“When a man is humbled by the law, and brought to the knowledge of himself, and then follows true repentance (for true repentance begins at the fear and judgment of God), and he sees himself to be so great a sinner that he can find no means how he may be delivered from his sin by his own strength, endeavor, and works.” – Martin Luther
How many times, whether serious or in jest, have you heard someone say, “Repent! And thou shalt be saved…“? This idea of repentance has proven to have become quite convoluted in our postmodern world and the church in particular. In fact, for a long time this concept was confused in my own mind and I either misunderstood, or chose to not fully understand what biblical repentance truly meant and its necessary impact on my walk with Christ. I’m going to take a few moments to explain what biblical repentance truly means, how it’s emphasized in the Gospels, the fruit of true repentance, mistaken ideas of repentance, and why repentance is a cause for rejoicing. My hope is that after reading this article you will better understand what the true meaning of biblical repentance entails and begin to examine your walk with Christ to determine if you’ve truly repented of your sins or if you are like I used to be, living in unrepentant sin.
The widely accepted meaning of the term repentance is the act of “turning from sin”. Interestingly, the biblical definition of repentance is very different in that the word repent means “to change one’s mind”. In Acts 26:20 Luke declared, “…first to those in Damascus, then in Jerusalem and throughout all the region of Judea, and also to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds in keeping with their repentance.” Notice that he said “performing deeds in keeping with their repentance“. We must then deduce that repentance is not only to change one’s mind, but to then change one’s actions. In fact, Luke 3:8-14 and Acts 3:19 indicate to us that true repentance involves a change in actions in order to bear fruit in keeping with repentance. Thus the full biblical definition of repentance is a change of mind that results in a change of action. Biblical repentance is changing your mind about Jesus Christ and turning to God in faith for salvation (Acts 3:19). While “turning from sin” is not the definition of repentance, it is one of the results of genuine, faith-based repentance towards the Lord Jesus Christ 1.
The Gospels place a large emphasis on repentance. They make it very clear that repentance is the first condition of forgiveness and salvation. And as we just learned, the sinner is at enmity with God, and cannot have peace with God until he changes his mind and reverses his life pattern. In the Gospel of Matthew, repentance was the keynote of John the Baptist as noted in Matthew 3:1-2 “In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’“
More importantly, Jesus was strikingly blunt about the need for repentance during His Earthly ministry: “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” (Luke 13:3-5)
Jesus spoke again about repentance in His commissioning of the disciples when He said, “Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.'” (Luke 24:44-47)
And again Jesus spoke of repentance when proclaiming the Gospel of God, “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, 15 and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.'” (Mark 1:14-15)
In addition to John the Baptist and Jesus’ Gospel instructions regarding repentance, it was preached by the first Gospel heralds at Pentecost (Acts 2:38), at the temple (Acts 3:19), to Simon the Sorcerer (Acts 8:22), and by Paul to the Athenians (Acts 17:30).
So, again I ask, is it enough to just be sorry? The definitive biblical answer is no. John MacArthur wrote, “Repentance is no more a meritorious work than its counterpart, faith. It is an inward response. Genuine repentance pleads with the Lord to forgive and deliver from the burden of sin and the fear of judgment and hell. It is the attitude of the publican who, fearful of even looking toward heaven, smote his breast and cried, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner!” (Luke 18:13). Repentance is not merely behavior reform. But because true repentance involves a change of heart and purpose, it inevitably results in a change of behavior.“
2 Corinthians 7:10 contains a formula, a logical progression, about this, “For godly grief (or sorrow) produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief (or sorrow) produces death.” As indicated in that passage, there are two kinds of grief or sorrow over sin. Godly sorrow, a brokenness over sin, leads to a change of life and brings deliverance. Sorrow that does not lead to repentance doesn’t lead to deliverance but to destruction. So, no, it’s not enough to say, “I’m sorry”. I have talked to people who were sorry they got caught, sorry they embarrassed themselves, sorry because of consequences. That is not Godly sorrow.>
Of course that last sentence begs the question, “what is Godly sorrow?” Thankfully Paul continues in 2 Corinthians 7:11 by saying, “See what this Godly sorrow has produced in you…” and then identifies seven characteristics of Godly sorrow: what earnestness, what clearing of yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what vehement desire, what zeal, and what vindication. Let’s have a brief look at each of these characteristics (with an assist from The MacArthur Study Bible).
- Earnestness implies taking the matter seriously. Godly sorrow wants to do the right thing. Worldly sorrow wants to avoid further consequences. John MacArthur points out in his study Bible, “It is the initial reaction of true repentance to eagerly and aggressively pursue righteousness. This is an attitude that ends indifference to sin and complacency about evil and deception.“
- Clearing of yourselves carries the idea of shame for what we have done and a desire to rectify the situation. Dr. MacArthur adds, “…a desire to clear one’s name of the stigma that accompanies sin. The repentant sinner restores the trust and confidence of others by making his genuine repentance known.“
- Indignation is being genuinely upset at ourselves. Dr. MacArthur adds “…often associated with righteous indignation and Holy anger. Repentance leads to anger over one’s sin and displeasure at the shame it has brought on the Lord’s name and His people.“
- Fear is the idea that it’s not quickly forgotten. We don’t close the door too quickly and move on. Dr. MacArthur adds, “This is reverence toward God, who is the One most offended by sin. Repentance leads to a healthy fear of the One who chastens and judges sin.“
- Vehement desire is a readiness to see justice done, which includes accepting consequences and punishment for my sins. Dr. MacArthur adds, “This could be translated “yearning,” or “a longing for,” and refers to the desire of the repentant sinner to restore the relationship with the one who was sinned against.“
- Zeal is eagerness to turn things around in our lives. Dr. MacArthur adds, “This refers to loving someone or something so much that one hates anyone or anything that harms the object of this love.“
- Vindication (sometimes translated “punishment”) implies a readiness to set things right. Dr. MacArthur adds, “This could be translated ‘avenging of wrong,’ and refers to the desire to see justice done. The repentant sinner no longer tries to protect himself; he wants to see the sin avenged no matter what it might cost him.“
We now know the biblical definition of repentance, the Gospel emphasis on repentance, and the seven characteristics of biblical repentance as told by Paul to the church in Corinth. With those facts in mind, we now arrive a the fruit of repentance.
While repentance is not a work that earns salvation, repentance unto salvation does result in works. It is impossible to truly and fully change your mind without that causing a change in action. In the Bible, repentance results in a change in behavior. That is why John the Baptist called people to “produce fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:8). A person who has truly repented from rejection of Christ to faith in Christ will give evidence of a changed life (2 Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 5:19–23; James 2:14–26). Repentance, properly defined, is necessary for salvation. 2
The two fruits of repentance I would like to briefly address are growing unity and sacrificial generosity. Of course this is nothing close to an exhaustive list, but I believe these two fruits are easily identifiable and of extreme importance.
John Piper astutely noted, “When a person turns to rely on God’s mercy, he can no longer hate his neighbor. It is psychologically impossible to cherish the mercy God has shown to us and at the same time refuse to show it to another. Therefore one of the fruits that befits repentance is growing unity. Repentance penetrates the ramparts that separate classes and races and cliques. Therefore the church, of all institutions, should be free of cliques of people which are uninviting to outsiders. Mercy makes for merry mingling!” If you are a truly repentant sinner, you will love all of God’s children. This does not mean you must then condone their bad behaviors, but you must love them.
In regards to the second fruit, sacrificial generosity, Piper says, “And so, negatively, the fruit that befits repentance is the refusal to exploit anyone to get more money or things. And, positively, the fruit that befits repentance is the willingness to give of our food and clothing and money to those who have need.” You see even if we are not exploiting others for our own personal gain, rather striving to achieve it in a fair manner, we’ve still missed the point! Repentance bears the fruit of generosity in such a manner that you sacrifice on behalf of yourself to reach out to others in need.
If we put off repentance another day, we have a day more to repent of, and a day less to repent in.
In Luke 3, John the Baptist told the crowds, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” The man with two tunics should share with someone having none. The tax collectors must stop extorting money. Unless we demonstrate fruit accompanying repentance, we’re still a brood of snakes – that was John’s message! To really welcome the Messiah, we must confess our sin, agreeing with God about our condition, turning from sin to receive his forgiveness. The result will be fruit suited to repentance.
Before concluding, it would be irresponsible of me to not mention the mistaken notions about repentance. The Bible makes it painfully obvious that biblical repentance is wrought in the heart by a sense of divine love. Too many people are kept from Christ because they do not have an appropriate understanding of repentance. In fact, there are three primary ideas which are mistaken. The first is the person who has a sense of morbid self-accusation. In other words, this is the person who is in a constant state of melancholy or nervousness and are very hard on themselves for any committed sin. This is not biblical repentance.
The next kind of person lives in a constant state of despondency or despair. This attitude can harden the heart and actually become a hindrance to true repentance rather than helping to achieve such a concept. Finally, there are those people whose impetus to repentance is simply a fear of hell and sense of wrath. Even demons fear hell, but this does not cause them to repent. Sure, there may be a small portion of this that precedes biblical repentance, but it is no part of it.
The bottom line is that true biblical repentance is a cause for rejoicing! Paul said in 2 Corinthians 7:9, “As it is, 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.” And on a much wider scope, Jesus said in Luke 15:7, “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.“
In fact, Luke 15 is the great chapter on the lost. This is where Jesus describes three parables to illustration the disposition of God toward sinners: the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son. In every single case there is rejoicing upon recovery. Jesus also makes clear that the heavenly hosts join in this rejoicing in Luke 15:10, “Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
We sometimes think that God flippantly forgives everyone, you know, just because He’s God. Even many Christians will say, “I know my choice is against the teaching of Scripture, but I’m just so unhappy; I know God doesn’t want me to be unhappy. So, I’m going to do it anyway and trust him to forgive me.” I just want to remind you that genuine forgiveness cost Jesus His life on the Cross. Take some time today to be alone with God and ask him, “Is there something in my life, Lord, that I need to repent? Are there paths that need straightening?“
I’ll leave you with a quote from an unknown theologian long ago. He said, “If we put off repentance another day, we have a day more to repent of, and a day less to repent in.”
Don’t wait until it’s too late. Repent of your sins and put your trust in Christ to be your Lord and Savior today.