Repentance is Not Behavior Change

You may or may not relate to the following hypothetical scenario: You are a believer and ascribe to the idea that repentance equals behavior change. You have a biblical understanding of what sin is, so repentance in your mind means “stop doing it,” whatever sin it is. Because genuine repentance is linked to behavior, you feel confident and comfortable if you have a “good” week. But if you have a “bad” week, you get upset because you didn’t perform well. Subsequently, you tell yourself, “I’ll try better next time,” and make a newfound resolve. At some point, you end up committing the same sin over again. Now you are ever more frustrated by your own failures and begin to see a hypocrite in the mirror. You begin to wonder if you are really saved because “a real Christian certainly would not behave like this.” The end result is a life that is crushed by a weight of guilt and shame and is filled with hopelessness, misery, and despair.

Does any of this sound familiar? If it does, then the Word of God has some good news for you: repentance is not behavior change. Repentance is not the ability to stop doing something, and you can’t “measure” repentance based on behavior. In fact, if repentance means “stop sinning,” then no one has ever repented. What the Bible teaches us is that Christians don’t measure repentance based on performance; they define and live it based on God’s truth. We are needy beggars who rely on Christ alone. Hence, the purpose of repentance is not you; it’s God.

What Repentance is

That brief introduction explains what repentance is not, so let us go to the Scriptures in order to properly define what repentance is. In Jesus’s first words in the Gospel of Mark, the Lord says in 1:15:

The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent[1] and believe in the gospel.

Here, the verb translated repent comes from the Greek μετανοέω (meta-noy-oh), which simply means to change one’s mind (not “to change one’s behavior”). Metanoeō is composed of three Greek words that mean “after,” “to perceive” and “the mind.” Literally, then, μετανοέω means “afterwards to perceive in the mind.” In other words, when a person is exposed to God’s truth, they subsequently perceive that they are wrong and God is right. Hence, they change their mind for the better, away from sin. Repentance is often defined as a turning away from sin because this turning is preceded by a change of mind. After all, the reason why anyone turns and changes direction is because they realize the direction they are going is a bad choice.

In his book Systematic Theology, Louis Berkhof defined repentance as “the change wrought in the conscious life of the sinner, by which he turns away from sin.” He proceeded to distinguish three elements in repentance: an intellectual element, an emotional element, and a volitional element. The intellectual element gains a knowledge of sin and recognizes it as involving personal guilt, defilement, and helplessness. And where does a knowledge of sin come from? It begins with the Law (c.f. Romans 1:32 and 3:20). A knowledge of sin says, “Yes, I am a sinner, and, because I am personally responsible for my sins, God’s judgment against me is just.” If the intellectual element of repentance is not accompanied by the following two elements, there can be no real repentance: all that exists is a fear of punishment.

The emotional element of repentance involves a change of heart manifested as sorrow over sin committed against a holy and just God (Psalm 51:2, 10, 14). Godly sorrow grieves over the fact that a person offended God and did that which He hates. Godly sorrow is not the sorrow of the world, which is characterized by remorse and despair (II Corinthians 7:9-10; Matthew 27:3; Luke 18:23). Worldly sorrow “feels sorry” about what may happen to me or the adverse consequences of my actions.

The volitional element of repentance persuades the will; it involves a change of purpose and an inward turn away from sin. It also involves a disposition to seek pardon and cleansing (Psalm 51:5, 7, 10; Jeremiah 25:5). The volitional element includes the other two elements and is thus the most important part. Generally speaking, in the New Testament, use of the word metanoia (c.f. Acts 2:38; Romans 2:4) refers to the volitional element of repentance. Hence, when the text speaks about repentance, it’s speaking about a change of mind that has an effectual change on the will.

Repentance is a Fruit of Faith

Louis Berkhoff wrote that biblical repentance is:

[A] wholly inward act and should not be confused with the change of life that proceeds from it. Confession of sin and reparation of wrongs are fruits of repentance. Repentance is only a negative condition, and not a positive means of salvation …[T]rue repentance never exists except in conjunction with faith, while, on the other hand, wherever there is true faith, there is also real repentance. The two are but different aspects of the same turning: a turning away from sin in the direction of God.

What Berkhoff explained here is that true faith and repentance cannot be separated, but they are in fact distinct. As Jesus says in Mark 1:15, “Repent and believe in the gospel.” The and tells us that, while repentance and faith are linked, they are not one in the same. It is also important to recognize that repentance is a fruit of faith. Faith is the chief grace, because a man is justified by faith. No one is justified by love, good works, or repentance. Faith is the seed in the ground, and that seed begets fruit. Hence, in the same way you cannot have fruit without roots, you cannot have repentance without faith. Conversely, any seed that is alive will grow and bear fruit, so all living faith begets living repentance.

Because repentance “is only a negative condition, and not a positive means of salvation,” it is crucial to understand that no person ever repents so that they will be okay with God. Rather, by faith, all believers are already justified and reconciled to God through Christ. Because they have faith, they then repent and turn away from sin.

Biblical Repentance is Focused on Christ; Fake Repentance is Focused on me

As with anything else in the Christian life, the focus is never on me; it is on Christ. To think that repentance is focused on what I’m doing takes the emphasis away from the Crucified Savior and instead places the spotlight on the sinful creature. The problem with this paradigm is that, whenever a person looks inward to who they are and what they have done, there is never any good news or hope that things are better today. What they will find is darkness, death, despair, rebellion, misery, and ugliness. But when a person looks to Christ, they will find light, life, hope, salvation, joy, and magnificent beauty. The result of a continual focus on God is a mortification of self and vivification to the Lord. Thus, the more we look to Christ, the more we are transformed into His image. So will a person who has genuine faith be transformed? Of course they will! But that transformation is never a personal makeover or tweaking of externalities based on self-help or being the best “me” one can be. It is a deep-rooted transformation that begins with God as a function of what Christ has done. The application of His work by the Holy Spirit thus transforms the person from the inside out.

Again, biblical repentance is a change of mind, and the resultant turning is focused on Christ. Here then is the question: What is the distraction that is turning you away from Christ? Whatever the distraction is, that is the idol that you must turn away from in your heart. For many, that idol may be your own performance. At the end of the day, if you evaluate your salvation, your standing with God, or your worth based on you, then you are in fact denying the gospel. The only way you can logically establish your standing with God based on what you do is if you are your own savior. Accordingly, repentance also means repenting of your phony doctrine of self-directed repentance! Have you found failure and disappointment in all other things entertained to plead your cause? Some trust their tears, prayers, and zealous resolutions as their advocates, but have you tried these and found them wanting? Beloved, only Christ saves.

Now let’s pause here briefly and consider something. If repentance were defined merely by behavior change, why would you need God, Christ, the Cross, or a Bible to repent? Rehab can get you to stop doing drugs, fear of punishment can get you to stop stealing, and shame and guilt can nudge you to get in line. So if you can change what you are doing without God, what is the ultimate value of that behavior change if you now have reason to boast?

Scripture Interprets Scripture

One way to test the biblical truth that repentance is a change of mind (and not behavior change) is to apply the definition of the word μετανοέω (repent) to all the verses in the New Testament where the term is used and then ask a discerning question: Does it make logical sense that the text is saying, “Stop doing,” or, “Change your mind”?

For example, let’s take Mark 1:15:

The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.

One interpretation of this could be “Stop doing what you’re doing and have faith in God.” Well, the problem with that is how can a person stop doing what they’re doing without the power of God? How can they change their behavior without a change of mind first, and what could change a person’s heart other than the power of God? And, if a person did stop what they were doing and were therefore morally reformed, why then would they need the gospel?

In context, the most logical interpretation of Mark 1:15 is that Jesus began his ministry immediately after John the Baptizer is taken into jail, which marked the end of his public ministry. John, of course, was the last Old Testament prophet. It is then that Jesus says, “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” In other words, the Lord says, “Change your mind about what you were trusting in before, such as the Law and prophets. All of that pointed to Me. So now that I am here, believe in Me.”

Let’s take Luke 13:1-5. There, there were some who reported to Jesus about Galileans that Pilate killed in the act of worship. Jesus then asks in verse two, “Do you suppose that these Galileans were greater sinners than all other Galileans because they suffered this fate?” The word for suppose is δοκέω, which also means to think or believe. So what’s the next thing Jesus says? He corrects their improper thinking. In verse five He says, “I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” In essence, Jesus says, “Don’t be of the wrong thinking and suppose that those Galileans were worse sinners because they suffered. Instead, change your mind and understand that all are sinners, and unless you repent of the wrong idea, you too will perish.” The Lord goes on to express the same principle in verses 4 and 5 of Luke 13.

The last verse we will look at comes from Revelation 9:20-21, where the text uses the word repent twice in two verses. Here, after the blowing of the sixth trumpet, plagues were unleashed on a portion of mankind. Many died. However, for those who remained, did they have any change of mind that what everyone was doing was wrong? Did they connect the dots that the wrath of God is revealed against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness? They did not. Instead, they continued. The text says:

The rest of mankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands, so as not to worship demons, and the idols of gold and of silver and of brass and of stone and of wood, which can neither see nor hear nor walk; and they did not repent of their murders nor of their sorceries nor of their immorality nor of their thefts.

The reprobate did not change their mind at all. Why was that? Because they did not think they were doing anything wrong. This is how an unregenerate mind thinks. It loves evil, hates good, and exalts all those who champion darkness and suppress the light. And how do we know how an unregenerate mind thinks? Paul said at the end of Romans 1:28-31:

And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer, God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper, being filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, evil; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice; they are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, without understanding, untrustworthy, unloving, unmerciful; and although they know the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do the same, but also give hearty approval to those who practice them.

Beloved, a depraved mind believes that up is down and right is wrong. A depraved mind hates God and thus loves what He hates. A depraved mind not only yearns to do evil but also approves others who do the same. A depraved mind does not want to repent because it tells itself, “I am okay and God is the one in error.” A depraved mind supposes that it has no need for a Savior because it will stand in the Day of Judgment. You see behavior is merely the symptom; a fallen mind is the disease. Repentance therefore takes place at the core of the problem, in the mind.

Some Roots of Non-Biblical Repentance

As with any other perversion of biblical truth, the root originates in the father of lies, the devil himself. He is the rebel orchestrating the one grand conspiracy: the plot against the kingdom of God. Hence, Lucifer has deluded many in modernity through a spirit of pragmatism and self-help: that is, what I can do to fix me right now. Non-biblical repentance ultimately looks inward and relies on willpower. The ultimate conclusion is “Hey, everybody! Look at what I can do. Hear my marvelous testimony about how I saved myself.”

This places emphasis on how and away from why and who. How compels me to ask, “How can I make this right?” How yearns for rules and strategies that I can perform in order to self-mold a more moral, spiritual, and virtuous person. In contrast, why and who compel me to ask, “Why and for whom am I doing this?” The answer invariably is “For the glory of God.” Subsequently, biblical repentance ultimately looks outward and relies on the Lord. The ultimate conclusion is “Praise be to God, for it is by His loving, gracious, and omnipotent hand that He first reconciled me to Himself and then continues to progressively transform me into the image of His Son.”

You see, Satan could care less if you perform spiritually as long as you do it without Christ and the focus is on the self. Non-biblical repentance essentially equates to the modern term “personal transformation,” which is a self-directed process: my own happiness, goals, and dreams are the end. The formula is simple: I work, I get. Yet it is exclusively the devil whose business it is to keep people on this treadmill and to ignore the finished work of Christ.

Satan has a solid ally in Roman Catholic doctrine. Specifically, I am talking about the doctrine of penance. Yes, the Reformation may have happened more than 500 years ago, but the perverse doctrine of penance still infects modern Protestant Christianity. Just as we began out discussion with definitions, let us turn to how Roman Catholicism defines repentance. In the Latin Vulgate (which was the standard Roman Catholic Bible translation for centuries), the Greek word metanoitae was not translated “repent” or “change your mind.” Instead, it was translated into the Latin word, pent-tentiam agite, which means “do penance.” Penance simply refers to punishment endured for sin or following the prescribed formula to achieve forgiveness for sins. Penance ignores what Christ has done and instead asks, “What can I do to make good for the sin I have committed?” Do penance does not require a change of mind; it only requires attrition, or the mental conviction that sin deserves punishment. There need not be a godly sorrow for sin, nor a conviction of will to turn from sin, nor a trust of Christ. This helps to explain confession, which is admission of sin to a Roman Catholic priest who judicially absolves a person through satisfaction. The central thought is that outward performance really constitutes satisfaction for sin. What’s totally missing from this formula is Christ and His once-and-for-all totally sufficient sacrifice for all the sins of His elect. Unfortunately, the legacy of penance is evident in modern Christendom. For example, some judge how sincere a person’s repentance is by how many tears they shed, by how many hours a week they spend in church, or by if they respond to an altar call to come forward if they are “serious about getting their life back in order.”

The devil knows that if he presented sin in its true nature and dress, the soul would run rather than yield. He therefore paints abominations over with virtue so that we will be more easily overcome and take pleasure in committing sin. Sin is just as ugly when it is dressed as an angel of light. Hence, what better way to ignore the finished, totally sufficient work of Christ than to deceive you into thinking that a sinner, by turning toward themselves, can do penance? Self-directed repentance is linked to perfectionism, and both are dressed up as virtue when, in fact, it is a blatant denial of the gospel.

What About Repentance and Habitual sin?

Some Christians would say that a sin does not disqualify you from being a Christian. Some would also say that habitual sin does disqualify you from being a Christian. Here then is my question: cognizant that God is holy, and even deviation from His Law in thought is sin (c.f. Matthew 5:28), what constitutes a habit of sin? With an open Bible in hand, it is evident that all human beings are sinners by nature and sin daily as a function of who we are. Does that not make all human begins habitual sinners? If repentance actually meant “never sinning again,” then does that not mean that no one has ever genuinely repented? Was it one sin or habitual sin that caused the Fall of all humankind in Adam? When it comes to habitual sin, I would also ask you to consider Romans 7. There, the apostle Paul explained in explicit detail the conflict of two natures and that the Christian life is a struggle. In the following verses (Romans 7:15-25), take note of how many times Paul wrote, “I am,” (present tense) as opposed to “I was” (past tense). He said:

For we know that the Law is spiritual, but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin. For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate. But if I do the very thing I do not want to do, I agree with the Law, confessing that the Law is good. So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not. For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want. But if I am doing the very thing I do not want, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me.

I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good. For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin.

It is evident from these words that Paul’s sin grieves him because he’s a sinner who keeps on sinning. That is what’s so senseless about sin: on the one hand, the power of sin is broken through Christ, yet Paul still does as if the power of sin isn’t broken. But what is Paul’s conclusion? How does this section end? He takes his focus away from Himself and places it on Jesus: that’s because Paul and his sin were not the point. Christ is the One Paul trusts and in whom he has hope. Paul wrote, “Wretched man that I am!” and then immediately after said, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Why does Paul say such things? Because it’s not about Paul. It is about Christ and His life, death, and Resurrection. Beloved, with anything in your Christian life, if you don’t start with Christ’s death being sufficient and the imputation of His righteousness, then you don’t have the gospel. This is crucially important to understand, because it’s not pagans who suffer from having a false doctrine of repentance; it’s genuine Christians. They will live as if they must carry the weight of their own sin when Christ has already set them free.

The Pursuit of Holiness & Love of God

Let no one be mistaken: the will of God is your sanctification (I Thessalonians 4:3). Meaning what? That it is not God’s will for any of his children to be enslaved by sin or to yield to sin so that grace may abound. God’s will is to make all of His own like Himself: more holy. This simply means in a world in which I am small and God is big, a person is progressively transformed to be more like Christ and less like themselves. And what is the result of that? A progressive love of righteousness, hatred of sin, and a faith that is evident in who a person is and what they do. By the instrument of faith, God always livens that which is of the Spirit and puts to death that which is of the flesh. This simply means that the very thing a person may be looking to do (change behavior) will not come about by focusing on changing behavior. Change is a secondary consequence of trusting God. If you truly believe that the Bible is the Word of God, then you can believe all of God’s promises regarding the reality that He will work in and on His elect to finish the work that He started (Philippians 1:6).

While faith is the king of all graces, love is the queen. The nature of love is delighting in its object, and if our love of God is sincere, we must not divide it between God and sin. We are called to love the Lord with all our might and as much as we are able, although no man can ever love Him as much as He deserves. Love does not exist exclusively in the mind or heart; love has legs. It is an industrious affection with hands working and feet moving. As the Puritan Thomas Watson once wrote in The Ten Commandments:

He who loves God is unable to find contentment in anything without Him. Give a hypocrite corn and wine, and though He pretends to love God, he is content without Him. He who loves God hates that which separates him from God, and that is sin. You cannot love health without also hating the poison, and you cannot love God without hating sin, which destroys your communion with Him. If we have true love in our hearts for God, we are grieved at the things that grieve Him … Beg of God to give you a heart to love Him. Keep it flaming upon the altar of your heart.

Conclusion

Biblical repentance it not behavior change. It is a change of mind that starts with Christ, is animated by the Holy Spirit, and has the glory of God as its focus.

As said in Romans 5:19:

For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous.

If you are going to build a tower that literally scrapes the heavens, you must first remove the pitiful one that now stands in its place. To do this, you must dig deep, and build anew from the bedrock. Accordingly, to deal with divine principles (a tower of grace), we must first tear down the edifice of works. This edifice of works has been erected by so many with material out of their own minds. You see, the natural man cannot rid himself of the idea that his own goodness can do something for him. He does not understand that God hates human righteousness. As the late Dr. Donald Barnhouse once said, if man had his own way, he would reign king over the dunghill of human works, determined to go down to Sheol boasting of all that he has accomplished in an attempted vindication of his own worth. One of the leading characteristics of the Adamic nature is that man still clings to the filthy rags of human righteousness (Isaiah 64:6). The remnants of those rags are still with us even after we are justified. Yet the Law has no claim on those in Christ. Hence, unless you believe that you died with Christ, that your old man was crucified with Him—that your old history came to an utter end at Calvary—then you will never get free from the claim of the Law on your conscience. The subtle dividing line that manifests in every form of Christianity is some form of legalism: it is the addition symbol that adds payment for sin. The emphasis is always on something that man does for God. Yet what the Bible tells us is that salvation is wrought by what God has done for man through the death and Resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. The heart of the gospel is that there is nothing that man can do for God, for God has done everything for man.

Perhaps the most subtle temptation that can come to all Christians is to give some credit to his own nature and righteousness, to trust in his own nature and to expect something from the source that is himself. To totally divest ourselves of Adam is the work of the Holy Spirit, and He accomplishes this by bringing us to the Cross where we are continually crucified with Christ. Beloved, whatever the matter in your life, never let out of your mind the thoughts of a Crucified Christ. Change your mind by emptying it of your imaginations and filling it with the Word of God.

Dr. C. H. E. Sadaphal

 

 

 

  1. The same verb is used 34 times in the New Testament, including Matthew 3:2, 4:17; Luke 13:3,5; Acts 2:38, 3:19, 8:22, 17:30; II Corinthians 12:21, and Revelation 2:5, 16, 21-22; 3:3, 19; 9:20-21.

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