The biblical definition of true repentance.
Like the matter of sin, repentance is a topic gravely misunderstood (or, perhaps more properly stated, ignored) by so-called “Christians”. But, also like the matter of sin, it is a vital component of true salvation.
The message of repentance was also prominent in the preaching of John the baptizer:
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
And he came into all the district around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins;
The earliest recorded sermon of the Lord Christ began with the call for repentance:
From that time Jesus began to preach and say, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
But what is repentance? Is it mere contrition or regret, simply “feeling bad” about what a wrong you’ve done? No! Typically, convicted criminals “regret” what they’ve done because they were caught, prosecuted and punished, but not because they came to realize the true scope of their crime as an arrogant affront to the Law of the Almighty. The point is that they would continue to act as they had but for the fact they were caught.
Repentance is the personal recognition of guilt, the beginning of the realization of just how offensive their sin is before the LORD, a deep grief over their fall into sin, the recognition that they could never properly make amends for that sin, and a complete, unreserved and humble falling before the LORD in grief to ask the Almighty for mercy which is not deserved. To be repentant is to be completely humbled before the LORD while accepting the full responsibility for the wrong committed.
This is a necessary beginning, but only a beginning: repentance is also the turning away from sin genuinely and unreservedly. But, as the person turns away from sin, he/she turns to the LORD. The person had been traveling in one direction, was arrested in sin and brought under its weight and guilt, then turned completely around and began traveling the opposite direction. The sin which he/she once loved is now hated, and the things of God he/she once hated are now loved. The love of God, which had been viewed with scorn and contempt is now glorious, and sin, by which the person was possessed as a consuming passion, he/she now regards with personal shame and disgust.
This is the nature of true repentance. This type of repentance, demonstrated at the beginning of the true Christian life, does not allow for a life of backsliding and a return to the prior ways of sin! That would be an impossible contradiction and a great affront to the Almighty.
I’ve made several assertions above in order to present a relatively concise and uninterrupted working definition of repentance. Now, it’s time to cite the Scriptures to prove these assertions.
It is presented under three headings:
- Guilt for sin and the realization of the need for undeserved mercy.
- Turning to the LORD from sin.
- Living a life of righteousness.
1. Guilt for sin and the realization of the need for undeserved mercy.
All true repentance begins with the realization that all and every sin is abhorrent to the LORD and that it renders the sinner utterly condemned and without excuse. It is the moment when “How could I have done such a horrible thing?” is uttered mentally or verbally and the weight of its guilt is experienced.
One of the clearest examples of this occurred after Peter preached his first message to the Jews in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost:
Act 2.14, 22-23, 36-38
But Peter, taking his stand with the eleven, raised his voice and declared to them: “Men of Judea and all you who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you and give heed to my words.
“Men of Israel, listen to these words: Jesus the Nazarene, a man attested to you by God with miracles and wonders and signs which God performed through Him in your midst, just as you yourselves know—this Man, delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death.”
Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ—this Jesus whom you crucified.” Now when they heard this, they were pierced to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brethren, what shall we do?” Peter said to them, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
Some of the very Jews who had crucified the Lord Christ 7 weeks earlier finally experienced the full weight of their guilt—they were “pierced to the heart” for their participation in the brutal and bloody murder of the Lord Christ! The crush of their collective sin bore down upon them and for the first time they knew that they stood condemned before the LORD, utterly without any claim to mercy. Their actions regarding the Lord Christ were as inexcusable as they were grave.
They could not claim ignorance: they had seen the gracious works of the Lord Christ for a period of three years. Likely, many in that crowd had personally been healed of various maladies or experienced the miraculous supply of food—and a mere 7 weeks earlier had demanded the murder of the Righteous One as the unholy and violent mob they were. Theirs was an existence driven only by unbounded hate for the Lord Christ despite His patience with them and the daily flow of His mercy upon an astonishingly and thoroughly corrupt people.
But when the truth of Peter’s message was brought in full force to their conscience by the gracious activity of the Holy Spirit, they could only cry out in abject terror: there was no doubt, their guilt was visceral and unrelenting. Their collective cry was:
“Brethren, what shall we do?”
The simple answer was:
Peter said to them, “Repent …”
Another example is found in Luk 18:
And He also told this parable to some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’ I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
We’re not told what events has transpired to bring the tax collector under the conviction of his sin. But once he saw his sin before the LORD, all he could do was to humble himself and cry out for mercy.
True repentance always begins with the genuine realization that one is inexcusably guilty before the LORD for sins committed, sins which were deliberate and committed with the full knowledge of that fact that they were wrong rather than merely the flippant excuse
“Well, I didn’t know that was wrong; no one’s perfect.”
The confession of the truly repentant heart is
“I knew that what I did was wrong but I wickedly did it anyway!
God, please have mercy on me, the sinner!”
The last example for this section is found in Matthew chapter 12 where the Lord Christ teaches us about what happened when the LORD sent Jonah to Ninevah, the capital of the Assyrian empire. It was a very wicked city within a very wicked empire:
The word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh the great city and cry against it, for their wickedness has come up before Me.”
In one of the greatest demonstrations of the longsuffering of the LORD, He sent the prophet Jonah to warn them first. It was a very simple message (and one which Jonah really didn’t want to deliver!):
So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, a three days’ walk. Then Jonah began to go through the city one day’s walk; and he cried out and said, “Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown.”
It really wasn’t even a message to repent—it was the announcement that their destruction was imminent!
The Assyrians “got the message” anyway. Notice what happened:
Then the people of Nineveh believed in God; and they called a fast and put on sackcloth from the greatest to the least of them. When the word reached the king of Nineveh, he arose from his throne, laid aside his robe from him, covered himself with sackcloth and sat on the ashes. He issued a proclamation and it said, “In Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let man, beast, herd, or flock taste a thing. Do not let them eat or drink water. But both man and beast must be covered with sackcloth; and let men call on God earnestly that each may turn from his wicked way and from the violence which is in his hands. Who knows, God may turn and relent and withdraw His burning anger so that we will not perish.”
When God saw their deeds, that they turned from their wicked way, then God relented concerning the calamity which He had declared He would bring upon them. And He did not do it.
That was true repentance! They “turned away from their wicked way” and as a result the LORD relented!
[Bible history will record that later the Assyrians would once again become a corrupt nation. (There won’t be “lasting, global righteousness” until the Lord Christ returns and “rules the earth with a rod of iron”. Psa 2.9; Rev 2.27;12.5;19.15)
The LORD used the Assyrians to punish (and essentially destroy) the Northern Kingdom of Israel for the latter’s rebellion and obstinance. (cf. Isa 10.5-7 and Isa 37.21-22,26-29). The Assyrians would later fall to the Chaldeans for their punishment.]
Before leaving this section on the nature of true repentance, there is yet another aspect of the problem with “backsliding”. In chapter 5 of the epistle to the Hebrews the author chided his readers because they appeared not only to not be maturing in the faith, they seemed to be moving backward!
Concerning him we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food.
He then continued with one of the most terrifying of warnings in the NT:
For in the case of those who have once been enlightened and have tasted of the heavenly gift and have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance, since they again crucify to themselves the Son of God and put Him to open shame. For ground that drinks the rain which often falls on it and brings forth vegetation useful to those for whose sake it is also tilled, receives a blessing from God; but if it yields thorns and thistles, it is worthless and close to being cursed, and it ends up being burned.
By typical definition, the “backslider” is one who made profession of the Christian faith for a time, then has turned away. The “backslider” had “once been enlightened” (note, the text does not say “saved”!) then “[fell] away”.
In the words of this warning, “it is impossible to renew them again to repentance”!
[As you’ll see, it is the position of this article that the vast majority of those who claim to be “backslidden” but still claim to be “Christian”, are lost; they were never really saved in the first place.
This warning in Heb 6 tells us unequivocally that the “backslider” won’t be “renewed again to repentance”. For those who contend that they are currently “backslidden”, this should terrify them.]
Did you notice at the close of this passage the illustration of the rain and expected growth from genuine life? Just as the Lord Christ taught this:
You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they? So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. So then, you will know them by their fruits.
so the author of Heb 6 warns that those who fail to produce true fruit, but produces only “thorns and thistles”, will be destroyed in the judgment.
The application of this warning to the “backslider” should be obvious: to be “backslidden” is to identify with those who “again crucify to themselves the Son of God and put Him to open shame” and place themselves into a position of certain judgment and punishment without possibility of true repentance to salvation.
2. Turning to the LORD from sin.
The second aspect we need to consider about repentance is that the truly repentant sinner turns to the LORD with his/her whole heart and soul. The change should be definite and dramatic, a change will prove to be life-long.
It is impossible for a life which has been “turned around” to be anything but obvious.
The truly repentant sinner will be filled with joy, contentment and wonder that the LORD could forgive someone like him/her. It will be as if a tremendous weight has been removed from their shoulders, that their day is no longer spent under the constant experience of guilt for sins committed.
He/she will truly feel like—indeed, be!— a new person.
A wonderful example is the account of the Ethiopian eunuch who had been in Jerusalem to worship but had not yet heard and understood the gospel of the Lord Christ:
The eunuch answered Philip and said, “Please tell me, of whom does the prophet say this? Of himself or of someone else?” Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning from this Scripture he preached Jesus to him. … And he ordered the chariot to stop; and they both went down into the water, Philip as well as the eunuch, and he baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; and the eunuch no longer saw him, but went on his way rejoicing.
Joy always follows the genuine and repentant reception of the gospel of grace.
The Scripture provides other examples of sinners truly repentant whose lives were arrested and completely turned around. An extraordinary example is that of Saul of Tarsus:
Now Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest, and asked for letters from him to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, both men and women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.
Saul of Tarsus was, perhaps, the most religious of any of his peers among the Pharisees (Phi 3.3-6). He also was the greatest enemy which the early Christians experienced. His hatred for them was truly legendary. (Act 9.13-14):
Now Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest, and asked for letters from him to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, both men and women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.
I was still unknown by sight to the churches of Judea which were in Christ; but only, they kept hearing, “He who once persecuted us is now preaching the faith which he once tried to destroy.” And they were glorifying God because of me.
However, the Lord Christ had other plans for him. Saul was brought to profound repentance and immediately became a tireless and self-sacrificing evangelist:
Now for several days he was with the disciples who were at Damascus, and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.” All those hearing him continued to be amazed, and were saying, “Is this not he who in Jerusalem destroyed those who called on this name, and who had come here for the purpose of bringing them bound before the chief priests?”
His life literally was turned around: what he once hated he now loved, and what he once loved he now hated.
The Apostle, teaching the Corinthians about the resurrection of the Lord Christ, made this stunning comment:
1 Cor 15.3-10a
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles; and last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also. For I am the least of the apostles, and not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me did not prove vain;
Paul demonstrated his true repentance by turning away from his prior evil and served the Lore Christ with his whole being. He never grew tired of reveling in the grace of the LORD which was given to him and faithfully served Him with a ministry that spanned about 25 years (and possibly more).
The apostle Paul traded his power and success in the dead religion of the Pharisees for something of permanent value. Look at this remarkable confession:
But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith, that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death;
This is what it means to be truly repentant!
I challenge anyone who professes to be a “backslider” to reconcile that ridiculous self-claim with this example; you won’t be able to do so. You can’t “backslide” from something you never had. You are still lost in sin and desperately need to repent.
The Thessalonians had the same experience after they were saved:
1 The 1.9-10
For they themselves report about us what kind of a reception we had with you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God, and to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, that is Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath to come.
Here are two additional examples from the book of Acts. The first example occurred during the Apostle Paul’s second missionary journey. A demon-possessed “slave-girl” was a source of considerable income to her “masters” (apparently due to her ability for “fortune telling”); she also had the habit of following Paul and Silas everywhere and became quite a nuisance to their ministry. Finally, Paul commanded the demon to leave her (Act 16.18) which resulted in the loss of income to her masters. Paul and Silas were arrested, beaten and jailed. (Act 16.22-24)
[Something of the principle found here was likely at work:
But to the wicked God says,
“What right have you to tell of My statutes
And to take My covenant in your mouth?
“For you hate discipline,
And you cast My words behind you.
And He healed many who were ill with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and He was not permitting the demons to speak, because they knew who He was.
The LORD speaks through His Word and His people. Those who don't confess Him as LORD have no business telling other lost sinners how glorious the LORD is.]
But the LORD intervened and caused them to be released. The miraculous events that ensued with Paul and Silas while incarcerated and later caused Paul and Silas to be released, afflicted the jailer’s conscience. As a result he experienced guilt for his own sin:
But about midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns of praise to God, and the prisoners were listening to them; and suddenly there came a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison house were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. When the jailer awoke and saw the prison doors opened, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, supposing that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here!” And he called for lights and rushed in, and trembling with fear he fell down before Paul and Silas, and after he brought them out, he said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”
They said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” And they spoke the word of the Lord to him together with all who were in his house. And he took them that very hour of the night and washed their wounds, and immediately he was baptized, he and all his household. And he brought them into his house and set food before them, and rejoiced greatly, having believed in God with his whole household.
The jailer demonstrated his true repentance by turning away from what he had done and turned to the LORD by personally helping Paul and Silas. Given the civil unrest which caused Paul and Silas to be imprisoned, the jailer took a huge, personal risk. But, his life was unmistakably turned around.
The second example is what occurred in Ephesus as a result of the Apostle Paul’s preaching of the gospel. It was, apparently, a center of the “black arts” at that time, but when the gospel of repentance and grace was unleashed there something wondrous happened:
This became known to all, both Jews and Greeks, who lived in Ephesus; and fear fell upon them all and the name of the Lord Jesus was being magnified. Many also of those who had believed kept coming, confessing and disclosing their practices. And many of those who practiced magic brought their books together and began burning them in the sight of everyone; and they counted up the price of them and found it fifty thousand pieces of silver. So the word of the Lord was growing mightily and prevailing.
The lives of those saved by the gospel, brought to true repentance, no longer had any use for their silver idols—or anything else associated with their former idolatry. Their lives had been turned from sin to the LORD.
3. Living a life of righteousness.
Just as in our natural life, all Christians start as “babes in Christ” (1 Cor 3.1) and must grow in maturity. It is beyond the purpose of this article to detail the powerful doctrine of sanctification, which is the process of “growing in grace” and causing one’s life to conform to holiness. Let it suffice here to say that sanctification is the basis for the Bible citations which follow.
A good place to start is with the Corinthian church. The two epistles to the Corinthians provide considerable insight into this troubled church. When you read the Corinthian epistles you are struck with their endemic carelessness and immaturity, such as this excerpt from the third chapter:
1 Cor 3.1-3
And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual men, but as to men of flesh, as to infants in Christ. I gave you milk to drink, not solid food; for you were not yet able to receive it. Indeed, even now you are not yet able, for you are still fleshly. For since there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not fleshly, and are you not walking like mere men?
[I recommend as a very valuable study a thorough read of both of the Corinthian epistles. Not only do the Corinthians not tend to improve over time, they seem to move in the wrong direction. Note especially the insidious effects of Jewish legalism and the increasingly severe warnings by the Apostle in chapters 10 through 13 of the second epistle. It appears by the end of the second epistle that the permanent and total collapse of the Corinthian church was imminent as they moved increasingly farther from the gospel of repentance and grace.]
True Christians are not automatically holy in all aspects of their life from the moment of their salvation in Christ!
The justification (declaration) “by grace through faith” can’t be earned; it is the work of the LORD alone. In direct contrast, however, sanctification is a joint work of the LORD with us: we can’t become sanctified without both our full effort and the LORD’s help.
This Bible fact is the basis for the repeated commands to live holy lives:
The night is almost gone, and the day is near. Therefore let us lay aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us behave properly as in the day, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual promiscuity and sensuality, not in strife and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh in regard to its lusts.
So this I say, and affirm together with the Lord, that you walk no longer just as the Gentiles also walk, in the futility of their mind, being darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart; and they, having become callous, have given themselves over to sensuality for the practice of every kind of impurity with greediness. But you did not learn Christ in this way, if indeed you have heard Him and have been taught in Him, just as truth is in Jesus, that, in reference to your former manner of life, you lay aside the old self, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit, and that you be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth.
Therefore, laying aside falsehood, speak truth each one of you with his neighbor, for we are members of one another. Be angry, and yet do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not give the devil an opportunity. He who steals must steal no longer; but rather he must labor, performing with his own hands what is good, so that he will have something to share with one who has need. Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear. Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.
And although you were formerly alienated and hostile in mind, engaged in evil deeds, yet He has now reconciled you in His fleshly body through death, in order to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach—if indeed you continue in the faith firmly established and steadfast, and not moved away from the hope of the gospel that you have heard
Therefore consider the members of your earthly body as dead to immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed, which amounts to idolatry. For it is because of these things that the wrath of God will come upon the sons of disobedience, and in them you also once walked, when you were living in them. But now you also, put them all aside: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive speech from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, since you laid aside the old self with its evil practices, and have put on the new self who is being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the One who created him …
Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us … You have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood in your striving against sin;
This you know, my beloved brethren. But everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger; for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God. Therefore, putting aside all filthiness and all that remains of wickedness, in humility receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls. But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves.
1 Pet 2.1-3
Therefore, putting aside all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander, like newborn babies, long for the pure milk of the word, so that by it you may grow in respect to salvation, if you have tasted the kindness of the Lord.
These texts demonstrate the constant tension which exists in the Christian life; true Christians are those who have repented of their sins and renounce them, but nonetheless experience the constant pull to return to the previous life of sin.
The Apostle Paul highlighted this principle of the “flesh” vs. the “spirit” (hinted at in 1 Cor 3.1-3 above) relatively early in his evangelistic ministry. Note the juxtaposition of the “[life] in the flesh” and the “[life] of faith”:
I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.
Until death or the resurrection of life takes place (whichever occurs first), the Christian will be tempted to sin; we “live in the flesh”. However, that is not the end of the matter: “live in the flesh by faith in the Son of God” we overcome the irrevocable pull of the flesh to sin.