11 July, 2023

What Is Repentance 

According to the Bible?

To be quite honest, modern Christianity is very interesting to me.

From my point of view, Christians seem to be all over the place. With the overabundance of denominations and theological camps that seem to divide more than unite, it almost feels like everybody has their own version of Christianity that they ascribe to.

But regardless of all the differences in opinions and interpretations of Scripture, I do think that there is one thing that every ‘camp’ should strive to preach more of.

What’s Missing From Modern Christianity?

Recently, my pastor said something that has stuck with me ever since. He said:

“Repentance has been widely replaced with the notion that God’s ultimate priority is your health, wealth, and personal happiness.”

I thought about that for a while; not just because I find it to be generally true in modern Christianity, but also because I realized that I wasn’t even sure that most people understand what repentance truly is, myself included.

Yet the more I looked into it, the more I began to understand that repentance is absolutely vital to our lives as Christians and to the Gospel that we preach. So, let’s unpack the topic of repentance and why I believe that it is one of the most important aspects that must be maintained within the true Gospel.

What Is Biblical Repentance?

Obviously, the first question that needs to be answered here is, “What is repentance?”

Repentance is one of those ‘Christianese’ words that gets thrown around in Christian circles and spheres but doesn’t seem to ever get genuinely defined any further than a quick explanation that sounds good to the average listener. Many will say, “Repentance is to turn around,” or, “Repentance is to turn away from your sin and toward God,” but I believe that this is truly selling repentance short.

Let’s start with what repentance is NOT. Repentance is NOT feeling guilt and shame. It is not just feeling bad about your sin or feeling convicted after doing something that you know you shouldn’t have done.

Repentance is also NOT ‘cleaning yourself up’ before coming to God. It isn’t the act of making sure your life is in order so that you can come to God with a somewhat clean version of yourself on the surface.

Instead, let’s look at the Greek word that is actually used in the Bible that translates into repentance. The word is metanoia, which literally means ‘to change the mind’. According to the Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible:

“Repentance is literally a change of mind, not about individual plans, intentions, or beliefs, but rather a change in the whole personality from a sinful course of action to God.”

It’s also important to note that this ‘change of mind’ should then result in action. As written on www.christianity.com:

“Repentance is a decisive change in direction. It’s a change of mind that leads to a change of thinking that leads to a change of attitude that leads to a change of feeling that leads to a change of values that leads to a change in how you live.”

If you skipped the rest of that quote halfway through, go back and read the whole thing. It importantly shows the flow of how your mind influences the way that you live. I don’t mean that in a New Age way where ‘your mind creates your reality’, but in a true way of how God created us. The way that we think directly influences the way that we live.

Drink More Water

To help you see how this plays out, consider this scenario:

Let’s say I drink mostly Coke and Mountain Dew on a daily basis. I don’t really drink much water because hey, sodas are mostly water anyways!

One day, I read an article or listen to a TED talk on the importance of drinking water. Suddenly, because of my interaction with this new information, I start to believe that drinking lots of water daily is important. Now, because I believe that, I start drinking lots of water daily.

Something changed my mind which led to a change in belief which led to a change in action. That, at its core, is repentance.

Be Transformed

In fact, we can see this very clearly in Scripture. Romans 12:1-2 says:

“And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice—the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him. Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.”

Our lives can be quite literally transformed by changing the ways that we think about things. In a way, your thoughts do produce your life; not by manifestation, but because the way that you think about things determines how you live your day-to-day life. Your worldview determines your actions.

What Does the Bible Say About Repentance?

When we begin to understand repentance in this way, we can begin to realize how important it is. In fact, we don’t even need to look very hard in the Bible to see that God sees it as being very important as well. Matthew 3:1-2 says:

“In those days John the Baptist came to the Judean wilderness and began preaching. His message was, ‘Repent of your sins and turn to God, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near.’”

According to John the Baptist, repenting is the way that we should respond to the Kingdom of Heaven. John the Baptist wasn’t exactly the only one to hold that view either. In Matthew 4:17, it says:

“From then on Jesus began to preach, ‘Repent of your sins and turn to God, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near.’”

It’s also important to note that repentance wasn’t only a message for that time either. After Jesus rose and appeared to the disciples, He was still preaching repentance. Luke 24:45-47 says:

“Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures. And he said, ‘Yes, it was written long ago that the Messiah would suffer and die and rise from the dead on the third day. It was also written that this message would be proclaimed in the authority of his name to all the nations, beginning in Jerusalem: “There is forgiveness of sins for all who repent.”’”

Hopefully, by this point, you’ve become convinced that repentance is really important biblically. Yet there is one very important question that needs to be asked within this conversation as well: How does repentance relate to salvation?

Repentance & Salvation

A large debate surrounding the topic of repentance is if repentance is necessary for salvation. Some would say that it isn’t because, in their eyes, repentance is a work, and we can’t earn our salvation by works. Therefore, repentance isn’t a prerequisite for salvation.

However, biblically, I believe that repentance isn’t a work that leads to salvation. Rather, I believe that repentance is salvation. Let me explain.

Repentance and Faith Are Two Sides of the Same Coin

From what the Bible says about repentance, it seems to me that repentance and faith in Jesus are actually two sides of the same coin. You can’t have repentance without faith and you can’t have faith without repentance.

Firstly, we’ve seen from the Bible that it does talk about repentance in reference to salvation. According to John and even Jesus, repentance is the response that we should have to the Kingdom of God. It seems to quite literally be how we should respond to the Gospel. For example, consider 2 Peter 3:9:

“The Lord isn’t really being slow about his promise, as some people think. No, he is being patient for your sake. He does not want anyone to be destroyed, but wants everyone to repent.”

From this verse, it seems that the opposite of being destroyed is to repent. Repentance here seems synonymous with salvation.

When Peter is preaching at Pentecost and the people realize that they’ve killed the Son of God, Acts 2:37-38 says this:

“Peter’s words pierced their hearts, and they said to him and to the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what should we do?’ Peter replied, ‘Each of you must repent of your sins and turn to God, and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. Then you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’”

According to Peter, they should respond with repentance, and through that repentance, they will receive forgiveness for their sins.

Then, in Acts 11, when Peter is explaining the things that have taken place with the Gentiles in reference to salvation to the Jewish believers, we read in Acts 11:18:

“When the others heard this, they stopped objecting and began praising God. They said, ‘We can see that God has also given the Gentiles the privilege of repenting of their sins and receiving eternal life.’”

Apparently, repentance of sins leads to the receiving of eternal life. So, what do we make of all of this?

Salvation Is The Ultimate Change of Mind

When you consider all of this in light of the true definition of repentance being a change of mind that leads to a change of lifestyle, it begins to make sense.

What happens when you place your faith in Jesus Christ for salvation? Your mind is changed in many ways:
“I am not a good person; I am a sinner who has rebelled against a holy God.”
“The way that I am living my life is not righteous or holy.”
“I need a Savior and Jesus is that Savior”
“I am now going to live God’s way, not my way.”

These are some massive mindset shifts! This means that believing in Jesus is, in itself, repentance. It is a complete change in the mind of going from “My sin is good” to “God is good, my sin is bad, and I am going to live for Him instead of living for myself.”

In fact, one could argue that this is the ultimate change of mind. At that moment, faith and repentance happen together at salvation.

So then, repentance isn’t a work that leads to salvation; it is, in a sense, salvation in itself. It is not a work but rather leads to works after salvation takes place. In Matthew 3:8, John the Baptist says to the Pharisees:

“Prove by the way you live that you have repented of your sins and turned to God.”

True repentance is proven by the way that you live.

When Paul speaks to Agrippa in his defense in Acts 26:20, he says:

“I preached first to those in Damascus, then in Jerusalem and throughout all Judea, and also to the Gentiles, that all must repent of their sins and turn to God—and prove they have changed by the good things they do.”

Likewise, James talks about faith and works in James 2:18-20:

“Now someone may argue, ‘Some people have faith; others have good deeds.’ But I say, ‘How can you show me your faith if you don’t have good deeds? I will show you my faith by my good deeds.’ You say you have faith, for you believe that there is one God. Good for you! Even the demons believe this, and they tremble in terror. How foolish! Can’t you see that faith without good deeds is useless?”

It seems to me that both faith and repentance are not works in themselves, but rather bring about works and good deeds because you live according to what you believe and how you think.

Again, this is why Paul writes in Romans 12 that God transforms the way that you live by changing the way that you think through His Word.

How Do You Repent?

Now, if it’s so vitally important, how does one actually repent?

Well, we’ve talked about initial repentance when it comes to salvation, but repentance is also a continual thing that we need to do consistently and regularly. Unfortunately, we are not all of a sudden perfect when we are born again in Christ. We still sin and we still need to have our minds changed about many different things so that we live in a way that properly reflects the image of God.

But how does this happen practically?

The good news is that it isn’t totally dependent on us. Considering what repentance is, the first step is to realize that our thoughts about things aren’t correct or right in some way. In order to change our minds, we have to realize that we are wrong about things. This can be extremely difficult due to our pride, but it is a necessary step.

According to the Bible, there are three main ways that this happens:

1. God Shows Us

Again, back to Romans 12:1-2:

“And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice—the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him. Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.”

Notice the language: “Let God transform you into a new person.” Through the Holy Spirit, God personally convicts us of sin and of ways of thinking that are wrong and need to be changed.

2. The Word Shows Us

Check out what James 1:22-25 has to say about this:

“But don’t just listen to God’s word. You must do what it says. Otherwise, you are only fooling yourselves. For if you listen to the word and don’t obey, it is like glancing at your face in a mirror. You see yourself, walk away, and forget what you look like. But if you look carefully into the perfect law that sets you free, and if you do what it says and don’t forget what you heard, then God will bless you for doing it.”

The Word shows us what we should do and what we should think. In that process, it also then shows us our own inadequacies. As Jordan Peterson writes:

“Beauty shames the ugly. Strength shames the weak. Death shames the living – and the Ideal shames us all.”

When we are confronted through the Word by the standard that God has laid out for us, we realize just how far we fall short and what we need to change about our thinking in our own lives.

3. Other People Show Us

In 2 Corinthians 7:8-10, we read:

“I am not sorry that I sent that severe letter to you, though I was sorry at first, for I know it was painful to you for a little while. Now I am glad I sent it, not because it hurt you, but because the pain caused you to repent and change your ways. It was the kind of sorrow God wants his people to have, so you were not harmed by us in any way. For the kind of sorrow God wants us to experience leads us away from sin and results in salvation. There’s no regret for that kind of sorrow. But worldly sorrow, which lacks repentance, results in spiritual death.”

Clearly, others can also point out where we need to repent as well. While it may feel bad at the time, that godly sorrow leads to repentance. As Proverbs 15:32 says:

“If you reject discipline, you only harm yourself; but if you listen to correction, you grow in understanding.”

We need to learn to drop our pride and accept correction, for it often shows us where we need to repent and change our minds and ways concerning something.

In Summary:

  • Repentance is to change your mind about something which will then lead to a change in action and lifestyle.
  • Repentance is not just wanting the guilt about your sin to go away – it’s a true change that affects the way you live.
  • Repentance and faith are two sides of the same coin and both produce good works.
  • We can be led to repentance by God, His Word, and other people.

In light of all of this, I want to encourage you to go read up on this and study it on your own. Don’t just take my word for it.

If you’re interested in being a part of a community where we talk about these kinds of things together, consider joining my Unroll the Scrolls Discord server. You can do that by clicking this link: https://discord.gg/QVsTTwScwS

Also consider following me on Instagram and Threads at @zachjheffner for more content and regular updates.

* All verses are from the NLT (New Living Translation).