What is Repentance?

Article by Paul Helm, edited and expanded by Ps. Nelson.

John the Baptist preached repentance for forgiveness of sins in Mar.1:4.  The Lord Jesus preached repentance, belief in the gospel and called us to follow Him in Mar.1:14-17.  Peter preached repentance at Pentecost, Acts.2:38 and Paul preached that God commanded all men everywhere to repent, Acts 17:30.  So, what is repentance?

Repentance is Literally a change in the whole personality from a sinful course of action to obedience and faith in God. Such a change is sometimes referred to as “evangelical repentance,” since it arises out of the proclamation of God’s grace to the sinner and the simultaneous work of the Holy Spirit in the new birth, John.3:5-8.  Such a change is the fruit of Christ’s victory over death—a gift bestowed as a result of his exaltation to his Father’s right hand as Prince and Savior, Acts 5:31.

Repentance must accompany saving faith in Christ, Acts.20:21.  It is inconsistent and unintelligible to suggest that anyone might trust Jesus Christ for salvation from the wrath of God, who is not aware and repentant of his own sin. Repentance is such an important aspect of conversion that it is often stressed rather than saving faith, as when Christ said that there is joy in heaven among the angels over one sinner that repents, Luke 15:7.  The apostles described the conversion of the Gentiles to Christ as God granting them “repentance that leads to life”, Acts.11:18.  Repentance and faith in Christ are in fact inseparable, though a convert may be aware of one aspect more than another.

Such repentance is not an isolated act but a change of mindset, providing a spur for behavior, including acts of restoration and repayment where appropriate, Luke.19:8, which is in accordance with God’s declared will. Recognising daily sins and shortcomings must prompt us to renewed repentance and greater dependance on Christ, through faith in Him.  Biblical examples of repentance can be found following David’s adultery with Bathsheba, Psalm 51.  Whole churches are called to repentance in Rev.2:5. Second Corinthians 7 contains an interesting and description of corporate church repentance including sorrow, and grieving over sin with a determination to forsake sinful ways and to behave properly. While repentance is often accompanied by deep feelings, it is not merely those feelings, but is rooted in the sinners convictions of his own need before God, who is most holy.

The Bible also Scripture cases of repentance, such as those of Pharaoh, Exod.9:27;  King Saul, 1Sam.24:16-18; and Judas Iscariot, Mat.27:3.  These are not the result of an awareness of God’s mercy towards sinners but rather arise from the fear of unpleasant and/or painful consequences and a desire to avoid them, but without any true change in character or outlook toward God.

The sinner who has heard the gospel call with the accompanying work of the Holy Spirit in their hearts will experience a revulsion over their own sin, and a desire to change, to discontinue all sinful thoughts and practices.  They will recognise their own utter inability to be rid of their sin.  But, with great joy will realise that it is Christ alone who can wash the heart and conscience completely clean, with His own blood.  It is to Christ that we must turn in faith that He will save us from God’s wrath.  It is to Christ that we turn, as we turn away from our sin.  The Christian life that we are called to is a continual trusting in God for salvation, and a continual repentance of sin.