What does the Bible say about repentance?
Consider the central role repentance plays in the preaching of the gospel
How does the process of repentance work?
What is repentance?
People often confuse repentance with confession. To confess means we admit we have done something wrong. We can confess to people: James urges us to
“Confess (our) trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed” (5:16).
But if we want God’s forgiveness, we need to confess our sins to Him:
“If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
Though confessing our sins to God is important, confession is not repentance. Repentance means to turn away from sin. We recognize our sin, we feel regret or guilt or shame for our sin, and we decide that we don’t want to act that way any longer. The decision to turn away from sin is repentance. Repentance sits between feeling sorry for what we have done and changing our conduct. Repentance is a change of mind or heart: “I made a mistake now I will change my ways.”
Responding to the Gospel
Repentance is the first thing gospel preachers told people to do. John the Baptist began his ministry with, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Jesus began His ministry with the words, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” When asked, “What shall we do,” Peter tells the audience in Acts 2:38,
“REPENT and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins.”
Paul tells the Athenians that God “commands all people everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30). Repentance is the first thing people were told to do by preachers.
If we want God to forgive our sins, we must repent. John the Baptist urged everyone to repent and he practiced a “baptism of repentance for the remission of sins” (Mark 1:4). Those who repented and were baptized with John’s baptism had their sins forgiven. Remember Acts 2:38, “REPENT and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ FOR the remission of sins.” Later in 3:19, Peter says, “Repent then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out.” God will forgive our sins IF we turn away from those sins
In Luke 15, Jesus tells us that the angels in heaven rejoice when “one sinner…repents.” Notice how He says this TWICE (verses 7 and 10). And also notice that the angels do not rejoice when a sinner believes, they rejoice when a sinner repents. Isn’t that interesting? Many people talk about how belief in Jesus is the only way we receive salvation. And yet, the angels rejoice when a sinner repents. Does that mean our belief in Jesus is unimportant? By no means. It simply means that belief alone is not enough; if we really believe in Jesus, we will turn away from sin; our repentance — our turning away from sin — is what causes the angels in heaven to rejoice.
Do we have to repent in order to be saved? Consider the words of Jesus:
“Do you suppose that these Galileans were worse sinners than all other Galileans because they suffered such things? I tell you, no; 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 sinners than all other men who dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:2-5).
It was widely believed that bad things happened because people were evil. Jesus dismisses that notion: bad things happen for a lot of reasons, but they do not happen just because someone has done something wrong or is a worse person than others. What these examples teach us is we need to be prepared because we neither know when nor under what circumstances we will die. And if we die in some unforeseen way, with no time to prepare, and we have not turned away from sin, what will happen to our souls? They will perish.
Jesus places two options before us: repent or perish. As Peter says in his second epistle, 3:9, God “is not willing for anyone to perish, but for all to come to repentance.” So do we need to repent in order to be saved? Yes! We must repent or perish.
Repentance is a part of responding to the gospel. A sinner’s repentance is cause for celebration in heaven. “Repent” was the first recorded word in Jesus’ ministry. Jesus offers two options: repent or perish. God commands repentance, He forgives the sins of those who repent, and is willing to give people time to repent. Is repentance vital? Absolutely.
How do I repent?
Repentance begins with a personal recognition of sin. The Bible describes sinful conduct in numerous passages:
Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:9-10).
Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins (James 4:17).
Everyone is guilty of sin. We all find ourselves on lists like 1 Corinthians 6 or others. We all have known to do something right and have not done it. One cannot follow Christ and remain in sinful life patterns. God is holy; He is set apart from sin. He commands those who follow Him, “You shall be holy, for I am holy” (1 Peter 1:15). Repentance begins when we recognize our sin and accept what the consequences for our sin will be unless we change directions.
The one who genuinely wants to change is sorry when they realize their guilt. Paul calls this “godly sorrow” in 1 Corinthians 7:10, which he contrasts with “worldly sorrow.” These two sorrows differ because they each feel remorse about different aspects of our conduct. One who sorrows in a godly way regrets the conduct while worldly sorrow regrets the consequences. Paul says, “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret.” Genuine repentance that leads to salvation requires us to regret our sin. That regret or godly sorrow leads us to repent: I made a mistake, but I will do my best not to make the same mistake in the future. The decision or commitment to change is repentance — godly sorrow leads to repentance.
Once we have decided to turn away from sin, a lifestyle adjustment will follow genuine repentance. Old patterns of behavior must cease and be replaced with new patterns: Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:15 that Christ,
“died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.”
True repentance compels us to pursue a life that pleases Christ. True repentance is a denial of our own desire in favor of living for the Lord. True repentance will be reflected in our deeds. In Acts 26:20, Paul tells King Agrippa about how he preached in Damascus, Jerusalem, Judea, and to the Gentiles,
“that they should repent and turn to God and prove their repentance by their deeds.”
John the Baptist called these changes the “fruit of repentance”; he describes this change in Luke 3:10-14,
So the people asked him, saying, “What shall we do then?” He answered and said to them, “He who has two tunics, let him give to him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise.” Then tax collectors also came to be baptized, and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Collect no more than what is appointed for you.” Likewise, the soldiers asked him, saying, “And what shall we do?” So he said to them, “Do not intimidate anyone or accuse falsely, and be content with your wages.”
If we say we have repented and yet our lives do not change, we have not truly repented. An unchanged life demonstrates an unchanged mind.
Do you believe in Jesus Christ? I hope you do. But if you believe in Jesus, have you repented of your sins? Or are you living the same way you did before you believed? The Lord and His apostles make God’s will crystal clear: if you want your sins forgiven, you must repent. To do otherwise is to place your eternal destiny in jeopardy. If you are a believer in Jesus, breathe life into your faith by dedicating your life to righteous conduct, conduct that pleases God. You’ve wasted enough of your life in sin. Change your mind and change your life today.