Thomas Watson wrote The Doctrine of Repentance in 1668. In his opening letter he says that repentance is one of the two great graces in the Christian life. The other is faith. Note how he says the grace of repentance. Watson believes that repentance is something we must do, but it is also something we can only do by the grace of God in the power of the Holy Spirit. He calls faith and repentance the “two wings by which [the Christian] flies to heaven” (7).
But why write a book about repentance? Well Watson gives his reasons:
- “Repentance is never out of season” (7). It is always useful.
- Repentance is timely to our current situation.
- Repentance purges sin and cherishes godly affections.
- Repent for we do not know what tomorrow holds.
- Repentance is the way of the saints who have gone before us.
- Repentance is what our country needs.
- Repentance makes the sinner happy in God
The Puritans were biblical and logical thinkers. And their books are wonderfully organized as we shall see presently.
A Preliminary Discourse
First, Watson says he is not going to argue about whether faith precedes repentance. He believes it does, but that is not the point of his book. Even if faith precedes repentance he says repentance is so important “that there is no being saved without it” (13).
Second, Watson says repentance is “pure gospel grace” (13). There was no repentance in the garden with Adam. Death was the only option for sin. In the Covenant of Grace, “Repentance came by the gospel. Christ has purchased in his blood that repenting sinners shall be saved” (13).
Third, Watson says repentance comes about two ways: By the word of God (scripture) and the Holy Spirit. The Word of God makes some men worse and others better. Why? Because the Holy Spirit must carry the Word to the conscience or it will bounce off upon rocky ground.
Here Watson identifies things that look like repentance but are not because they are shallow, fake, or incomplete.
#1: Legal terror
Being scared of Hell is not the same as being repentant. Fear of punishment does not automatically mean a change of heart.
#2 Personal resolutions
Outward promises of change sound good and make a man feel better about himself, but don’t last.
#3 Leaving many sinful ways, but not others
A person might repent of certain sins, but leave others because they are cherished and he cannot bear to part with them. We might exchange one sin for another. It might cost too much to part with a certain sin so it is left alone.
The Nature of True Repentance
Watson argues for six ingredients for true repentance:
1) Sight of Sin: You must know you have sin and are a sinner if you are to repent!
2) Sorrow for Sin:
- Not just feeling bad, But a holy agony over the wickedness of our sins and the bloody price paid for them by the Son of God.
- It is a sorrow of the heart for sins of the heart.
- It is a sorrow for offending God, not for the punishment deserved for it.
- It is a sorrow of faith, not despair.
- Sorrow for sin makes us willing to let go of sins no matter how much pleasure they brought us.
- This sorrow makes Christ precious, drives out sin, and makes way for the solid comfort of grace.
- Golly sorrow sometimes requires acts of restitution for those we have wronged.
- Godly sorrow is abiding and habitual for the Christian life.
- Two appropriate times for renewing our repentance are the administration of the Lord’s Supper and the hour of death.
3) Confession of Sin: Confession must be self-accusing, voluntary, from the heart with sincerity, and particular.
- Confession must acknowledge the pollution of humanity, the ripples of our sin as they impact the people around us.
- We must never blame God for our sin.
- Confession requires resolution not to repeat sin.
- Confession is necessary because it prevents us from hiding our sins behind vague generalities, from confessing only some sins, and from minimizing our sins.
- Confession is desirable because it gives glory to God, humbles the soul, gives release to troubled hearts, purges sin, endears Christ to the soul, and makes way for pardon to come.
- Confession of sin is private except in 3 cases: 1) A person commits public and scandalous sin that “his repentance may be as visible as his scandal” (37). 2) A man confessed his sin to God, but is still burdened by his conscience. It is wise to go to a godly friend and receive a word of comfort and advice. 3) A man has slandered another.
4) Shame for Sin: “Repentance causes a holy bashfulness” (39)
- Every Sin makes us guilty before God even if we are saved from the flames of Hell.
- In every sin there is much unthankfulness.
- Our sins put Christ to shame.
- Many sins committed are by the special instigation of the Devil.
- Sin turns men into beasts.
- In every sin there is folly.
- The sins we commit are worse than sins of unbelievers because we sin against the light of grace.
- Our sins are worse than the sins of the devils because he nor his demons ever sinned against Christ’s blood.
“Hypocrites will confidently avouch God to be their God, but they know not how to blush…Be assured, the more we are ashamed of sin now, the less we shall be ashamed at Christ’s coming.”Page 44.
5) Hatred for Sin: A true penitent is a sin-loather.
Hatred for sin is known when a man’s spirit is set against sin in all its forms and manifestations. The origin and nature of sin make us hate it all the more. Sin is worse than affliction and Hell. In affliction the love of God is present for his purity and comfort. Sin is worse because the most terrible earthly judgment God can do is to allow men to sin without control. Sin is worse than Hell because in Hell there is justice, but sin against God is injustice of the highest degree.
“If a man loathe that which make his stomach sick, much more will he loathe that which makes his conscience sick.”Page 45
6) Turning from Sin
- It must be a turning from sin with the heart.
- It must a turning from all sin.
- It must be turning from sin upon a spiritual ground.
- It must be such a turning from sin unto God.
- True turning from sin is such a turn as has no return.
These points assist the penitent from only turning halfway from sin. It is not enough to turn partly away and partly toward God. Repentance is a turning from death to life.
The Reasons Enforcing Repentance, with a Warning to the Impenitent
1) God’s sovereign command demands we repent.
2) The pure nature of God denies communion with an impenitent creature.
3) Sinners continuing in impenitence are out of Christ’s commission
4) We have by sin wronged God.If God should save men without repentance, making no discrimination, then by this rule he must save all, men and devils alike.
A hard heart is a receptacle for Satan. As God has two places he dwells in, heaven and a humble heart, so the devil has two places he dwells in, hell and a hard heart. It is not fall into water that drowns, but lying in it. It is not falling into sin that damns, but lying in it without repentance.Page 62.
Well that is a lot to take in! Know that Watson will be careful in a future chapter to say that repentance does NOT merit forgiveness or grace. Further, I don’t believe Watson is saying that unless we check all these boxes then we haven’t ever truly repented. Rather he is mediating on what true repentance is and is not, the ways we deceive ourselves, and how we can truly be repentant.
This should not lead us into overly self-reflective spirals. Rather in a church culture where doctrines of sin and repentance are often vague if they are recognized at all, Thomas Watson’s meditations on repentance inspire us to take sin and repentance seriously because God is serious about his love and mercy.
Quotes and pages numbers are come The Doctrine of Repentance by Thomas Watson and published by The Banner of Truth Trust reprinted in 2016.