Biblical repentance

Roman Catholic doctrine continues to be seen in the presbyterian practice of repentance.

Whereas presbyterians may preach biblical repentance, some presbyterian procedures involve Roman Catholic penance in practice.

Whereas preaching may not be legalistic, practice can be. It reminds us of the Saviour’s warning to do as officialdom says, but not to do as they do – “whatsoever they tell you to keep, keep and do them; but do not according to their works, because they say, and do not do” Mat 23:3. Jesus taught His disciples to discern those who do not practise what they preach.

Whereas presbyterian discipline is said to be remedial, in practice it is often punishment and a means of control. The proof of this is how rarely a biblical ‘remedial’ result comes from ecclesiastical discipline.

The reason is that ungodly attitudes continue to work in the hearts of the godly, and they can surface and control groups of godly people. The apostle John exposed Diotrephes who loved to have the preeminence 3Jn 1:9 and who threw his weight about in the Christian congregation 3Jn 1:10.

Whereas the 16th-century Scottish Reformers cleared out many unbiblical doctrines, worship and practice, they did not clear out everything. Scottish presbyterian practice still incorporates elements of Roman Catholic penance. Since Knox’s Liturgy, centuries of practice have added to the legalism in presbyterian formularies and practice.

Forbidding Gospel-preaching

It reached such a pass that some people interpreted their Presbyterian formularies as allowing them to silence Gospel preachers by way of deposing them and forbidding them to preach. The apostle Paul wrote to the Thessalonians about such wicked behaviour: “Forbidding us to speak to the Gentiles that they might be saved, to fill up their sins always”. Paul added the solemn comment: “for the wrath is come upon them to the uttermost” 1Th 2:16. Ungodly inquisitors had no qualms in silencing Gospel preachers, but godly people ought to tremble at such behaviour.

Biblical repentance

What is Jesus’ teaching on repentance? You will find it in Luke 17:4 and Mat 18:21-35.

What is Jesus’ practice on repentance? You will find it in His restoration of Peter who denied his Lord with cursing and swearing Mat 26:74. He did not ask Peter if he had repented; this was already apparent. He asked him if he loved Him.

What was the apostle Paul’s teaching and practice on repentance? You will find in 1Cor 4:21-6:20 and 2Cor 1:23-2:11.

Jesus said: “Take heed to yourselves: If thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive him. And if he trespass against thee seven times in a day, and seven times in a day turn again to thee, saying, I repent; thou shalt forgive him.”

Luke 17:4

Many people, and ecclesiastical courts, manifest their unwillingness to forgive by asserting that the offender has not repented. Each person has his own tick list how to determine repentance and when the offender does not pass their test, they ‘reluctantly’ cannot forgive them ‘out of faithfulness to their soul’. Their tick list is equivalent to the behaviour, practice and requirements of Roman Catholic penance and theology.

This excuse about lack of repentance does not hold water. It is a cover for their inability to forgive. Christ refers to repeated repentance within the same day. Indeed, He refers to repentance six or seven times a day. What sort of repentance is this? Imagine the scene. A person asks for forgiveness and receives it. A short time later, he offends again. He asks for forgiveness again, and with a measure of scepticism about ‘their repentance’, forgiveness is given. However, shortly afterwards, he offends yet again! Now, one is beginning to wonder about the quality of this repentance. Can it be genuine?

One can easily imagine even a charitable person having his doubts about a person’s repentance after the fourth occasion in one day. He would say to himself: Look, I’ve forgiven him three times already but he still has trespassed against me for a fourth time. How can I believe that he really repented the first three times? Now he comes to me and he says he repents! Surely his repentance is not genuine? Says Jesus: “Thou shalt forgive him!”

“As every man is bound to make private confession of his sins to God, praying for the pardon thereof; upon which, and the forsaking of them, he shall find mercy; so, he that scandalizeth his brother, or the church of Christ, ought to be willing, by a private or public confession, and sorrow for his sin, to declare his repentance to those that are offended, who are thereupon to be reconciled to him, and in love to receive him.”

Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 15 ‘Of Repentance unto Life’, Section 6.

So what is the godly person going to do? It is clear enough what the average person does, because the world is full of envy and revenge. The Christian has no choice, although they may wrongly choose to disobey.

If they should disobey their Lord, it is no surprise. It is a common experience for Christians not to forgive. The Lord takes note.

Does this unforgiving spirit not bring a reproach upon the Cause of Christ? Are some Christians, congregations and churches not characterised by an unforgiving spirit? Which brings the greater reproach, the offender or the refusal to reconcile? How easy it is to misread the Lord’s providence. How many Christians, zealous for the glory of God and the purity of the church, consider this? If they were zealous in bringing the Gospel to others, they would obtain some feedback, which might help them reconsider their ways, as the prodigal son’s elder brother was invited by their father.

So what happens when we reach the fifth offence? I suppose it gets more and more difficult to ask forgiveness in such embarrassing circumstances, as well as to give it. Why so? Because it is so rare between Christians, but practice might make perfect. After all, parents do it seven times a day. Husbands and wives may need to do so seven times a day. So why do the family of God behave so differently? Is this because it is so rare? Is it learned misbehaviour? Does it suggest that there are not many examples to follow? Is it peer-group pressure? Is it group control? Is it Diotrephes?

Jesus teaches us to pray: ‘Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors … For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses’ Mat 6:12,14-15.

Christians expect God to forgive them, but Jesus warns them against a lack of forgiveness. In response to Peter’s question: “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times?” Jesus answered him, “until seventy times seven”, and related a whole parable on the subject Mat 18:21-35, concluding “so likewise shall My heavenly Father do also unto you if you from your hearts do not forgive every one his brother their trespasses”.

An unforgiving spirit is bad enough, but for Christians to use ‘lack of repentance’ as its basis is an excuse demeaning the Gospel of Christ and manifesting their ignorance of Christ’s teaching and their inability to forgive. Roman Catholic penitential theology, native to the unsanctified heart of man, still controls their thinking.

It was one of the notable features of John Wycliffe’s translation of the Bible into English that he avoided the word penance and translated more accurately as repentance. Roman Catholic penance is natural to the religious conscience of men, but they need to be better instructed in the Gospel Mystery of Sanctification, as Walter Marshall entitled his book, which explains the difference between legal and evangelical repentance.

Repentance unto life

It is evident that the repentance expected of sinners, even seven times a day, is not the same activity of soul described as the saving grace of ‘repentance unto life’ Westminster Shorter Catechism Question and Answer 87.

When the Holy Spirit gives ‘repentance unto life’, it does not need repetition seven times a day. It is a permanent transformative change.

The repentance expected for forgiveness between the brethren refers to that outward behaviour expected of human beings and especially of Christians whenever they sin against each other. It is integral to Christian fellowship. Without it there will be little fellowship.

It would be helpful if preachers noted the distinction, but in almost four decades of listening I have never heard it explained publicly. Preachers rarely distinguish legal and evangelical repentance far less daily repentance. I have heard a minister declare publicly that he did not understand daily repentance.

Further, the relationship between forgiveness and repentance needs better explanation than is usually supplied.

Jesus does not ask us to assess the quality of repentance but simply to note that the offender says “I repent”. Jesus teaches: “Thou shalt forgive him.” Consider again the quotation above from the Westminster Confession of faith.

Many people do not repent, nor do they seek out those whom they have offended, nor do they say, I repent. Jesus recognises the humility and the repentance involved in such behaviour, and says: “Thou shalt forgive him.” Those who do not repent will rather keep their distance, justify themselves, continue the offending behaviour and certainly not humble themselves enough so as to tell the offended person, I repent.

When did you last ask forgiveness from your Christian brethren? When did the Bible last change your thinking?

In practice, few people ask for forgiveness anyway, so Jesus is not teaching impossible behaviour. When the biblical Millennium arrives, the Christian church will have learned and will practice biblical forgiveness and biblical repentance. This will contribute to the blessedness of this Millennium.


13 Nov 2019: even secularists are calling for forgiveness.

30 Mar 2021: for those who need a subject to study – Jesus’ first topic in His public ministry was about repentance Mk 1:15, so everyone should study the subject. There are different types of repentance. Here is a list of some of the more obvious ones: legal repentance, evangelical repentance, ecclesiastical repentance, secular repentance, biblical repentance or conversion, corporate repentance, repentance unto life, temporary repentance (‘reverting to type), definitive repentance, counterfeit repentance and deathbed repentance – all of which are different. However, some Christian preachers and Christian churches do not know the difference. This is not only dangerous to the wellbeing of the church, congregations and individual Christians, but it is a disgrace that something so central to the Christian faith is so poorly understood by its preachers.

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