Q: What is repentance unto life?
A: Repentance unto life is a saving grace, by which a sinner, being truly aware of his sinfulness, understands the mercy of God in Christ, grieves for and hates his sins, and turns from them to God, fully intending and striving for a new obedience.
Just as faith in Christ is a saving grace, so too is repentance a saving grace. In fact, the two go hand in hand. Just as we could not have come to believe on Jesus and accept his salvation without divine help, the same grace lets us turn from our sin and desire obedience. It pushes us through the entire turn; it is one move.
One does not believe just enough to attain forgiveness, eternal justification in the eyes of God, and then drops the matter to go back to his old life. To have faith in the gospel is to see that old life with fresh eyes and understand there is a way out. To reach for the life preserver is with the new knowledge that you don’t have to stay in the shark-infested waters. To quote John Murray, “the faith that is unto salvation is a penitent faith and the repentance that is unto life is a believing repentance.”
There are dangers to winning the lottery. Most of them come from not having a clear view of all that comes with this new life: new expectations, new taxes, new desires. You will have to see your friends and family differently and know that they will see you differently, as well. Your dreams, your work, and money itself, now takes on new meaning in this new context, and you will have to scramble to learn what is wise from this new height — or suffer in your denial.
Or, to put it another way, we as believers all suffer from a kind of PTSD. Having lived a life of survivorship, war, danger, failure, and trauma, it is strange, even unnerving, to find ourselves in a life after D-Day, where peace has been attained, victory has been declared, and freedom has been granted. Though our reality has shifted overnight, we ourselves cannot adjust as quickly. We are still stuck in the old habits, fighting the battles in our heads.
Repentance re-orients us. It is when we look again at what sin is, what Christ did, who we are, and where God is. It is a reminder of our new reality and a commitment to live in it instead of relapsing into recidivism. It is not, at its heart, about regret or penance or self-improvement or duty; it is, instead, about waking up again to the gospel. And that requires a grace beyond us.
God extends his grace beyond an initial insight into his mercy; he perpetuates it in enabling our repentance as well.