There are at least 54 specific references to repentance in the New Testament, in addition to the 16 in the Old Testament. John the Baptist came preaching repentance, and offered a baptism that symbolized repentance. (Mark 1:4; Acts 13:24) Jesus also came preaching repentance (Mark 1:15), and repentance was the theme of the preaching in the early Church (Acts 2:38; 5:31). It would stand to reason then, that repentance should be a regular practice in the life of every Christian. And yet, it seems that repentance is seldom preached in the Church any more, and that many Christians have only a vague idea what repentance is all about.
What Repentance Isn’t
First, let me tell you what repentance is not. It is not just feeling sorry for your sin. That is certainly part of it, but it is so much more than that. The Bible talks about the importance of having a contrite heart (Psalm 51:17; Isaiah 57:15), but repentance is more than feeling sorrow. Paul describes the difference between worldly sorrow and godly sorrow. (2 Corinthians 7:10) Worldly sorrow is selfish and self-centered. Worldly sorrow is sorrow that you got caught, sorrow that your sin has cost you something, sorrow that you have to pay the consequences. Worldly sorrow, Paul said, leads only to death. Godly sorrow, on the other hand, is not selfish at all. It is sorrow that your sin has offended God. It is sorrow that your sin has hurt others. It is sorrow that causes you to hate the sin itself, and to desire with all your heart to turn from it and be cleansed of it. Godly sorrow, Paul said, produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation.
What Repentance Is
Now, let’s define what repentance is. Repentance is a gift from God that changes your heart, allowing you to turn from your sin and turn back to God. That repentance is a gift from God is evident from Acts 5:31, when Peter said, “God exalted [Jesus] at His right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. The word used here means “to give” and “to give freely as a gift.” We are also told in Acts 11:18, "When they heard these things they … glorified God, saying, 'Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.'” So twice in the book of Acts we are told that repentance is a gift given by God.
The immediate implication of this is clear. If repentance is a gift given by God, then it is something we can ask for. God is not stingy, and wants us to have all the gifts that He has for us. Surely repentance is a gift He wants us to have. We can be encouraged to pray and ask God to “grant [us] repentance that leads to life.”
Next, let’s look at the word itself. There are two words in the Bible that are translated as repentance, the Hebrew word from the Old Testament and the Greek word from the New. The Hebrew word is shuv (pronounced shoove), and it means to turn, to turn around, and to return. It is a great picture: Your life is headed in a certain direction (away from God); you stop, turn around, and head back in the opposite direction (towards God). So the action-oriented Hebrew saw repentance as a complete reversal of life.
The Greek word for repentance is metanoia, and literally means “to change the mind.” This is a picture of a person who thinks one way, and so lives according to that way of thinking; then he changes his mind, with the direct result that his whole life changes as well. Repentance is more than a slight shift in attitude. It is radical life change.
Jesus gave us a picture of repentance in His parable of the prodigal son. The younger son had a selfish and sinful attitude toward his father, his family and his future. He left his father and went off to waste his inheritance in riotous living. Then, when hard times came, he ended up, as all sinners do, isolated, impoverished and unsatisfied. Jesus tells us that at last the young man “came to himself.” He had a change of heart. He realized the sad state of his life, that he had sinned against God and his father. So he resolved to return home to his father. And then he actually did it. He returned, confessing his sin, humbled, and willing to serve.
What Repentance Looks Like
It should be clear by now that repentance issues in radical life change. There is always a difference that you and others can see. John the Baptist was heard to demand, “bear fruit in keeping with repentance!” (Matthew 3:8) He was saying, “Demonstrate by your new behavior that you have truly changed your heart and your life.” The point is that one can pray and ask to be forgiven for their sins, but before long be right back asking for forgiveness for those same sins all over again. There has been no change. There has not been a rejection and a forsaking of the sin; there is no hatred of the sin that causes one to repudiate it. There is no awareness of what that sin does to God, nor of the price Jesus paid for its forgiveness. Neither is there any awareness of what the continuation of that sin is doing to the heart, conscience and life of the sinner, nor the impact of that sin upon others. Real repentance is a thorough work of rooting sin out, and not a shallow, haphazard and half-hearted attempt to gain absolution so that one can simply repeat the same cycle all over again. Repentance bears fruit. It brings a change that can be seen.
How to Repent
There is no clear “formula” for repentance described in Scripture, but we do see pictures of it throughout the Bible. Repentance is clearly demonstrated in David’s life in Psalm 51. We can begin by asking God to give us the gift of repentance. Go before Him in prayer and seek His mind about the nature of your sin. Ask Him to show you the depth of it, and how you sin hurts His heart. (Psalm 51:3) Allow Him to take you to the Cross, and see the price He was willing to pay in the blood of His Son to purchase your forgiveness, so that you no longer take that for granted. Don’t rush through this. Allow the repentance to be deep and thorough.
Realize that all sin is first against Him. You may indeed have sinned against others, but all sin is against the holiness of God. When David was confronted by the prophet concerning his sin, he exclaimed, “I have sinned against the Lord!” (2 Samuel 12:13) and in his hymn of contrition he sang “Against You, You only have I sinned!” (Psalm 51:4) Confess the actual sin(s) to the Lord. Be specific as you name them. The word “confess” means to “say together” and, therefore, “to agree,” so you are agreeing with God that your attitudes and actions are sinful. You are confessing that He is right in His estimation of your sin and that you have been wrong. (Psalm 51:4b) Ask God to fill you with a hatred and a revulsion for the sin you now cherish. (Job 42:5-6) All of this can be done before God in prayer.
Now you have to bear the fruit. You have changed your mind (Psalm 51:6, 10) and now you have to change your behavior. In many ways, real heart change will naturally issue in changed behavior. However, when you are tempted to act in the same sinful ways again - and you will be tempted - you must resist the temptation and forsake the sin. (2 Chronicles 7:14) God has promised that for every temptation, there will always be provided a way of escape. (1 Corinthians 10:13) Real repentance always leads to obedience. Forsake your pride, and in utter humility, surrender to God and to the doing of His will. (James 4:7-10; 1 Peter 5:6) Finally, thank God for His forgiveness, and for the strength not to sin against Him again. (Psalm 51:12)
One final word. Repentance is often seen as part of that act of surrender in faith when a sinner first comes to Christ for salvation – and it is. There can be no forgiveness without confession and repentance from sin. But this is much more than a one-time event. It is an ongoing process that becomes a vital part of every sincere and maturing Christian’s life. Repentance is part of sanctification, of God continually conforming us to the image of His Son. (Romans 8:29) As often as the Holy Spirit convicts us and reveals the presence of any sin in our lives, we are to respond in repentance. Remember, God gave us repentance to lead us to life. (Acts 11:18)
Jim Lewis is a Biblical Counselor at Pure Life Ministries. He received a B.A. in Religion from Palm Beach Atlantic University in West Palm Beach, FL and both the M.Div. and Ph.D. degrees from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY. Dr. Lewis served as a pastor for 30 years.
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