Repentance is a grace of God’s Spirit whereby a sinner is inwardly humbled and visibly reformed. In Adam, all suffered shipwreck; repentance is the only plank by which we may swim to heaven. It is a grace required under the gospel. The first sermon Christ preached – indeed, the very first word of His sermon – was “Repent” (Matt. 4:17). This was also His farewell message, which He commanded to be proclaimed in all the earth (Luke 24:47). Repentance was what the apostles went out to preach (Mark 6:12). God Himself commands all men everywhere to repent (Matt. 3:2; Acts 3:19; 8:22; 17:30; cf. Heb. 6:1).
Though faith is wrought first in the heart, doubtless repentance shows itself first in the Christian’s life. Repentance is not a legal terror, for there may be terror of punishment, yet with no change of heart. Further, repentance is not only resolution against sin (Jer. 2:20; cf. Rev. 6:8). True repentance of sin is present when the acts of sin cease because of the infusion of a principle of grace by the Spirit, just as the air ceases to be dark because of the infusion of light.
Repentance is a spiritual medicine composed of six ingredients. First, repentance involves a sight of sin, wherein a man comes to himself (Luke 15:17), recognizing what his sin is and what he himself is before a holy God. This causes him to cry with the prophet, “Woe is me! for I am undone” (Isa. 6:5).
Second, repentance consists of sorrow for sin. This is the embittering of the soul to the extent that it is crucified in sorrow (cf. Zech. 12:10; Luke 7:38). Such sorrow of the heart runs out of the eyes with bitter tears of holy agony (Ezra 9:3; Ps. 51:17; Isa. 22:12; Jer. 31:19; Joel 2:13; Luke 18:13). In such tears, sin must drown or the soul will burn. Those who mourn after a godly manner are then comforted (Matt. 5:4; 2 Cor. 7:9).
Third, repentance includes confession of sin (Neh. 9:2; Hos. 5:15). This confession is self-accusing (2 Sam. 24:17; cf. Neh. 9:33); voluntary (Luke 15:18); with compunction (Ps. 38:4); sincere (Luke 18:10-14); and includes a resolution not to act in sin again (Prov. 28:13; Isa. 1:16; Ezek. 18:21).
This confession purges out sin and endears Christ to the soul (Rom. 7:25). Thereby is the way made clear for pardon (2 Sam. 12:13; 1 John 1:9).
Fourth, repentance includes shame for sin (Ezek. 43:10). When the heart has been made black with sin, grace makes the face red with blushing (Ezra 9:6; cf. Luke 15:21). This holy embarrassment is due to the recognition of sin’s many distresses, among them its guiltiness, its abuse of Christ, and its corrupting power, folly, and extent.
Fifth, repentance necessitates a hatred of sin (Ezek. 36:31). A true penitent is a sin-loather (Zech. 3:4-5). Further, he hates not one sin but all sin (Ps. 119:104); indeed, he spurns sin in any form. He hates sin not only for hell, but as hell.
Sixth, repentance works a turning from sin. This turning is from all sin (Isa. 55:7) fully unto God (Acts 26:20). As a ship going east is turned west by the wind, likewise, a man who was bent hell-ward before the contrary wind of the Spirit blew turns his course in repentance and is caused to sail heavenward. This turning is called a forsaking of sin (Isa. 55:7), a putting of sin far away (Job 11:14), and a dying to sin (Rom. 6:2). This is a whole-souled turning: the eye turns from impure glances; the ear, from hearing slanders; the tongue, from abusive speech; the hands, from all evil; the feet, from the path of the harlot; and the soul, from the love of wickedness.
There is no rowing to paradise except upon this stream of repenting tears. How earnestly does God call upon men to turn to Him? He swears, “As I live … I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked … turn ye, turn ye from your evil ways” (Ezek. 33:11). God would rather have our repenting tears than our blood. If we turn to God, He will turn to us (Zech. 1:3). He will turn His anger from us and His face to us. Then all things shall turn to our good, both mercies and afflictions; we shall taste honey at the end of the rod.