Ordo Salutis 4: Repentance
After we acknowledge our sin, it is time to repent of it. Generally this all happens in one moment, but we have to know the difference between confession or acknowledgment and repentance.
John Wesley called repentance a “change of heart from all sin to all holiness.” Where once we had lived in sin with little thought of God, now we have had a change of mind. Sin must be forsaken, God must be followed. The true end of repentance is a change of mind. For sure it involves an awareness of our sinful condition and a conviction that we must do something in response to it, in cooperation with God. But in the end, repentance is a function of the mind where our thoughts are changed.
Repentance has been one of the elementary teachings about Christ since the time of the early church (see Heb. 6:1). We repent by turning from our former way of life and turning toward the God who can save us from it. Repentance must come before any initial, true belief in Christ and it must come before further spiritual formation as Christians. Oden writes, “Godly repentance refuses to be comforted until the work of conviction is thoroughly done. It is a radical act of self-examination reaching into every chamber of the house of willed experience…. Repentance includes both contrition and reformation–not only a genuine sorrow for sin, but also a desire to make reparation for sin to counteract the consequences of our previous decisions so as to show forth fruits fitting to repentance” (Classic Christianity, p. 572).
One can confess sin and acknowledge sin and still not repent. I can say that I’ve been wrongly angry with my children, but until I repent of this sin, I will continue in a pattern of anger without a heart softened and changed by the mercy of God. God’s mercy will not flow through me to my kids on a regular basis; I may be able to control my anger from time to time, but this is a matter of willpower, not an act empowered by the Holy Spirit.
Jesus said in Luke 5:32, “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” At the end of the very first Christian sermon, Peter said that the proper response to the gospel was, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call” (Acts 2:38-39).
Other passages about repentance include:
- Ezra 9: Ezra prays a prayer of repentance for Israel’s sin of intermarriage with women from other nations.
- Psalm 51: David’s prayer after his adultery with Bathsheba is one of the most powerful prayers of repentance.
- Daniel 9: Daniel prays a prayer of repentance for the sins of Israel, noting God’s mercy and ability to forgive.
- Luke 15:17-21: The prodigal son repents to his father for running off.
- Luke 18:13: The tax collector who prays for mercy because he knows full well he is a sinner, in contrast to the Pharisee who is self-righteous.
Repentance in the sense of turning from sin and turning to God is the natural next step after hearing the good news of God. There is no other response. What about repentance after you become a Christian?
One of the answers to this question is that we remain sensitive to our sins through the witness of the Holy Spirit. We turn from them as we are made aware of them. Another answer is that repentance is a necessary part of salvation, but that it does not stop there. At this point in the ordo salutis (way of salvation), repentance refers to the repentance of the sinner. This step cannot be skipped, however uncomfortable we are with it. The context may change, but the call must remain.