EVERYTHING! Repentance is the start of our relationship with Christ (Acts 11:18). It is the bridge to an eternal relationship with him because Christ died to pay for the very sins we are turning away from as we turn to him…
Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sin should be proclaimed in his name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem (Luke 24:46-47).
This is the demand of every soul: repent. Not only do we repent when we receive Christ but we continue to live in repentance for the rest of our life (Colossians 2:6; 1 John 1:8-10). Repentance is the proper response of worship we daily give as we grow in our hatred of all that offends our Savior who died to set us free from sin.
Repentance is so much more than ‘being sorry’ for a sin
The Christian life is expected and assumed to be a life of repentance. It starts with repentance but doesn't and must not end there. Repentance must continue day by day in the life of a true believer. It is not only commanded by God, but it is a necessary daily discipline; a necessary daily act of worship; a critical part of the Christian’s daily walk.
As Christians, sometimes we express negative feelings about our sins and assume it is repentance when in reality it is often simply regret. How can we tell the difference between repentance and regret? God’s Word helps us to see this difference: the story of Esau, the confession of King Saul, the outward actions of Israel, and the felt remorse and sorrow of Judas are a few examples that point out the difference between repentance and regret.
First, we see that repentance is more than a feeling. Esau, regretted losing the inheritance due him as the firstborn of Jacob. When driven by hunger he exchanged his blessing for some bread and stew (Genesis 25:34). Esau was filled with regret and wept over his poor decision but there was no brokenness before God, only regret (Hebrews 12:16,17).
Second, words alone don’t make someone genuinely repentant. King Saul’s language seems good on the surface but the full story shows that he was merely using words that sound like repentance. Saul states he had sinned twice but he was not repentant: Saul said to Samuel, “I have sinned for I have transgressed the commandment of the LORD and your words, because I feared the people and obeyed their voice…” Then he said, “I have sinned; yet honor me now before the elders of my people and before Israel, and return with me that I may bow before the LORD your God (1 Samuel 15:24–30).
Third, outward motions can easily look like repentance. We see this in Judas and in the nation of Israel. In Joel 2:12,13, the LORD declares, “Yet even now, return to me with all your heart with fasting, with weeping and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.”
Judas committed the most horrific betrayal in the history of mankind and clearly felt remorse for “betraying innocent blood.” His remorse even led him to “throw the betrayal money back in the faces” of the chief priests and elders (Matthew 27:3–5), however, unlike the clear repentance and return to God seen in Peter’s betrayal the same night, Judas’ actions proved an unbelieving and unrepentant heart. The difference was clearly evident by the choices made and the final outcome of both Peter and Judas (Matthew 26:75).
What is biblical repentance?
Repentance is evidenced both inwardly and outwardly. It is an inward conviction that results in a change of heart, mind and action. The Old and New Testaments clearly show the idea of sorrow and grief (Genesis 37:35; Matthew 5:4) and changing of the mind resulting in turning FROM sin TO God (1 Kings 8:35; Acts 14:15).
Therefore, repentance is a response of the total person (2 Chronicles 6:36–40); an outward change, not merely an inward feeling; an inward response, not merely an external activity (Psalm 51:16; Luke 3:8).
John MacArthur’s Bible Doctrine explains repentance as:
Intellectual - beginning in the mind and the acknowledging of sin and its true offense to a holy God and my guilt
Emotional - there will be a resulting sorrow or grief or mourning over sin (Psalm 51:16; Matthew 5:4). 2 Corinthians 7:10 tells us that godly sorrow produces repentance.
Producing Change (Luke 3:8) - Far from being only a change of mind, repentance constitutes a determination to abandon stubborn disobedience and surrender the will to Christ.
Thus, repentance is not merely a turning from sin but also a turning to God. Repentant individuals are said to seek the Lord (Isaiah 9:13) and his favor (Daniel 9:13), to tremble at his goodness and be enticed to be reconciled to him (Hosea 3:5) (Bible Doctrine, p. 591).
Painting a picture of a “repenter”
You have been sinned against. The person has repented. But how do you know if they mean it? It’s important to understand what repentance looks like:
Endures patiently: The person is patient with those they have sinned against as they work through their hurt and pain not pressuring them or “guilting” them into forgiveness.
Seeks counsel: They will seek counsel, guidance, accountability AND they will submit to it.
Specific and transparent confession: They will deal with the wrongs they’ve done not in vague terms but in VERY specific terms by labeling sin, coming “clean” rather than having the full truth pulled out, acknowledging the pain and hurt they caused, identifying specific ways they will change, and asking for forgiveness. (Saying “I’m sorry” is not repentance.) (Psalm 51:16, 17).
Honesty: The repentant person will not excuse or justify the sin and will take full responsibility for their sin without minimizing it (Psalm 51:16; 2 Corinthians 7:10).
Willingness and eagerness: The person will do whatever it takes to make things right and to demonstrate they are changing. This means a willingness to make financial sacrifices, inconvenience their schedules, confess embarrassing things, end relationships, etc.
Change: Specific fruit will be manifested in their life and it will be evident and identifiable: “She is a different woman.” “He is a changed man.” In true repentance a person’s life is no longer controlled by their sin but by a longing to obey God (Acts 26:20).
Openness: Moving forward there will be openness and transparency about the details of their life. No hiding, no vagueness, no secretiveness.
Effort: There will be a striving for holiness (Hebrews 12:14). It is a death. Self dies and God reigns. Repentance has a zeal to do what is right and a longing to see God honored.
Submission and Faith: Turning away from sin (from self-seeking and self-trusting) to Christ in faith (Matthew 3:8).
Repentance is not a dirty word. It is not a bad thing. It is a gift of the Holy Spirit working in you, an act of worship and a genuine acknowledging of God’s worthiness to have our total submission.
So, like Paul, may you be challenged to humbly repent more consistently:
...I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting. For you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no loss through us. For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death. For see what earnestness this godly grief has produced in you, but also what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what longing, what zeal, what punishment! At every point you have proved yourselves innocent in the matter (2 Corinthians 7:9-11).
About the author
Karen McMahon is passionate about helping others apply biblical truth to every situation in life. She is the Director of Discipleship Counseling at First Evangelical Free Church in Maplewood, Minnesota and a certified biblical counselor with the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC). She has a MA in Theology from the University of Northwestern – St. Paul and a MA in Biblical Counseling from Faith Bible Seminary-Lafayette, Indiana.