In his excellent book, Repentance, John Colquhoun gives 8 distinctions between true and counterfeit repentance. For ease of reading, I’ll put his points in my own words and provide summaries and quotations under each point, though I haven’t distinguished between quotations and summaries.
1. False repentance flows from faith in the law (as a covenant) and is legal; but true repentance flows from true faith in the law and the gospel.
False repentance comes from a temporary faith in the commands and curses of the broken law which a falsely repentant man fears. When the holy law strikes his conscience, he is forced to believe that it requires perfect obedience and its curse for disobedience stands against him. The only refuges he has from the curse of the law to pacify his guilty conscience and to satisfy Divine justice and to give himself hope include verbal resolutions, reformations, renewed duties, and other self-righteous schemes. He does not actually become righteous because he seeks it by works (Rom 9:31-32). He may pretend some regard to Christ in this legal progress. He may hope that God, for the sake of Christ, will accept his repentance and forgive his sins.
True repentance, however, flows from humble belief in the law and gospel. Godly sorrow for sin and turning from the love and practice of sin to the love and practice of holiness issue from reliance on the righteousness of Jesus Christ for all our title to pardon and sanctification and from trusting in Him for pardoning mercy and sanctifying grace. True repentance has a humbling, self-condemning, broken, whole-hearted longing for God’s pardoning mercy.
2. False repentance comes from the dread of wrath. True repentance is a sincere mourning for sin, a loathing of ourselves in our own sight for it and a deep desire for deliverance from the power and practice of it.
In false, or legal repentance, the conscience is alarmed and the sinner cries out loudly against those sins which threaten him with hell. The law condemns him and he is terrified of judgement. This makes him ready to make resolutions to begin a humble and circumspect life. This repentance is only the fear of hell. If the conscience is quieted, then these false penitents will return with the dog to his vomit (2 Pet 2:22), until some new alarm revives his conviction of sin and danger, and with this alarm, the same process of false repentance.
For the true penitent, sin itself becomes the heaviest burden. There is a difference between being struck with dread, restrained by terror, or driven from a course of sinning by the lashes of an awakened conscience; and loathing ourselves in our own sight for our iniquities and abominations and vehemently desiring grace to mortify our corruption that we may be freed from the power of sin.
3. In false repentance, the sinner is only greatly disturbed by his gross and open sins; in true repentance, the believer is more disturbed by the secret and darling sins of his heart, which he used to enjoy.
For example, Cain said that his iniquity was greater than he could bear (Gen 4:13 – the sentence is sometimes translated that his punishment is greater than he can bear). Cain did not speak with regret of all of his past sins, or of the terrible sin in his heart, but only of the one sin, the gross sin of murder. Judas told the chief priests and elders, “I have sinned in that I have betrayed the innocent blood.” He did not confess or seem to feel remorse for his covetousness, hypocrisy, theft, and multitude of other sins, but only his betrayal of Jesus.
In true repentance, however, the believer is most disturbed with a spiritual view of his secret evils, the sin of his nature in general, and the unbelief and legal temper of his heart in particular (pride, covetousness, hypocrisy, unbelief, self-righteousness, etc.). He feels the horror of his sin right down to his heart, and feels that as a man, he is utterly sinful in all of his ways.
4. False repentance has no true connection with the pardon of sin in justification, but true repentance necessarily flows from justification.
False, or pretended, repentance isn’t connected with judicial pardon for sin, though a falsely repentant man may speak of his pardon. False repentance is the repentance of a man who is under the condemning sentence of the broken law and therefore his repentance is not spiritually good and acceptable to God. It is the repentance of an unbeliever; and without faith it is impossible to please God, and such repentance makes him even more condemned.
True repentance, on the other hand, is a fruit of pardon in justification received by faith and the exercise of it is spiritually good and acceptable to God.
5. False repentance commonly comes from discouragement and despondency, but true repentance from encouraging hope.
Many who are falsely repentant try to appease their alarmed consciences by external reforms. They tell their souls “peace, peace” so their discouragement may come to an end.
True repentance brings a deeper sense of the atrociousness of sins and the greatness of guilt than any false repentance can, yet the believer dares not yield to despairing thoughts of the Redeemer’s mercy. The true penitent may labor for a time under many discouraging fears, but these are his infirmity, not his repentance. He looks with hope to the infinite mercy of God, and the more lively his hope is, the more humbled and grieved he is for his sins and the more strongly he labors after new obedience.
6. False repentance springs from hatred to God and to His holy law, but true repentance from love to both.
False penitents may have at one time had a pleasant view of God as they thought of His mercy and while they thought that they had hope of pardon. But now they see God’s infinite holiness and justice and because He appears an infinite enemy, they are working for some way to make peace with Him. They resolve to obey Him from the same motives from which slaves obey. If the penalty for sin was taken away, they would go back to their old sins. This truth is often witnessed in those who throw off their convictions and reformations and, while maintaining an appearance of religion, they show by their sinful and sensual lives that their hearts still hate God and His holy law.
As for their sorrow on account of their sin, false penitents are very sorry that God hates sin so much and that He is resolved to punish it with everlasting destruction and that he is able to execute this purpose. They are very sorry that His law is so very strict, but they are very far from being grieved in heart for the base and ungrateful part they have acted by sinning against a gracious God and violating His holy law.
The true penitent grieves that though the law is spiritual, he is carnal, sold under sin. He mourns that his nature has been so contrary to God. He loves God and His holy law; and therefore he does not desire that the law should be bent to his corruptions but that his heart and life should be fully subjected to the law as the rule of this duty.
The false penitent still loves his sin in his heart and mourns that there is a law to condemn and justice to punish him for them. The true penitent hates all his iniquities without reserve and because they are against the holy nature and law of God.
The obedience of the false penitent is by mere constraint, but the sins of the true penitent are the reason he is continually humbled and make him constantly long for higher degrees of faith and holiness.
7. False repentance produces only a partial and external reformation, but true repentance is a total change of heart and a universal turning from sin to God.
Just like a particular gross sin leads the way to the distress or terror which is the evidence of a legal and false repentance, so reforming in the practice of that sin too frequently wears off the distress and gives rest to the troubled conscience without any further change; or at least, some darling lust will be retained, some right hand or right eye spared. If the false penitent performs duties respecting the worship of God, he will still live in acts of injustice, strife, and uncharitableness toward men. If he is careful to refrain from every open sin, he yet little regards the sins of his heart, such as silent envy, secret pride, self-righteousness, self-preference, earthly-mindedness, anger, unbelief, or some other secret sin. Whatever progress he may make in religion, his heart is still separated from the power of godliness. He does not heartily hate his sin, nor is he ever willing to be finally divorced from it.
The true penitent finds continual occasion to mourn the great imperfections of his heart and life. He watches and strives against all the corruptions of his heart and works after increasing conformity to God’s character. He does not renounce just one lust and keep another. His repentance produces heavenly-mindedness, humility, meekness, charity, patience, forgiveness, and self-denial, and it is accompanied by all the other graces and fruits of the Holy Spirit. And in order to be satisfied that his repentance is true, he examines the motives that cause him to turn from sin to God because he knows that the motives that are no higher than himself and his own safety can never show him to be a true penitent.
False repentance is only an external reformation without any spiritual grace. True repentance is an internal change of the will, affections, and outward conduct; and is accompanied by all the graces and fruits of the Spirit. False repentance aims at so much religion only as will keep the mind easy, and calm the raging of an awakened conscience; the other aims at a holy, humble, and spiritual walk with God and does not rest short of being made perfectly like Christ.
8. Counterfeit repentance is only temporary and it wears off with those pangs of conscience which began it in the first place; but true repentance is the continued exercise of the sincere believer.
We have frequent instances of people who for a while appear under the bitterest remorse for their sins, and yet afterwards wear away their sense of remorse, and return to the same course of impiety and sensuality which occasioned their distress and terror. And others quiet their consciences and speak peace to their souls by quitting their gross sins and beginning to do their religious duties. They have repented, they think, and therefore conclude that they are at peace with God; and they seem to have no great concern about either their former impieties or their present iniquities. They conclude that they are converted, and that their state is good that therefore they are secure and dwell at ease. They are elated with joy about the safety of their state and of the goodness of their heart; but they have no humbling impressions of their sins, and no godly sorrow, either for the depravity of their natures, or the imperfection of their good works or the multitude of the ways they provoke God. And even though they may be careful at first to watch over their souls, they eventually wear our their conviction of sin and grow cold in their faith and practice.
On the other hand, true repentance is a lasting principle. The true penitent loathes and condemns himself daily. Every day, he hates all the evils he discovers both in his heart and in his life. He does not forget his former sins or become unconcerned about them as soon as he attains peace of conscience. Instead, the more sure he is of Divine favor, the more he loathes and condemns himself for his former sins, the more vile in his own sight he becomes, and the more odious his past sins become. And, he always finds new reasons to exercise repentance. He carries the exercise of repentance about with him as long as he carries about the body of sin.
The difference between false and true repentance is as great as the difference between water that runs in the paths after a storm and the streams that flow continually from a living fountain.
The true penitent is humbled from a distressing sight of the malignancy, odiousness, and demerit of sin and therefore lies low in the dust before God. The false penitent does not have a true sense of the sinfulness of sin, and so under all of his pretended humiliation, the pride of his heart retains its complete domination over him.