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Four Key Principles of Repentance

In our family devotions we have been sharpening some big beliefs, learning some big truths. We have been doing this with help from David Helm as he has led us through the Westminster Confession of Faith. This was a confession that played an important role in my younger years, but one I had neglected until recently. It has been a joy to return to it and learn from it again.

Lately we have been learning about salvation and, more specifically, about turning from sin. We have seen together that our duty as Christians is to first hate sin, then to confess our sin, and then to strengthen our purpose in fleeing from sin in order to pursue righteousness. The Confession puts it this way (and please read this sentence slowly): “By [repentance] a sinner, out of the sight and sense, not only of the danger, but also of the filthiness and odiousness of his sins, as contrary to the holy nature and righteous law of God, and upon the apprehension of his mercy in Christ to such as are penitent, so grieves for, and hates his sins, as to turn from them all unto God, purposing and endeavouring to walk with him in all the ways of his commandments.” That is quite a sentence! That sentence aptly summarizes the joyful duty of putting sin to death and coming alive to righteousness. We hate sin, we confess sin, we kill sin. Here are some principles we’ve learned about repenting of sin.

No sin is too small to confess. There are no petty sins. Though different sins carry different degrees of guilt or consequence, every sin, no matter how big or small, brings alienation between God and man (Romans 6:23, Galatians 3:10). Every sin equally demands nothing less than the blood of Jesus Christ if there is to be reconciliation. For this reason we need to be quick to confess our sin—quick so we do not forget those sins that may seem so small. For this reason we need to have tender consciences, so we do not grow hardened against the small sins that eventually metastasize into large ones.

No sin is too great to damn us. While no sin is so small that it brings anything less than condemnation, there is no sin so great that it can bring damnation upon the believer. What a glorious truth, a glorious confidence! The Confession states “As there is no sin so small, but it deserves damnation; so there is no sin so great, that it can bring damnation upon those who truly repent.” Robert Shaw explains, “The chief of sinners may obtain mercy; and those who, after grace received, have fallen into grievous sins, may truly repent, and obtain forgiveness” (John 21:15-19). We may repent of sin in confidence, knowing that our sin has not driven an immovable wedge between ourselves and God.

When we confess specific sins we can repent of specific sins and begin a new path of specific obedience.

We need to repent of sin specifically, not just generally. Of course we cannot remember every sin we have committed and at times we do not even recognize that what we have done (or failed to do) is sin. Yet it is not enough merely to vaguely acknowledge that we are sinners or that we have sinned. We need to acknowledge specific sins. When we confess specific sins we can repent of specific sins and begin a new path of specific obedience. We need to prayerfully search ourselves, asking God to reveal every least sin so we can confess it all before him. No sin is excluded. Shaw says, “we should, by a strict and impartial examination of our hearts and ways, endeavour to obtain a discovery of those particular sins by which we have offended and dishonoured God, and should ‘mourn, every one for his iniquity’ (Psalm 38:18)”.

We need to confess before God but also before anyone we have offended. Of course we need to confess our sins before God, and when we do this we honor his rule over us and we acknowledge his omniscience—he already knows our sins and has been most deeply grieved by them. But when we have sinned publicly our confession and repentance need to be public. When we have sinned against an individual, our confession and repentance need to be before that individual. In this way we safeguard relationships and honor people made in the image of God. In this way we safeguard peace and unity. In this way we obey the Bible (Matthew 5:23, 24, Matthew 18:15-20).

These are basic truths about basic Christianity—repenting of sin and coming to alive to righteousness. These are truths my children need to hear and believe. These are truths their parents need to hear again and believe anew.

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