The Westminster Confession of Faith concludes from Scripture that while repentance is not a cause for salvation, “it is of such necessity to all sinners, that none may expect pardon without it” (15.3; Lk. 13:3-5; Ac. 17:30-31). If there is no possibility of salvation and pardon without repentance, it is critical for us to know what the marks and motives of true repentance are as they are alluded to in our text.
- Marks of True Repentance
The marks of true repentance are alluded to with three brief lines in vv. 12, 13.
- Confession: God says that we must “return to him with all our heart.” Seeking pardon for sin begins with naming sins as you recognize them and calling them what God does in his word. The WCF says that “men ought not to content themselves with a general repentance, but it is every man’s duty to endeavor to repent of his particular sins particularly” (15.5; Ps. 19:13; Lk. 19:8; 1 Ti. 1:13-15).
- Apply: One way to practice this is to use the Westminster Shorter Catechism’s questions on the Ten Commandments and take one commandment per day and confess how you have broken what it forbids and failed to perfectly do what it requires.
- Contrition: True repentance is also marked by contrition. “Fasting, weeping, mourning” are all signs of a truly broken heart. The Confession says that when a man comes to realize the “filthiness and odiousness of his sins,” he will grieve and hate them. There must be an emotional revulsion at sin (Je. 31:18-19). Furthermore, the Bible says that such emotion should be in view of its offense against a holy God, not just regret over the consequences (2 Co. 7:9-11).
- Apply: One way to feel the weight of your sin is to confess it to another person. While the sin is against God first and foremost, the pain of seeing a loved one's face as you admit your wrong is a helpful step in breaking the cycle of repeated sin.
- Change: Finally, true repentance involves conversion or change. I don’t mean that every time a Christian sins, he must be converted anew. I mean that true repentance means turning away from that sin, even if it means you are never done battling it the rest of your life. The Catechism says that repentance includes to “endeavor after new obedience” (Ps. 119:6, 59, 106; Lk. 1:6; 2 Kg. 23:25). If you easily and quickly return to the sins you have confessed, then the Bible says you are like a dog returning to its vomit. While true repentance does not ensure that you will never fall again to the same sin, it will keep you from returning to it quickly or easily.
- Motivation for True Repentance
Just as there are marks of true repentance, we need a powerful motivation to wake us out of our sin and move us towards repentance.
- God’s mercy: The surest incentive to produce true repentance will be the grace of God in Jesus Christ, which Joel clearly declares in v. 13. It may sound strange to your ears that I would say Joel declares the gospel of Jesus Christ, but that is precisely what he does when he quotes Exodus 34:6, 7, “he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity.” This was God’s answer to Moses’ request, “Show me your glory” in Exodus 33:18. This is made even more compelling by the fact that God revealed himself this way after the Israelites had built a golden calf to worship instead of him.
- God’s gift: Another motivation to turn to a gracious God is that he gives repentance to those who ask for it. That means, true repentance is not something we can conjure up on our own. It must be given to us by God’s grace (see Acts 11:18 and 2 Tim. 2:25). Practically, this means that when God makes you aware of your sin, by whatever means, you must cry out to him with the assurance that he is the gracious and compassionate God who grants repentance to those who ask him for it.
- Jesus’s repentance: Now if these promises of Scripture are not sufficient to motivate your heart to turn to the Lord with assurance that he will grant you repentance unto life, then you must think on the active righteousness of your Savior. Jesus’s public ministry began with his coming to John the Baptist for baptism. It is initially confounding why the son of God would need to come to John the Baptist for baptism, especially when we remember that John’s was a baptism of “repentance.” Why would one who never sinned need to undergo a baptism of repentance? John the Baptist effectively asked the same question, and Jesus responded that it was “necessary to fulfill all righteousness.” In other words, undergoing a baptism of repentance fulfilled the active righteousness that we needed to be saved. Not only did Jesus have to fulfill all the Commandments in our place, he even had to repent in our place.
- Which of the marks of true repentance was most challenging or convicting to you?
- What is one way you can apply the marks of true repentance to your relationship with God this week?
- Which of the motives for true repentance was most compelling to you?
- What is one way you can respond to the good news of this passage today?