A Primer on Repentance 

Rosaria Butterfield

I first heard the expression “Repentance unto Life” in Pastor Ken Smith’s dining room on an uncharacteristically hot and humid August afternoon in Syracuse, NY, in 1996. The window fans vented in full blast where I was having dinner at the home of my Christian neighbors. I was in a lesbian relationship, about to be tenured at a first-tier research university, and discipling a hearty crop of young LGBTQ+ radicals to follow in my footsteps. 

As an unbeliever, linking “repentance” with “life” by the conjunction “unto” was easy to reject. How could “life” be the event that happens after “repentance”—and deductively, only after repentance? What kind of life? How could someone like me, writing books, teaching students, and leading an academic department, be counted among the dead? 

By God’s mercy, I would soon learn I was lost in my sin, and my soul was rotting under the stench. I was spiritually dead, with my sins condemning me through every thought, word, and deed. I had broken every commandment under God’s moral law (Exodus 20: 1-17). I was an atheist (1st), I worshipped the gods of LGBTQ (2nd), I despised God’s truth and his name (3rd), I committed all manner of sin on the Lord’s Day and denied God respect and worship (4th), I despised authority (5th), I advocated for abortion (6th), I practiced and promoted homosexuality (7th), I stole glory from God and loved material goods (8th), I spoke untruth by believing that I was gay and that “gay is good” (9th), I coveted an influential career promising independence from all authority (10th). By God’s grace alone, He justified and adopted me, drew me to repentance, forgave me of my sins, and continues to lead me in sanctification, prayer, repentance, and joy in the Lord.  

The Lord taught me the safest posture to strike is on bended knee. Indeed, the Christian faith paints it in bold letters: in repentance, there is life. Repentance is a Christian grace highlighting that God and man are binary oppositions because God is inherently distinct from his creation. Repentance of sin keeps the man/God binary front and center.

Evangelicals agree with all of this in general terms, but a civil war is currently raging in the particulars. Does God define our existence and values, or do they define God? In today’s heresy du jour, a temper-tantrum-throwing idol represented by the letters L, G, B, T, Q, and the symbol +, our values define God. Here are just a few examples of flagrant sin:

  • Andy Stanley’s “Unconditional” Conference (2023) advances the heretical idea that gay and Christian are compatible. According to Stanley, being made in God’s image includes being made in sin’s image.
  • Evangelical Lutheran “Pastor” Anna Helgen’s Sparkle Creed declares that God is non-binary and uses the pronouns they and them, and Jesus had two dads. “Pastor Anna” led her congregation on June 25, 2023, in reciting what Dr. Peter Jones has rightly categorized as “pure satanism”
  • When man’s values define God, sin can also root itself in more subtle ways. Consider the well-heeled Christian magazine that harumphed about Uganda’s anti-Christian anti-sodomy laws.
  • Take a look at the parachurch organization that commended government schools in 2023 as safe places to receive a world-class education when even unbelievers know they have mandatory federal legislation advancing transgender-affirming ideology, which renders a whole generation of children under indoctrination.
  • Consider the influential “Christian” author who dedicated his widely-acclaimed book defending “Trans*” Christianity to the “they” who wore a transgender flag with the words “Imago Dei” superimposed in large letters at the 2022 Revoice conference (Preston Sprinkle, Embodied, Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2021).

When my word count for this article prevents me from citing more examples, I hope you see the problem: there is a lot of sin in the evangelical camp. But as evangelicals, we are divided about what to do about this. Some say public sin requires public repentance. Others believe self-improvement is all that we need. Because the doctrine of repentance has fallen on hard times, I offer to you a primer, taken from the Puritan Thomas Watson’s The Doctrine of Repentance (1668). Watson deems repentance “pure gospel grace,” something so vital that “no one is saved without it” (13). Watson ranks repentance as the trustworthy visible sign of salvation: “Repentance came in by the gospel. Christ has purchased in his blood that repenting sinners shall be saved” (13).   Watson provides six ingredients to true repentance:

  • 1) Sight of sin: Watson describes how through the grace of God, the prodigal in Luke 15 saw himself as a sinner. Watson writes, “Before a man can come to Christ, he must first come to himself” (18). But in a world awash with neologisms, redefining biblical faith according to man’s feelings, it’s almost impossible to get evangelicals to agree on what sin actually is.
  • 2) Sorrow for Sin: Watson explains the purpose of our sorrow: to make Christ precious to the sinner, to drive out the sin with a powerful sense that we need Christ’s mercy, and to pave the path for the solid comfort of Christ’s forgiveness. He says this sorrow must be inward. He who truly repents “weeps for the stirrings of pride and concupiscence; he weeps for the ‘root of bitterness’ even though it never blossoms into act” (21). In a world that believes that feeling bad causes people to kill themselves, being sorrowful for sin has fallen out of favor.
  • 3) Confession of Sin: Watson believes that voluntary confession with compunction that addresses particular sins in detail is needed to “charge ourselves as to clear God” (31). We are not to blame-shift our sin on anyone, least of all God, and without repentance, blame-shifting is the sinner’s default move. To truly confess sin, including inward, besetting sins, we must not play the victim. The doctrine of concupiscence (idolatrous covetousness) declares that we are held in compunction (moral guilt) for all of our sins, including those that spring from our sin nature in Adam. The fall made us sinners, not innocent victims of God’s providence.
  • 4) Shame for Sin: Watson describes how sin hardens the heart, and a hard heart finds no godly use for shame. Watson reminds us that “shame has made us naked” (40), and when we love our sin or languish in it, we fall sway to Satan. The value of shame has fallen on hard times. Instead of shame for sin, we are told to feel pride for it and demand that others affirm our sin as noble, stunning, and brave.
  • 5) Hatred of Sin: Satan wants us to love our sin as a manifestation of loving ourselves, but Watson says, “Loving of sin is worse than committing it…to love sin shows that the will is in sin, and the more of the will there is in sin, the greater the sin” (47-48). Watson distinguishes affliction from sin: “Affliction is but corrective; sin is destructive” (49).  At the same time, Satan wants us to focus on our own sin, but not the sin of our nation or neighbors. But Watson says, “Christ is never loved till sin be loathed” (45). Sin is a universal problem, and we need to deal with both our own sin and the sin of others, but Satan wants us to believe that it is rude or uncharitable to hate the sin of others. The moral law of God defines the universality of sin for all men.  There is no such thing as a “sin for me but not for you.”
  • 6). Turning from Sin: Watson says we must point our hearts, feet, and eyes in the opposite direction of sin.  Our whole posture needs to recoil from and flee from sin. Our “turning from sin is so visible that others may discern it” (53). We are not to settle into sin or make a false peace with it because it has been our companion for many years. We must pray and act decisively, mortifying our sin and giving it no quarter.

So why is it so hard for public figures to repent of sin publicly? 

One reason for this is that the evangelical church has invented new sins that soften the existing moral law of God. For example, consider whether a Christian should attend a gay wedding. While a believer is in clear sin if he does so because he is promoting evil, the evangelical church he attends might call this an act of grace because affirmation “keeps the peace.”

The last decade has shown us that public figures are more comfortable with course correcting and self-improvement than repentance. So, we must ask: does it matter? What exactly is the theological difference between repentance and self-improvement/course correction?  Enter again the Puritan Thomas Watson. According to Thomas Watson, self-improvement/course correction is a form of counterfeit repentance–that serpentine seduction about which Augustine referred when he warned that repentance damns many.

What are the three ingredients of counterfeit repentance?

  • Legal Terror (fearing the consequences of sin more than treason against God).
  • Force of Will (taking vows you will white-knuckle yourself into keeping).
  • Self-improvement (course-correcting and being satisfied that you have made many improvements and have left off many sinful ways, which is sufficient in your eyes).

All forms of counterfeit repentance want to make good changes in the flesh. Counterfeit repentance rejects the need for or value of true repentance and, in so doing, wants God’s grace without God’s law. 

Putting our hope in self-improvement and denying the need for repentance denies God His glory. Our hell-bent fetish of self-improvement is one of the many ways evangelicals cede the moral language to the left, thus denying that the Bible has a moral language to which we, as Christians, are bound. Course corrections and self-improvement are our “Achan in the camp,” and the fig leaves of our own making aren’t covering our sins. 

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