Repentance refers to a spiritual turning away from sin. Repentance means much, much more than saying, “I’m sorry,” and to genuinely repent, you have to understand what the concept really means and have the motivation to change.
In Mark 1:14–15, Jesus proclaims to all those who are present, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” In Luke 13:3, Jesus says, “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” Christ then repeats this statement in Luke 13:5. The repetition is a literary device used to emphasize something important. The Lord was trying to draw our attention by italicizing, underlining, and circling the fact that unrepentance leads to death. Furthermore, in Matthew 3:2, Christ says, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” and then in 3:8, says, “Therefore bear fruit in keeping with repentance.”
In Acts 3:19, the apostle Peter says, “Therefore repent and return, so that your sins may be wiped away, in order that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord.” In fact, Peter also writes in II Peter 3:9 that repentance is so important that in His dispositional will, God wants everyone to come to repentance: “The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.”
Clearly, repentance is a crucial idea, but what does it really mean? Does repentance simply refer to saying, “I’m sorry?” or does it signify something deeper? Can anyone just repent, or do we have to have a relationship with God for it to be effective? What does repentance have to do with faith? Why does repentance seem so hard? Is repentance not really repentance if you go back and do what you repented of in the first place? Is repentance a lifelong process, or is it a one-time event?
This lesson will answer these questions and more.
What is repentance?
In Systematic Theology, Wayne Grudem defined repentance as “a heartfelt sorrow for sin, a renouncing of it, and a sincere commitment to forsake and walk in obedience to Christ.”
Our English word repentance is derived from the Greek word metanoeō, meaning to think differently; to reconsider or to change one’s mind for the better; to feel a moral compulsion or to have a sense of regret or remorse over a prior behavior. Repentance involves a mental awareness that something wrong was done, and that awareness is intimately connected to deep, emotional sorrow.
The entire Book of Lamentations is a perfect example of the expressed sorrow of Jeremiah over the desolation of Jerusalem. Of course, God handed the city and its people over to destruction because of their iniquity. In Lamentations 1:1–3, the prophet writes:
“How lonely sits the city that was full of people! She has become like a widow who was once great among the nations! She who was a princess among the provinces has become a forced laborer! She weeps bitterly in the night and her tears are on her cheeks; she has none to comfort her among all her lovers. All her friends have dealt treacherously with her; they have become her enemies. Judah has gone into exile under affliction and under harsh servitude.”
Jeremiah then qualifies the reason for this sorrow in verse 5: “For the Lord has caused her grief because of the multitude of her transgressions; her little ones have gone away as captives before the adversary.” In other words, Jeremiah feels regret over what is happening but also knows the reason why it’s happening: sin.
The Psalms also include poetry expressed over the heartache caused by violation of God’s commandments. Psalm 51 is the most well known of this type of psalm. King David wrote it after he committed adultery with Bathsheba and Nathan exposed the affair.
It’s important to note that in these examples of David and Jeremiah, both men exhibited an external behavior because of an inward change of heart. So out of their repentant hearts emerged specific actions (confessions of wrongdoing with sorrow and laments). Throughout the Old Testament, there are many examples of people engaging in specific prescribed rituals in order to symbolize inward repentance. Wearing sackcloth and ashes or tearing of one’s garments are two examples of the expression of deep, inward grief.
As far as God is concerned, He wants us to render our hearts, not our garments. This means The Lord is overwhelmingly more concerned with there being a deep, visceral emotional tear in our innermost being, as opposed to just tearing our clothes and engaging in a ritual.
The danger, of course, with focusing on an external behavior is that anyone can perform the ritual without having a sincere motivation behind it. That makes the ritual formless and void. As it says in Joel 2:12–13, “‘Yet even now,’ declares the Lord, ‘Return to Me with all your heart, and with fasting, weeping and mourning; and rend your heart and not your garments. Now return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in lovingkindness and relenting of evil.’” Repentance results from the total conversion of a human being, so you aren’t grieved by one “big sin” or one “small sin” but by all sin. You don’t want to just remove a few things from an unfavorable environment (and have two addresses), but you want to gather all your belongings and go to someplace safe without looking back. Repentance compels you to execute a complete and total return to God.
How repentance works
The first thing to take note of is that repentance is only possible if it is preceded by the regeneration of the Holy Spirit.
There is an entire lesson devoted to this topic in What Christians Should Know Volume I, but in a nutshell, regeneration means being born again by the Holy Spirit and being given a new heart and mind. In this secret act of God, He imparts new spiritual life to us. Regeneration is part of the entire process of salvation that continues Christ’s atoning sacrifice on the cross—that is, Christ has paid the price for our sins, and the Holy Spirit actualizes that work in our lives so that He can put sin to death and raise us up to new life. Our subsequent response to the work of the Holy Spirit regenerating us is repentance.
So where does faith fit into the picture? Basically, repentance and faith are married. Although we may have two labels for them, in the end they are inseparably woven together as one.
It is impossible to have legitimate Biblical repentance without faith, and it is impossible to have legitimate Biblical faith without repentance.
Turning away (repentance) from something means that you’re simultaneously turning toward (faith) something. Of course, turning away from sin means that you’re turning toward Christ. If you’re not turning toward Christ, then you can’t legitimately turn away from sin.
Conversion is a term used to refer both to repentance and faith in God. Genuine faith and genuine repentance go hand in hand, and the reason why is simple: We, as sinners, are incapable of doing what God commands based on our own compulsion. We have to be freed from the shackles of sin by God in order to exhibit the fruits of genuine faith and genuine repentance. Faith is a positive response that enables us to believe and trust in God. Repentance is a negative response that turns us away from the evil things we used to do. Although to clarify both concepts, I have separated repentance and faith, both happen simultaneously. Again, the Holy Spirit never regenerates people and makes them repentant so that they can just be “neutral” and simply avoid sin. Similarly, when the Spirit imparts faith in people, that faith engenders a sincere desire to change behavior.
Because repentance involves turning away from sin, it involves knowing about two things: the destructiveness of sin and the righteousness found in doing God’s will and following His commandments.
Yet this knowing is only the first part of the process because many people may know what is wrong and what is right but still choose to do evil. As it says in Romans 1:28–32, “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 . . . 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” (emphasis added). Even demons know that God is God. They just refuse to worship Him, and have no motivation to worship The Lord.
Knowing simply means you can mentally distinguish between right and wrong, but people are motivated to act based on emotion or heart condition. As it says in II Corinthians 7:9–10, “I now rejoice, not that you were made sorrowful, but that you were made sorrowful to the point of repentance; for you were made sorrowful according to the will of God, so that you might not suffer loss in anything through us. For the sorrow that is according to the will of God produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation, but the sorrow of the world produces death” (emphasis added). Here the apostle Paul makes it very clear that a regenerated person feels sorrow over what they have done wrong. This sorrow isn’t an end in itself but serves as a vehicle to help the individual turn away from sin without regret and into God’s hands. Repentant people grieve over what they did wrong and turn away from their destructive behavior without feeling sorrow that they can no longer do what they used to do.
Join me next week to discover what repentance looks like in real life using the model of King David from Psalm 51. Also learn 7 things that repentance does. Until next time!
Dr. C. H. E. Sadaphal
 Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), 713.
 See Genesis 37:34; II Samuel 3:31; I Kings 21:27; II Kings 6:30; Job 16:15, 42:6; Lamentations 2:10; Isaiah 15:3; Joel 1:13; Matthew 11:21; Luke 10:13
 Isaiah 43:18-19; II Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 2:20; Colossians 3:9-10
 Deuteronomy 4:39–40; Psalm 119:30, 60; Luke 6:46; John 14:45; I John 5:3, 5:8; I Peter 1:14.
 Romans 12:2; II Corinthians 5:17; Colossians 3:10; Ephesians 4:20–24.
 James 2:19.
 II Corinthians 7:9–11.