Twenty year-old Edmund Botsford lingered uncertainly at the gate of the Charleston Baptist meetinghouse one Sunday in 1765. As the church’s members streamed past him to their seats, a conflict raged within: should he stay or should he go?
Born in Woodburn, Bedfordshire, England, in 1745, and orphaned by age seven, Botsford had bounced between boardinghouses, the military, and a variety of odd jobs before sailing for the New World with a friend at age nineteen. Now, a year after arriving in Charleston, he was alone, directionless, and racked with guilt over his sinful past. On the voyage to Charleston, he had read John Bunyan’s Come and Welcome to Jesus Christ, and considered himself at that time “a converted man” and “the best person on board the ship.” Now, he realized that “never was a poor creature more deceived.” He began attending churches in Charleston, hoping to hear “a gospel sermon” and find peace for his soul, but was always disappointed. Eventually, he received advice from a neighbor: “There is but one minister in this place, who can be of service to you,” the man told Botsford, “but he, I am told, is a Baptist; all the rest of the ministers deserve not the name.” Botsford’s hopes arose; he believed that “if I could hear the gospel, there would be a possibility of my being saved.” This conversation had led him to the threshold of Oliver Hart’s Baptist meetinghouse.1
Botsford talked himself out of going in that morning, and retreated instead to the old fortifications at the Charleston Harbor. But as he strolled along the waterfront, conviction fell on him like a bolt from the sky. “I had heard of the gospel, and had rejected it; I considered myself a monster, a reprobate; my distress was so great that I cried out, ‘I am damned, justly damned!’” he recalled. As Botsford’s eyes fell on a cannon, he wished he could be “blown to hell” and “be done with his misery.” He passed the next week in agony.
The following Sunday, Botsford returned to the Baptist church. When he hesitated at the gate again, he recognized his misgivings as “the temptation of Satan,” and hurried inside. Moments later, Hart appeared in the pulpit. Hart wore a black gown and bands, and Botsford “did not like his dress.” But he could not deny that “there was something in his countenance which pleased me.” Hart’s earnest praying further intrigued him. Finally, Hart preached from Acts 13:26, “Men and brethren, children of the stick of Abraham, and whosoever among you feareth God; to you is the word of this salvation sent.” Hart’s message spoke directly to Botsford’s troubled soul. “To describe these exercises of my mind under this sermon would be impossible,” he remembered, “However, upon the whole, I concluded it was possible that there might be salvation for me, even for me.” He resolved to return: “Indeed, I would not have omitted one sermon for all the riches in the world. Before this, I wished to return to England; but now I was perfectly satisfied to remain, if I lived on bread and water only.”
Finally, on his twenty-first birthday, Botsford experienced “a day of light, a day of joy and peace.” As he described it:
That day I had clearer views than formerly, of sin, holiness, God and Christ, and different views from all I had ever before experienced. I think I was enabled to devote my whole self to God as a reconciled God. I think I then so believed in Christ, as to trust in him, and commit my all into his hands. At that time, and from that time, I considered myself as not my own, but his, his, and not the world’s, but his, and no longer Satan’s, his for time and his for eternity…2
Botsford had experienced what older Baptists referred to as “Repentance unto Life and Salvation,” the doctrine unpacked in Chapter 15 of the Second London Confession.3 In this article, we will consider the subjects, the signs, and the source of repentance unto life.
The Subjects of Repentance
Repentance, turning to God by faith in Christ, is the entry point to the Christian life. Jesus announced simply, “The time is fulfilled; the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the good news.” (Mark 1:15).4 Paul declared the same message whenever he entered a new city, preaching “both to Jews and Greeks of repentance to God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:21). As any Vacation Bible School attendee knows, repentance belongs to the ABC’s of becoming a Christian; thus the author of Hebrews begins his list of “elementary doctrines” with “repentance from dead works” and “faith toward God” (Hebrews 6:1). This was the repentance Edmund Botsford discovered: he turned from his overt sinning and proud attempts to establish his own righteousness, and “commit my all into his hands.” The 2LC describes this conversion-repentance in 15.1: “Such of the elect as are converted at riper years, having sometime lived in the state of nature, and therein served divers lusts and pleasures, God in their effectual calling giveth them repentance unto life.”5
But while repentance is essential to conversion, it is also more than a onetime event. As 2LC 15.2 clarifies:
Whereas there is none that doth good and sinneth not, and the best of men may, through the power and deceitfulness of their corruption dwelling in them, with the prevalency of temptation, fall into great sins and provocations; God hath, in the covenant of grace, mercifully provided that believers so sinning and falling be renewed through repentance unto salvation.6
Repentance is as important for Christians as for non-Christians. Alluding to the examples of David (2 Samuel 11–12) and Peter (Luke 22:31–32), the 2LC authors emphasized that God’s choicest saints can still fall into scandalous sins. Yes, even for those who love the Lord, indwelling sin remains powerful, the way of the world seductive, and our enemy the devil relentless all the days of our lives. Under these conditions, none of us is beyond falling into even the most shameful patterns of sin (1 Corinthians 10:12). When this occurs, the devil who tempted us now accuses and condemns us, and we instinctively despair that there could ever be a place in the Father’s heart for us again. To these, God announces the good news that He has provided for us a way of total renewal. It follows the same path we travelled when we first came to Christ: the life-giving low road of repentance.
This qualification is reassuring. Yet it still leaves the impression that repentance ought to be a relatively rare event in the life of the healthy believer. By invoking David’s disgrace and Peter’s denial, repentance sounds like it exists behind a glass case, to be smashed only in emergencies, after we have ignited our lives into a total conflagration. This is not the biblical picture. Praise God, renewal-through-repentance exists for the most dramatic, crash-and-burn moments of our discipleship. Yet it is also needed for all those mundane acts of unfaithfulness we commit every single day: the “respectable sins” of anger, lust, pride, greed, flattery, slander and envy.7
The truth is, when we first repented, we had no idea how much we needed to repent of! We simply put our lives in the hands of Jesus, who takes us as we are. But like His first disciples, He says to us, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” (John 16:12) He will spend the rest of our lives patiently showing us all he intends to change in us. It’s why 2LC 15.5 calls “the constant preaching of repentance” “necessary:” we never stop needing to hear that we must repent. This “ordinary repentance,” all the millions of little course corrections prompted in us by God’s Word and God’s Spirit, are not signs of spiritual sickness, but of health. As 2LC 15.4 puts it,
As repentance is to be continued through the whole course of our lives, upon the account of the body of death, and the motions thereof, so it is every man’s duty to repent of his particular known sins particularly.8
So repentance, as it turns out, is for everybody. It is why there is no room for pride in the church, a family of continually-repenting sinners. The only One among us with no need to repent is the one who so patiently is loving and changing the rest of us. What a comforting thought! Now I can relax, love, and enjoy the imperfect people around me, as Jesus does his work in us all.
The Signs of Repentance
What does repentance look like? The external details will differ from case to case. For Edmund Botsford, repentance came as a dramatic crisis in his adult years. Such crisis-repentance may involve a season of intense emotional distress, followed by euphoria over the forgiveness of sin, and radical change to one’s manner of life. Saul of Tarsus (Acts 9), Mary Magdalene (Luke 8:1–3), and King Manasseh (2 Chronicles 33:10–16) experienced crisis-repentance. For others, like Timothy, growing up in a believing home, repentance may appear quiet and subtle (2 Timothy 1:5, 3:14–16). The prophet Joel cautioned us that the rending of the heart, rather than the garments, is what is essential to repentance, so we should not put our trust in externals (Joel 2:13). Still, certain elements will be present in all true repentance, which the 2LC attempts to capture in 15.3:
This saving repentance is an evangelical grace, whereby a person, being by the Holy Spirit made sensible of the manifold evils of his sin, doth, by faith in Christ, humble himself for it with godly sorrow, detestation of it, and self-abhorrency, praying for pardon and strength of grace, with a purpose and endeavour, by supplies of the Spirit, to walk before God unto all well-pleasing in all things.9
By specifying this repentance as “evangelical” or saving,” the early Baptists drew attention to a vital biblical distinction. The Bible speaks of a sorrow for sin that looks and feels like true repentance, but is in fact a counterfeit: instead of leading to life, it leads to death. Paul called this “worldly grief” over sin (2 Corinthians 7:10); the Puritans spoke of it as “legal repentance.” This is not the insincere apology of a politician doing damage control after a scandal, or the coerced apology of a child to his sibling with his mother standing behind him. This counterfeit repentance is often utterly sincere. But it is “legal repentance” because it trembles only at the legal penalties of breaking God’s Law, not at the horror of losing God’s fellowship. It is “worldly sorrow” because it grieves over what sin has cost us in this world: a reputation, a position, a relationship. Counterfeit repentance is tricky to pin down: it can involve an orthodox confession of sin like Pharaoh,10 intense regret and tears like Esau,11 or complete self-loathing like Judas.12 Yet the Bible is clear that we can have all this, and still lack repentance unto life. It is a sobering thought. Clearly, there is a great need to grasp the signs of true, saving, repentance.
According to the 2LC, true repentance begins when we move past sin’s uncomfortable consequences, and are “made sensible” to the evil of sin itself. This only happens when we view our sin in light of the love and holiness of the God we have sinned against. Jesus described this in the parable Prodigal Son. After a long season of madness in the far country, the young man finally “came to himself” (Luke 15:8). In the pigsty of a Gentile taskmaster, the boy realized how wrong he had been about the father he left behind. The prodigal had imagined his father as a sweatshop-running miser; now he realized the truth. His father was a good and gracious man, who loved his sons and treated even his hired workers with dignity and care. His father was in fact so tender, he had handed over the inheritance to the ungrateful son, allowing the prodigal to disgrace and impoverish him in the process. As he came to view his sin in light of the father’s character, the boy saw for the first time what the Puritans called “the sinfulness of sin.” It is, Paul says, “God’s kindness” that is “meant to lead you to repentance.” (Rom 2:4). Our hearts quake with terror when we see we have broken the Judge’s Law; they break open in repentance when we see how we have grieved the loving Father.
Seeing the evil of our sin toward God produces, as the 2LC notes, a newfound humility. In the past, we have justified our words and actions, for “every way of a man is right in his own eyes” (Proverbs 21:2). We have flattered ourselves as shrewd managers of our lives. When challenged by God’s Word or by our consciences, we have stubbornly defended our choices, finding comfort in the fact that we were far more righteous than many others we could name. But with the dawn of true repentance comes a painful new self-awareness, and the poverty of spirit we find in David’s confession in Psalm 51. We now know are neither wise nor righteous; we are fools, who have deceived ourselves at every turn. We now stand guilty before God, with no excuses left to make, no further protests to voice, none to blame but ourselves.
Yet, as we have seen, repentance must move beyond personal shame if it is to lead to life. Even when under the heaviest conviction of sin, it is still possible for sinners to try to deal with our guilt ourselves; to make atonement for our sins while still maintaining control of our lives. We may weep, we may apologize, we may resolve to do better. We may even perform heroic religious duties to soothe our turbulent consciences. But all my contrition, regret, and “turning over a new leaf” cannot save me; only Jesus can do that.
True repentance means more than turning from my sin; it means “turning to the Lord” (Acts 9:35, 11:21). This is why the 2LC specifies that only “by faith in Christ” can we truly repent. I must cease resisting the Lordship of Jesus Christ and surrender myself completely to Him. It is the one thing I fear most in this world; it is the one thing that can rescue me. This was the difference between the repentance of Judas and of Simon Peter. Like Judas, Peter also betrayed the Lord, and wept bitter tears over his sin (Luke 22:62). But while Judas turned inward in despair, Peter turned himself over to the Lord. It must have been excruciating to allow Jesus to examine him so thoroughly on the shore (John 21:15–19), yet Peter came out on the other side with a full pardon for his sin, and a restored fellowship with the Lord, purchased for him by the finished work of Jesus on the cross. He found that he could say with David after he turned again to the Lord, “Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered … you are a hiding place for me; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with shouts of deliverance.” (Psalm 32:1, 7) It is a song that all of us who have turned to the Lord can sing.
Turning to the Lord also means asking Him for what the 2LC calls, “strength of grace…to walk before God unto all well-pleasing in all things.” Certainly the Lord does not forgive us on the basis of our commitment to “never do that again;” if anything, repentance teaches us how much weaker we are than we ever realized, and how likely we are to find ourselves imploring the Lord for forgiveness again very soon. But if our resolve to walk in obedience is imperfect and an unreliable source of assurance, it is nevertheless genuine, and pleasing to Christ. He will see to it that we “bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Luke 3:8; Acts 26:20). It will mean different things for each of us: Zacchaeus paid his debts (Luke 19:8), the Corinthians mended their broken relationship with Paul (2 Corinthians 7:2–13), Peter embraced Gentile outsiders (Acts 10:34–48). The Lord will call us to exhibit our repentance in any number of other ways specific to our discipleship, and sometimes it will be uncomfortable and intimidating. But turning to the Lord means He is in charge of our repentance; Paul said it was the Corinthians’ willingness to do whatever was necessary to deal with their sin that demonstrated they had the real thing. (2 Corinthians 7:5–13) No matter what it may cost to turn to the Lord, we will have Him. This will be enough.
The Source of Repentance
“Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish,” Jesus says. (Luke 13:5) Indeed, we are commanded to repent throughout the Bible. Unfortunately, it is a command none of us is able to obey! Like Adam in the Garden, our sinful hearts are simply too entrenched in self-justifying, blame-shifting, rationalizing pride ever to turn to God. In fact, Jesus’ parable of the rich man in hell shows him complaining, giving orders, and demanding favors, but never repenting. This is how far our self-deception extends. Left to ourselves, we simply cannot see ourselves as we truly are before God. The best we might muster up is a legal repentance, scrambling to escape sin’s consequences with our apologies and religious activity and moral reformations. Yet all the while, we are still loving only ourselves, not God. Like Botsford, we are always lingering at the gate, hesitating to go inside and find life in Christ.
No, if we are to experience life-giving repentance, it must come from outside ourselves. God must give to us what he demands from us. And according to Peter, this is precisely what God raised Jesus from the dead to do: “God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.” (Acts 5:31) Paul also describes repentance in terms of a divine gift: “God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of their truth, and they may come to their senses and escape the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.” (2 Timothy 2:25–26) This is why the early Baptists referred to repentance as “an evangelical grace.” The biblical record is clear, and our own experience confirms it: we can rend our garments, but only Jesus Christ can rend our hearts.
The 2LC pushes us deeper into the grace of repentance. They specify that God secured this gift of repentance for His people “in the covenant of grace,” that mysterious agreement within the Trinity to save sinners before the world began. It is an idea worthy of our reflection. As the members of the Godhead committed to do everything necessary to secure the eternal joy of their needy people, they agreed even to supply the ability to repent, knowing we would be unwilling and unable to do so on our own. Truly, our loving God has thought of everything we will ever need to live before Him! With all His heart, He says to us in the gospel, “Come, for everything is now ready!” (Luke 14:17) How did we ever land in such a story of grace?
Jesus tells us that heaven rings with laughter and praise “over one sinner who repents” (Luke 15:7). So should our churches and our homes. When the eighty year-old man to share that he has finally trusted Christ; when the wayward teenage daughter calls to say she is coming home; when the mountain of bitterness crumbles and a spouse extends forgiveness; whenever under the preached Word I stop thinking about how it applies to everyone else and feel my own hard heart cracking open—then let the celebration begin! God is visiting us in grace; by His mercy, we are turning to the Lord. Come, and welcome to Jesus Christ.
1 Charles D. Mallary, Memoirs of Elder Edmund Botsford (Charleston: 1832), 27–28.
2 Mallary, Edmund Botsford, 28–34.
3 Hereafter 2LC
4 All Scripture references, unless otherwise noted, are from the English Standard Version.
5 2LC 15.1, citing Titus 3:2–5.
6 2LC 15.2, citing Ecclesiastes 7:20 and Luke 22:31–32.
7 See, for example, the admonitions in Ephesians 4:25–32 or Colossians 3:1–17.
8 2LC 15.4, citing Luke 19:8 and 1 Timothy 1:13–15.
9 2LC 15.3, citing Zechariah 12:10, Acts 11:18, Ezekiel 36:31, 2 Corinthians 7:11, and Psalms 119:6, 128.
10 “This time I have sinned; the Lord is in the right, and I and my people are in the wrong” (Exodus 9:27).
11 “…Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears” (Hebrews 12:16–17).
12 Judas confessed, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood,” and then, “throwing down the pieces of sliver into the temple, he departed, and he went and hanged himself” (Matthew 27:4–5).