What is repentance?

I’m currently reading a book by Michael Horton called The Gospel-Driven Life.  I have thoroughly enjoyed the book and will give a brief review later but for now I just wanted to share some comments he makes concerning repentance, which I found to be very helpful.  Horton starts by quoting Psalm 51:1-9 – David’s prayer of confession and then cites four features of David’s repentant spirit.  Here they are:

  1. David is not simply ashamed of his behavior but guilty (pp. 119).
  2. Though David has sinned cruelly against Bathsheba and plotted the death of her husband, he recognizes that his sin is first and foremost against God. Repentance is not only remorse for having wronged our neighbor but is a recognition that God is the most offended part (pp. 119).
  3. David does not try to atone for his sons or pacify God’s just anger by his remorse.  David confesses that before God’s throne he is condemned and he does not try to justify himself (pp. 119).
  4. David acknowledges not only his sinful actions but his sinful condition from the hour of conception.  Repentance is the revulsion of the whole soul toward its alliance with sin and death (pp. 119).

Additionally, Horton goes on to say that “often repentance is more broadly defined to include actual change in character and behavior, but Scripture describes this as the ‘fruit of repentance‘ (Matt. 3:8) or ‘deeds consistent with repentance’ (Acts 26:20; cf. Matt. 7:16; Luke 3:9; 8:15; John 12:24; Rom. 7:4; Gal. 5:22; Col. 1:10)” (pp. 119). 

Interestingly enough, in Roman Catholic theology and practice, “this call to repentance is replaced with a system of penance.  As the Renaissance scholar Erasmus discovered, the Latin Vulgate had erroneously (emphasis mine) translated the Greek imperative ‘Repent!’ as ‘Do Penance!’  Rome defines such penance as involving four elements: contrition, confession, satisfaction, and absolution.  Since few are able to rise to the level of true contrition (genuine sorrow for sin) attrition (fear of punishment) is deemed suitable for this first stage.  For forgiveness, each sin must be recalled and orally confessed to a priest, who then determines a suitable action or series of actions to perform in order to make satisfaction for the sin.  Only then can the penitent receive the absolution.” (pp. 120).

The problem with this Roman Catholic understanding of repentance and forgiveness (and anyone else for that matter) is that “repentance is understood not only as a change of heart or mind but as a new obedience and is typically regarded as a condition rather than result of forgiveness (emphasis mine)” (pp. 120).  What makes it even more complicated is that “some Christians struggle to the point of despair over whether the quality and degree of their repentance is adequate to be forgiven as if repentance were the ground of forgiveness and the former could be measured be the intensity of emotion and resolve” (pp. 120).  Repentance is a life-long journey.  But don’t look to repentance in-and-of-itself as the means to forgiveness because forgiveness was purchased and made possible 2,000 years ago.  But rather, look to the gospel, which has as its focus on the person and work of Jesus Christ.

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