What is Repentance?
When Jesus proclaimed the good news of the Kingdom, his call to action was not “ask Jesus into your heart,” not “walk down this aisle,” not “say this prayer,” but “repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15; cf. Luke 24:47). This was the same message proclaimed by the apostles Peter (Acts 2:38) and Paul (Acts 20:21).
That’s not to say that walking an aisle is wrong and sinful, or leading a new believer in a prayer is a bad practice. But Jesus’s words are the standard, the clearly called-for response by the Lord himself: “Repent and believe the gospel.”
So what is repentance?
We stop far short if we think that repentance is the same thing as asking for forgiveness or is a mere verbal confession of sin. Confession (agreeing with God about our sin) is an important part of repentance. In fact, you cannot have true repentance without it; but verbally confessing sin is not the sum total of repentance. Repentance is more than words; repentance is about life change.
What is repentance? Biblically understood, repentance is a continual turning from sin to God. Each part of this short definition is important.
TURNING FROM SIN
Repentance is a turning from sin. When we confess our sin, we are agreeing with God’s assessment of it, and if we truly agree with God’s assessment of our sin, then we engage in the work of turning from it. Simply put, if we do not turn from our sin, we haven’t truly agreed with God about our sin; if we do not turn from our sin, we haven’t truly confessed our sin, we’ve only acknowledged it. If we’re continuing to pray for forgiveness and verbally admitting a specific sin before God, but we are not also asking God to help us walk away from that sin and if we are not taking specific action steps to keep ourselves from that specific sin—setting up boundaries, or enlisting the help of a brother or sister, or working to keep away from known temptations to that sin—then we are not truly repenting.
Don’t just give lip service to God about your sin. Jesus’s command was “repent.” Turn from it. Take concrete action to take steps away from it. Agree with God about what it is, how destructive it is, how harmful to ourselves and others it is, how it mocks God’s goodness and greatness and glory, and take steps to keep away from that sin.
TURNING TO GOD
When I was a youth pastor, I commonly used the well-known analogy for repentance of a military about-face. An about-face is a 180-degree turn, a turn from facing one direction and to facing the opposite direction. That’s repentance.
Repentance is not just a turning from sin, it is a turning to God.
If we merely turn from one sin to another, we’re not repenting. In that case, we leave one sin, but only to turn to another sin that is perhaps more culturally acceptable. Friends, that is not repentance. That is just trading one sin for another.
This is why the New Testament often uses the language of “put off” and “put on.” Colossians 3:9–12 instructs us, “Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator…. Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.” We’re to put off our old sinful actions (see Col. 3:5–9) and put on the works of righteousness (Col. 3:12–4:6) that are in line with Christ’s righteousness that has been already imputed to us (Col. 3:10).
“Put off” and “put on” is the language of repentance. We’re to turn away from the sinful way of living and turn all the way to God’s way of living. We’re to turn from living for self to living for God. We’re to turn from sin and turn to God.
Repentance is a turning from sin and to God, and it is a continual turning. This means that it is life-long, and it is for all of sin.
A very literal translation of the verb tense in Mark 1:15 could be written as “repent, and keep repenting”. Therefore, Martin Luther was right when he began his “Ninety-Five Theses” by writing “our Lord and Master Jesus Christ . . . willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”
“The entire life of believers is to be one of repentance.” Repentance is not just the first step into the Christian life, it is every step along the way. You never outgrow your need for repentance. You never graduate from this course. Scripture tells us that we are to “bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:8). We’re to keep bearing this fruit, keep turning from sin to God, and we’re to do it not just with our worst sins, not just with our visible sins, but with all our sin.
If we only repent of public sin, but we cherish private and secret sins, we are not practicing true repentance. Thomas Brooks wrote that “He that turns not from every sin turns not aright from any one sin. Every sin strikes at the honor of God, the being of God, the glory of God, the heart of Christ, the joy of the Spirit, and the peace of a man’s conscience; and therefore a soul truly penitent strikes at all, hates all, conflicts with all, and will labor . . . to crucify all.”
Don’t be content to only turn from those sins that others see. If that is all we do, we’re only people pleasers. The repentant one knows that God sees what man does not see, that God knows the thoughts of man, and that even the secret sins are sins against God. So seek to turn from all of your sin, and seek to do it all your life.
REPENTANCE IS IMPOSSIBLE, BUT NOT WITH GOD
If all of this sounds impossible, it’s because it is.
After Jeremiah asked in Jeremiah 13:23, can the leopard change his spots?, he then said this: “Then also you can do good who are accustomed to do evil.” If the leopard can change his spots on his own, then we can change our nature to do good on our own. He cannot, and neither can we.
The disciples realized this when they asked Jesus, “Who then can be saved?” And Jesus’s answer was this: “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God” (Mark 10:27).
And that’s where the gospel comes in. What God does in the gospel is shine the light of his glory into our hearts, to reveal not only our sinfulness, but also his goodness, his mercy, his love, and his power. Through the gospel, he recreates us—he gives us new life by his Spirit, making us new creatures. Through the gospel, he forms us—he shows us how Christ lived, calls us to follow him, and empowers us by his Spirit to do so.
“Repent and believe the gospel” means that as we turn from our sin, we find in the gospel that he gives us all we need to keep turning all the way to God. So keep turning, and keep trusting. Keep bearing fruit. Keep taking active steps away from sin and to God, and you’ll find that he keeps giving you all that you need along the way.
Bert Watts has served since December 2016 as the Senior Pastor at Mountain Creek Baptist Church, where he has been on staff since 2012.