REPENTANCE: Legal vs. True


Grant Swart

If our forgiveness was dependent on what we as sinners could do (or refrain from doing), in order to repent, who would be so bold as to claim that they could achieve it sufficiently as to gain recognition by a perfectly Holy God? Is repentance something we can and should do in order to be saved, or is repentance a gift granted to those who are saved by God?

All too often one hears the instruction issuing forth from religious zealots: “You must repent, you must turn from your sin, you must turn to God, or…!”. In my country, as I suppose it is in many others, many will-worshipping churches have coined a new favourite phrase: “Turn or burn!”, and in some Afrikaans congregations the translated phrase, “Draai of braai”, is bandied about with even more self-righteous enthusiasm. As if it were simply up to the listener to do the turning, and God will have no choice but to accept those who turn!

Those who do not have Christ, hear these warnings and are left terrified by their own inability to do what the preacher expects of them. They have heard the stern instructions, but have no understanding of it, no idea of where to start, or how to go about this seemingly impossible task. How can they turn to God when they do not know Him, do not know where He is, or who He is? How could they possibly repent without God’s help and without the guidance of His Holy Spirit?

Much of this terror and lostness could be alleviated, if the preacher would explain the Scriptural meaning of repentance, rather than appealing to the consciences of the sinners to save themselves. But, I guess those preachers prefer to rely on their own understanding and efforts at pridefully portraying themselves as holier beings in their search for fame and fortune, and have very little time for what the Bible has to teach about this.

Repentance cannot be done without Christ, God would not even recognize such a meaningless, imperfect, incomplete and filthy repentance. I have included a short article below which explains in simple terms, what true repentance is. I hope it will be of a little assistance to someone whose pastor/teacher is not able, or willing, to preach the truth. Is true repentance a legal requirement, or is it a gift from God?

The following from James C Heard:

REPENTANCE is an old-fashioned word, not much used by the modernists and liberals of our day. True repentance and true belief are inseparable. True repentance and true faith are the products of a quickened heart—a work of regeneration by the Holy Spirit. Spiritual life must precede spiritual acts.

Legal repentance is that regret and reluctance that arises in a person after having done something that they
should not have done. This repentance arises from a fear of punishment denounced against sin, but it is not accompanied
with the hatred of sin and self. This person may be sorry for that which has been committed, but will
not be grieved that they have offended a Holy God. Legal repentance fears hell and dreads punishment; for
criminals are always sorry that they face punishment (however, sorrow itself is not true repentance).

Note these examples of legal repentance in Scripture: Esau, who in desperation repented (Gen 27:38; Heb 12:17)
and Judas, who likewise repented (Matt 27:3). Esau and Judas repented, but their repentance was not a “repentance
unto life” (Acts 11:18). Esau was hated of God (Rom 9:13) and Judas was a “devil” (John 6:70). They were
not of Christ’s sheep (John 10:26,27).

A God-wrought repentance is not just confession of sin (Exo 10:16,17). True repentance is not just confessing
that Jesus is the Son of God (Matt 8:28,29). Repentance is not just reformation (Matt 12:43-45). Repentance is
not just weeping over hearing of funerals and dying loved ones or children. This only stirs our emotions, causing
us to weep through natural affections.

WHAT IS REPENTANCE? Saving repentance is wrought in the quickened heart by the power of the Holy
Spirit, whereby a person is made to realize his awful, wretched sinfulness. He is humbled by godly sorrow (II Cor
7:9,10), thereby abhoring himself, and cries to God for pardon (Job 42:6). True repentance is basically three

1. A change of mind. See Luke 15:11-24. This account is generally called the story of the “prodigal son.” This
Scripture shows us a change of mind which is the essential meaning of repentance in the Bible. Notice the son’s
words in verse 21: “Father I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy
son.” See the change! The son had before taken his portion of goods and went into “a far country, and there
wasted his substance with riotous living,” but now he is quite different! See also the following passages for this
“change of mind”: Matthew 21:28-32; Acts 2:37-41.

2. A change of feeling. Religion without emotion is religion without life! Many love to rejoice in the promises of
God, but we cannot truly rejoice until we have come to an experiential knowledge of sin and have “godly sorrow”
stain its dye into our hearts. Then shall we weep over our sins, with tears flowing like rivers! See again II Corinthians

3. A change of purpose. “I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against
heaven, and before thee, and am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants. And
he arose and came to his father” (Luke 15:18-20a). The Scripture says, “Let the wicked forsake his way” (Isa
55:7) and “whoso confesseth and forsaketh them [sins] shall have mercy” (Prov 28:13). Paul said: “Ye turned to
God from idols” (I Thess 1:9). Men must be turned “from the power of Satan unto God” (Acts 26:18). From servants
of sin, we become Christ’s slaves when the Omnipotent One looses us from Satan’s dominion (II Tim

How is repentance produced in the life of an individual? Repentance is the gift of God, for He is said to have
“granted repentance” unto the “Gentiles” in Acts 11:18. Sinners must be first awakened from their dead state, for
it is the Holy Spirit who “quickeneth” dead sinners (John 6:63). No sinner will ever repent until he be first given
life to repent. Our salvation is totally of God’s grace from first to last, including this gift of repentance (Acts
5:31; Psalm 3:8; Jonah 2:9).

What are the results of repentance? Acts 3:19, “Repent ye therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be
blotted out…” Scriptural repentance reverences God, hates sin, and melts the heart of the awakened sinner. When
the saving grace of God is wrought in the soul by the Holy Spirit, a sinner is made to see and sense his sins. He is
grieved and humbled before God, and this not just because of the punishment due his sins, but that God has been
dishonored and offended, His laws violated; and now the poor sinner realizes his own soul is polluted and defiled.
He now has a hatred of sin and a love of holiness!

Why preach repentance if a person can only repent when God grants it? In the first place Luke 24:47 tells us to
do so: “And that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at
Jerusalem.” Secondly, because the message of the prophets was repentance: John the Baptist preached repentance
(Matt 3:8); Christ himself preached it (Matt 4:17; Mark 1:15); and it was Christ and repentance that was the message
given on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2), as well as throughout the New Testament. Acts 17:30, “God…now
commandeth all men everywhere to repent.”

God told Moses in the wilderness journeys of Israel (because of the waters of Marah being bitter) to cast the tree
into the waters. When Moses did so, the “waters were made sweet” (Exo 15:22-25). Did the tree cause the sweetness,
or was it the obedience of Moses? Neither—it was God who caused the bitter waters to become sweet! So,
neither is it our obedience in preaching repentance that brings or produces repentance, but it is God and God
alone who is the Author of such, who grants repentance to the objects of His love.

True faith in Christ always produces repentance because repentance and faith are twins, they go together. There
is never one without the other. It is repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 20:21).
The truly believing soul repents, and by faith in Christ, and His precious blood and righteousness, sees all he
needs for his standing before God in a righteous, forgiven, and justified state. The Lord Jesus Christ “hath God
exalted with his right hand to be a Prince and a Saviour, for to give repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins (Acts 5:31).


2 thoughts on “REPENTANCE: Legal vs. True

    • Dennis Thompson

      Thank you for commenting. I’m not sure whether you actually read my post, because if you did, your comment makes no sense.

      A lot of old covenant Scriptures, you say. Allow me to clarify the issue.

      1) Do you believe in the Triune God? God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit?
      2) Do you believe in an omniscient God, or do you believe in a god who only learns from experience as the world unfolds over time and was unaware of Christ’s atonement in eternity?
      3) How much of the Old Testament was written before Christ, the Son of God?
      4) How much of what is written in the New Testament was God aware of in Old Testament times?
      5) Are you proposing that Christianity was not a part of God’s plan before the birth of Christ and the advent of the New Covenant?
      6) Is the Old Testament invalid or irrelevant to Christians?
      7) For what reason do you advocate that Old Testament Scripture not be used?
      8) Repentance is inseparable from salvation. Are you saying that Old Testament saints did not repent and that David, Moses, Abraham, Joseph, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Solomon, Jacob, Ezekiel, Ruth, Job and others were saved by other means than faith in Christ?
      9) How many references to the Old Covenant would be the correct amount in this instance according to your understanding of Scripture?
      10) Would you care to quantify how much of the Old Covenantal scriptures are not dedicated to the description of the coming Saviour and saved Christians?

      The Scriptures applied in the article I posted are the following:
      Old Testament:
      Gen 27: 38, Exo 10:16, Exo 10:17, Job 42:6, Isa 55:7, Prov 28:13, Psa 3:8, Jonah 2:9, Exo 15:22, Exo 15:23, Exo 15:24, Exo 15:25.
      New Testament:
      Heb 12:17, Matt 27:3, Acts 11:18, Rom 9:13, John 6:70, John 10:26, John 10:27, Matt 8:28, Matt 8:29, Matt 12:43, Matt 12:44, Matt 12:45, 2 Cor 7:9, 2 Cor 7:10, Luk 15:11, Luk 15:12, Luk 15:13, Luk 15:14, Luk 15:15, Luk 15:16. Luk 15:17, Luk 15:18, Luk 15:19, Luk 15:20, Luk 15:21, Luk 15:22, Luk 15:23, Luk 15:24, Matt 21:28, Matt 21:29, Matt 21:30, Matt 21:31, Matt 21:32, Act 2:37, Act 2:38, Act 2:39, Act 2:40, Act 2:41, 2 Cor 7:9, 2 Cor 7:10, Luk 15:18, Luk 15:19, Luk 15:20, 1 Thess 1:9, Act 26:18, 2 Tim 2:25, 2 Tim 2:26, Act 11:18, John 6:63, Act 5:31, Act 3:19, Luk 24:47, Matt 3:8, Matt 4:17, Mark 1:15, Act 2, Act 17:30, Act 20:21, Act 5:31.
      The Score, if it were of any relevance:
      New Testament (59) vs. Old Testament (12)

      Which leads me to my last question.

      According to your understanding, when did Christianity “begin”?

      Be thoughtful of your answer now. God (the Word) created all things. Agreed? Therefore, Christianity did not begin when Christ was born, or even less when He was crucified, or at His resurrection, or at the first Pentecost after His crucifixion. So when was it, then?

      Here is a big clue. And, it is New Covenant which explains and confirms the Old Covenant:
      In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. (John 1:1-3)

      Jesus Christ is the Word. He created all things, including Christianity and the Old Covenant, before time began. The entire Bible is God’s Word and worthy of application. The Old Covenant and the New Covenant are inseparably one Word.


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