Back to the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith!
The Christian life is a life of ongoing repentance. As with our sanctification, it begins at a certain point in our lives and continues through to natural death. Repentance is not unlike that; when God calls us to repentance and faith, we do repent of the sins and transgressions that cast us away from him. But throughout our life, as we become more Christlike and finely-tuned to the presence of sin in our life, we repent again, not for salvation, but for sanctification. When we become aware of a sin which we have committed or a good work which we omitted, we repent in obedience to God’s call.
The Confession begins, “Such of the elect that are converted at riper years, having sometime lived in the state of nature, and therein served divers pleasures, God in their effectual calling gives them repentance to life.”
Not that God “gives” repentance. Even repentance is not a work done by us! Titus 3 reminds us that God regenerates and renewes us by his Spirt, not by works (v.5). This harkens back to the golden chain of redemption of Romans 8:29-30, “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.”
God foreknows us, he predestines us, he calls us, he justifies us, and he glorifies us. It is the call to salvation that leads to repentance. In his kindness toward his enemies, he moves us to see our original nature as wicked, which then moves us to repentance (cf. Romans 2:4).
The ongoing repentance that marks the Christian life is even yet a grace of God. The Confession continues, “Whereas there is none that does good and does not sin, and the best of men may, through the power and deceitfulness of their corruption dwelling in them, with the prevalency of temptation, fall in to great sins and provocations; God has, in the covenant of grace, mercifully provided that believers so sinning and falling be renewed through repentance unto salvation.”
Every regenerate believer will face temptations, and will at times give in to those temptations. God’s love and kindness is so great that he does not let us fall away when we show our weaknesses. He calls us again to repentance, not to shame us, but to restore us. At the Last Supper, Jesus tells Peter, “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:31-32). The prayers of the Son are more than sufficient to keep us in his love and care.
Jesus then tells Peter that he will betray Jesus three separate times before morning comes. Peter denied having ever met Jesus, and yet Jesus prayed for him that his faith would not fail. Repentance restores us to the joy of right-standing with our heavenly Father. If Peter betrayed Jesus three times in one night and yet was restored on the beach (John 21), then what fear do you have if you repent?
The Confession then begins to more clearly define repentance as it says, “This saving repentance is an evangelical grace, whereby a person, being by the Holy Spirit made sensible of the manifold evils of his sin, does, by faith in Christ, humble himself for it with godly sorrow, detestation of it, and self-abhorrancy, praying for pardon and strength of grace, with a purpose and endeavor, by supplies of the Spirit, to walk before God unto all well-pleasing in all things.”
Faith in Christ. Humility for sin. Sorrow for sin. Hatred of sin. Resistance of sin.
These traits mark true repentance. We all know what it feels like to be caught in the act, and there is a certain kind of sorrow for that. But it is not the same sorrow, by any measure, of knowing your sins have been seen in the throne room of heaven. "For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death" (2 Corinthians 7:10).
You have not offended your parents, your spouse, your mayor, your governor, or your president. You have offended your creator. Who can stand?
In humility, we confess, or agree, with God that what we have done is ungodly. In sorrow, we confess that we should never have entertained the notion. In hatred, we truly recognize and feel that what we did was abhorrent. We then seek again to resist future temptations of the same sin. All of this is predicated upon the belief that Christ's once-for-all sacrifice really and truly covered over your sins, from first to last.
We either live in the flesh, or we live in the Spirit. Those who are truly converted live in the Spirit, which equips to be humble and sorrowful for our sin, leading us to hate it, which in turn draws us to resist it in the future.
We will all fall many times. Repentance is definitely a vow to not give in to temptation again, but it is more than that. When we fall, do we hate what happened? Do we hate that God was offended once more by our deeds? We will never perfectly repent, because we will still stumble and fall. But we must absolutely endeavor to not give the devil a foothold or any advantage.
We don’t only confess in general but also in particular. “As repentance is to be continued through the whole course of our lives, upon the account of the body of death, and the motions thereof, so it is every man’s duty to repent of his particular known sins particularly.”
It is nearly impossible to address sins and temptations if they are not named. That's one reason the law was given on Sinai. When Jesus saw Zacchaeus, Zacchaeus repented not of sins in general but of defrauding those from whom he demanded excessive taxes (Luke 19:8). He promised to give back even more than he had taken.
As we grow and mature in the Christian life, there may be sins whose temptations never lighten. We face them head-on daily. But by God’s mercy, we are assured we can come to him in repentance each and every time we fall. In fact, we are commanded to do so.
And finally, "Such is the provision which God has made through Christ in the covenant of grace for the preservation of believers unto salvation, that although there is no sin so small but it deserves damnation, yet there is no sin so great that it shall bring damnation to them that repent, which makes the constant preaching of repentance necessary."
We do not serve a God who condemns those who repent. As Isaiah tells us, “Let him return to the Lord, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon” (55:7b). The Lord Jesus is full of compassion on weak, weary sinners who turn to him in faith and repentance, leaning on his everlasting arms.