For even if I made you grieve with my letter, I do not regret it—though I did regret it, for I see that that letter grieved you, though only for a while. As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting. For you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no loss through us.
— 2 Corinthians 7:8–9 —
Repentance is a eminently biblical word and a necessary (if graciously-given) prerequisite for salvation (see Acts 5:31; 11:18). But often when some sheds tears over sin, it is difficult to know if this repentance in its biblical form, or a counterfeit sorrow for the bitterness of sin. Indeed, as Paul indicates in 2 Corinthians 7:8–9, there is a sorrow that leads to godliness, but as Pharaoh (Exodus 9:27; 10:16) and other false professors reveal, there is a sorrow for sin devoid of any spiritual grace.
For that matter, wise counselors, pastors, parents, and Christian encourager need to know the signs of genuine repentance. In short, because repentance means turning from sin; genuine repentance is seen in the abiding desire and effort to continually flee from sin by the power of the Spirit. As John the Baptist puts it, true believers “bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:8).
In this way, a simple principle for repentance is that time not tears is the mark of genuine repentance. But beyond time, what marks genuine, God-given repentance?
In answer to that question, Thomas Watson in his classic little book, The Doctrine of Repentance, suggests six things that accompany true repentance. In these six marks, which I summarize and expand below, Watson helps us see how sorrow for sin leads to abiding repentance.
Six Marks of Genuine Repentance
1. Sight of sin.
It is a visible perception of sin’s sinfulness. This is one of the troubles of our psychological age. When we quickly diagnose people with mental illnesses or or environmental conditions, we may blind sinners to their own sinfulness. On balance, there are physiological and sociological factors that contribute to our sin, but unless and until one sees their own sin, they won’t see their need for Christ as Savior.
2. Sorrow for sin.
Indifferent awareness of wrong-doing is not repentance. True repentance feels the effects of sin, and leads to confession. And this confession, like that of David in Psalm 51, is primarily a confession of sin unto God. Sin, biblically-speaking, is a theological problem, and thus all horizontal reconciliation must begin with vertical reconciliation and Spirit-powered sorrow for offending our holy, loving Father.
3. True repentance freely confesses sin.
Repentance does not make excuses or turn and blame others. Genuine repentance is an agreement with God that what he says about our wicked hearts is true (see Mark 7:18–23). A repentant heart, therefore, does not defend itself; it gladly accepts the charges and pleads mercy based on the cross of Christ.
4. Shame for sin.
The gospel removes all shame, but that doesn’t change the fact that there is a humbling work of God that puts in our mouths a bitter taste for sin. Whereas before Christ we gloried in our sin, now we are ashamed of it. Such shame left to itself will crush us, but when mixed with the precious pardon of the gospel will produce in us a steady stream of humbling grace.
5. Hatred for sin.
Those who love God, will hate sin. And indeed those who hate sin most, will cling most closely to the cross. As it has been said, “Until sin is bitter, Christ will not be sweet.” Genuine repentance will include hatred for sin that empowers believes to flee from temptation and put to death inward desires that transgress God’s good law. Indeed, repentance must include a confession that God and his law are good; the corollary is hatred from sin.
6. Turning from sin.
True repentance includes a life change. While Ephesians 2:8–9 says we are saved by grace alone through faith alone, Ephesians 2:10 declares those who are saved are new creations in Christ, created to do good works. If the good works are perpetually absent, it is likely that salvation is absent too. True repentance is marked by fruit. And as Martin Luther famously put, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’ he intended that the entire life of believers should be repentance.”
May we consider these marks and apply them to our lives and employ them in our ministries
Soli Deo Gloria, ds