True Christian repentance involves a heartfelt conviction of sin, a contrition over the offense to God, a turning away from the sinful way of life, and a turning towards a God-honoring way of life.
Genuine repentance is not simply a “rethinking” of one’s relationship to sin and God. Repentance must be first rooted in the realization of how sinful an action, emotion, belief, or way of life is. Then, one must be grieved by how offensive and grieving sin is to God, not simply afraid of God’s retribution for your sin. In other words, repentance must be rooted in a high value on God, not a high value on oneself. Only then can turning away from sin towards holiness truly be called repentance. The failure to repent is thus a form of idolatry. Refusal to repent is to elevate our own souls above God’s glory, but when one does repent, it leads to the forgiveness of sin, the removal of divine discipline, and the restoration of one’s experiential communion with God.
Biblical repentance is an easily misunderstood and misapplied concept that warrants close examination. Several texts clearly indicate that repentance, together with faith, is essential for the forgiveness of sins (Luke 24:47; Acts 2:38; 3:19; 5:31; 11:18). In Acts 3:19 and 26:20, metanoeō (to repent) and epistrephō (to turn back; see Acts 26:18) “are placed side by side as equivalent terms, though in these cases the former may focus on the abandonment of evil and the latter on turning to God” (see the New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology and Exegesis, 3:292). But our primary concern here is with repentance in the life of the born-again believer.
The Meaning of the Term
The principal mistake of many is basing their understanding of repentance on the root form of the Greek word. The Greek verb metanoeō (to repent) is built on the preposition meta (“with, after”) and the verb noeō (“to understand, to think”). The conclusion some then draw is that the only sense in which a Christian is required to repent is to change one’s mind or to rethink sin and one’s relationship with God. But the meaning of words is not determined in this way, but rather on usage and context. A change of mind or perspective is of no value if it isn’t accompanied by a change of direction, a change of life and action.
Genuine repentance begins, but by no means ends, with heartfelt conviction of sin. It begins with an unequivocal, heart-rending recognition of having defied God by embracing what he despises and hating, or at minimum, being indifferent towards, what he adores. Repentance, therefore, involves knowing in one’s heart: “This is wrong. I have sinned. God is grieved.” The antithesis of recognition is rationalization, the selfish attempt to justify one’s moral laxity by any number of appeals: “I’m a victim. If you knew what I’ve been through and how badly people have treated me, you’d grant me a little slack.”
True repentance, notes J. I. Packer, “only begins when one passes out of what the Bible sees as self-deception (cf. Jas. 1:22, 26; 1 John 1:8) and modern counselors call denial, into what the Bible calls conviction of sin (cf. John 16:8)” (see J.I. Packer, Rediscovering Holiness, 123–24). To truly repent one must also confess the sin openly and honestly to the Lord. We see this in Psalm 32 where David describes his experience following his adultery with Bathsheba. When he finally responded to the conviction in his heart it resulted in confession with his mouth:
Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit … I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,’ and you forgave the iniquity of my sin” (Ps. 32:1–2, 5).
David uses three different words to describe his confession (32:5). He “acknowledged” his sin; he refused to “cover” his iniquity; and he was determined to “confess” his transgressions. Nothing is held back. There is no cutting of corners or moral compromise. He comes totally clean. David makes no excuses, offers no rationalizations, and refuses to shift blame (see Sam Storms, More Precious Than Gold: 50 Daily Meditations on the Psalms, 92–96.)
When one truly repents there is an awareness that the sin committed, whatever its nature, was ultimately against God alone. In Psalm 51:4 David declared, “Against you [God], you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.” Although David took advantage of Bathsheba sexually, conspired to kill her husband Uriah, disgraced his own family, and betrayed the trust of the nation Israel, he saw his sin as preeminently against God alone. Says Perowne, “face to face with God, he sees nothing else, no one else, can think of nothing else, but His presence forgotten, His holiness outraged, His love scorned” (see J.J. Stewart Perowne, The Book of Psalms, 416). David is so broken that he has treated God with such disregard that he is blinded to all other aspects or objects of his behavior.
Although repentance is more than psychological catharsis, there is in it a true feeling or sense of remorse. If one is not genuinely offended by one’s sin, there is no repentance. Repentance is painful, but it is a sweet pain. It demands brokenness of heart (Ps. 51:17; Isa. 57:15) but always with a view to healing and restoration and a renewed vision of the beauty of Christ and forgiving grace.
Thus, repentance is more than a feeling. Emotion can be fleeting, whereas true repentance bears fruit. This points to the difference between “attrition” and “contrition.” Attrition is regret for sin prompted by a fear for oneself: “Oh, no. I got caught. What will happen to me?” Contrition, on the other hand, is regret for the offence against God’s love and pain for having grieved the Holy Spirit. In other words, it is possible to “repent” out of fear of reprisal, rather than from a hatred of sin.
Biblical repentance must also be distinguished from worldly or fleshly repentance. Nowhere is this difference more readily seen than in Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 7:8–12. Paul had written his “severe” letter to the Corinthians. It was “out of much affliction and anguish of heart and with many tears” that he penned this obviously painful missive (2 Cor. 2:4). He evidently spoke forcefully and unequivocally about the nature of their sin and the need for repentance. In doing so, he ran the risk of alienating them and ending all hope for future fellowship. Whereas he initially regretted having to write it, he later rejoiced,
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. So although I wrote to you, it was not for the sake of the one who did the wrong, nor for the sake of the one who suffered the wrong, but in order that your earnestness for us might be revealed to you in the sight of God (2 Cor. 7:8–12).
The letter stirred in them a grief or sorrow for sin that was “godly,” or more literally, “according to God” (7:9, 10, 11), by which he means that it was agreeable to the mind of God or that it was a sorrow prompted by the conviction that their sin had offended God, and not simply Paul. This he contrasts with “worldly grief” (7:10) that is evoked not because one has transgressed a glorious and holy God but simply because one got caught. Worldly grief is essentially self-pity for having been exposed and having lost stature, favor, or respect in the eyes of men. Godly grief occurs when one considers that the sin in question has dishonored God.
If the Corinthians had formerly been apathetic and lackluster in their response to the apostle, now they are earnest (7:11a) in their zeal to do what was right. If before they had denied their duplicity, this time they were eager “to clear” themselves (7:11b), not wanting their failures to reflect poorly on Christ and the gospel. Paul’s letter, through the Spirit, had set ablaze an “indignation” (7:11c) toward themselves for not defending Paul and for having permitted the situation to get so out of hand (and perhaps also against the wrongdoer for the way his actions constituted a brazen defiance of Paul’s authority). All told, it was initially an unpleasant experience for everyone concerned. But in the end, it yielded the harvest of repentance, restoration, and joy (see Sam Storms, A Sincere and Pure Devotion to Christ: 100 Daily Meditations on 2 Corinthians, 24–28).
In true repentance there must be repudiation of all sins in question and active practical steps taken to avoid anything that might provoke stumbling (cf. Acts 19:18–19). There must be a deliberate resolve to turn around and walk away from all hint or scent of sin (see Ps. 139:23; Rom. 13:14). If, in our so-called “repentance,” we do not abandon the environment in which our sin first emerged and in which, in all likelihood, it will continue to flourish, our repentance is suspect. There must be heart-felt reformation, which is to say, an overt determination to pursue purity, to do what pleases God (1 Thess. 1:9).
Why We Don’t Repent
There are any number of reasons why people find it difficult to repent. For example, Satan and the world system have led us to believe the lie that our value or worth as human beings is dependent on something other than what Christ has done for us and who we are in Christ by faith alone. If a person believes that other people hold the power to determine one’s value or worth, we will always be reluctant to reveal anything about our inner life that may cause their estimation of us to diminish.
Thus the failure to repent is a form of idolatry. Refusal to repent is to elevate our own souls above God’s glory. It is to place a higher value on the perceived comfort of secrecy than the glory and honor of God. It is to say, “My safety and standing in the community is of greater value than God’s name and fame. I don’t repent because I cherish my own image more than God’s.”
In sum, people don’t repent because they are preeminently committed to saving face. They fear exposure because they fear rejection, mockery, and exclusion. And these are fearful realities only to those who do not yet sufficiently grasp that they are accepted, cherished, valued, and included by Christ.
Why We Should Repent
One’s sincere pursuit and faithful embrace of repentance leads to the greatest blessing of all: forgiveness! Blessed is the man whose transgressions are “forgiven” (Ps. 32:1). David’s sin is like an oppressive weight from which he longs to be relieved. Forgiveness lifts the burden from his shoulders. Blessed is he whose sin is “covered” (32:1). It’s as if David says, “Oh, dear Father, what joy to know that if I will ‘uncover’ (32:5) my sin and not hide it, you will!” David doesn’t mean to suggest that his sin is merely concealed from view but somehow still present to condemn and defeat him. The point is that God sees it no more. He has covered it from all view. Finally, blessed is that man or woman, young or old, whose sin the Lord does not “impute” or “count” against them (32:2). No record is kept. God isn’t a spiritual scorekeeper to those who seek his pardoning favor.
Our reluctance to repent can often result in divine discipline. As David reflected on his sin and the season during which he kept silent, he portrays the impact of his transgression in physical terms:
For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer (Ps. 32:3).
The problem wasn’t merely the sin he committed but the fact that he failed to repent. He kept quiet about his sin. He suppressed it. He shoved it deep down inside, thinking it gone for good. He ignored the tug on his heart. He denied the pain in his conscience. He numbed his soul to the persistent pangs of conviction.
Is David merely using physical symptoms to describe his spiritual anguish? Whereas that is possible, I suspect that David was feeling the brunt of his sin in his body as well. What we see here is a law of life in God’s world. If you bottle up sin in your soul, it will eventually leak out like acid and eat away at your bones. Unconfessed, unrepentant sin is like a festering sore. You can ignore it for a while, but not forever.
The physical effects of his spiritual choices are agonizingly explicit. There was dissipation: “my bones wasted away” (cf. Ps. 6:2). There was distress: “my groaning all day long.” And David was drained: “my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.” Like a plant withering under the torrid desert sun, so too was David dried up and drained out from suppressing his sin. In other words, he was quite literally sick because of his refusal to “come clean” with God. His body ached because his soul was in rebellion. Spiritual decisions often have physical consequences. God simply will not let his children sin with impunity. It was in fact God’s hand that lay heavily on David’s heart. To sin without feeling the sting of God’s disciplinary hand is the sign of illegitimacy.
Our experiential communion with Christ is always dependent on our sincere and heartfelt repentance from sin. We are altogether safe and secure in our eternal union with Christ, due wholly and solely to God’s glorious grace. But our capacity to enjoy the fruit of that union, our ability to feel, sense, and rest satisfied in all that is entailed by that saving union is greatly affected, either for good or ill, by our repentant response when the Holy Spirit awakens us to the ways that we have failed to honor and obey God’s revealed will in Scripture.
Our Lord’s Call to Repentance
On several occasions Jesus calls upon the seven churches in Asia Minor to repent. To the church in Pergamum Jesus declared: “Therefore repent” (Rev. 2:16a). And to the church in Sardis he said: “Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent” (Rev. 3:2). And to the church in Laodicea: “Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent” (Rev. 3:19). Our Lord’s words to the church in Ephesus are especially helpful:
But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent (Rev. 2:4–5).
The repentance to which Jesus calls the church involves ceasing from one kind of behavior and embracing another. Stop abandoning your first love and “do the works you did at first.” That is genuine repentance. To be quick to repent is not to acquiesce to a life dominated by the consciousness of sin. But we must be conscious of our sin precisely so that the forgiving, renewing, refreshing reality of God’s grace can control, energize and empower our daily living.
- J. I. Packer, Rediscovering Holiness
- John MacArthur, “The Call to Repentance,” in The Gospel According to Jesus: What is Authentic Faith?
- Paul Helm, The Beginnings: Word & Spirit in Conversion