To discover what true repentance is, I shall first show what it is not. There are several counterfeits of repentance, which might occasion that saying of Augustine that "repentance damns many". He meant a false repentance; a person may delude himself with counterfeit repentance:
1. The first counterfeit of repentance, is LEGAL TERROR.
A man has gone on long in sin. At last God arrests him, shows him what desperate hazard he has run—and he is filled with anguish. But after a while, the tempest of conscience is blown over, and he is quiet. Then he concludes that he is a true penitent because he has felt some bitterness in sin. Do not be deceived! This is not true repentance! Both Ahab and Judas had great trouble of mind. It is one thing to be a terrified sinner—and another to be a repenting sinner. Sense of guilt is enough to breed terror in the conscience. Only infusion of divine grace, breeds true repentance. If pain and trouble were sufficient to repentance, then the damned in hell should be most penitent, for they are most in anguish. "Men gnawed their tongues in agony and cursed the God of heaven because of their pains and their sores, but they refused to repent of what they had done!" Revelation 16:10-11. Repentance depends upon a change of heart. There may be terror—yet with no change of heart. "I preached that they should repent and turn to God and prove their repentance by their deeds." Acts 26:20
2. Another counterfeit about repentance, is RESOLUTION AGAINST SIN.
A person may purpose and make vows—yet be no penitent. "You said, I will not transgress" (Jer. 2:20). Here was a good resolution. But see what follows: "but still you would not obey me. On every hill and under every green tree, you have prostituted yourselves by bowing down to idols!" Notwithstanding her solemn engagements, they played fast and loose with God—and ran after their idols!
We see by experience what protestations against sin, a person will make when he is on his sick-bed, if God should recover him again. Yet if that person does recover—he is as bad as ever. He shows his old heart in a new temptation. Resolutions against sin may arise:
(1) From present extremity; not because sin is sinful—but because it is painful. This kind of resolution will vanish.
(2) From fear of future evil, an apprehension of death and hell. "I looked, and there before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death, and Hell was following close behind him!" (Rev. 6:8). What will a sinner not do—what vows will he not make—when he knows he must die and stand before the God in judgment? Self-love raises a sickbed repentance. But if he recovers—the love of sin will prevail against it. Trust not to a such passionate resolution; it is raised in a storm—and will die in a calm!
3. The third counterfeit about repentance, is the leaving of many sinful ways.
It is a great matter, I confess, to leave sin. So dear is sin to a man—that he will rather part with a child than with a lust! "Shall I give the fruit of my body—for the sin of my soul?" (Micah 6:7). Sin may be parted with—yet without repentance.
(1) A man may part with some sins and keep others. Herod reformed many things which were amiss—but could not leave his beloved Herodias.
(2) An old sin may be left in order to entertain a new sin—as you get rid an old servant to take another. This is to exchange a sin. Sin may be exchanged—and the heart remained unchanged. He who was a profligate in his youth, turns to be a miser in his old age. A slave is sold to a Jew; the Jew sells him to a Turk. Here the master is changed—but he is a slave still. So a man moves from one vice to another—but remains an unrepentant sinner still.
(3) A sin may be left not so much from strength of grace—as from reasons of prudence. A man sees that though such a sin is for his pleasure—yet it is not for his best interest. It will eclipse his credit, harm his health, or impair his estate. Therefore, for prudential reasons, he dismisses it. But true leaving of sin, is when the acts of sin cease from a principle of grace infused into the soul—as the air ceases to be dark from the infusion of light.