The Confession of Faith: A commentary on The Westminster Confession of Faith

by A. A. Hodge

A. A. Hodge

Chapter 15

Of Repentance Unto Life

SECTION 1: REPENTANCE unto life is an evangelical grace,(1) the doctrine whereof is to be preached by every minister of the gospel, as well as that of faith in Christ.(2)

SECTION 2: BY it a sinner, out of the sight and sense, not only of the danger, but also of the filthiness and odiousness of his sins, as contrary to the holy nature and righteous law of God, and upon the apprehension of his mercy in Christ to such as are penitent, so grieves for and hates his sins, as to turn from them all unto God,(3) purposing and endeavoring to walk with him in all the ways of his commandments.(4)

(1) Zech. 12:10; Acts 11:18. (2) Luke 24:47; Mark 1:15; Acts 20:21. (3) Ezek. 18:30,31; 36:31; Isa. 30:22; Ps. 51:4; Jer. 31:18, 19; Joel 2:12,13; Amos 5:15; Ps. 119:128; 2 Cor. 7:11. (4) Ps. 119:6,59,106; Luke 1:6; 2 Kings 23:25.

The Confession now approaches the important doctrine of repentance. Here we shall illuminate the basis and essence of repentance.

1. The grounds of repentance are-(1) A true sense of sin. That spiritual illumination and renewal of the affections which are effected in regeneration brings the believer to see and appreciate the holiness of God as revealed alike in the law and in the gospel (Rom. 3:20; Job 13:5,6); and in that light to see and feel the exceeding sinfulness of all sin, and the utter sinfulness of his own nature and conduct. This sense of sin corresponds precisely to the actual facts of the case, and the man apprehends himself to be just as God has always seen him to be. It includes-(a) Consciousness of guilt; i.e., exposure to merited punishment, as opposed to the justice of God. (Ps. 51:4,9.) (b) Consciousness of pollution, as opposed to the holiness of God. (Ps. 51:5,7,10.) And (c) Consciousness of helplessness. (Ps. 51:11; 109:21,22.)

The grounds of repentance are-(2) A bright apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ. This is necessary in order to true repentance-(a) Because the awakened conscience echoes God's law, and can be appeased by no less a propitiation than that demanded by divine justice itself; and until this is realized in a believing application to the merits of Christ either indifference will stupefy or remorse will torment the soul. (b) Because out of Christ God is "a consuming fire," and an inextinguishable dread of his wrath repels the soul. (Deut. 4:24; Heb. 12:29.) (c) A sense of the amazing goodness of God to us in the gift of his Son, and of our ungrateful requital of it, is the most powerful means of bringing the soul to genuine repentance for sin as committed against God. (Ps. 51:4.) (d) This is proved by the examples of repentance recorded in Scripture (Ps. 51:1; 130:4), and by the universal experience of Christians in modern times.

2. As to its essence, true repentance consists-(1) In a sincere hatred of sin, and sorrow for our own sin (Ps. 119:128,136). Sin is seen to be exceeding sinful in the light of the divine holiness, of the law of God, and especially of the cross of Christ. The more we see of God in the face of Christ, the more we abhor ourselves and repent in dust and ashes. (Job 13:5,6; Ezek. 36:31). "Godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of." (2 Cor. 7:10.) "By the law is the knowledge of sin" (Rom. 3:20); and hence "the law is our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ." (Gal. 3:24.)

The essence of repentance consists-(2) In our actual turning from all sin unto God. This is that practical turning, or "conversion" from sin unto God, which is the instant and necessary consequence of regeneration. It is a voluntary forsaking of sin as evil and hateful, with sincere sorrow, humiliation, and confession; and a turning unto God as our reconciled Father, in the exercise of implicit faith in the merits and assisting grace of Christ. This is marked by the meaning of the Greek word used by the Holy Spirit to express the idea of repentance-"a change of mind," including evidently a change or thought, feeling, and purpose, corresponding to our new character as the children of God. If this be sincere, it will of course lead to the element of practical repentance, namely, (3) A sincere purpose of, and a persevering endeavor after, new obedience. (Acts 26:20.)

By these marks it may be seen that repentance unto life can only be exercised by a soul after, and in consequence of, its regeneration by the Holy Spirit. God regenerates; and we, in the exercise of the new gracious ability thus given, repent. Repentance and conversion, therefore, are terms applying often to the same gracious experience. The Scriptural usage of the two words differs in two respects-(1) Conversion is the more general term, including all the various experiences involved in our commencing the divine life. It especially emphasizes that experience as a turning unto God. Repentance is more specific, giving prominence to the work of the law upon the conscience, and especially emphasizing the experiences attending the new birth as a turning from sin. (2) Conversion is generally used to designate only the first actings of the new nature at the commencement of a religious life, or the first steps of a return to God after a notable backsliding (Luke 22:32); while repentance is a daily experience of the Christian as long as the struggle with sin continues in his heart and life. (Ps. 19:12,13; Luke 9:23; Gal. 6:14; 5:24.)

There is a false repentance experienced before regeneration, and by those never regenerated, which arises simply from the common operations of the truth and the Spirit upon the natural conscience, exciting simply a sense of guilt and pollution, leading neither to the hatred of sin, nor to the apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, nor to the practical turning from sin unto God. The genuineness of true repentance is proved (a) By its being conformed perfectly to the requirements and teachings of Scripture, and (b) By its fruits. If genuine, it infallibly springs from regeneration and leads to eternal life.

3. As thus defined, repentance is, like faith, an evangelical grace, given to us for Christ's sake, as well as a duty obligatory upon us. What is here said of repentance is equally true of every characteristic experience of the subject of regeneration and sanctification. Christ is the vine; we are the branches. But we see also free, accountable agents. Every Christian duty is therefore a grace; for without him we can do nothing. (John 15:5). And equally every Christian grace is a duty; because the grace is given to us to exercise, and it finds its true result and expression only in the duty.

That it is thus a gift of God is evident-(1) From its nature. It involves true conviction of sin; a holy hatred of sin; faith in the Lord Jesus and his work, which faith is God's gift. (Gal. 5:22; Eph. 2:8. (2) It is directly affirmed in Scripture. Zech. 12:10; Acts 5:31; 11:18; 2 Tim. 2:25.)

4. That it should be diligently preached by every minister of the gospel is (1) Self-evident from the essential nature of the duty. (2) Because such preaching was included in the commission Christ gave to the apostles. (Luke 24:47,48.) (3) Because of the example of the apostles. (Acts 20:21.)

SECTION 3: ALTHOUGH repentance be not to be rested in, as an, satisfaction for sin, or any cause of the pardon thereof,(5) which is the act of God's free grace in Christ;(6) yet is it of such necessity to all sinners, that none may expect pardon without it.(7)

SECTION 4: AS there is no sin so small but it deserves damnation;(8) so there is no sin so great, that it can bring damnation upon those who truly repent.(9)

SECTION 5 : Men ought not to content themselves with a general repentance, but it is every man's duty to endeavor to repent of his particular sins particularly.(10)

(5) Ezek. 36:31,32; 16:61,63. (6) Hos. 14:2,4; Rom. 3:24; Eph. 1:7. (7) Luke 13:3,5; Acts 17:30,31. (8) Rom. 6:23; 5:12; Matt. 12:36. (9) Isa. 55:7; Rom. 8:1; Isa. 1:16,18. (10) Ps. 19:13; Luke 19:8; 1 Tim. 1:13,15.

These sections teach the following propositions:

1. Repentance is not to be rested in, as any satisfaction for sin, or any cause of the pardon thereof. This directly contradicts the opinion of Socinians, the advocates of the moral-influence theory of the atonement, and Rationalists generally, to the effect that the repentance of the sinner is the only satisfaction the law requires, and hence the only condition God demands, as prerequisite to full pardon and restoration to divine favor.

It also contradicts the Roman doctrine of penance. Romanists distinguish penance-(1) As a virtue, which is internal, including sorrow for sin and a turning from sin unto God. (2) As a sacrament, which is the external expression of the internal state. This sacrament consists of (a) Contrition-i.e., sorrow and detesting of past sins, with a purpose of sinning no more; (b) Confession or self-accusation to a priest having jurisdiction and the power of the keys; (c) Satisfaction or some painful work, imposed by the priest and performed by the penitent, to satisfy divine justice for sins committed; and (d) Absolution, pronounced by the priest judicially, and not merely declaratively. They hold that the element of satisfaction included in this sacrament makes a real satisfaction for sin, and is an efficient cause of pardon, absolutely essential-the only means whereby the pardon of sins committed after baptism can be secured. (Cat. Rom., part 2., ch. 5., qs. 12, 13.)

That repentance is no cause whatever of the pardon of sin is proved by all that the Scriptures teach us-(1) As to the justice of God, which inexorably demands the punishment of every sin;

(2) As to the necessity for the satisfaction rendered to the law and justice of God by the obedience and suffering of Christ; (3) As to the fact that he has rendered a full satisfaction in behalf of all for whom he died; (4) As to the impossibility of any man's securing justification by works of any kind; and (5) As to the fact that the believer is justified solely on the ground of the righteousness of Christ, imputed to him and received by faith alone. All these points have already been discussed under their appropriate heads; and they are more than sufficient to prove-(a) That pardon is secured entirely on a different basis; (b) That the external penance of the Romanist is an impertinent attempt to supplement the perfect satisfaction of Christ; and (c) That internal repentance, when genuine, is itself a gracious gift of God, without merit in itself; and of value only because it springs from the application of Christ's grace to the soul, and leads to the application by the soul to Christ's grace.

2. Nevertheless, repentance is of such necessity to all sinners that none may expect pardon without it. This is evident-(1) Because the giving of pardon to a non-repentant sinner would be in effect to sanction his sin, to confirm him in his sinful state, and to encourage others therein. Although Scripture and the moral sense of men teach that repentance is no adequate satisfaction for sin, nor an equivalent for the penalty, they just as clearly teach that it would be inconsistent in every sense with good morals to pardon a person cherishing an unrepentant spirit. (2) Repentance is the natural and instant sequence of the grace of regeneration. It also embraces an element of faith in Christ; and that faith is, as we have seen, the instrument of justification. He that repents believes. He that does not repent does not believe. He that does not believe is not justified. Regeneration and justification are never separated. (3) The design of Christ's work is to "save his people from their sins." Matt. 1:21. He frees them from the guilt of their sins by pardon, and he brings them clear from the power of their sins through repentance. "Him hath God exalted . . . to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins." (Acts 5:31.) (4) Repentance, like faith, is a duty as well as a grace, and ministers are commanded to preach it as essential to forgiveness. (Luke 24:47; Acts 20:21.21.)

3. That the least sin deserves punishment is obvious. The moral law is moral in every element, and it is of the essence of that which is moral that it is obligatory, and that its violation is deserving of reprobation. Hence "whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, is guilty of all." (James 2:10.) That there is no sin so great that it can bring condemnation upon those that truly repent is also evident, because true repentance, as we have seen, is the fruit of regeneration, and no man is regenerated who is not also justified. Besides, true repentance includes faith, and faith unites to Christ and secures the imputation of his righteousness, and the righteousness of Christ of course cancels all possible sin. (Rom. 8:1; 5:20.)

4. That men ought to repent not only in general of the corruption of their hearts and sinfulness of their lives, but also of every particular sinful action of which they are conscious, and that when possible they should redress the wrong done by their actions, is a dictate alike of natural conscience and scripture. (Luke 19:8; 1 John 1:9.) No man has any right to presume that he hates sin in general unless he practically hates every sin in particular; and no man has any right to presume that he is sorry for and ready to renounce his own sins in general unless he is conscious of practically renouncing and grieving for each particular sin into which he falls.

SECTION 6: AS every man is bound to make private confession of his sins to God, praying for the pardon thereof;(11) upon which, and the forsaking of them, he shall find mercy;(12) so he that scandalizes his brother, or the Church of Christ, ought to be willing by private or public confession and sorrow for his sin, to declare his repentance to those that are offended;(13) who are thereupon to be reconciled to him, and in love to receive him.(14)

(11) Ps. 51:4,5,7,9,14; 32:5,6. (12) Prov. 28:13; 1 John 1:9. (13) James 5:16; Luke 17:3,4; Josh. 7:19; Ps. 51: (14) 2 Cor. 2:8.

This section teaches:

1. That every man should make private confession of all his sins to God, and that God will certainly pardon him when his sorrow and his renunciation of his sins are sincere. "If we confess our sins, he (God) is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." (1 John 1:9.)

2. That when a Christian has personally injured a bother, or scandalized by his unchristian conduct the Church of Christ, he ought to be willing, by a public or a private confession, as the case may be, to declare his repentance to those that are offended, is also a dictate alike of natural reason and of Scripture. If we have done wrong, we stand in the position of one maintaining a wrong until, by an expressed repentance and, where possible, redress of the wrong, we place ourselves on the side of the right. The wrong-doer is plainly in debt to the man he has injured, to make every possible restitution to his feelings and interests; and the same principle holds true in relation to the general interests of the Christian community. The duty is expressly commanded in Scripture. (Matt. 5:23,24; James 5:16; Matt. 18:15-18.)

3. That it is the duty of the brethren, or of the Church, when offended, to forgive the offending party and restore him fully to favor upon his repentance, is also a dictate of natural conscience and of Scripture. All honorable men feel themselves bound to act upon this principle. The Christian is, in addition, brought under obligations to forgive others by his own infinite obligation to his Lord, who not only forgave us upon repentance, but died to redeem us while we were unrepentant. As to public scandals, the Church is bound to forgive them when the Lord has done so. As genuine repentance is the gift of Christ, its evident exercise is a certain indication that the person exercising it is forgiven by Christ and is a Christian brother. (Luke 17:3,4; 2 Cor. 2:7,8; Matt. 6:12.)

The Roman Catholic Church has historically taught that, as an element of penance and evidence of true repentance, the Christian must confess all his sins without reserve, in all their details and qualifying circumstances, to a priest having jurisdiction; and that if any mortal sin is unconfessed it is not forgiven; and if the omission is willful, it is sacrilege, and greater guilt is incurred. (Cat. Rom., part 2., ch. 5., qs. 33, 34, 42.) And they maintain that the priest absolves judicially, not merely declaratively, from all the penal consequences of the sins confessed, by the authority of Jesus Christ.

This is an obvious perversion of the Scriptural command to confess. They bid us simply to confess our faults one to another. There is not a word said about confession to a priest in the Bible. The believer, on the contrary, has immediate access to Christ, and to God through Christ (1 Tim. 2:5; John 14:6; 5:40; Matt. 11:28), and is commanded to confess his sins immediately to God. (1 John 1:9.) No priestly function is ever ascribed to the Christian ministry in the New Testament. The power of absolute forgiveness of sin belongs to God alone (Matt. 9:26), is incommunicable in its very nature, and has never been granted to any class of men as a matter of fact. The authority to bind or loose which Christ committed to his Church was understood by the apostles, as is evident from their practice, as simply conveying the power of declaring the conditions on which God pardons sin; and, in accordance with that declaration, of admitting or of excluding men from sealing ordinances.

Special thanks to Steven Luker for making this chapter available to Sola Scriptura!

Top of page

[Chapter 16][TOC][Creeds and Confessions][Home]