Repentance: The First Word of the Gospel

By Richard Owen Roberts
Wheaton, IL : Crossway (2002). 368 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Trevor Craigen
14.1 (Spring 2003) : 129-130

 Displaying something of his pastor’s heart— a note that persists throughout the book—Roberts begins not with a formal preface but with “A Letter to the Reader” in which he earnestly calls for no one to leave repentance out until it is too late. The table of contents shows the material organized in sevens—the seven myths, maxims, marks, motives, fruits, models, and dangers of repentance and seven words of advice to the unrepentant. Roberts communicates like a preacher. The introduction, not surprisingly, offers seven reasons why the doctrine of repentance is being neglected or having little impact upon churches today (16-21). Commitment to success and not wishing to be divisive or negative contribute to the doctrine being given such low profile. That is an accurate assessment.

With frequent cross-referencing to and copious citing of Scripture (23-41), Roberts lays out the evidence for repentance being a very important item in the teaching and proclamation of the NT (23-41) The OT data is well summarized under seven foci (44-62), and is accompanied by an extensive use of appropriate Scripture passages drawn from all literary genre. The NT data receives thorough treatment under seven ‘doctrines’ (63-83). Again, an insertion of appropriate Scriptures dominates the content. To maintain the “seven-motif,” these chapters could have followed the pattern by being given headings such as “The Seven Foci of Repentance in the OT” and “T he Seven ‘Doctrines’ of Repentance in the NT.” In fact, Roberts displays an amazing ability to outline everything in sevens. The reader quickly notices this common denominator but soon begins to appreciate the skillful touch of the author in compiling these breakdowns—they may very well prove to be a good mnemonic device. God’s message to Nineveh, for example, is outlined under seven salient features (58-60), one of which is particularly memorable, namely, “the mercy God is always greater than the mercy of those servants He employs to proclaim it” (59).

Techniques such as the listing of questions and pertinent Scriptures, the use of repetitive lead-in phrases, and numbered lists of information, communicate well and draw the reader in and hold attention. A good listing of the different kinds of sorrows—there are twelve, not seven of them—which have no necessary link to repentance shows that thought had been given to the subject (17 6). A list of twelve statements on what private confession of sin must be (193-94) and a list of ten suggestions for public confession (196) are both of pastoral value.

In all chapters, appropriate stories from his own personal ministry experience illustrate and enhance the points being made. Some of these highlighted the angry resistance of individuals in the congregation to his preaching. It was instructive to observe how he handled those awkward situations. Judging by such incidents, one sees Roberts as wise and patient, yet a forthright counselor who brought Scripture to bear upon life. He writes as a personal witness of the impact of preaching repentance on a congregation and of the fruit of it in individual lives in different parts of the world. He cites cases of pastors who attempted to justify their immorality while weeping crocodile tears, which should trouble the reader who is in pastoral ministry. It should strengthen the resolve to be an example of purity to those who believe.

Roberts’ pastoral concern rings out in the earnest appeal to the reader to think on whether or not he bears fruit worthy of repentance (27) and in his other calls to think soberly on the possibility of false repentance. One example of this would be the comments made on legal as opposed to evangelical repentance, i.e., what a person does for himself as opposed to what he does for God (115). Discipleship labs or small groups may very well benefit from using this book as a basis for thoughtful reflection on sin and repentance, humility, and sanctified living. Personal devotional use is a valid option.

On the matter of national repentance (289-92), the author concisely surveys the biblical references thereon and then asks if all that could be done today is being done to call a nation to repentance. It makes one stop and think. What of the nations today in the church-age and what of them beyond the rapture of the church?

A degree of overlap in content does occur, with the last three chapters in particular picking up on and reiterating much of what had been put forward in the earlier chapters. The book may not have a systematic theology format, but the reader quickly realizes (1) that its format and style helps gain a fuller understanding of this important doctrine, and (2) that it is a treasure trove of biblical cross-references. That definitely makes it worth having in one’s personal library!