Puritan Thomas Watson (1620-1686) teaches us the nature of true repentance in his excellent book, The Doctrine of Repentance. This little book is a wealth of practical applied faith and is worth reading more than once. It is written in typical Puritan style with points made as numbered outlines. Despite the Puritan’s reputation for employing too difficult a vocabulary for today’s readers (what does that say about our linguistic decline?!), Watson is very readable. The topic is one that today’s Christians must treasure and strive to master. Though not popular with the majority of those who profess to be Christians, repentance is one of the definite marks of the believer. Watson says “Repentance is a grace of Gods Spirit whereby a sinner is inwardly humbled and visibly reformed.” That is the heart of repentance – inner change that results in outward change. Repenting is not merely an outward conformity to a righteous appearance. It is putting off the practice of sin and pursuing righteousness inwardly, for from the heart come our actions. In his very thorough and scripture-saturated work, Watson identifies six ingredients of repentance:
Sight of Sin
First, we must have sight of sin. We must see it. We may be very good at seeing sin in others, but blind to our own sin. A wise Christian receives his brethren when they speak to him concerning his sin; a wise Christians looks inward to himself when his Bible points out sins in others. True believers do not flee from such graces. He is a prideful man that believes he is spotless. Watson says such a man is “unaquainted with himself” and “veiled over with ignorance and self-love”. The apostle John says “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. (1 John 1:18) A humble Christian is not deceived, but knows he is a sinner. He does not deflect, deny, or run away from his sin, but “takes sight” of it so as to repent.
Watson’s second ingredient is sorrow for sin. He is concerned with separating true and false sorrow. Sorrow is a holy thing, a breaking of the heart, a rending of the inner man. Godly sorrow makes Christ precious, like a doctor to a dying patient. It does not avoid Christ, it does not flee from prayer and confession, it does not enter into so self-imposed moratorium or some kind of self-righteous penance. Such is a stunted view of the finality of the cross. Godly sorrow flees quickly to Christ.
Godly sorrow kills sin and purges it from the soul. It makes way for solid comfort. Psalm 126:5 says “Those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy!” Godly sorrow is inward, meaning it is a sorrow of the heart as opposed to an outward show. It grieves for the stirrings of sin in the heart, the root of the sin, the very presence of sin within, rather than just the carrying out of sin. “A wicked man may be troubled for scandalous sins; a real convert laments heart-sins.”
Watson reminds us that godly sorrow is for the offense rather than the punishment. True repentance means the sinner experiences brokenness because God’s law has been transgressed; His love has been abused. “This melts the soul in tears.” But false sorrow grieves because of the consequence of sin. If we are honest with ourselves, we can easily remember times when our sin was found out and we were more upset because we got caught rather than being sorrowful that we had trampled upon our Lord’s loving kindness, grace and mercy.
Psalm 51:3, David’s great repentance psalm, declares “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.” David does not say “the sword threatened is ever before me” or “the rod of reproof is ever before me.” He owns his sin and is crushed because such iniquity is found in his heart. So “as our sin is ever before us,” Watson concludes, “so God’s promise must be ever before us.” Watson spends much time on this very important ingredient before moving on to the third ingredient:
Confession of Sin
“Sorrow is such a vehement passion that it will have to vent. It vents itself at the eyes by weeping and at the tongue by confession.” Confession is “self-accusing” before God. It is declaring that we deserve to be bound over to the wrath of God. Some modern writers have said confession should be “agreeing with God concerning your sin” and this is a technically true statement. But it is rather clinical and does not carry the fullness of sin. In reality, we should be ever mindful that we actually do deserve wrath, and every sin affirms it more acutely than before. We need to keep in mind sin’s realities and not minimize it with theologically correct but clinical terms.
Confession should be voluntary, not coerced or extracted by another. Like the prodigal son who’s sight of sin generated a self-charge, we too must freely say with him “I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight” (Luke 15:18).
Watson insists that a true confession must be heartfelt. It must be “with compunction.” It needs to come with a prick of the heart, with a sting, with true regret. While the reprobate may confess as to a judge with little feeling of regret, like “water through a pipe,” his confession does not affect him at all. “True confession leaves heart-wounding impressions on a man”
The confession should be specific. Even the unbeliever is willing to say he is not perfect and will even go so far as to confess, in general terms, that he is a sinner. The evangelism work of Ray Comfort shows us this with abundance when the man on the street will gladly confess general transgressions of God’s law. But the Christian should strive to be specific and confess particular sins.
True confession has many more characteristics according to Watson. It must acknowledge our general nature as sinners; sin should be confessed with all its “circumstances and aggravations”, or thoroughly; we ought to charge ourselves so as to keep God’s name clear; and we must confess with a resolution not to act them over again.
1 John 1:9 speaks healing truth to us when the Apostle says “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
Shame for Sin
Watson dwells long on confession, and then moves to shame for sin. There is no shame today. Our culture is brazen and the closest thing we know of shame is light embarrassment when our pride is wounded. But shame? We have abandoned true shame n the west. This is a necessary portion of virtue that we must recover. “When the heart is made black with sin, grace makes the face red with blushing: ‘I am ashamed and blush to lift up my face’ Ezra 9:6”
The chapter on shame is a beautiful example of Puritan exposition as Watson takes us through a number of pithy observations about those shameful aspects of sin. Some rich and memorable quotes should jolt complacency out of even the most sleepy reader’s glassy eyes.
Hatred of Sin
Watson moves us from shame to hatred. Ezekiel 36:31: “Then you will remember your evil ways, and your deeds that were not good, and you will loathe yourselves for your iniquities and your abominations.” A true believer is a sin-loather. He loathes the sin found in him and it sickens his soul. Watson says “we are never more precious in God’s eyes than when we are lepers in our own.” This would fly like a lead balloon in today’s feel-good, self-esteem churches. Our souls should long for the day when we are released from these husks of corruption because the thought of carrying around such sinful flesh is a loathsome thought to the man or woman who counts Christ as precious. While this idea sounds particularly “Puritan-ish” to our modern ears raised on pride and self-love, we would do well to consider Watson’s exhortations. He says:
Many a one is convinced that sin is a vile thing, and in his judgment has an aversion to it, but yet he tastes sweetness and has a secret complacency in it. Here is a disliking of sin in the judgment and embracing of it in the affections; whereas in true repentance the hatred of sin is in all the faculties, not only in the intellectual part, but chiefly in the will: ‘what I hate, that do I’ (Romans 7:15). Paul was not free from sin, yet his will was against it.
He also compares sin with affliction, concluding that sin is far worse that both affliction and hell itself. On affliction he says
Affliction only reaches the body, but sin goes further: it poisons the fancy, disorders the affections. Affliction is but corrective; sin is destructive. Affliction can but take away life; sin takes away the soul (Luke 12:20). A man that is afflicted may have his conscience quiet… But when a man commits sin, conscience is terrified.
Turning from Sin
Finally, the last of Watson’s six ingredients for true repentance is the one to which most modern Christians use to define the whole of repentance. “Turning from sin” is usually given as the answer to the question “what is repenting?” But according to our forefathers in the faith, this is the last step of several. It is last because it is looking forward to a changed life. It is the recovery.
The very day a Christian turns from sin he must enjoin himself a perpetual fast. The eye must fast from impure glances. The ear must fast from hearing slanders. The tongue must fast from oaths. The hands must fast from bribes. The feet must fast from the path of the harlot. And the soul must fast from the love of wickedness.
The change implied by turning from sin begins inwardly. Acts of sin may be restrained and put off and turned from because we fear getting caught. But a true believer puts off sin and turns from it out of love for God. He also turns from sin to God. Acts 20:21 speaks of “repentance toward God.” Watson says “It is not enough to forsake the devil’s quarters, but we must get under Christ’s banner and wear His colours.” We must turn away from our sin as if to never return. We must not be like the false professors who return to their vomit (2 Peter 2:22).
A Gem of a Book
Thomas Watson is not likely to be found on the shelves of the local Christian trinket store, but this work is a gem of the faith that ought to be in the collection of every Christian household. The Bible teaches us in 1 Corinthans 12 that God has been gracious and good to His church by giving them many gifted people, among them preachers and teachers. We would be foolish to reject God’s gifts to His church by neglecting the forefathers of our past who have labored and poured themselves out to apply the Bible to daily living. Are the Puritans perfect? No, of course not, only the Bible is without error. But the whole of Puritan devotion is a shining light in history, and the goodness of that period has been overtaken by our modern desires to re-invent the wheel. Perhaps if we would invest the time to discover what God has given us in the past, we might not have to invest so much valuable time writing self-help books and formulating counseling remedies.