The Doctrine of  Repentance

By Thomas Watson, 1668

The two great graces essential to a saint in this life, are faith and repentance. These are the two wings by which he flies to heaven.
Faith and repentance preserve the spiritual life—as heat and water preserve the physical life. The grace which I am going to discuss is repentance. Chrysostom thought that repentance was the fittest subject for him to preach upon before the Emperor. Augustine kept the penitential psalms with him as he lay upon his bed, and he often perused them with tears. Repentance is never out of season; it is of as frequent use as the artificer's tool or the soldier's weapon. If I am not mistaken, practical points are more needful in this age than controversial and disputable matters.

Repentance is purgative—do not fear the working of this pill. "Smite your soul," said Chrysostom, "smite it; it will escape death by that stroke!" How happy it would be, if we were more deeply affected with sin, and our eyes did swim in tears of repentance. We may clearly see the Spirit of God moving in the waters of repentance, which though troubled, are yet pure. Moist tears of repentance dry up sin—and quench the wrath of God. Repentance is the nourisher of piety, the procurer of mercy. The more regret and trouble of spirit we have first at our conversion, the less we shall feel afterwards.

Christians, do you have a sad regret of other things—and not of sin? Worldly tears fall to the earth—but godly tears of repentance are kept in a bottle. "You keep track of all my sorrows. You have collected all my tears in your bottle. You have recorded each one in your book." (Psalm 56:8). Do not judge holy weeping to be wasted. Tertullian thought he was born for no other end—but to repent. Either sin must drown in the tears of repentance—or the soul must burn in hell.

Let it not be said that repentance is difficult. Things that are excellent deserve labor. Will not a man dig for gold—though it makes him sweat? It is better to go with difficulty to heaven—than with ease to hell! What would the damned give, that they might have a herald sent to them from God, to proclaim forgiveness upon their repentance? What volleys of sighs and groans of repentance, would they send up to heaven? What floods of tears would their eyes pour forth? But it is now too late! They may keep their tears to lament their folly—sooner than to procure God's pity. O that we would therefore, while we are on this side of the grave, make our peace with God! Tomorrow may be our dying day; let this be our repenting day. How we should imitate the saints of old, who embittered their souls and sacrificed their lusts, and put on sackcloth in the hope of white robes. Peter baptized himself with tears; and that devout lady Paula, like a bird of paradise, bemoaned herself and humbled herself to the dust for sin.

Besides our own personal sins, the deplorable condition of the land calls for a contribution of tears. Have we not lost much of our pristine fame and renown? The time was when we sat as princes among the provinces (Lam. 1:1), and God made the sheaves of other nations do obeisance to our sheaf (Gen. 37:7) But has not our glory fled away as a bird (Hos. 9:11)? And what severe dispensations are yet ahead, we cannot tell. Our black and hideous vapors having ascended, we may fear loud thunder-claps should follow. And will not all this bring us to our senses and excite in us a spirit of humiliation? Shall we sleep on the top of the mast when the winds are blowing from all the quarters of heaven? "Cry aloud before the Lord! Let your tears flow like a river. Give yourselves no rest from weeping day or night!" (Lam. 2:18)

I will not launch forth any further in a prefatory discourse—but that God would add a blessing to this work and so direct this arrow, that though shot at random—it may hit the mark, and that some sin may be shot to death—shall be the ardent prayer of him who is the well-wisher of your soul's happiness,
Thomas Watson, May 25, 1668

Paul, having been falsely accused of sedition by Tertullus—"we have him to be a troublemaker, a man who is constantly inciting the Jews throughout the world to riots and rebellions against the Roman government" (Acts 24:5) —makes an apology for himself before Festus and King Agrippa in Chapter 26 of the Book of Acts. Paul treats of three things with such conviction, as almost to have converted King Agrippa:

(1.) He speaks of the manner of his life before his conversion. "I have been a member of the Pharisees, the strictest sect of our religion." During the time of his unregeneracy he was zealous for religious traditions, and his false fire of zeal was so hot, that it scorched all who stood in his way; "I did everything I could to oppose the followers of Jesus of Nazareth. I caused many of the believers in Jerusalem to be sent to prison!"

(2.) He speaks of the manner of his conversion. "About noon, Your Majesty, a light from heaven brighter than the sun shone down on me." This light was no other than what shone from Christ's glorified body. "And I heard a voice speaking unto me, Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?" The body being hurt, the head in heaven cried out. At this light and voice—Paul was amazed and fell to the earth: "Then I asked, "Who are you, Lord?" "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting," the Lord replied." All opinion of self-righteousness now vanished, and Paul grafted his hope of heaven upon the stock of Christ's righteousness.

(3) He speaks of the manner of his life after his conversion. He who had been a persecutor before—now became a preacher: "Now get up and stand on your feet. I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen of me and what I will show you." When Paul, this "elect vessel", was savingly wrought upon, he labored to do as much good—as previously he had done hurt. He had persecuted saints to death before, now he preached sinners to life. God first sent him to the Jews at Damascus and afterwards enlarged his commission to preach to the Gentiles. And the message he preached was this, "I preached that they should repent and turn to God and prove their repentance by their deeds." (verse 20). A weighty and excellent subject!

I shall not dispute whether faith or repentance comes first into the soul. Doubtless repentance shows itself first in a Christian's life. Yet I am apt to think that the seeds of faith are first wrought in the heart. As when a burning candle is brought into a room—the light shows itself first—but the candle was before the light. Just so, we see the fruits of repentance first—but the beginnings of faith were there before. That which inclines me to think that faith is in the heart before repentance—is because repentance, being a grace, must be exercised by one who is living. Now, how does the soul live—but by faith? "The just shall live by his faith" (Heb. 10:38). Therefore there must be first, some seeds of faith in the heart of a penitent, otherwise it is a dead repentance and so of no value. Whether faith or repentance goes first—I am sure that repentance is of such importance, that there is no being saved without it.

After Paul's shipwreck he swam to shore on planks and broken pieces of the ship (Acts 27:44). In Adam we all suffered shipwreck, and repentance is the only plank left us after shipwreck—to swim to heaven. It is a great duty incumbent upon Christians solemnly to repent and turn unto God: "Repent! for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!" (Matt. 3:2) "Repent therefore, and be converted that your sins may be blotted out!" (Acts 3:19) "Repent of this your wickedness" (Acts 8:22). In the mouths of three witnesses this truth is confirmed.

Repentance is a foundation grace: "Not laying again the foundation of repentance" (Heb. 6:1). That religion which is not built upon this foundation must needs fall to the ground. Repentance is a grace required under the gospel. Some think it legal; but the first sermon that Christ preached, indeed, the first word of his sermon, was "Repent!" (Matt. 4:17) And his farewell that he left when he was going to ascend was that "repentance should be preached in his name" (Luke 24:47).

The apostles plucked upon this same string: "They went out and preached that men should repent" (Mark 6:12). Repentance is a pure gospel grace. The covenant of works admitted no repentance; there it was, sin and die! Repentance came in by the gospel. Christ has purchased in his death—that repenting sinners shall be saved. The Law required personal, perfect, and perpetual obedience. It cursed all who could not come up to this: "Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law" (Gal. 3:10). It does not say, "he who obeys not all things, let him repent" —but, "let him be cursed." Thus repentance is a doctrine that has been brought to light, only by the gospel.

How is repentance wrought? The manner in which repentance is wrought is:

Partly by the Word. "When they heard this, they were pierced to the heart!" (Acts 23:7). The Word preached, is the engine God uses to effect repentance. It is compared to a hammer and to a fire (Jer. 23:29), the one to break, the other to melt the heart. "Does not my word burn like fire? Is it not like a mighty hammer that smashes rock to pieces?" How great a blessing it is to have the Word, which is of such virtue, when dispensed by the Holy Spirit! Those who will not be melted into repentance by the fire of the Word, will never escape hell!

By the Spirit. Ministers are but the pipes and organs. It is the Holy Spirit breathing in them—which makes their words effectual: "While Peter yet spoke these words, the Holy Spirit fell on all those who heard the Word" (Acts 10:44). The Spirit in the Word illuminates and converts. When the Spirit touches a heart—it dissolves with tears: "I will pour upon the inhabitants of Jerusalem the spirit of grace—and they shall look upon me whom they have pierced, and they shall mourn" (Zech. 12:10).

It is astonishing to consider what different effects the Word has upon men. Some at a sermon are like Jonah: their heart is tender and they let tears fall. Others are no more affected with it than a deaf man with music. Some grow better by the Word—others grow worse. The same earth which causes sweetness in the grape—causes bitterness in the wormwood. What is the reason the Word works so differently? It is because the Spirit of God carries the Word to the conscience of one—and not another. One has received the divine annointing—and not the other (1 John 2:20). I pray that the dew may fall with the manna—that the Spirit may go along with the Word. The chariot of ordinances will not carry us to heaven unless the Spirit of God joins himself to this chariot (Acts 8:29).


COUNTERFEITS of Repentance

To discover what true repentance is, I shall first show what it is not. There are several counterfeits of repentance, which might occasion that saying of Augustine that "repentance damns many". He meant a false repentance; a person may delude himself with counterfeit repentance:

1. The first counterfeit of repentance, is LEGAL TERROR.

A man has gone on long in sin. At last God arrests him, shows him what desperate hazard he has run—and he is filled with anguish. But after a while, the tempest of conscience is blown over, and he is quiet. Then he concludes that he is a true penitent because he has felt some bitterness in sin. Do not be deceived! This is not true repentance! Both Ahab and Judas had great trouble of mind. It is one thing to be a terrified sinner—and another to be a repenting sinner. Sense of guilt is enough to breed terror in the conscience. Only infusion of divine grace, breeds true repentance. If pain and trouble were sufficient to repentance, then the damned in hell should be most penitent, for they are most in anguish. "Men gnawed their tongues in agony and cursed the God of heaven because of their pains and their sores, but they refused to repent of what they had done!" Revelation 16:10-11. Repentance depends upon a change of heart. There may be terror—yet with no change of heart. "I preached that they should repent and turn to God and prove their repentance by their deeds." Acts 26:20

2. Another counterfeit about repentance, is RESOLUTION AGAINST SIN.

A person may purpose and make vows—yet be no penitent. "You said, I will not transgress" (Jer. 2:20). Here was a good resolution. But see what follows: "but still you would not obey me. On every hill and under every green tree, you have prostituted yourselves by bowing down to idols!" Notwithstanding her solemn engagements, they played fast and loose with God—and ran after their idols!

We see by experience what protestations against sin, a person will make when he is on his sick-bed, if God should recover him again. Yet if that person does recover—he is as bad as ever. He shows his old heart in a new temptation. Resolutions against sin may arise:

(1) From present extremity; not because sin is sinful—but because it is painful. This kind of resolution will vanish.

(2) From fear of future evil, an apprehension of death and hell. "I looked, and there before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death, and Hell was following close behind him!" (Rev. 6:8). What will a sinner not do—what vows will he not make—when he knows he must die and stand before the God in judgment? Self-love raises a sickbed repentance. But if he recovers—the love of sin will prevail against it. Trust not to a such passionate resolution; it is raised in a storm—and will die in a calm!

3. The third counterfeit about repentance, is the leaving of many sinful ways.

It is a great matter, I confess, to leave sin. So dear is sin to a man—that he will rather part with a child than with a lust! "Shall I give the fruit of my body—for the sin of my soul?" (Micah 6:7). Sin may be parted with—yet without repentance.

(1) A man may part with some sins and keep others. Herod reformed many things which were amiss—but could not leave his beloved Herodias.

(2) An old sin may be left in order to entertain a new sin—as you get rid an old servant to take another. This is to exchange a sin. Sin may be exchanged—and the heart remained unchanged. He who was a profligate in his youth, turns to be a miser in his old age. A slave is sold to a Jew; the Jew sells him to a Turk. Here the master is changed—but he is a slave still. So a man moves from one vice to another—but remains an unrepentant sinner still.

(3) A sin may be left not so much from strength of grace—as from reasons of prudence. A man sees that though such a sin is for his pleasure—yet it is not for his best interest. It will eclipse his credit, harm his health, or impair his estate. Therefore, for prudential reasons, he dismisses it. But true leaving of sin, is when the acts of sin cease from a principle of grace infused into the soul—as the air ceases to be dark from the infusion of light.