Is your repentance genuine or counterfeit?

Posted: May 12, 2014 in Christian Living, Theology

PetitionThe responsibility of human beings before God is repentance and faith. This is required for entrance into relationship with God and the subsequent glory to be revealed at the last day. So generally speaking, the Christian life is one characterized by repentance and faith. If these are lacking, one is not a true follower of Christ. But we often throw around terms like repentance and faith with little understanding of what they actually mean Biblically. To make matters worse, we live in a society that embraces a very relativistic morality and has little remorse over sin. Westerners like to blame some outside source for their problem. There is much recognition of evil in the world, but it is never within. There is much sorrow, but rarely is it godly sorrow. Therefore, how can Christians ensure they are truly repenting? What does true repentance look like?

2 Corinthians 7:10 says, “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.” Here Paul is telling us there is a sorrow that leads to true repentance, but there is also a sorrow that leads to false repentance and death. Puritan Thomas Watson, in his book The Doctrine of Repentance, outlines the nature of counterfeit repentance as well as the ingredients of true godly sorrow that leads to a genuine repentance.

Augustine said that repentance damns many, and by this he meant a false repentance. Watson lists three deceits of repentance. The first is legal terror. Here a man is in fear of the punishment he knows he rightly deserves. His mind is troubled, not because of his sin, but because of impending judgment. The second deceit of repentance is resolution against sin. One may see his sin and make resolves to turn against it, but simple resolution alone will not suffice. Watson says, “What will not a sinner do, what vows will he not make, when he knows he must die and stand before the judgment seat? Self-love raises a sickbed vow, and love of sin will prevail against it. Trust not to a passionate resolution; it is raised in a storm and will die in a calm.”[1] Finally, leaving sinful ways is not a sufficient mark of genuine repentance. Many men leave certain sins for one reason or another only to embrace other sins. A man may stop looking at porn only to pick up some other addiction such as sports or video games.

True repentance, on the other hand, is marked by and begins with a genuine godly sorrow. Without this sorrow, one can assume he has no genuine repentance. As Watson says, “He that can believe without doubting, suspect his faith; and he that can repent without sorrowing, suspect his repentance.”[2] So what is godly sorrow? What should it look like in your heart and soul? There are five qualifications for godly sorrow. I encourage you to examine your heart, as I have mine, and see whether or not your repentance is genuine. “A true penitent labors to work his heart into a sorrowing frame.”[3]

First, godly sorrow is inward – it is for heart sins. It is deep, more than just the outward appearance of grief (Matt. 6:16). Second, godly sorrow is ingenuous. It is sorrow over your offence and not just the punishment. Pharaoh was sorry, but his was not a godly sorrow. Ingenuous sorrow says with David in Psalm 51:3, “My sin is ever before me.” Third, godly sorrow is always mixed with faith in Christ. Many tears fall from man, but few are joined with a faith in God.

Fourth, godly sorrow is great sorrow. But does that mean all who are truly repentant must be seen weeping in sackcloth and ashes? No. Some are more emotional then others and some sins are worse than others. As Watson says, “In the new birth all have pangs, but some have sharper pangs than others.”[4] A simple test that Watson gives is this: godly sorrow will be greater than for any worldly loss. While we may not experience sorrow during every moment of repentance that is greater than all worldly loss (e.g. as in the loss of a child), our general view of our sin and the separation it causes from God should produce in us a sorrow that exceeds all worldly grief.

Finally, godly sorrow is abiding. This does not mean one will never sin again, but genuine sorrow and repentance will produce more sorrow and repentance at further sin. The process will continue, as the believer is being sanctified and purged of his sin. Watson once again helps us with the distinction between abiding and non-abiding sorrow. “It is not a few tears shed in a passion that will serve the turn. Some will fall a-weeping at a sermon, but it is like an April shower, soon over, or like a vein opened and presently stopped again. True sorrow must be habitual. O Christian, the disease of your soul is chronic and frequently returns upon you; therefore you must be continually medicating yourself by repentance.”[5]

If you do not find yourself being characterized by such godly sorrow, search your heart. First, find out whether or not your faith is genuine. Then labor hard for true godly sorrow and repentance. Cultivation of repentance is hard, but the fruit is sweet.


[1] Thomas Watson, The Doctrine of Repentance, pg. 16

[2] Ibid., pg. 19

[3] Ibid., pg. 20

[4] Ibid., pg. 23

[5] Ibid., pg. 26

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