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The Doctrine of Repentance is a theological treatise written by Puritan Thomas Watson. In this book, Watson outlines that true repentance is a necessary part of the Christian life and should be explored with diligence. Watson begins by defining repentance and exploring its nature and effects, noting that it is an fundament aspec of the Christian life and is necessary for salvation.
He then explains how repentance should be practiced, emphasizing the need for an honest and humble heart, a sincere desire to turn from sin, and a willingness to accept the consequences of your actions. Watson also discusses the importance of self-examination and prayer, and he encourages readers to seek God's grace and mercy. Finally, Watson warns against false repentance and encourages readers to truly repent in order to be reconciled to God.
The Doctrine of Repentance by Thomas Watson
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Table of Contents:
- A Preliminary Discourse
- Counterfeit Repentance
- The Nature of True Repentance
- The Nature of True Repentance (2)
- Reasons for Repentance (with a warning to those who refuse to repent)
- A Strong Plea to Repent
- Powerful Motives to Repent
- Encouragement to repent today
- The examination of our repentance and consolation for those who are sorry
- Removing the obstacles to repentance
- Some ways to repent
- Some ways to repent (Part 2)
Dear Christian Reader,
It is my sincere hope that this book will be of use to you in your spiritual journey. I have endeavored to provide a comprehensive overview of the teachings of the Bible, and I trust that you will find it to be a valuable resource.
The two essential qualities for a saint in this life are faith and repentance. These are the two wings that will help them reach heaven. Faith and repentance are essential to maintain a spiritual life, just like heat and moisture are essential to maintain a natural life. Now, I'm going to discuss repentance in more detail.
John Chrysostom believed it was the most suitable topic for him to preach to Emperor Arcadius. Augustine had the penitential psalms written down while he was in bed and he often read them with tears. Repentance is always relevant; it is as essential as a craftsman's tool or a soldier's weapon. If I'm not mistaken, practical advice is more necessary in this day and age than debates and polemics.
I had initially planned to keep my thoughts to myself, but I realized that they were too important to ignore at this moment. So, I changed my mind and decided to share them with others for further consideration.
Don't be afraid of the effects of repentance. Chrysostom said to strike your soul and it will be saved from death. It would be wonderful if we felt more deeply the impact of our sins and our eyes filled with tears. We can see the Spirit of God in the waters of repentance, which are troubled but still pure. Tears can wash away our sins and appease God's anger. Repentance is the guardian of faith and the key to mercy. The more sorrow and regret we feel when we first turn to God, the less we will feel later.
Christians, do you feel sorrow for anything other than sin? Tears shed for worldly matters fall to the ground, but those shed for God are kept in a bottle (Psalm 56:8). Don't think of holy weeping as unnecessary. Tertullian believed he was born for no other purpose than to repent. We must either let sin drown us or our souls burn. Don't say that repentance is hard. Things that are valuable require effort. Would a man not work hard to find gold in ore, even if it made him sweat? It's better to struggle to get to heaven than to go to hell with ease. What would the damned give to have a messenger from God come to them and offer mercy if they repented? How many sighs and groans would they send up to heaven? How many tears would they shed? But it's too late now. They can only keep their tears to mourn their foolishness, not to gain sympathy. Let's make peace with God while we're still alive! Tomorrow could be our last day, so let's use today to repent. Let's follow the example of the saints of old who sacrificed their desires and put on sackcloth in the hope of wearing white robes. Peter baptized himself with tears, and Paula, of whom Jerome wrote, was like a bird of paradise, mourning and humbling herself for her sins.
We have all experienced our own personal hardships, but the state of the land is truly heartbreaking. We have lost much of our former glory and renown. We used to be a princess among the provinces (Lam. 1:1), and God made other nations bow down to us (Gen 37:7). But has our glory flown away like a bird (Hos 9:11)? We don't know what other difficult times are yet to come. Our dark and terrible clouds have risen, and we may expect loud thunderclaps to follow. Will this not bring us to our senses and make us humble? Should we not be alert when the winds are blowing from all directions? Let us not lose hope (Lam. 2.18)!
I will not waste any more time with an introduction, but instead ask that God bless this work. May He guide this arrow so that, even though it is aimed at those who wander, it will still hit its target. My fervent prayer is that some sin may be destroyed. This is the wish of the one who is writing.
I am wishing you the best for your soul’s wellbeing,
May 25, 1668
Chapter 1: A Preliminary Discourse
Saint Paul was falsely accused of stirring up trouble by Tertullus: "We have found this man to be a real nuisance and a troublemaker" (Act 24.5). So Paul defended himself before Festus and King Agrippa in Chapter 26 of the Book of Acts.
Paul demonstrates his skill as a speaker. He shows respect to the king by extending his hands, as was customary for orators, and by his words: "I am fortunate, King Agrippa, to be able to present my defense to you regarding all the accusations against me" (Acts 26.2).
Paul then addressed three things, speaking in a way that was so persuasive that it almost convinced King Agrippa:
1. He talks about his life before conversion: "I was living as a Pharisee, following the strictest rules of our religion" (v.5). Before he was saved, he was very passionate about traditions; his misguided enthusiasm was so strong that he put anyone who got in his way in jail: "I locked up many of God's people in prison" (v.10).
2. He speaks of the manner of his conversion: “I saw in the road a light from heaven, brighter than the sun” (v.13). This light was coming from Christ’s glorified body. I heard a voice speaking to me, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ The body being hurt, the head in heaven cried out. Paul was amazed at this light and voice, and fell to the ground: “I said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And he said, ‘I am Jesus whom you persecute’” (v. 14-15). Paul was now completely taken aback. All his ideas of self-righteousness vanished and he put his hope of heaven in the hands of Christ’s righteousness.
3. He speaks of the manner of his life after his conversion. He had been a persecutor before, but now he was a preacher: "Get up, for I have chosen you for this purpose: to make you a minister and a witness of what you have seen" (v. 16). When Paul, this "chosen vessel," was saved, he worked hard to do as much good as he had done harm before. He had previously killed saints, but now he preached to sinners and brought them to life. God first sent him to the Jews in Damascus and then expanded his mission to preach to the Gentiles. The message he preached was this: "Repent and turn to God, and do deeds that prove your repentance" (v. 20). What an important and excellent message!
I won't argue over which comes first, faith or repentance. It's clear that repentance appears first in a Christian's life. However, I'm inclined to believe that faith is planted in the heart first. It's like when you bring a lit candle into a room - the light is visible first, but the candle was there before. Similarly, we see the results of repentance first, but faith was there before that.
I believe that faith must be present in the heart before repentance can take place, because repentance is an act of the living. How can the soul live without faith? The Bible says, "The just shall live by faith" (Hebrews 10:38). So, it stands to reason that faith must be present in the heart of a penitent, otherwise their repentance is meaningless. Regardless of which comes first, faith or repentance, I'm sure that repentance is so important that it is essential for salvation. Just as Paul was able to swim to shore on planks and broken pieces of the ship after his shipwreck (Acts 27:44), we too can find salvation through repentance after our own shipwreck in Adam. Repentance is the only plank left to us to swim to heaven.
It is a great responsibility for Christians to sincerely repent and turn to God: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near" (Matthew 3:2); "Repent and be converted, so that your sins may be wiped away" (Acts 3:19); "Repent of your wickedness" (Acts 8:22). This truth is confirmed by three witnesses. Repentance is a foundational grace: "Do not lay the foundation of repentance again" (Hebrews 6:1). Any religion that is not built upon this foundation will collapse.
Repentance is a grace that is necessary under the gospel. Some may think it is a legal requirement, but the first sermon that Christ preached began with the word "Repent" (Matthew 4:17). When He was about to ascend, He commanded that repentance should be preached in His name (Luke 24:47). The apostles all emphasized this message: they went out and preached that people should repent (Mark 6:12).
Repentance is a grace that is only found in the gospel. Under the covenant of works, there was no room for repentance; it was simply sin and die. But through the gospel, repentance has been made available. Christ has bought us with his blood, so that those who repent will be saved. The law demanded perfect and perpetual obedience, and cursed anyone who could not meet this standard. Galatians 3:10 says, "Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do all the things written in the book of the law." It doesn't say, "If someone doesn't obey, let them repent," but rather, "Let them be cursed." So, repentance is a doctrine that has only been revealed through the gospel.
Repentance works in the following ways:
1. Partly by the word
When they heard this, they were deeply moved (Acts 2:37). The word of God is the tool God uses to bring about repentance. It is likened to a hammer and a fire (Jer 23:29), one to break and the other to soften the heart. How fortunate we are to have access to the word of God, which is so powerful! Those who reject the truth of God will find it difficult to avoid damnation.
2. By the Spirit
Ministers are just like pipes and organs; it is the Holy Spirit that breathes life into their words and makes them effective. As Peter was speaking, the Holy Spirit fell on all those who heard the word (Acts 10:44). The Spirit in the word enlightens and transforms. When the Spirit touches a heart, it is filled with emotion and sorrow: “I will pour out upon the inhabitants of Jerusalem the spirit of grace ... and they shall look upon me whom they have pierced, and they shall mourn” (Zechariah 12:10). It is amazing to see how differently the word of God affects people. Some people are moved to tears during a sermon, like Jonah. Others are not affected at all, like a deaf person to music. Some people are made better by the word, while others become worse. The same earth that produces sweet grapes can also produce bitter wormwood. Why does the word of God have such different effects? It is because the Spirit of God carries the word to one person's conscience, but not to another's. One person has received the divine anointing, and the other has not (1 John 2:20). Pray that the dew of the Spirit will fall with the manna of the word. We will not be able to reach heaven in the chariot of ordinances unless the Spirit of God joins us (Acts 8:29).
Chapter 3: Counterfeit Repentance
To understand what true repentance really is, I'll start by explaining what it isn't. There are several false forms of repentance that could lead to the saying of Augustine that "repentance damns many." He was referring to a false repentance: someone may deceive themselves into thinking they are repenting when they are not.
1. The first consequence of repentance is a sense of legal obligation.
If someone has been living in sin for a long time, God may intervene and show them the danger they have put themselves in. This can cause them to feel a lot of anguish. But after the initial shock wears off, they may think that they have repented because they felt some bitterness towards their sin. Don't be fooled - this is not repentance. Ahab and Judas both felt troubled, but that doesn't mean they had repented. Feeling guilty is enough to cause fear, but true repentance requires a change of heart. If pain and suffering were enough to cause repentance, then the people in hell would be the most repentant, since they are in the most anguish. Repentance requires a change of heart, not just terror.
2. Another deception about repentance is the promise to never sin again.
A person may make promises and vows, yet still not be truly repentant. "You said, 'I will not break my covenant with you' (Jeremiah 2:20)," but then we see what follows: "You wandered beneath every green tree, acting like a prostitute." Despite her solemn promises, she still chose to turn away from God and pursue her idols. We often see people make strong declarations when they are ill, promising to change if only God would let them recover, but then they go back to their old ways when a new temptation arises. He reveals his true nature in the face of temptation.
Resolutions to avoid sin may arise,
- from our current difficult situation; not because sin is wrong, but because it causes pain. This determination will fade away.
- from fear of future evil, death, and hell. As the Bible says, "I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him" (Rev 6.8). When a sinner knows they must die and face judgment, they will make any vow, no matter how desperate. But don't rely on a passionate resolution; it is easily made in a moment of distress, but just as easily forgotten in a moment of peace.
3. The third false belief about repentance is leaving many sinful ways alone.
It is a difficult task to leave behind sinful ways, I admit. People are so attached to their sins that they would rather give up a child than a vice: "Shall I give up the fruit of my labor for the sin of my soul?" (Micah 6:7). It is possible to part with sin without true repentance.
- A man may be able to give up some of his sins, but not all of them, just like Herod was able to make some improvements, but he couldn't bring himself to give up his incestuous behavior.
- You can leave an old sin behind and take up a new one, just like you would let go of an old employee and hire a new one. This is like swapping sins. You can switch sins, but your heart stays the same. Someone who was a prodigal in their youth may become a loan shark in their old age. A slave may be sold to a Jew, who then sells them to a Turk. The master may have changed, but the slave is still a slave. In the same way, a person may move from one vice to another, but they are still a sinner.
- A person may not be able to resist a sin due to the strength of grace, but they may be able to recognize that it is not in their best interest. They may realize that indulging in this sin could damage their reputation, affect their health, and reduce their wealth. For this reason, they choose to forgo it for practical reasons.
True abandonment of sin occurs when sinful actions stop due to the introduction of a principle of grace, just as darkness dissipates when light is introduced.
Chapter 3: The Nature of True Repentance
I will now explain what gospel repentance is. Repentance is a gift from God's Spirit that causes a sinner to feel deep remorse and to change their behavior.
To further explain, repentance is a spiritual medicine that consists of six special ingredients:
- Sight of sin
- Sorrow for sin
- Confession of sin
- Shame for sin
- Hatred for sin
- Turning from sin
If any of these elements are neglected, repentance will not be effective.
Ingredient 1: Sight of Sin
The first part of Christ's medicine is eye-salve (Acts 26:18). This is the great thing noted in the prodigal's repentance: "he came to himself" (Luke 15:17). He realized he was a sinner and nothing else. Before someone can come to Christ, they must first come to terms with themselves. Solomon, in his description of repentance, considers this the first ingredient: "if they come to themselves" (1 Kings 8:47). A person must first recognize and consider their sin and understand the plague of their heart before they can be truly humbled. The first thing God created was light. So the first thing in a penitent is illumination: "Now you are light in the Lord" (Ephesians 5:8). The eye is made for both seeing and weeping. Sin must be seen before it can be wept for.
It's clear that if we can't recognize our own sins, we can't repent for them. Many people can spot the faults of others, but not their own. They may claim to have good hearts, but it's strange that two people can live and eat together without really knowing each other. This is the case with a sinner - their body and soul live together, but they don't know themselves. They don't understand their own hearts, nor the hell they carry around with them. It's like they're wearing a veil that hides their deformed souls. Ignorance and self-love keep them from seeing the truth. It's like the devil is hooding them and leading them to hell: “the sword shall strike his right eye” (Zec 11:17). People can see worldly matters, but they don't recognize the evil in sin. It's like their right eye has been struck blind.
Ingredient 2: Sorrow for Sin
“I will feel sorry for my sin” (Psalm 38:18)
Ambrose describes sorrow as "the soul's bitterness". The Hebrew word for "being sorrowful" implies that the soul is, in a sense, "crucified". This is what true repentance looks like: "They will look upon me whom they have pierced, and they shall mourn" (Zec 12:10), as if they felt the pain of the nails of the cross in their sides. Just as a woman cannot have a child without labor pains, one cannot have repentance without sorrow. If someone can believe without doubting, they should question their faith; and if someone can repent without sorrowing, they should question their repentance.
Martyrs sacrificed their lives for Christ, and penitents shed tears for their sins: "She stood at Jesus' feet, weeping" (Luke 7:38). Look at how this fountain overflows. The sorrow of her heart was pouring out of her eyes. The bronze basin for the priests to wash in (Exodus 30:18) symbolized two basins: the basin of Christ's blood we must wash in through faith, and the basin of tears we must wash in through repentance.
A true penitent strives to cultivate a sorrowful disposition. They thank God when they can cry, and welcome rainy days, knowing that their sorrow is genuine and not something they will regret. Though the sorrows of life can be difficult to bear, they can also be a source of strength (Psa 104:15; 2Cor 7:10).
This sorrow for sin is not superficial; it is a deep, holy agony. The Bible calls it a "broken and contrite heart" (Psalm 51:17) and a "rending of the heart" (Joel 2:13). Expressions of grief such as striking the thigh (Jeremiah 31:19), beating the breast (Luke 18:13), and putting on sackcloth (Isaiah 22:12) or plucking out the hair (Ezra 9:3) are all outward signs of this inner sorrow.
This sorrow is:
1. To make Christ precious. How precious is Christ to a troubled soul! Truly, Christ is a savior and mercy is a blessing. Until the heart is filled with sorrow and regret, it is not ready to accept Christ. How welcome is a surgeon to someone who is wounded and bleeding!
2. To drive out sin. Sin brings about sadness, and sadness can eradicate sin. Genuine sorrow is the remedy to expel the negative emotions of the soul. It is said that the tears of grapevines are beneficial for curing leprosy. Undoubtedly, the tears that fall from the repentant are beneficial for curing the leprosy of sin. The salty tears can kill the worm of conscience.
3. To make way for true comfort. Those who sow in tears will reap in joy - this is what Psalm 126:5 tells us. Repentance brings comfort to the soul, just like Hannah, who after weeping, was no longer sad (1 Samuel 1:18). It's like the angel stirring the pool of Bethesda, which made way for healing (John 5:4).
But not all sorrow is a sign of true repentance. There's a big difference between sorrow that comes from a godly place and sorrow that comes from a place of bitterness. The apostle speaks of sorrowing "in a godly manner" (2 Corinthians 7:9), but what does that mean? There are six requirements for this:
1. True godly sorrow is internal
It is inward in two ways:
1. It is a sorrow of the heart. Hypocrites may appear to be sorrowful, but their sorrow does not go deep. It's like dew that only wets the surface of a leaf. Ahab's repentance was only an outward show, his garments were rent but not his spirit (1 Kings 21:27). True repentance, however, goes deep, like a vein that bleeds inwardly. The heart must bear the primary part in sorrowing for sin, just as it did in sinning. As the Bible says, they were "pricked in their heart" (Acts 2.37).
2. It is a sorrow for heart-sins, the initial stirrings of sin in one's heart. Paul was grieved by the law in his members (Rom 7:23). The true penitent weeps for the stirrings of pride and lust, even if they never manifest in action. A wicked man may be troubled by outward sins, but a true convert laments the sins of the heart.
2. Godly sorrow is sincere
It is sorrow for the offense rather than for the punishment that truly breaks one's heart. We have broken God's law and disregarded His love, and this should fill us with sorrow. We may be sorry for our actions, but not necessarily repentant, just like a thief who is sorry for being caught, not for stealing. Hypocrites only feel sorrow when they face the consequences of their sin. It's like a fountain that only flows on the eve of a famine. They only cry when God's judgment is near. Pharaoh was more concerned about the frogs and river of blood than his own sin. True sorrow for our transgressions is sorrow for the offense against God, even if there were no consequences. David said, "My sin is ever before me" (Psa 51:3), not "The sword threatened is ever before me," but "my sin." It's heartbreaking to think that we have offended such a good God and grieved our Comforter.
Godly sorrow demonstrates its sincerity because when a Christian realizes that they are no longer in danger of going to hell and will never be condemned, they still feel remorse for having sinned against the grace that has forgiven them.
3. Godly sorrow is faithful
The father of the child cried out in faith, tears streaming down his face, "Lord, I believe!" (Mark 9:24). This sorrow for sin was mixed with faith, like a rainbow appearing in a cloudy sky. If faith doesn't lift us up, our sorrow for sin can weigh us down. We must always keep God's promise in our minds, just as we feel the sting of our sin. Some people are so overwhelmed with worldly grief that they can hardly see. But weeping that blinds our faith is not good. If faith is lost in our soul, it is not the sorrow of humility, but of despair.
4. Godly sorrow is a great sorrow
On that day, there was a great sorrow, like the sorrow of Hadad-Rimmon (Zech 12:11). Two suns set that day when Josiah died, and there was a deep mourning for the funeral. The grief for sin had to be so intense that it could be felt from the depths of one's heart.
Question 1: Does everyone experience the same level of grief?
Answer: No, sorrow is not always equal; it can be greater or lesser. Everyone experiences pain in life, but some people experience more intense pain than others.
1. Some people are naturally more stubborn and spirited, and are not easily brought to submit. These people require more humiliation, just as a knotty piece of wood needs more wedges driven into it.
2. Some have committed more serious offenses, and their punishment must be commensurate with their crime. Some patients may be subjected to a needle, while others may face a lance. The more egregious offenders must be held accountable with the hammer of the law.
3. Some are chosen for a higher purpose, to be used by God in a special way. Those who are meant to be pillars in His church must go through a more intense process of humbling. Paul, the leader of the apostles, who was to be God's representative to the Gentiles and kings, had to go through a deeper repentance.
Question 2: But how deep must our regret for our sins be?
Answer: It must be as great as any other loss we experience in life. Our eyes should be filled with tears. “They will look on me, the one they have pierced, and they will mourn deeply, as people mourn for an only child” (Zec 12:10). Our sorrow for sin must be greater than our sorrow for anything else. We must grieve more for offending God than for the loss of our loved ones. “On that day, the Lord God of Hosts will call for weeping and mourning, and for wearing sackcloth” (Isa 22:12). This was for sin. But when it comes to burying the dead, God forbids us to weep and to shave our heads (Jer 22:10; 16:6). This is to remind us that our sorrow for sin must be greater than our sorrow at the grave. This makes sense, because when someone dies, we only lose a friend, but when we sin, we lose God.
Sorrow for sin should be so overwhelming that it eclipses all other sorrows; when the pain of the gallstone and the gout come together, the pain of the stone is more intense than the pain of the gout.
We should find as much sorrow in repenting for our sins as we ever found pleasure in committing them. Surely David experienced more anguish in his repentance than he ever found joy in Bathsheba. Our regret for our sins should be so strong that we are willing to give up those sins that brought us the most benefit or pleasure. The remedy is effective when it has eliminated our affliction. The Christian has enough sorrow when their love of sin is eradicated.
5. Godly sorrow can sometimes be accompanied by restitution.
If someone has wronged others in their estate through unfair and deceitful practices, they should make amends in good conscience. The Bible is clear on this: "He must make full restitution for what he has stolen, adding a fifth of its value to it and giving it all to the person he has wronged" (Numbers 5:7). Zacchaeus demonstrated this when he said, "If I have cheated anyone out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount" (Luke 19:8). When Selymus the Great Turk was on his deathbed, Pyrrhus urged him to use his ill-gotten wealth to do something charitable, but instead he commanded that it be returned to its rightful owners. Shouldn't a Christian's beliefs be more noble than a Turk's Koran? It's a bad sign when a man on his deathbed entrusts his soul to God but his ill-gotten goods to his friends. I can hardly think God will accept his soul. Augustine said, "No forgiveness without restitution." And it was a saying of old Latimer, "If you don't restore what you have unjustly gained, you will suffer in hell."
Question 1: If someone has wronged another person in their estate and the wronged person is no longer alive, what should they do?
Answer: He should return the possessions he acquired through ill-means to the rightful heirs and successors of the man. If none of them are alive, he should give the money to God, that is, he should donate his unjust earnings to a charitable cause to help those in need.
Question 2: What if the person responsible for the wrongdoing is no longer alive?
Answer: Then those who are his heirs should make reparations. Let me be clear: if there are any who have been left an inheritance, and they know that the person who left them the inheritance had wronged others and died with that guilt on their conscience, then the heirs or executors who possess those assets are morally obligated to make restitution. Otherwise, they risk bringing the wrath of God upon their family.
Question 3: If a man has wronged another and is unable to make amends, what should he do?
Answer: He should humbly ask God for forgiveness, and make a sincere promise to make amends to the wronged party if he is able. God will recognize his good intentions.
6. Godly sorrow is lasting.
It's not enough to just shed a few tears in a moment of emotion. Some people may cry during a sermon, but it's like a passing April shower - it's over quickly. Or like a vein that is opened and quickly closed again. True sorrow must be a regular thing. O Christian, the sickness of your soul is persistent and often returns to you; so you must keep treating it with repentance. This is sorrow that is done in a godly way.
Use: How far removed from repentance are those who have never experienced this godly sorrow! Such are:
1. The Catholics, who neglect the essence of repentance, reducing it to fasting, penance, and pilgrimages, which lack any spiritual remorse. They may inflict pain on their bodies, but their hearts remain untouched. This is nothing more than a hollow imitation of repentance.
2. Carnal Protestants, who are strangers to godly sorrow, cannot bear to think seriously about sin. Paracelsus spoke of a kind of madness that makes people die dancing. Similarly, sinners spend their days in merriment, disregarding sorrow and dancing their way to damnation. Some have lived for many years without ever repenting or understanding what it means to have a broken heart. They may cry and wring their hands when their fortunes are lost, but they never feel the anguish of their sins.
There is a twofold sorrow: firstly, a rational sorrow, which is an act of the soul in which it expresses its distaste for sin and would rather suffer any punishment than commit sin; secondly, there is a sensitive sorrow, which is expressed through tears. Every child of God experiences the first kind of sorrow, but not everyone experiences the second kind, which is a sorrow that is expressed through tears. However, it is admirable to see a repentant person crying. Christ looks favorably upon those who are tender-hearted and it is understandable that we should weep for our sins, which have caused us to lose God's favor. If Micah wept for the loss of a false god, saying, “You have taken away my gods, and what more do I have?” (Judges 18:24), then surely we should weep for our sins which have taken away the true God from us.
Some may wonder if our regret and sorrow should always be the same. We must always keep our repentance alive in our hearts, but there are two special occasions when we should renew our repentance in a more profound way.
1. Before taking the Lord's Supper, we should approach it with a repentant attitude. We should be filled with sorrow and tears, and recognize the bitterness of our sins. The more we recognize our sin, the more we can appreciate the sweetness of Christ. When Jacob wept he found God: “And he called the name of the place Peniel: for I have seen God face to face” (Gen 32.30). We can find comfort in the sacrament if we approach it with humility. Christ will welcome us with open arms, just as he did with Thomas (John 20:27), and his wounds will heal us.
2. At the hour of death, we should be filled with extraordinary repentance. This should be a time of weeping and sorrow. Now is our last chance to do something for heaven, and we should save our best tears for this moment. We should be sorry for having sinned so much and for not having wept enough, for God's bag being so full and his bottle so empty (Job 14:17). We should regret not repenting sooner, for the fortresses of our hearts holding out against God for so long. We should be sad that we didn't love Christ more, that we didn't get more virtue from him, and that we didn't bring him more glory. As we lie on our deathbed, we should be grieved that our lives have been so full of blanks and blots, that our duties have been so tainted with sin, that our obedience has been so imperfect, and that we have been so slow to follow God's ways. As our soul leaves our body, we should let it sail to heaven on a sea of tears.
Ingredient 3: Confession of Sin
Sorrow is such a powerful emotion that it needs to be expressed. It can be expressed through tears and through confession. The Bible says, "The children of Israel stood and confessed their sins" (Neh. 9:2). And in Hosea 5:15 it says, "I will go and return to my place, till they acknowledge their offense". This is like a mother who leaves her child and hides her face until the child admits their mistake and asks for forgiveness. Gregory Nazianzen calls confession "a salve for a wounded soul."
Confession is self-accusing: "I have sinned" (2 Sam 24:17). In the eyes of men, it is not expected that one should accuse themselves, but rather they would rather see their accuser. However, when we come before God, we must take responsibility for our actions and admit our wrongdoings. By doing this, we can prevent Satan from accusing us. In our confessions, we must acknowledge our pride, unfaithfulness, and passions, so that when Satan, who is known as "the accuser of the brethren," brings these things up, God will say, "They have already admitted their wrongdoings; therefore, Satan, your case is dismissed; your accusations are too late." The humble sinner does more than just accuse themselves; they are essentially judging themselves and passing sentence on themselves. They confess that they deserve to be punished by God's wrath. And as the apostle Paul said, "If we judge ourselves, we will not be judged" (1 Cor 11:31).
But haven't even wicked people, like Judas and Saul, admitted their wrongdoing? Yes, but theirs was not a genuine confession. For our confession of sin to be sincere and authentic, these eight qualifications must be met:
1. Confession must be voluntary
It must come like water from a spring, freely. The confession of the wicked is forced, like a man being tortured on a rack. When a spark of God's wrath enters their conscience, or they are afraid of death, then they will confess. Balaam, when he saw the angel's sword, said, "I have sinned" (Num 22:34). But true confession comes out of their lips like myrrh from a tree or honey from a comb, freely. "I have sinned against heaven and before you" (Luk 15:18): the prodigal admitted his sin before his father even accused him of it.
2. Confession must be made with remorse
The heart must feel the weight of it. A natural man's confessions may pass through him without much thought, but true confession leaves a lasting impression. David's soul was weighed down by his confession of sin: "they are too heavy for me" (Psa 38:4). It is one thing to confess sin and another to truly feel its weight.
3. Confession must be genuine
Our words must match our feelings. A hypocrite may admit to their sin, but still enjoy it, like a thief who admits to stealing but still loves to do it. Many people will say they are proud or greedy, but their actions don't match their words. Augustine said that before he changed his life, he would confess his sins and ask for help to stop, but his heart would whisper, "Not yet, Lord." He was scared to give up his sin too soon. A true Christian is more honest. Their heart and their words are in agreement. They truly believe the sins they confess and they detest the sins they recognize.
4. In true confession, a person acknowledges their sins in detail
A wicked man acknowledges that he is a sinner in general, confessing his sin without specifying it. It's like Nebuchadnezzar's dream: he knew he had a dream (Dan 2:3), but couldn't remember what it was (Dan 2:5). Similarly, a wicked man will say, "Lord, I have sinned," but won't know what the sin is, or at least won't remember it. On the other hand, a true convert will acknowledge their particular sins. It's like a wounded man going to a surgeon and showing them all their wounds - a mournful sinner will confess the various diseases of their soul. Israel drew up a specific charge against themselves, saying, "We have served Baalim" (Judges 10:10). The prophet even recited the exact sin that brought a curse with it: "Nor have we listened to your servants the prophets, who spoke in your name" (Dan 9:6). By carefully examining our hearts, we can find a particular sin that we have indulged in. We should point to that sin with a tear.
5. A true penitent confesses sin in the fountain
He recognizes the corruption of his nature. The sinfulness of our nature is not only a lack of good, but an infusion of evil. It is like rust to iron, or stain to scarlet. David acknowledges his original sin: “I was born in iniquity; my mother conceived me in sin” (Psa 51:5). We may attribute many of our first sins to Satan's temptations, but this sin of our nature is entirely our own; we cannot blame it on Satan. We have a root within us that produces bitterness and sorrow (Deu 29.18). Our nature is an abyss and a breeding ground for all evil, from which the scandals that plague the world come. It is this depravity of nature which corrupts our holy things; it is this which brings God's judgments and makes our blessings fail to materialize. Oh, confess your sin in the fountain!
6. Sin must be confessed with all its details and aggravating factors
The sins we commit under the light of the gospel are especially serious. We must confess our sins against knowledge, grace, vows, experiences, and judgments. The Bible says, "The wrath of God came upon them and slew the fattest of them. Even after all this, they still sinned" (Psalm 78:31-32). These are especially severe circumstances that make our sins even more serious.
7. When confessing, we must take responsibility for our actions and absolve God of any blame
If the Lord is harsh in his decisions and unsheathes his sword, we must still accept that he has done us no wrong. Nehemiah, when confessing sin, acknowledged God's righteousness: "You are just in all that has happened to us" (Neh. 9:33). Maurice, the emperor, when he saw his wife killed by Phocas, exclaimed, "You are righteous in all your ways, Lord."
8. We must acknowledge our sins and commit to not repeating them
Many people seem to confess their sins, only to turn around and commit them again. As the Persians do, who kill serpents one day of the year, only to let them swarm again afterwards. Isaiah 1:16 says, "Cease to do evil," and it is pointless to confess our wrongdoings if we keep repeating them. Pharaoh confessed his sins (Exodus 9:27), but when the thunder stopped, he went back to his old ways (Exodus 9:34). Origen called confession the vomit of the soul, which helps to ease the conscience of its burden. But after we have vomited up our sins, we must not return to them. What king would pardon someone who confesses their treason, only to commit more treason afterwards?
Thus, we can see that confession must be taken with caution.
Use 1: Is confession an essential part of repentance? Here is a list of four types of people who should be held accountable:
1. It is a rebuke to those who try to conceal their sins, just as Rachel hid her father's idols (Genesis 31:34). Many would rather hide their sins than try to fix them. They treat their sins like they do their pictures, covering them up with a curtain. Or, like some do with their illegitimate children, they try to smother them. But even if people don't confess their sins, God still sees them. He will expose their treachery: "I will confront you and set them in order before your eyes" (Psalm 50:21). Those sins that people keep hidden in their hearts will one day be written on their foreheads, as if with a diamond. Those who don't confess their sins like David did, so they can be forgiven, will confess their sins like Achan did, so they can be punished. It is dangerous to keep the devil's secrets: "Whoever conceals their sins will not prosper" (Proverbs 28:13).
2. It reproves those who admit to sinning, but only partially. They confess some of their wrongdoings, but not all of them. They might admit to having vain thoughts or a bad memory, but not to the more serious sins such as anger, extortion, and impurity. It's like the man in Plutarch who complained about his stomach being bad, when his lungs and liver were actually the problem. If we don't confess all of our sins, why should we expect God to forgive us for all of them? We may not be able to remember every single sin we've committed, but the ones that we are aware of and that our conscience is accusing us of must be confessed if we want to be granted mercy.
3. Those who try to minimize or downplay their sins in confession are reproved. A sincere soul will strive to be honest about the gravity of their sins, but hypocrites will try to make them seem less serious. They may admit to being sinners, but then try to excuse their behavior by saying it's just their nature or that it's been going on for a long time. These are not true confessions, but rather excuses. Saul, for example, blamed the people when he said, "I have sinned: for I have transgressed the commandment of the Lord: because I feared the people" (1 Sam 15:24). Adam also tried to shift the blame when he said, "The woman you gave me, she gave me from the tree and I ate" (Gen 3:12). We often try to minimize our sins, looking at them through rose-colored glasses so that they seem insignificant, like "a little cloud, like a man's hand" (1 Kings 18:44).
4. Those who refuse to admit their wrongdoing and instead try to justify it are harshly rebuked. Instead of feeling remorse, they use excuses to defend their actions. If their sin is driven by passion, they may say, "I have reason to be angry" (Jon. 4:9). If it is greed, they will try to make it seem acceptable. When people commit sin, they become the devil's servants. But when they try to excuse it, they become his lawyers, and he rewards them for it.
Let us demonstrate our repentance by honestly admitting our wrongdoing. The thief on the cross acknowledged his sin, saying, "We have been rightly judged" (Luke 23:41). And Jesus told him, "Today you will be with me in paradise," (Luke 23:43). This could have been the inspiration for Augustine's words that confessing your sins will close the gates of hell and open the gates of paradise.
Let us reflect on the importance of making a genuine and honest confession of our sins:
1. Confessing our sins brings glory to God: "My son, give glory to the Lord God of Israel and confess your sins to him" (Josh. 7:19). Acknowledging our wrongdoings brings honor to God. How wonderful it is that He does not condemn us even when we admit our sins? As we confess our sins, God's mercy is made evident in His willingness to forgive us, and His grace is made evident in His willingness to save us, even though we are sinners.
2. Confession is a way to humble the soul. Those who recognize themselves as sinners deserving of hell will have little reason to be proud. Like a violet, they will hang their head in humility. A true penitent acknowledges that they mix sin with all they do, and so they have nothing to boast about. Even Uzziah, a king, had leprosy on his forehead, which was enough to humble him (2Chr 26.19). So, even when a child of God does something good, they still recognize that there is much evil in it. This puts all their prideful feathers in the dust.
3. Confessing can be a great relief when you're feeling guilty. It's like releasing the pressure from a boil, providing a sense of relief.
4. Confession purges sin. Augustine referred to it as an "expulsion of vice". Sin is like a poison in the blood; confession is like opening a vein to let it out. It's like the Dung Gate in Nehemiah 3:13, through which all the filth of the city was removed. Confession is like pumping out a leak; it gets rid of the sin that would otherwise overflow. Confession is like a sponge, wiping away the stains on the soul.
5. Confessing our sins brings us closer to Christ. When I admit that I am a sinner, how much more valuable is Christ's sacrifice to me! After Paul acknowledged his sinful nature, he was filled with gratitude for Jesus: "I thank God through Jesus Christ" (Rom 7.25). It's like a debtor confessing a debt they can never pay, but the creditor chooses to forgive them instead and sends their own son to pay the debt. How thankful would the debtor be? When we confess our debt and realize that even if we were to suffer in hell forever, we could never pay it, God's grace is magnified and Jesus Christ is loved and admired eternally.
6. Confessing our sins opens the door to forgiveness. As soon as the prodigal son admitted his wrongdoing, saying, “I have sinned against heaven,” his father’s heart was filled with compassion and he kissed him (Luke 15:20). When David confessed his sin, the prophet brought him a box with a pardon, saying, “The Lord has taken away your sin” (2 Samuel 12:13). If we sincerely confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins (1 John 1:9). Why does the apostle not say that if we confess our sins, God is merciful to forgive us? Because God's truth and justice are involved in the pardoning of those who confess their sins and come to Him with a repentant heart, trusting in Christ.