The Grace of Repentance

The Grace of Repentance

by Sinclair B. Ferguson


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Ferguson provides a biblical definition of repentance and details implications for evangelical churches, outlining steps to return to a biblical understanding of the doctrine.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781433519833
Publisher: Crossway
Publication date: 04/07/2011
Edition description: Redesign
Pages: 64
Product dimensions: 4.80(w) x 6.80(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Sinclair B. Ferguson (PhD, University of Aberdeen) is Chancellor’s Professor of Systematic Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary and the former senior minister of the First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, South Carolina. He is the author of several books, the most recent being By Grace Alone: How the Grace of God Amazes Me. Sinclair and his wife, Dorothy, have four grown children.

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It was the year 1517. Europe was a Roman Catholic continent, and Leo X was Pope, a man "as elegant and as indolent as a Persian cat," as Roland Bainton described him (Here I Stand [Nashville: Abingdon, 1978], p. 56). Leo needed money to complete a great building project already underway, a new St. Peter's being built to replace its condemned predecessor. Leo needed lots of money! Huge, superabundant resources of money!

The intrigue that unfolded reads like a modern novel. Albert of Brandenburg wanted the archbishopric of Mainz and the primacy of all Germany that would come with it. So he borrowed money from the great German banking house of Fugger, paid the Pope, and in exchange was granted not only the archbishopric but the privilege of granting indulgences in his territory for eight years. Indulgences could release souls from the pains of purgatory for extended periods of time, perhaps forever. The deal was complex, however. Albert needed to clear his loan. But in addition, any further "profits" would be split 50/50 between St. Peter's and Fugger's Bank.

The new primate needed an ecclesiastical salesman to raise the money, and such a man was available in the great indulgence vendor Johannes Tetzel. Tetzel had mastered the art of communicating to sons and daughters the pleas of their dead parents to deliver them from the flames in which they languished. When he was promoted for his Doctor's degree Tetzel had defended the thesis:

As soon as the coin in the coffer springs The soul from purgatory springs.

That had been the teaching of Pope Sixtus IV, it was Tetzel's gospel, and by and large that was then the condition of Christianity.

In the fall of 1517, the great indulgence-monger was near enough to the parish of Wittenberg for parishioners to flock out to hear him and buy his wares. At the end of the month, on the eve of All Saints Day, a troubled and distressed thirty-three-year-old monk of the Augustinian order made his way quietly to the Castle Church and posted on the door a placard listing a series of theological points he was prepared to debate and defend. He was not a well-known or popular figure. He was a professor of Bible, a scholar, and a teacher. His theses were written in Latin, which the common people did not understand. He had no idea that his action would produce a spiritual revolution.

The monk's name was Martin Luther, and his placard was the now famous Ninety-Five Theses, a document that has probably been more influential in history than either the British Magna Charta or the American Declaration of Independence.

Luther's theses contained statements of church-shattering importance and led to what we call the Protestant Reformation. They are widely hailed as one of the great evangelical statements in history. Every year they are celebrated at Reformation Day Services. Still today Christians defend tough positions by an appeal to Luther's principle, "Here I stand, I can do no other. God help me."

The first of Luther's theses put the axe to the root of the tree of medieval theology:

When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said "repent," he meant that the entire life of believers should be one of repentance.

Luther had been studying the new edition of the Greek New Testament published by the humanist scholar Erasmus. In these studies he had come to realize that the Latin Vulgate, the official church Bible, had misleadingly rendered "repent" in Matthew 4:17 by poenitentiam agite ("do penance"), thus completely misconstruing Jesus' meaning. Luther saw that the Gospel called not for an act of penance but for a radical change of mind that would lead to a deep transformation of life. Later he would write to his vicar Johannes Staupitz about this glowing discovery: "I venture to say they are wrong who make more of the act in Latin than of the change of heart in Greek" (Bainton, Here I Stand, p. 67).

So began the Reformation, and at its heart lay Luther's great discovery: Repentance is a characteristic of the whole life, not the action of a single moment. Salvation is a gift, received only in Christ, only by grace, only in faith. But it is salvation, and salvation means we are actually being saved. Otherwise we cannot have come to know Christ the Savior.

Is that how we think about repentance? Or do we tend to think of it as something we are glad to have behind us, never to be repeated? In today's church we are as likely to be told not only that we can become Christians without such repentance, but can even remain Christians without it, being carnal to the end of our days. By contrast, our forefathers were convinced that repentance is so central to the Gospel that without it there can be no salvation. They believed this because it is the Bible's teaching.



Since repentance is such an important concept for understanding the true biblical Gospel, it is not surprising to discover that the Scriptures have an extensive and lively vocabulary to describe it.


Two Old Testament metaphors express the rigor, thoroughness, and even pain that can be involved in repentance: circumcising one's heart (Jer. 4:4) and breaking up fallow ground with a plow (Hosea 10:12). Shub, the Hebrew word that dominates the language of repentance, is one of the most frequently used verbs in the Old Testament. It is used over 100 times in the book of Jeremiah alone. It means to change a course of action, to turn away, or to turn back. This turning can refer to apostasy, a turning away from God (Num. 14:43; Josh. 22:16, 18, 23, 29; 1 Sam. 15:11; 1 Kings 9:6); but predominantly it denotes man's turning away from rebellion against God, and turning to God. It means a complete about-turn.

This language occurs frequently within the context of God's covenant relations with his people. In that covenant God has made provision to be gracious to those who rebel against him. He therefore urges them to return to him, to plow up hearts that have become hardened, and to circumcise hearts that have been covered with the spirit of the world and the flesh.

The same verb is used in the Old Testament for the return of God's people from exile. Because of their rebellion, the people have been in the far country. But God has been gracious; now they must make the journey back to the place where he has promised to bless them. Repentance is the moral and spiritual equivalent of that geographical return. It is made possible only because of God's covenant mercy.

What is involved in such repentance? Two things:

1. Recognizing that offenses have been committed against God and the covenant he has made with his people. Psalm 51, where David recognizes that his sin is against God only (v. 4), reflects this covenant orientation. Likewise, Isaiah pictures the people as covenant sons who have rebelled against their Father. The inevitable consequence is that they end up in the "far country" of exile, long since threatened in the Mosaic covenant (Deut. 28:36). Thus repentance involves recognition that we are under the covenant judgment of God for our rejection of the obligations of faith and obedience that we have to him (Deut. 28:15). It is the realization that the return journey involves reversing the outward and downward journey.

2. Turning away from sin in view of the gracious provisions that the Lord has made for us in his covenant. Repentance means returning to a spirit of creatureliness before the Creator in recognition of his mercy to penitent believers (Deut. 30:11-20). Ungodliness is thus rejected and righteousness is embraced. In the Old Testament this spirit of repentance is created by a sense of who God is and by an awareness of the true character of sin. It is a God-centered response, indeed the beginning of true God-centeredness. Turning away from sin and turning back to God belong together.


In the New Testament three verbs are used in connection with repentance. The first verb (epistrepho) emphasizes the idea of turning back and is used on a number of occasions for converting or returning to the Lord (Acts 26:20). The Thessalonians turned to God, from idols, to serve the living and true God (1 Thess. 1:9).

The second verb (metamelomai) occurs relatively rarely in the New Testament (Matt. 21:29, 32; 27:3; 2 Cor. 7:8; Heb. 7:21). It conveys the idea of regret. It is a state of mind that may or may not be accompanied by returning to God.

The third verb (metanoeo) is the New Testament's chief expression for repentance. In classical Greek it can mean to know or to become aware of something afterwards. This puts our past actions in a different light. Basically, metanoeo involves a change of mind. However, in the New Testament this carries significant implications. Repentance means a change of mind that leads to a change of lifestyle.

Ulrich Becker summarizes the New Testament teaching in these words:

Repentance, penitence and conversion are closely linked. Whenever someone gives his thought and life a new direction, it always involves a judgment on his previous views and behavior. This is expressed in the NT by three word-groups which deal with its various aspects: epistrepho, metamelomai and me tanoeo. The first and third both mean turn round, turn oneself round and refer to a man's conversion. This presupposes and includes a complete change under the influence of the Holy Spirit. Metamelomai expresses rather the feeling of repentance for error, debt, failure and sin, and so it looks back. Hence it does not necessarily cause a man to turn to God. Epistrepho is probably the widest conception, because it always includes faith. (New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, ed. Colin Brown [Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1975-78], vol. 1, pp. 353-354)

At first sight it might seem as if New Testament repentance no longer carries the covenantal overtones of the Old. But the reverse is the case. In the New Testament the covenant reaches its fulfillment in the coming of the Kingdom of God in Jesus Christ and the inauguration of the last days. The covenant promise is no longer foremost because it has been fulfilled. In a sense the covenant is Christ. The focus of attention is now no longer on a promise but on a person.

Hence, the message of the New Testament is not, "This is God's covenant; therefore repent." Instead it is, "The Kingdom of God has come in the person of Jesus; repent and believe in him." Kingdom-oriented and Christ-centered language now predominates, not because the covenant has been abandoned but because this has always been the focus of the covenant. The King has come. Therefore, to speak of his Kingdom and the necessity of repentance is to speak in the language of God's covenant grace!

It is precisely this Old Testament idea that Jesus turns into a parable of God's grace in conversion in the story of the son who showed such prodigal indifference to his father and ended up in the "far country." Only later did the memory of the supplies in his father's house bring him to himself and then home to his father (Luke 15:11-32). The self-absorption of the son, his seeking pleasure rather than fellowship with his father, led to his bankruptcy in the far country. Only when he was awakened to his folly and, simultaneously, to the adequate provisions that even the servants in his father's house enjoyed did he begin the painful trek home. Like the exiles, the way back for the prodigal was by reversing the direction of his journey.

Biblical repentance, then, is not merely a sense of regret that leaves us where it found us. It is a radical reversal that takes us back along the road of our sinful wanderings, creating in us a completely different mind-set. We come to our senses spiritually (Luke 15:17). Thus the prodigal son's life was no longer characterized by the demand "give me" (v. 12) but now by the request "make me ..." (v. 19).

This lies on the surface of the New Testament's teaching. Regret there will be, but the heart of repentance is the lifelong moral and spiritual turnaround of our lives as we submit to the Lord.


Repentance is essential for salvation. Twice in the same context Jesus underscores this: "Unless you repent, you too will all perish" (Luke 13:3, 5). God commands all men everywhere to repent, because he has fixed the day in which he will judge the world in righteousness by Christ (Acts 17:30-31). Repentance "is of such necessity to all sinners that none may expect pardon without it" (Westminster Confession of Faith, XV, 3).

Salvation is salvation from sin. That means more than forgiveness; it includes sanctification, a transformed life. It involves those who are saved in a turning away from sin. That turning away is repentance. There can be no salvation if we continue in sin (Rom. 6:1-4; 1 John 3:9).

Does this mean that we are forgiven on the basis of our repentance? Not at all! Repentance and faith are both necessary for salvation, but they are related to justification in different ways. Faith alone is the instrument by which Christ is received and rested on as Savior. Justification is by faith, not by repentance. But faith (and therefore justification) cannot exist where there is no repentance. Repentance is as necessary to salvation by faith as the ankle is to walking. The one does not act apart from the other. I cannot come to Christ in faith without turning from sin in repentance.

Faith is trusting in Christ; repentance is turning from sin. They are two sides of the same coin of belonging to Jesus.


Repentance is not an abstract idea, however. It is the unique activity of various individuals. Therefore, it follows that the actual experience of repentance will vary from person to person, as will their consciousness of their own sin. God's mercy is not merely a universally applicable medicine for sin; it is prescribed for each individual's sinfulness, his or her particular guilt. The individual experience of repentance is bound to take a unique shape, though it also shares in a common pattern.

The great Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck wrote some wise words in this connection:

Repentance is, despite its oneness in essence, different in form according to the persons in whom it takes place and the circumstances in which it takes place. The way upon which the children of God walk is one way but they are varyingly led upon that way, and have varying experiences. What a difference there is in the leading which God gives the several patriarchs; what a difference there is in the conversion of Manasseh, Paul and Timothy! How unlike are the experiences of a David and a Solomon, a John and a James! And that same difference we encounter also outside of Scripture in the life of the church fathers, of the reformers, and of all the saints. The moment we have eyes to see the richness of the spiritual life, we do away with the practice of judging others according to our puny measure.

There are people who know of only one method, and who regard no one as having repented unless he can speak of the same spiritual experiences which they have had or claim to have had. But Scripture is much richer and broader than the narrowness of such confines. In this respect also the word applies: There are diversities of gifts but the same Spirit; and there are differences of administrations but the same Lord. And there are diversities of operations, but it is the same God which worketh all in all (1 Cor. 12:4-6).

The true repentance does not consist of what men make of it, but of what God says of it. In the diversity of providences and experiences it consists and must consist of the dying of the old and the rising of the new man. (Our Reasonable Faith [Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1956], p. 438)

Within this general framework, there are several elements that are common to all incidences of biblical repentance.

1. A new attitude toward sin. This will inevitably be accompanied by a sense of shame and sorrow for our sin (Luke 15:18-19; Rom. 6:21). Two things should be noted:

First, repentance cannot be defined exclusively as shame and sorrow. Judas, for example, "repented" (Matt. 27:3, kjv), but this was not evangelical repentance. Rather, it was a sorrow that fed on itself and eventually led to despair and self-inflicted death. Paul called it a "worldly sorrow [that] brings death" (2 Cor. 7:10). By contrast, David's repentance, which was also marked by remorse and regret, was evangelical because it was God-centered, not self-centered. David recognized and responded to the fact that he had acted wickedly and committed sin against God. His repentance included the hope of forgiveness and new life (Ps. 51).

Second, this new attitude to sin will be as concrete as the sin to which the new attitude is directed. Since repentance means returning in a spirit of obedience back along the former path of disobedience, it is worked out in obedience to the specific commandments of God (Deut. 30:2). Thus, in the Gospels the repentance to which the rich young ruler was summoned was to develop self-denial in the very area that had been marked by self-indulgence — selling everything he possessed, giving his money to the poor, and then following Jesus. In the case of Zacchaeus, repentance meant returning what had been taken unjustly. Paul describes the repentance that issues from the regenerate heart as the righteous requirements of the Law being met in those who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit (Rom. 8:4).


Excerpted from "The Grace of Repentance"
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Copyright © 2010 Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
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Table of Contents

Preface, 7,
1 The Monk's Tale, 11,
2 Biblical Repentance, 15,
3 David: A Case Study, 28,
4 A Medieval Threat, 38,
5 The Way Back, 53,
6 What Shall We Do?, 57,
For Further Reading, 63,

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