Review: The Doctrine of Repentance By Thomas Watson (Part 2)

Having established what genuine repentance is and is not (chapters 1–4), The Doctrine of Repentance spends chapters 5–8 on the all-important why—“Why are we to repent?” Or “What are the proper motives for repentance?”

The first motive that Watson offers in chapter 5 is essentially, because God says so. “‘He commands all men everywhere to repent’ (Acts 17:30). Repentance is not arbitrary. It is not left to our choice whether or not we will repent, but it is an indispensable command” (59). That God commands sinful man to repent is enough reason by itself; but beyond this, Watson traces the necessity of repentance to the very nature of God. Because God is thrice holy, sin is contrary to his essential being. “This is the message that we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). If the sinner truly desires communion and fellowship with the God who is light, then he must be willing to renounce his remaining darkness and remove any obstacle to that communion. In his first epistle, Peter exhorted Christian husbands to live with their wives in an understanding way so that their prayers would not be hindered (1 Pet 3:7). Unrepentant sin not only hinders our fellowship with one another; it also hinders our fellowship with God. Repentance causes us to enjoy our union and communion with Christ in a way that is impossible when we love and cling to idols instead of the cross.

In an effort to stir up those who have put off repentance and sinned against the light and ministry of God’s ordinances, Watson warns of the danger of a hard heart: “A hard heart is a receptacle for Satan. As God has two places he dwells in, heaven and a humble heart, so the devil has two places he dwells in, hell and a hard heart” (62). As terrifying as this image is, Watson goes on to illustrate the difference between the repentant and the unrepentant sinner: it is not the presence of sin, but whether they remain in sin that distinguishes them. “It is not falling into water that drowns, but lying in it. It is not falling into sin that damns, but lying in it without repentance” (62). This illustration serves two functions. First, it appeals to those who have seared their conscience through their continuance in sin. To these, he says—Do not indulge in this sin any longer, no matter how small it may seem; the cumulative effect of your succumbing to sin will only make your repentance more difficult. Second, it comforts those with a tender conscience and reminds them that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom 3:23, 24, emphasis mine). We must not desensitize our hearts to the least of our sins; nor can we forget that “whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart” (1 John 3:20).

This exhortation not to sit and wallow in our sin but to repent quickly continues into chapter 8 (“Exhortations to Speedy Repentance”). To serve his point, Watson gives two illustrations, sin as poison and sin as a rooted plant:

It is dangerous if we consider what sin is: sin is a poison. It is dangerous to let poison lie long in the body . . . It is dangerous to procrastinate repentance because the longer any go on in sin the harder they find the work of repentance . . . A plant at first may be easily plucked up, but when it has spread its roots deep in the earth, a whole team cannot remove it. (88, 89)

The only reason why we would hold onto sin is because we fundamentally misunderstand sin’s nature—it is deadly, not life-giving. Our hearts, still tainted with remaining sin, are so deceitful that not only do we tolerate the very thing that aims to kill us, we cherish it. The time to mortify sin is now, not when its corrupting influences have spread to other members of our body, or when the little sapling of sinful desire has grown into a deeply rooted pattern of sin.

In chapters 6 and 7, Watson considers the different classes of men (hardened sinners, cheats, hypocrites, believers, etc.), the sins for which each ought to repent, and the motivations for repentance. The first class of motives Watson presents all have to do with our effectiveness in life (motives 1–4). “A piece of lead, while it is in the lump, can be put to no use, but melt it, and you may then cast it into any mold, and it is made useful” (76). Our original sin inherited from Adam, and all the actual sins we commit as a result, are a perversion, a twisting of our creational design. We were made for more, but sin keeps us from being who we were made to be. Only once the heart, hardened by sin, is melted by the conviction of the law and the good news of the gospel can we begin to satisfy the purpose for which we were created—to glorify God and to enjoy him forever (Westminster Shorter Catechism 1).

The next class of motivations all highlight the benefits that come with true repentance (motives 5–8, 13, 14). Repentance, in and of itself is a blessing (“repenting tears are delicious” (77)). It also grants us access to countless spiritual and temporal blessings, including alleviation of earthly judgements, and results in joy in the heavenly places. The remaining class (motives 11, 12, 15, 16) calls on the reader to consider the costliness of sin—how it demanded the death of Christ to satisfy our debts, and that all those who refuse repentance will be judged for their stubbornness of heart. This chapter represents Watson’s biblical and pastoral wisdom. Scripture offers the believer manifold motivations to forsake their sin and run to Christ. Watson, following suit, offers both negative and positive motivations to repent. Yes, sin is bitter; and if repentance and the forgiveness of God in Christ are sweet, why would we not highlight these truths in our discipleship and evangelism? Watson’s words serve as a model for a full-bodied and well-balanced view of the Christian life.

In the remaining chapters, Watson expounds on the experiential effects of repentance upon the believer (chapter 9) and outlines practical ways to enhance our pursuit of repentance (chapters 10–12). I found chapter 9 to be especially insightful. Once the sinner’s eyes have been opened to the heinousness of sin and the goodness of God’s grace, they cannot unsee sin for what it is. Consequently, they are more alert in their fight against sin, they have a righteous indignation and hatred toward their sin, and a zeal for the things of God by which they had previously been repulsed. As great as this experience is, Watson is wise to caution the reader against priding themselves in their repentance. Lest faith or repentance become considered meritorious works, Watson rightly identifies repentance as a fruit and not a cause of God’s saving work.

The papists make repentance meritorious. They say it does ex congruo (altogether fittingly) merit pardon. This is a gross error. Indeed repentance fits us for mercy. As the plough, when it breaks up the ground, fits it for the seed, so when the heart is broken up by repentance, it is fitted for remission, but it does not merit it. God will not save us without repentance, nor yet for it. (96)

How could repentance alone merit salvation when all it does is confess the guilt and condemnation of sins committed? Repentance, even genuine repentance, cannot restore or repay the debt of our former disobedience. “To trust our repentance is to make it a savior” (97). Repentance, if it is doing what it ought, does not attract attention to itself as an act, but to Christ, through whose ministry our redemption is secured.

The last two chapters call on the reader to stop and consider sin’s nature (e.g., is it a poison to be expelled or a treasure to be kept?) and to compare the condition of those who refuse to repent of their sin versus those who do. This is a regular device used by the writer of Proverbs, especially in Proverbs 5. The ruin of the wicked who fornicated with the forbidden woman is put side by side with the blessings that belong to the one who remains true to the wife of his youth. Stop to consider, as Psalm 73 does, not the way, but the end of the wicked. The end of repentance is far greater than the end of sin and wickedness.

As a preacher, whenever I pick up The Doctrine of Repentance, I am reminded that one of the great weaknesses of preaching today is our unwillingness to address the heinousness of sin. Like the prophets in Jeremiah’s day, there are far too many preachers who “heal the wound of my people lightly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace” (Jer 6:14). Whether this is for theological, methodological, or stylistic reasons, I cannot say definitively. But, until the preaching of the Word exposes the wounds of God’s people, as painful as the experience may be, the hearer will never receive or know the true healing and empowerment that comes through the gospel. To the preacher, I would ask you: Have you ever preached on sin the way that Watson has? If not, why not? Some will answer, “My hearers would be offended. We might chase off visitors and new converts. The gospel is good news; why dwell on the bad news to this degree?” If so, remember Watson’s balance. To downplay sin is to downplay the gospel. Soft-pedaling sin will not help your hearers—it will only hurt them, and you will be held accountable before God for failing to preach the whole truth (Matt. 5:19). Show God’s people the depths of their sin and show them the fathomless mercies of God in Christ. Do both. This is God’s call you to. It is the only way that God’s elect will repent of their sins and turn to him in faith.

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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  • Stephen Spinnenweber
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    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.

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