Distinguishing Between Legal and Evangelical Repentance

by | Jul 21, 2017 | Shane Peterson

“Repent and believe” is the external call to all people. It is made effectual by the Holy Spirit in those who God elects. Faith and repentance are definitive aspects in the life of the Christian. We must have repented of our sin and proclaimed our faith and trust in Jesus as our Lord and Savior to be saved. But what is meant by repentance? To be sure, repentance is more than feeling bad about our current state. Repentance is more than a fear of consequence. Being that repentance is a critical point to the external call of the gospel message, we ought to be clear on what it entails.


At Pentecost, Peter preached the message which commanded those who heard it to repent and be baptized. “Then Peter said unto them, repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost”.(Acts 3:38) And again in the next chapter, “Repent ye therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, when the times of refreshing shall come from the presence of the Lord”.(Acts 3:19) The message of Jesus Himself was one of repentance. “From that time Jesus began to preach, and to say, Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”. (Matthew 4:19)

We distinguish between two different types of repentance. The first, is referred to as legal repentance. This is a feeling of sadness due to the consequences the individual is faced with. It is defined as, ”the pain, regret or affliction which a person feels on account of his past conduct, because it exposes him to punishment. This sorrow proceeding merely from the fear of punishment…excited by the terrors of legal penalties, and it may exist without an amendment of life”.(http://av1611.com/kjbp/kjv-dictionary/repent.html)

The second, is called evangelical repentance. Often times it is just referred to as true, or godly repentance. This is defined as, “Real penitence; sorrow or deep contrition for sin, as an offense and dishonor to God, a violation of his holy law, and the basest ingratitude towards a Being of infinite benevolence. This is called evangelical repentance, and is accompanied and followed by amendment of life.”(http://av1611.com/kjbp/kjv-dictionary/repent.html)


If pain and trouble were sufficient for repentance, then the damned in hell would be the most penitent, for they are most in anguish. Repentance depends upon a change of heart. There may be terror and yet no change of heart.

 Thomas Watson (The Doctrine of Repentance, Ch. 2)

The quote from Thomas Watson does an excellent job of illustrating legal repentance. The key factor in separating the two is the change of heart. There are many professing Christians that demonstrate a mere legal repentance. Sure, they will show remorse and ask forgiveness when confronted with their sin. We all should.

The difference is the matter of the heart. If there isn’t a change of heart, it isn’t true repentance. It’s as simple as that. That isn’t to say that a person who demonstrates legal repentance can’t be regenerated by the Holy Spirit and brought to a state of true repentance. The problem is, almost everybody demonstrates legal repentance at some point in their life.

Legal repentance in the professing Christian is usually accompanied by, or a product of, temporary faith. Temporary faith is hard to distinguish from true saving faith. A person with temporary faith, may show fruits of regeneration. Since we can’t truly know whether or not a person is unregenerate, it truly is a case of time will tell. Generally, we can only know someone had temporary faith if they apostatize.

We get an illustration of the distinction between temporary faith and saving faith from Jesus in the parable of the sower. Temporary faith is laid out in verses 5 and 6. “Some fell upon stony places, where they had not much earth: and forthwith they sprung up, because they had no deepness of earth:  And when the sun was up, they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away.” (Matthew 13:5-6)

This is contrasted with those of saving faith in verse 8. “But other fell into good ground, and brought forth fruit, some an hundredfold, some sixtyfold, some thirtyfold”. (Matthew 13:8)

In scripture we have a few examples of legal repentance, or “terror and yet no change of heart”. One of the most notorious cases is that of Judas Iscariot. In Matthew 27, we see the account of Judas, after he had sold out Jesus to the religious authorities. There is no doubt that he is sorrowful. In fact, the scriptures even use the word “repented”.

Then Judas, which had betrayed him, when he saw that he was condemned, repented himself, and brought again the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders, Saying, I have sinned in that I have betrayed the innocent blood. And they said, What [is that] to us? see thou [to that]. And he cast down the pieces of silver in the temple, and departed, and went and hanged himself.

 Matthew 27:3-5 (KJV)

We know Judas displayed mere legal repentance, for he was an apostate. The scriptures had prophesied his apostasy centuries before this. In Psalm 41, for example, it spoke of Judas’ betrayal. “Yea, mine own familiar friend, in whom I trusted, which did eat of my bread, hath lifted up [his] heel against me”.(Psalm 41:9)

Jesus, when speaking of the disciples that remained with Him, and Judas, who apostatized. “While I was with them in the world, I kept them in thy name: those that thou gavest me I have kept, and none of them is lost, but the son of perdition; that the scripture might be fulfilled”(John 17:12)

Another example of legal repentance is King Ahab. After Ahab got upset that Naboth wouldn’t give him his vineyard for money or trade, his wife Jezebel framed Naboth under the charge of blasphemy, in Ahab’s name. Naboth was stoned to death, and Ahab took possession of the vineyard. God sent Elijah to pronounce judgement on King Ahab. When confronted with the evil that he did and the punishment he was faced with, Ahab repented.

And it came to pass, when Ahab heard those words, that he rent his clothes, and put sackcloth upon his flesh, and fasted, and lay in sackcloth, and went softly. And the word of the Lord came to Elijah the Tishbite, saying, Seest thou how Ahab humbleth himself before me? because he humbleth himself before me, I will not bring the evil in his days: but in his son’s days will I bring the evil upon his house.

1 Kings 21:27-29 (KJV)


Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions. Wash me throughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.  For I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me…

…Hide thy face from my sins, and blot out all mine iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from thy presence; and take not thy holy spirit from me

Psalm 51:1-3,9-11 (KJV)

True repentance is a gift of mercy from God. We would all naturally be like Adam seeking to hide ourselves from God in the wake of our sin rather than confront it, confess it, and cry out to God for His mercy upon us. He desires our repentance and reliance on Him, and Him alone. The Apostle Peter wrote, “The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance”.(2 Peter 3:9)

We are called to “bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance”.(Matthew 3:8) Part of repentance is confessing not only our sin in general, but our particular sins. We are to be asking God and praising Him for His forgiveness through Christ. Solomon wrote, “He that covereth his sins shall not prosper: but whoso confesseth and forsaketh them shall have mercy”.(Proverbs 28:13)

This of course means that our faith must have legs. We are to be “…doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves”.(James 1:22) We can’t claim to have faith in Christ and see any meaningful spiritual growth if we don’t have true evangelical repentance.

The Apostle Paul is a good example of evangelical repentance. Paul, also known as Saul, was a great persecutor of Christians. He oversaw the stoning of Stephen.(Acts 22:19-20) After his being rebuked by Jesus Himself on the road to Damascus,(Acts 9) went on to be one of the strongest examples of a Christian man in all of scripture. Paul went from being a Pharisee, bearing only the marks of outward piety, and ultimately legal repentance, to suffering for the sake of the gospel, dying to self, and truly having a heart for the Lord.(2 Corinthians 11:16-33)

Another great example would be King David, the man after God’s own heart. After committing adultery with Bathsheba, impregnating her, and having her husband Uriah killed on the battlefield, David was rebuked by the prophet Nathan for these actions and he repented. (2 Samuel 12)

We get a look into the heart of David in the midst of his sorrow in Psalm 51. It is a psalm, and a prayer to God seeking His mercy to wash him of his sins, and to restore the joy of salvation. It demonstrates that David was broken over his offense against God, not for the consequences they brought. David’s heart and mind were set on the eternal things of God, not the temporal.


Our faith and our repentance are closely related. Even the demons believe in Jesus, and they tremble.(James 2:19) Knowing of the punishment we deserve, and even fearing it, is not the same as fearing offending God with our actions. A person with true saving faith will have evangelical repentance. The difference is legal repentance originates in us, but true evangelical repentance comes from God.

Follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord: Looking diligently lest any man fail of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up trouble you, and thereby many be defiled; Lest there be any fornicator, or profane person, as Esau, who for one morsel of meat sold his birthright. For ye know how that afterward, when he would have inherited the blessing, he was rejected: for he found no place of repentance, though he sought it carefully with tears

Hebrews 12:14-17 (KJV)

As it says in Hebrews 12, Esau sought a place of true repentance, carefully with tears, and he found no place. We know he fell short of the glory of God. It was not up to Esau whether or not he would be saved.

We accept that God is sovereign, but modern evangelicalism has convinced the masses that, as long as you feel bad about your sin, have prayed the sinner’s prayer, and answered an altar call, you are all good. I want to exhort us all to meditate on God’s word, and search ourselves to see the nature of our repentance and faith in God.

Recommended Resources

The Doctrine of Repentance by Thomas Watson
The Difference Between True and Counterfeit Repentance by John Colquhoun
Exposition on the WCF (Ch. 15) by Robert Shaw