Repentance unto Life

In the last chapter, we considered that once a person has been made alive spiritually by the work of the Holy Spirit, his regenerate heart naturally believes and repents. We have also observed that faith and repentance flow out of regeneration; they are not the cause of regeneration. Faith and repentance are closely connected; neither has a priority, but are best considered as twins. D. James Kennedy writes: “Repentance and faith are inseparable in Scripture. There can be no genuine repentance without faith. And there is no genuine faith without repentance. The two go together as heads and tails on one coin.”1 John Murray concurs:

The faith that is unto salvation is a penitent faith and the repentance that is unto life is a believing repentance. . . . It is impossible to disentangle faith and repentance. Saving faith is permeated with repentance and repentance is permeated with faith. Regeneration becomes vocal in our minds in the exercises of faith and repentance.2

Paul connects faith and repentance in Acts 20:21: “…solemnly testifying to both Jews and Greeks of repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.”


The Westminster Confession of Faith writes concerning repentance: “Repentance unto life is an evangelical grace, the doctrine whereof is to be preached by every minister of the Gospel, as well as that of faith in Christ.”3 The Westminster Shorter Catechism gives this succinct definition of repentance: “Repentance unto life is a saving grace, whereby a sinner out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, doth, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavour after new obedience” (Question 87). The first statement in this definition is that repentance is a saving grace. The same phrase is used to describe faith and captures the thought that both faith and repentance are gifts from God. 2 Timothy 2:24-26 affirms the idea that repentance is a gift from God:

And the Lord’s bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will” (emphasis added).

In Paul’s instructions to Timothy, he states that Timothy is to instruct and correct those who are in opposition to the truth. He is to do this with kindness and gentleness with the hope that God may grant or give them repentance. This passage clearly shows that repentance is a gift from God and the giving of repentance is based upon the sovereign prerogative of God. In Acts 5:31, Peter declared, “‘He is the one whom God exalted to His right hand as a Prince and Savior, to grant repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins.’” In Acts 11, after hearing Peter tell of the conversion of Cornelius and his household, the Jerusalem church “glorified God, saying, ‘Well then, God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life’” (Acts 11:18). Both of these passages also affirm that repentance is a gift from God. Repentance is the natural response of a heart that has been regenerated by the sovereign work of God.


The Greek words for repentance in the New Testament are primarily metanoeo (34 times) and metanoia (22 times). These words have the meaning of “changing one’s mind.” Another word-group that refers to repentance is strepho and epistrepho which has the meaning “to turn” and “to turn about” (both are usually translated as “convert” or “be converted”). Metamelomai, meaning “to become concerned about afterwards” is also used with regard to repentance. These word-groups convey the idea of a person going one direction, having a change of mind, turning, and going the opposite direction. John Murray writes:

Repentance consists essentially in change of heart and mind and will. The change of heart and mind and will principally respects four things: it is a change of mind respecting God, respecting ourselves, respecting sin, and respecting righteousness. Apart from regeneration our thought of God, of ourselves, of sin, and of righteousness is radically perverted. Regeneration changes our hearts and minds; it radically renews them. Hence there is a radical change in our thinking and feeling.”4

This change of mind is not general or vague; it is a change of mind in regard to particular sin and a person’s need before a holy God. In true repentance, a person understands that God is holy and just, that he cannot save himself, that his righteousness is as filthy rags (Isa. 64:6), and that his only hope is God’s mercy in Christ. He also understands the nature of his sin and rebellion against a good and holy God and has sorrow and grief over his violation of God’s law. Out of this change of mind a person confesses his sin and turns from them. The proof of genuine repentance is the action the flows out of this change of mind and attitude. When Paul is giving his defense before Festus and King Agrippa he mentions that God sent him “. . . to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the dominion of Satan to God, in order that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who have been sanctified by faith in me” (Acts 26:18). The idea of turning from darkness to light, from sin to obedience to God is the central idea in repentance. Thomas Watson, the 17th century Puritan minister, set forth six aspects of repentance: “1) Sight of sin; 2) Sorrow for sin; 3) Confession of sin; 4) Shame for sin; 5) Hatred for sin; 6) Turning from sin.”5 Watson sets forth the essence of the biblical concept of repentance: out of an awareness, sorrow, shame, and hatred of sin, the repentant person turns from it to God.


Historical theology makes a distinction between true and false repentance. A false or spurious type of repentance is called attrition while true repentance is called contrition. Attrition is motivated by fear of punishment. The sorrow in attrition is the sorrow for being caught and the desire to escape punishment. It is the kind of repentance that parents see when they catch a child with his hand in the cookie jar. The child “repents” loudly: “I’m sorry! I’m sorry! Please don’t spank me!” The sorrow is not motivated from a sense of sorrow for being disobedient, but from fear of punishment. The loud exclamations of repentance are designed to escape punishment. In the book of Exodus, Pharaoh is a vivid example of attrition. As God brought plagues on Egypt, Pharaoh would seemingly repent, but as soon as the plague stopped, he would recant his repentance. For example, during the plague of the fiery hail, Pharaoh sent for Moses and Aaron: “Then Pharaoh sent for Moses and Aaron, and said to them, ‘I have sinned this time; the Lord is the righteous one, and I and my people are the wicked ones. Make supplication to the Lord, for there has been enough of God’s thunder and hail; and I will let you go, and you shall stay no longer’” (Exodus 9:27,28). In response to Pharaoh’s plea, Moses acted and the hail stopped. Exodus 9:34, 35 records Pharaoh’s reaction: “But when Pharaoh saw that the rain and the hail and the thunder had ceased, he sinned again and hardened his heart, he and his servants. And Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he did not let the sons of Israel go, just as the Lord had spoken through Moses.” Pharaoh only confessed his sin so that the immediate problem of the hail would stop. His duplicity is seen in his change of heart as soon as the plague stops. Attrition does not have grief and hatred for sin itself, but only for sin’s consequences.

Contrition is true biblical repentance. It contains a grief and hatred for sin. It has an awareness of having offended God. This true change of heart and mind produces confession and real change in action. 2 Corinthians 7:10 touches on attrition and contrition: “For the sorrow that is according to the will of God produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation; but the sorrow of the world produces death.” Godly sorrow is the idea of contrition. Worldly sorrow is attrition. Simon Kistemaker comments:

“But worldly sorrow produces death.” What a contrast! Now we see the opposite of the preceding pronouncement. Genuine contrition is a turning away from sin and a going toward God, but worldly sorrow is remorse that expresses itself in self-accusation. Peter repented and returned to the apostles and afterward met Jesus (Matt. 26:75; Luke 24:33-34). Judas was filled with remorse, but returned to the chief priests who rejected him (Matt. 27:3-5). Peter was restored and became the head of the apostles (John 21:15-19). Judas committed suicide and was doomed to destruction (Acts 1:18-19).6

Robert Reymond summarizes the doctrine of repentance:

As the root implies in . . . metanoeo, and . . . metanoia, (the most common words for repentance in the New Testament), it entails a radical and conscious change of view (the intellect), change of feeling (the emotions), and change of purpose (the volition) with respect to God, ourselves, sin, and righteousness. We acknowledge that we are sinners and that our sin entails personal guilt, defilement, and helplessness before God; we sorrow with a “godly sorrow” for the sins we have committed against the holy and just God; and we resolve to seek pardon and cleansing from God through the blood of Christ which alone satisfies the offended justice of God. So in turning from our sins in repentance we turn to Christ in faith for salvation.7

Besides a person’s initial repentance in conversion, a searching of the heart, confession of sin, and a trust in God for forgiveness in Christ should be a daily practice of the believer. The promise of God is forgiveness and restoration for those who trust in Christ and truly repent. David prays in Psalm 51:10, 17: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. . . . The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; A broken and a contrite heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise.” The apostle John states: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). The Westminster Confession of Faith summarizes the need for repentance and the promise of God for those in Christ: “As there is no sin so small, but it deserves damnation, so there is no sin so great, that it can bring damnation upon those who truly repent.”8


Works Cited

1 Kennedy, Truths That Transform, 59.
2 Murray, Redemption: Accomplished and Applied, 113.
3 Westminster Confession of Faith, 15.1.
4 Murray, Redemption: Accomplished and Applied, 114.
5 Thomas Watson, The Doctrine of Repentance (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, reprinted 1994), 18.
6 Kistemaker, New Testament Commentary, Exposition of the Second Epistle to the Corinthians, 255.
7 Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, 725.
8 The Westminster Confession of Faith, 15.4.

Next in this series: Justification by Faith Alone: The Heart and Essence of the Gospel

About the author

Dr. Van Lees

Dr. Van Lees is the pastor/teacher of Covenant of Grace Church. He has been the pastor of the church since 1985 when it started. Dr. Lees has a M. Div. from Covenant Theological Seminary, a D. Min. from Reformed Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. from Whitefield Theological Seminary.