Review: The Doctrine of Repentance By Thomas Watson (Part 1)

My favorite question and answer in the Westminster Shorter Catechism (WSC) is hands down number 87: “What is repentance unto life? Repentance unto life is a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, doth, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavor after, new obedience.” Not a day goes by when I am not returning to this succinct but weighty summary. Even on this side of the cross, because I continually wrestle with remaining sin and fall short of God’s glory every single day, the gospel demands that I become an expert in the art of repentance unto life. Thomas Watson’s The Doctrine of Repentance has served as a faithful guide and companion to me, ushering me toward this divinely-appointed end.

The book begins by defining repentance and distinguishing it from faux repentance, which is really just sorrow for sin’s painful consequences and not for the heinousness of sin itself (chapters 1–4). Watson then presents the rationale for repentance (i.e., “Why should I repent?”) and exhortations to pursue it with greater diligence (5–8). The last four chapters introduce practical measures Christians must take to ensure they are repenting as they ought (9–12). This first article will cover chapters 1–4, and part two will review chapters 5–12.

In chapter 1, Watson wades into the age-old question: “Which comes first? Faith or repentance?” For Watson, faith is first.

Doubtless repentance shows itself first in a Christian’s life. Yet I am apt to think that the seeds of faith are first wrought in the heart. As when a burning taper [wick] is brought into a room the light shows itself first, but the taper was before the light, so we see the fruits of repentance first, but the beginnings of faith were there before. That which inclines me to think that faith is seminally in the heart before repentance is because repentance, being a grace, must be exercised by one that is living. Now, how does the soul live but by faith? “The just shall live by his faith” (Heb 10:38). Therefore there must be first some seeds of faith in the heart of a penitent, otherwise it is a dead repentance and so of no value. (12)

Without the root of saving faith, there can be no fruit of true repentance. The unregenerate believer is utterly incapable (Rom 8:7) of keeping the least of God’s commands in a manner that pleases Him, because his heart has not first been “purified by faith” (WCF 16.7).

Having demonstrated the foundational nature of faith, Watson carefully examines counterfeit repentance and the subtle ways that it masquerades as the genuine article. The first sign of counterfeit repentance is legal terror and lack of sorrow for the sin itself. “It is one thing to be a terrified sinner and another to be a repenting sinner. Sense of guilt is enough to breed terror. Infusion of grace breeds repentance” (15). Every parent has had to have this talk when confronting a child in their sin. The tears may flow freely, but that does not mean the heart is truly rent. “Are you sorrowful for what you did or are you only sorrowful that you got caught?” Remember David. His grief and sorrow in Psalm 51 rose higher than his lamentable circumstances; they extended to the throne room of heaven itself—”Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment” (Ps 51:4).

The second sign of counterfeit repentance is that the resolution against sin is only temporary—it is born out of expediency and nothing more. Once the painful consequences of sin subside, so too does the sinner’s resolve to reform his ways. This reveals that the sinner’s motivation is not love for God, but love for and longing to regain the idol of his heart, whether it be money, reputation, or peace and ease. Israel depicted this kind of utilitarian repentance on a national scale through its cycle of descending into sin and idolatry, enduring God’s discipline, crying for deliverance, then returning to idolatry once the chastening rod of God was withdrawn. Watson writes in his treatise, The Art of Divine Contentment, of God’s design for affliction in the life of the believer. “Our maladies shall be our medicines . . . God makes our adversity our university” (74). This is the test of whether we have truly learned in Christ’s university or not—in the absence of adversity, do we continue in love and obedience to Christ, or do we return to our sin as a dog returns to its vomit (Prov 26:11)? The proof of our learning is our manner of living.

The third sign of counterfeit repentance is that it is piecemeal and not comprehensive. “A man may part with some sins and keep others, as Herod reformed many things that were amiss but could not leave his incest” (16). In a later chapter, Watson offers another illustration of this point, “A true convert seeks the destruction of every lust. He knows how dangerous it is to entertain any one sin. He that hides one rebel in his house is a traitor to the Crown, and he that indulges one sin is a traitorous hypocrite” (54). Genuine repentance offers quarter to no sin, no matter how much our sinful flesh still lusts after it. When Scripture speaks of “presenting our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God,” the picture is that of the burnt offering, the totality of which was offered upon the altar, not a portion like other sacrifices (Rom 12:1). The whole of our lives belongs to God. Nor does it suffice to merely shuffle the deck and substitute one sin in the place of another. “An old sin may be left in order to entertain a new, as you put off an old servant to take another. This is to exchange a sin” (16).  Sin must be killed, not shifted. Sinful man is called to repent for the right reasons and in the right manner, forsaking all sin because it is displeasing to God. The WSC teaches that sanctification is renewal of the whole man after the image of God. Repentance, likewise, must be comprehensive in scope.

Chapters 3–4 identify the “six special ingredients” that make up the spiritual medicine of repentance: sight of sin, sorrow for sin, confession of sin, shame for sin, hatred for sin, and turning from sin (18). The first two ingredients are a counterpoint to the first two chapters of the book, offering the inverse of that sorrow which is dictated only by the consequences of sin. These ingredients focus upon the initial awareness of sin and how sin in its very essence ought to deeply grieve us. The next four ingredients teach what believers are to do in response to this heightened awareness of sin’s guilt: they must admit their fault (confession), their attitude toward sin must become adversarial, not conciliatory (shame and hatred), and their sinful habits must be displaced and replaced by the virtues God commands in his Word (turning). Herein we can see Watson mirroring the flow of WSC 87: “Out of a true sense of his sin…with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God.”

My favorite image from this section is one where Watson turns the eye of the believer from himself and his sin to Christ and his righteousness. “Turning from sin is like pulling the arrow out of the wound; turning to God is like pouring in the balm” (55). This illustrates beautifully what I think many in the Reformed camp tend to underemphasize—God’s readiness to show mercy to any and all who come to him in faith. What more could God do to communicate his willingness to pardon the guilty than the provision of his only beloved Son upon the cross? Without apprehending God’s mercy, the true sense of our sin would crush us, leaving us without hope or direction. But because God has revealed his merciful and gracious posture toward us in his Word, the believer is compelled to leave behind his sin which kills and to embrace Jesus Christ who saves. The words of Robert Murray M’Cheyne pair well with Watson’s aim in this illustration: “For every look at yourself, take ten looks at Christ.” This is how the believer keeps from spiraling into morbid introspection, which is little better than pulling out an arrow and leaving a gaping, festering wound. So, apply the balm of Christ, turn to him, and avail yourself of his love. Christians must have a double awareness—awareness of their sin and awareness of God’s greater grace. In the next article, we will examine Watson’s many motivations to repent, and the practical helps he offers as we forsake our sin and instead pursue righteousness.

Watson, Thomas. The Doctrine of Repentance. Puritan Paperbacks. Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1989.

Watson, Thomas, and Don Kistler. The Art of Divine Contentment. Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 2001.

© Stephen Spinnenweber. All Rights Reserved.


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Posted by Stephen Spinnenweber | Thursday, November 30, 2023 | Categorized in Christian Life, Reformed Piety, Reviews, Sin. Stephen Spinnenweber. Bookmark the permalink.

About Stephen Spinnenweber

Stephen Spinnenweber is pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church (PCA). He was born and raised in Pasadena, MD and was educated at the University of Maryland and and Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Together with a local campus minister, he cohosts The Shorter Podcast, a podcast on the Westminster Shorter Catechism. Stephen and his wife Sarah have been married since 2013. They are proud parents to Reid (3), Ruthie (1), and recently welcomed their third child, Wesley. Meet all the Heidelberg contributors»


  1. Repentance unto life is a grace. The article having said that, it gets dropped from the rest of the article, and in its place, tasks of repentance in dealing with sin are discussed. Vivification is more deserving of a place, I think.

    Another way to put this is to use the WC word’s word, “whereby”; repentance unto life is something, not elaborated upon in the article after calling it a grace, “whereby” … other things are done. The same omission occurs when people skip all the “by” words in “by faith” in Hebrews 11.

    Mortifications are actions done against our sins. One reason we are undernourished on our understanding of vivification is our love for satisfying the utilitarian ethical lemma that everything must boil down to a how-to (I think). Christ gives how-to’s all the time, but He doesn’t boil down to how-to’s (I think). 😉

    One step I think vivification can help with, in repentance, is grounding us. It’s not enough to tell us that we have to deal with all our sins, not just some. It grounds us, to be reminded, that the person who has to deal with other sins today, that have been neglected, as the article points out, is not left to saying “I’m not saved, then, because I haven’t dealt with every kind of sin I have,” because the person mortifying, has been vivified. The new person in Christ can approach yet another of the tasks left, because of the newness.

    • Hi Larry,
      While I used WSC Q.87 as the launch point for the review, the purpose of the article wasn’t to unpack WSC Q.87 in detail but to review high-points in Watson’s book. In any review, you can’t say it all. But, from my reading of Watson, by no means does he skip over the necessity of vivification and go straight to “how-to’s.” In my experience, most reformed Christians do understanding that if they’re dead to sin then they are “raised to newness of life” (i.e. vivification, Rom 6:4). What they often lack are practical insights into “how” to perform the duties of vivification. If a pastor says from the pulpit, “You’re now alive in Christ” he has done only half his job. It’s essential to explain the objective reality of vivification, yes, but thereafter the preacher should tell them what to “put off” and what to “put on” as Paul did (e.g. Eph 4:22-24 flow naturally into the particulars of vs.25-32). That’s where Watson shines in the book and where I try to direct the reader’s attention. Hope this adds to the conversation!

  2. The article makes an excellent distinction in pointing out that repentance is a change in understanding. It is turning from the natural man’s looking to obedience to the law for acceptance with God, to understanding his complete inability to obey it perfectly, and an understanding of God’s grace and compassion in Christ, who has done for him, what he cannot do. The fruit of this new understanding is love to God, hatred of sin that offends God, and the motivation to obey the law, not from fear, but of gratitude and love to Christ who has provided this obedience perfectly for him, and suffered the consequences of his inability. WSC 87 says it so well.

  3. Pastor, thank you for responding and for the conversation-enhancing tone and content. Vivification is not a static, fixed thing like a fact that’s proven and needing no further attention from us, but only for us to go from there, to build upon. The “building” to be done, the growth, including the submission to tasks using all the obligations and how-to’s, is upon newness of life, in newness of life. The person we were before conversion had obligations to do right. The person we are in Christ has more than those — both obligations and resources, and participators-with.

    Does the author (Watson) use our newness of life in the instructions? I agree that Reformed people know also that we are raised with Him. “Therefore we should ….,” of course. But do we face any obligation, alone, or in the “do, to live by them” environment? Lord bless, of course I must read the Watson now too! Thanks for your article and the upcoming.


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