Repentance is a thorough change of person’s natural heart, upon the subject of sin. We are all born in sin. We naturally love sin. We take to sin, as soon as we can act and think—just as the bird takes to flying, and the fish takes to swimming.
There never was a child that required schooling or education in order to learn deceitfulness, selfishness, passion, self-will, gluttony, pride and foolishness. These things are not picked up from bad companions, or gradually learned by a long course of tedious instruction. They spring up of themselves, even when boys and girls are brought up alone.
The seeds of them are evidently the natural product of the heart. The aptitude of all children to these evil things is an unanswerable proof of the corruption and fall of man.
Now when this heart of ours is changed by the Holy Spirit, when this natural love of sin is cast out, then takes place that change which the Word of God calls “repentance.” The person in whom the change is created is said to “repent.” They may be called, in one word, a repentant person.
But I dare not leave the subject here. It deserves a closer and more searching investigation. It is not safe to deal in general statements, when doctrines of this kind are handled. I will try to take repentance to pieces, and dissect and analyze it before your eyes. I will show you the parts and portions of which repentance is made up. I will endeavor to set before you something of the experience of every truly repentant person.
1) True Repentance Begins with a Knowledge of Sin
True repentance begins with a knowledge of sin. The eyes of the repentant person are opened. They see with dismay and confusion the length and breadth of God’s holy law, and the extent, the enormous extent, of their own transgressions. They discover, to their surprise, that in thinking themselves a “good sort of person,” and a person with a “good heart,” they have been under a huge delusion. They find out that, in reality, they are wicked, and guilty, and corrupt, and evil in God’s sight. Their pride breaks down. Their high thoughts melt away. They see that they are a great sinner. This is the first step in true repentance.
2) True Repentance Produces Sorrow for Sin
True repentance goes on to work sorrow for sin. The heart of a repentant person is touched with deep remorse because of their past transgressions. They are cut to the heart to think that they have lived so madly and so wickedly. They mourn over time wasted, over talents misspent, over God dishonored, over their own soul being injured. The remembrance of these things is grievous to them. The burden of these things is sometimes almost intolerable. When a person sorrows like this, you have the second step in true repentance.
3) True Repentance Produces Confession of Sin
True repentance proceeds to produce confession of sin. The tongue of a repentant person is loosed. They feel they must speak to that God against whom they have sinned. Something within them tells them they must cry to God, and pray to God, and talk with God, about the state of their own soul.They must pour out their heart, and acknowledge their iniquities, at the throne of grace. They are a heavy burden within them, and they can no longer keep silent. They can keep nothing back. They will not hide anything. They go before God, pleading nothing for themselves, and are willing to say, “I have sinned against heaven and before You—my iniquity is great. God be merciful to me, a sinner!” When a person goes thus to God in confession, you have the third step in true repentance.
4) True Repentance Produces a Breaking Off From Sin
True repentance shows itself in a thorough breaking off from sin. The life of a repentant person is altered. The course of their daily conduct is entirely changed. A new King reigns within their heart. They put off the old man. What God commands they now desire to practice; and what God forbids they now desire to avoid. They strive in all ways to keep clear of sin, to fight with sin, to war with sin, to get the victory over sin. They cease to do evil. They learn to do well. They break off sharply from bad ways and bad companions. They labor, however feebly, to live a new life. When a person does this, you have the fourth step in true repentance.
5) True Repentance Produces a Deep Hatred of Sin
True repentance shows itself by producing in the heart a settled habit of deep hatred of all sin. The mind of a repentant person becomes a mind habitually holy. They abhor that which is evil, and cleaves to that which is good. They delight in the law of God. They come short of their own desires not unfrequently. They find in themselves an evil principle warring against the spirit of God. They find themselves cold when they would be hot; backward when they would be forward; heavy when they would be lively in God’s service. They are deeply conscious of their own infirmities. They groan under a sense of indwelling corruption. But still, for all that, the general bias of their heart is towards God, and away from evil. They can say with David, “I count all Your precepts concerning all things to be right, and I hate every false way” (Psalm 119:128). When a person can say this, you have the fifth, or crowning step, of true repentance.
Repentance Explained by J. C. Ryle
True repentance is never alone in the heart of any person. It always has a companion—a blessed companion. It is always accompanied by lively faith in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Wherever faith is, there is repentance; wherever repentance is, there is always faith. I do not decide which comes first—whether repentance comes before faith, or faith before repentance. But I am bold to say that the two graces are never found separate, one from the other. Just as you cannot have the sun without light, or ice without cold, or fire without heat, or water without moisture—you will never find true faith without true repentance, and you will never find true repentance without lively faith. The two things will always go side by side.