If we are honest, the idea of repentance can fill us with fear. The Bible calls us to repent of our sin, but our fearful flesh tells us to hide our sin. We fear owning up to the reality of our sin because we fear being rejected if we are truly known. The faulty thinking on which our fear of repentance operates is three-fold. First, we mistakenly think repentance is a concession for those who just couldn’t get it together, as if there are two teams with God—the Varsity made up of the righteous and the Junior Varsity consisting of the repentant. Second, we mistakenly think we are not already fully known by God, and confusing repentance with an earthly confession, we mistakenly think we are revealing new information that may lead to disappointment or condemnation once our sin is brought to light. Third, confusing repentance with an earthly apology, we mistakenly think forgiveness in response to repentance is optional. The Word of God speaks directly to this fear on all three levels.
Psalm 32 is one of the many passages that shape our understanding of repentance. In the opening stanza, David announces the blessedness of being forgiven before God. John Goldingay comments on the opening lines of Psalm 32, “And how extraordinary that it declares the good fortune not of the faithful person (like Ps. 1) but of the faithless person, not of the Torah-keeper but of the Torah-breaker.”(1) How extraordinary indeed! No matter how often we have heard the gospel, our flesh will always, and quickly, believe the devil’s lie that God only loves those who come to him already righteous. Psalm 32 declares the opposite. The blessed person is the one who comes to God as a sinner and is forgiven. Surprise, the repentant are the Varsity Team because the repentant are the only team.
But there is more. Notice the last line of verse 2, “and in whose spirit there is no deceit.” It would be all too easy to read this final line of the opening stanza of Psalm 32 in a pietistic way, as if the psalmist was saying there are two groups of blessed folk, the forgiven and the righteous truth-tellers. However, that is not the idea at all. Rather, consider what John wrote in his first letter, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:8-9). It is in this sense the Psalmist writes about there being no deceit in them. The blessed are those who have stopped trying to hide their sin and deceitfully act as if they have none; rather, they have laid it all on the table and received forgiveness.
The second stanza, 32:3-4, addresses our second mistaken thought about repentance, that we are not already fully known. The Psalmist describes his own suffering because of his sin, suffering that effected even his physical well-being. We have been there. Keeping up appearances is exhausting and stressful. However, David then explains what was behind his experience when he states, “For day and night your hand was heavy upon me” (32:4). The hand of the Lord being heavy on someone is a somewhat common way to speak of the Lord’s discipline (see Ps 38:2 and 39:10).
On the one hand, it is a fearful idea to think about God knowing all we have done and thought. On the other hand, God’s knowledge of us corrects our mistaken view of repentance that leads us to fear this gracious work of God in us, for in repenting we are not revealing anything to God that he does not already know to be true of us. His Spirit will not work repentance in us only for him to be surprised by what we repent of and in turn condemn us. He searches our hearts. We are fully known, and the glorious gospel result of God fully knowing us is, “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:6-8).
When we own up to our sin, our Father is not scandalized, and his response is not to reconsider his calling us. Rather, his response is something along the lines of, “Yes. I know. I loved you even at your darkest moment, so much so, in fact, that I gave my only begotten Son to die in your place.” When we confess our sin to other people, they may be surprised and scandalized, but our Heavenly Father is never surprised when we admit to him that for which he sent his Son to die.
Our third mistaken thought about repentance is that forgiveness is an optional response from God. Psalm 32:5 puts this error to bed.
"I acknowledged my sin to you,
and I did not cover my iniquity;
I said, “I will confess my transgression to the Lord,”
and you forgave the iniquity of my sin." (Ps 32:5)
Acknowledging his sin, also stated as not covering his iniquity and confessing his transgression, was met with Yahweh forgiving his sin. Lest we think this may have been a one-off situation, consider again what John wrote, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). How can this be? How can my repentance guarantee God’s forgiveness? First, forgiveness in response to repentance is a matter of God’s faithfulness and justice. Jesus has already paid for it. Second, consider these helpful words from the Westminster Larger Catechism, “Repentance unto life is a saving grace, wrought in the heart of a sinner by the Spirit and Word of God…” (WLC #76). Notice, repentance is a saving grace, and it is the work of the Spirit. So how can we be sure of receiving forgiveness when we repent? Even our repentance is the gracious work of the Spirit. Remember Paul’s challenging words in Romans 3 that begin, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God” (Rom 3:10-11). When a sinner turns in repentance to God, he can be sure of forgiveness because, God is faithful and just and by the gracious working of the Spirit and the Word, the Father has drawn him (John 6:44), and the Son will not cast him out or lose him but most certainly will raise him up. (John 6:37, 39, 44).
We do not need to fear repentance; Rather, we need to hear how the Word of God speaks of this gracious work in order that our mistaken thoughts, which scream so loud, might be silenced. The whole people of God is repentant sinners, entirely. God already knows our sin, this is why he sent Jesus to die in our place. Repentance will always be met with God’s forgiveness because repentance itself is God’s work. Do not fear. “He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it” (1 Thess 5:24)