What Is True Repentance?


Mark 1:15 records for us that Jesus started His public ministry with the message of repentance and faith. So did His apostles in Acts 2: 38 and Acts 3:19.

I have come to believe  that repentance is perhaps the most misunderstood concept in the church in Nigeria today.

Ask a few people and you’ll be surprised that what they think repentance is about is asking God to forgive their sins (even if you have the intent to sin again). While this is part of repentance, it doesn’t cover the whole concept.

Repentance defined

Repentance (metanoeō in Greek) means to “think differently” (from Strong’s  Greek Lexicon) but that’s not all. Another definition is “to change any or all of the elements composing one’s life, attitude, thoughts, and behaviors concerning the demands of God for right living” (from Teknia Greek Dictionary)

This second definition gets to the heart of what biblical repentance is; It isn’t just seeking to change how you think, but also changing your attitude and behavior and it’s not just any change, but a change to God’s demands for right living. God is at the center of biblical repentance. It is God who has demanded that you live a certain way. Every time you sin, it is that demand and ultimately God that you defied, disobeyed, and dishonored either in your thought, your words, your attitude, or your behavior. Changing them to conform to His demands is what repentance is about.

Repentance practiced

Psalms 51:17 captures it for me: “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;  A broken and a contrite heart, O God, You will not despise”.

When we sin, what God wants is a broken and a contrite heart.

But what does that look like practically?

Contrite is defined as “feeling or expressing remorse at the recognition that one has done wrong.” (Oxford Dictionary)

This definition is loaded with meaning;

First, is the recognition that you did wrong. Which is where all biblical repentance starts from. Seeing what you did as wrong, wrong to God first (Ps 51:4)

Second, is knowing it is a “wrong” or -to use correct biblical language- knowing you have done evil (Ps 51:4), transgressed (Ps 51: 3), committed iniquity (Ps 51: 2), and have sinned (Ps 51: 2) and most importantly, owning it as yours (see the personal pronoun David used in describing his sins in the verses just quoted)

Third, is feeling remorse. Not acting, but actually feeling deep regret because you grieved God. This remorse will more than likely lead you to tears or leave you feeling overcome with grief for offending a holy God but it is not a feeling that you can easily dismiss.

Matthew 5:5 promises a blessing of comfort for those who mourn over their sin in this way.

Fourth, is the actual confession of the sin (1John 1:9). Confession is giving an account to God of exactly what it is that you did, not a generalization. It often sounds like: 

“God, I admit that I gossiped.” 

“God, I admit that I was critical of such and such.”

“God, I admit I acted in anger and against your commands to be patient or speak in love.”

The general idea is to admit to your specific sin but you can say it in your own words.

When we repent in this way, we can have confidence in God’s promise that he will not despise (Ps 51:17) and that he is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1John 1:9)

Repentance recognized

There remains one aspect of the definition we adopted. Which is “a change of one’s life: attitude, thoughts, and behaviors”.

Repentance isn’t complete without a change. Any repentance that stops at confession of sin but isn’t interested in changing is not true repentance.

John told his audience the same thing in Matthew 3: 5-8

Then Jerusalem was going out to him, and all Judea and all the district around the Jordan; “and they were being baptized by him in the Jordan River, as they confessed their sins. But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? “Therefore bear fruit in keeping with repentance;” (emphasis added)

Verse 6 ends by saying they confessed their sin but he still asked them to bear fruit in verse 8 or else they are in the danger in verse 10: “The axe is already laid at the root of the trees; therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. (emphasis added)

Luke tells us that the people asked him questions about how they can bear fruit (Luke 3:10-14)

 “And the crowds were questioning him, saying, “Then what shall we do?” And he would answer and say to them, “The man who has two tunics is to share with him who has none; and he who has food is to do likewise.” And some tax collectors also came to be baptized, and they said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Collect no more than what you have been ordered to.” Some soldiers were questioning him, saying, “And what about us, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not take money from anyone by force, or accuse anyone falsely, and be content with your wages.”

What John tells them to do here was practiced by another group in the new testament and we have it recorded for us.

2 Cor 7: 10 – 11 “For the sorrow that is according to the will of God produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation, but the sorrow of the world produces death. For behold what earnestness this very thing, this godly sorrow, has produced in you: what vindication of yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what longing, what zeal, what avenging of wrong! In everything you demonstrated yourselves to be innocent in the matter”. (emphasis added)

Let’s take a minute to see how the Corinthians took a cue from John and the Bible’s teaching about repentance.

  1. Biblical repentance bears fruit. For the Corinthians, it was “earnestness to restore their relationship with Paul. For you, it may also be seeking forgiveness with the one you wronged or like the people John was talking to, it may be “share with him who has none” or “be content with your wages”. Don’t be indifferent about making visible changes people can see. Yes, you have sorrowed and confessed to God, but don’t stop there, bear fruits.

Now for some of us, whatever sin we are repenting from has already caused a stigma for us. I mean people already know us for that sin. But prior to your “actual repentance” from this sin, you didn’t care. In fact, we could say you gloried in it and made excuses like “that’s just who I am”. But now what should you do?

  1. You conduct yourself so that everyone who knew of your sin now knows that you have changed. John the baptist alluded to this when he asked his audience to “share their tunic and food”. The Corinthians also practiced this when Paul said about them- “For behold … what vindication of yourselves”. Vindication is the act of clearing someone of blame. In this case, that someone is you. You are desperate to publicly clear your name of the stigma of your sin. You are desperate to have a reputation of right living, to make your repentance as public as your sin.

Biblical repentance isn’t ashamed of admitting wrong and changing the course of one’s life, it rather delights in God more than the feeling of shame from admitting wrong and changing your life. Sometimes we are bothered that people will notice we have changed and think it is false-change and this discourages us. Sometimes it’s the idea that they’ll laugh at you trying to live a new life and this discourages us. Sometimes the problem is that you used to say you were born that way or it’s your personality and you’re now ashamed everyone will notice and laugh at you that they were right all along. But true repentance doesn’t hold shame in high esteem. It holds God in high esteem and that’s all it’s concerned about. True repentance does everything in its power to make its repentance known publicly as it’s sin was known.

  1. The reason you are interested in fruit is strictly because you now want to pattern your life after God’s demand, not for show or intimidation, but for God. This drives you to be indignant with yourself for having offended God in the first place and now you want to do right to the point that you can no longer be held accountable for your wrong. 

A repentant person works overtime, tirelessly to be far removed from the life of disobedience, despising, and rebellion against God. 

Thomas Watson said in his book on repentance that the “turning from sin is so visible that others can see it”. He added that “the change is so drastic that it feels like it’s entirely someone else living in the body”

This is what biblical repentance is about.

Let it grieve you that so much of your age has not been time lived but time lost, now fill your remaining hours with spirit not froth

Thomas Watson

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Oluwadamilare Sobanjo


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