, 12, 14). And he gave them very specific answers to their questions, answers which deserve careful consideration. To the people, he said, `He that hath two coats, let him impart to him that hath none; and he that hath meat, let him do likewise.’ Then publicans also came and asked the same question, `And he said unto them, Exact no more than that which is appointed you.’ Finally soldiers came, `And he said unto them, Do violence to no man, neither accuse any falsely; and be content with your wages.’ The will must be engaged.
You find the same teaching in the parable about the two sons in Matthew 21; there is a turning which is an essential part of repentance. The will comes into operation and it turns us from what was wrong to what is right. Paul’s commission given to him by our Lord on the road to Damascus told him to go and teach the Gentiles, `to turn them from darkness to light’ (Acts 26:18). Action is an essential part. And Paul reminds the Thessalonians again, `How ye turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God’ (1 Thessalonians 1:9).
Now that gives us some estimate of the greatness of this act of repentance: it takes up the whole person. But the fourth principle is: What are the questions or the matters with which repentance deals? Here again we will see the greatness of repentance. What are the subjects? The first is God Himself. Repentance means a changed view of God. We think again. We have had wrong views of God and we now have another view. Yes, and an entirely different view of men and women.
Then the other subject is the relationship between God and man. We see how that needs to be changed. According to `the natural man’ there is no need to worry about that because God is love. If he believes in God at all, `God is love,’ he says, `I do a bit of good and everything will be all right.’ When men and women repent, they have an entirely new mind on this relationship, and also on life itself and the whole purpose of life and how it should be lived. And a great change takes place in their view of death and of eternity. In other words, repentance not only includes the whole person, it includes that person’s whole outlook upon everything that is of value and of concern in this life and in this world.
In the fifth principle we must consider what exactly repentance leads to in experience. How can I know that I have repented? First of all, it involves a change in our view of and thoughts concerning God. It is only when we repent that we really see the holiness and the greatness of God. The moment we see it, we have repented. We have this other view. By nature, our view of God is entirely wrong: `The carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be’ (Romans 8:7). `The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God‘ (Psalm 14:1). And then there are others who, if they claim to believe in God, have a God of their own conjuring up and of their own imaginations, some projection of themselves and their own ideas. Those who say, `I believe in God,’ have no conception of God. Their view of God is wrong; it is false and they need an entire change.
Once again, is this not also something which has gone sour, which has got lost and gone astray among us? Do we walk in the fear of God? Are we people who give the impression that we know something about the greatness of God? People who come near to God walk softly. We are told in the book of Acts that the believers walked `in the fear of the Lord, and in the comfort of the Holy Ghost’ (Acts 9:31). But somehow or other we seem to have harboured the idea in these last years that the Christian’s joy means that there must never be any impression of the fear of God. But we are told by the New Testament to serve Him with `reverence and godly fear’ (Heb. 12:28), because He is great, He is holy. Yes, you can have the joy of the Lord and yet walk in the fear of the Lord at the same time. It is a holy fear. It is not a fear that ‘hath torment’ (1 John 4:18), it is not a craven fear, but surely the nearer we are to Christ and to God, and 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.
So we have lost a reverence for God and, therefore, for the whole of life, and also for the justice of God and the truth of God. But all these things bring us to a knowledge of the mercy of God, of His compassion, His kindness and His love. These things all go together. The Christian, at one and the same time, knows about the justice of God and the love of God. Justice and mercy are met together—that is essential Christianity. It is only the Christian who can hold those two things at the same time.
Indeed, it is this artificial, erroneous dichotomy which we seem to have introduced that is so unscriptural. People are so anxious to emphasise the love of God, that they forget the justice of God which is still there. In Christ they are met together. On the cross of Calvary the justice is fully satisfied and the love streams forth; but at the same time the Christian’s love of God is a holy love; the Christian’s joy is a holy joy. Everything must be holy. So that is something of the new thoughts and the new idea of God that people, who have repented, have when they come to themselves.
A further change is that far from being self-satisfied as they were, they now have a sense of guilt and of unworthiness.They have a feeling that they have sinned against God. Not only that; they have, as David brings out so amazingly in Psalm 51, and as Paul shows in Romans 7, they have a sense of pollution: `Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me. Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward parts … Wash me . . .’ (Psalm 51:5-7). I need to be washed. I am polluted and foul. `In me,’ says Paul, `(that is, in my flesh) dwelleth no good thing’ (Romans 7:18). Is that true of you? Have you realised that? However we may interpret that chapter, it must mean that at some time or other we have felt that.
And that is the question: have you ever felt that pollution? Do you know yourself sufficiently well to know it? Have you ever known that in you dwells no good thing? ‘Vile and full of sin I am,’ wrote Charles Wesley. The greater the saint the more he or she is aware of that. In other words, their repentance is deeper. They know about the corruption of their heart, the vileness that is in them as the result of the fall and original sin. And then they realise, on top of all that, their own weakness, their own helplessness. Those who think they can live the Sermon on the Mount in their own strength are people who are just ignorant, that is the only thing to say about them because the first statement in that sermon is, `Blessed are the poor in spirit’ (Matthew 5:3), the people who realise they cannot do anything.
What else changes? Well, their views on life and living. They now have a sense of the hatefulness of sin. They are not only aware of their sinful acts and their sinful nature, they hate sin as sin. They have a profound hatred of it as something opposed to God that should never have entered into this world. But, on the other hand, they have a sense of the beauty of holiness, the beauty and the perfection of righteousness. They see the beauty and the glory of God’s holy law. These things are no longer abhorrent to them. They acknowledge that the law of God is perfect and pure and holy and just and righteous. It is no longer grievous to them. They do not talk about the Christian life being a narrow life. In a sense, they almost want it to be narrower. They are not trying to live as near as they can to the world; they hate all that and desire to be holy.
What, then, is the result of all this? Let me summarise it. Repentance must result in a sense of grief and of sorrow because of sin. It includes self-loathing—a hatred of one’s sinful nature. Do we hate ourselves, I wonder? `Oh wretched man that I am!’ says Paul in Romans 7:24—that is it. It also leads to a sense of fear because we have sinned against this holy God, who is righteous and just and who is the Lord of the universe and the judge eternal.
Our self-loathing in the light of God’s justice and holiness leads to a longing for deliverance, and that, in turn, leads to our doing everything we can in order to make deliverance possible. People who repent do their utmost to save themselves. They may mislead themselves for a while in doing that, but it is a good sign, a sign that they are trying to do everything they can to set themselves free.
And then that goes on to confession of sin to God and a consuming desire to please Him. It means not only that they are poor in spirit and mourn, but that they cry out to God to have mercy upon them. `Have mercy upon me 0 God’ (Psalm 51:1). Our Lord has put it perfectly in His parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector: `God have mercy upon me a sinner.’ That is the position of those who have repented. They do not, they cannot, say more than that at that point. They are broken-hearted; they realise it all; they can but cast themselves upon the mercy of God. They cannot plead anything else, but they plead that. That, in a sense, is a definition of repentance.
Now just to complete this, let us consider briefly the differences between remorse and repentance, because they are not the same thing. In remorse, you can have a sorrow because of failure and you can be very annoyed with yourself because you have done something that you know to be wrong and that you should not do. Indeed, remorse can go further; it can even include a fear of the consequences. Let us never forget that remorse can go as far as that. But that is not what Paul calls `godly sorrow’. Let me remind you of what that is. Paul writes:
Now I rejoice, not that ye were made sorry, but that ye sorrowed to repentance. [You can be made sorry without sorrowing to repentance.] For ye were made sorry after a godly manner, that ye might receive damage by us in nothing. For godly sorrow [this is the thing] worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of … 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! (2 Corinthians 7:9-11)
You see the passion, the feeling, the emotion. They have seen it with their minds, they feel it and have done something about it.
So what are the differences between repentance and remorse? Well, true repentance, differing from remorse, includes these elements. It gives us a sense of having offended against God and having grieved Him and hurt Him. It gives us, I repeat, a sense of pollution and of utter unworthiness. It makes us say
I hate the sins that made Thee mourn
That drove Thee from my breast. William Cowper
It gives us a longing and a determination to be rid of sin. This vehement desire, this activity, this zeal, this revenge that Paul is talking about, this is godly sorrow.
We can again sum it up in one of the Beatitudes. This is the ultimate test of true repentance and the thing that differentiates it most of all from remorse—repentance gives us a hunger and thirst after righteousness. It makes us desire to be like Christ and more and more like Him, to be righteous and holy and clean. We do not simply feel sorrow because we have fallen again and because we are suffering afterwards and have let ourselves down—not at all. Remorse is negative—repentance is positive.
Oh for a heart to praise my God,
A heart from sin set free;
A heart that always feels Thy blood
So freely shed for me.
That is repentance. (131-141)