What Does It Mean to Repent?

What Does It Mean to Repent?

Today, there seems to be a large amount of confusion surrounding the doctrine of repentance. What does it mean to repent? How do you do it? Is it required for salvation? Is it a work? It is important for us that we have a right understanding of repentance, but in order to do that, we first need to understand the problem of sin.

The Problem of Sin
Generally speaking, the word sin is an archery term meaning “a failure to hit the mark”—to “sin” the target is to miss the bullseye. However, we understand it to be a religious word, reflecting moral or ethical failing. Whereas God’s righteousness can be understood to be at the center of the proverbial bullseye, any failure to hit the center is sin. These days, however, we often treat sin as if it were some innocuous scuff in the cosmic continuum. We tend not to regard sin as a very serious thing. We misunderstand its significance and underestimate its power.   Moreover, what we perceive to be a minor sin is actually a savage attack on the righteous character of God. And so, God punishes even the smallest infraction with severe and righteous judgment—an eternity in hell. The Bible teaches that “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23), and further, that “all have sinned” (Rom. 3:23); none are truly righteous.

Once again, if the center bullseye is God’s perfect holiness, then to sin the target is to fail to achieve His righteous standard. But more than simply failing to hit a mark, the apostle John tells us that “sin is lawlessness” (1 John 3:4). Further, “[a sin] consists in doing, saying, thinking, or imagining, anything that is not in perfect conformity with the mind and law of God.”[1] More than being simply a series of flaws, missteps, peccadillos, or blunders, sin is a serious affront to the goodness and holiness of God. It is an attack on the throne of the King. To God, sin is not a light thing; it is an immense evil that is destined to be judged and eradicated.

But, if all are guilty of sinning against God, and His only course of action is divine condemnation, how is there any hope?

Enter Jesus Christ.

The Forgiveness of Sin through Christ
The Lord Jesus Christ, who is Himself God in human flesh (John 1:1-3, 14), came to earth and lived in perfect obedience to every law of God, thus perfectly fulfilling the divine standard. Jesus lived sinlessly (2 Cor. 5:21; Heb. 4:15; 1 Pet. 2:22), and thereby gave Himself up to be killed as an atoning sacrifice—a propitiation—for sin (1 John 2:2). Being the only acceptable sacrifice for sin, Jesus Christ died in the place of sinners as a substitute (1 Pet. 2:24), paying a ransom to the Father; redeeming us from the curse of the law (Gal. 3:13). Through the sacrificial death of Jesus, we can have our sins forgiven by God (Col. 2:13), and we are justified—declared pardoned and righteous by God, even though we’re guilty and unrighteous (Rom. 3:28; Gal. 2:16).

It is the work of Jesus Christ on the cross that makes the forgiveness of sin possible for us. And not only forgiveness, but reconciliation to God—the restoration of relationship. Paul writes, “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life” (Rom. 5:8-10).

How do we receive His forgiveness? It comes through repentance.

The Need for Repentance
In the Old Testament, a word commonly used for repentance is shub, meaning “to change a course of action, to turn away, or to turn back.”[2] The word was often used to refer to a geographical return, as in the return of God’s people from exile. However, it was also used to articulate a spiritual return to God.

In the New Testament, the word repentance is the Greek word metanoia, which literally means “afterthought” and has to do with a change of mind. Sinclair Ferguson defines repentance as “a change of mind that leads to a change of lifestyle.”[3] Puritan Thomas Watson notes that “Repentance is a grace of God’s Spirit whereby a sinner is inwardly humbled and visibly reformed.”[4] John MacArthur offers an even more nuanced definition: “It is a redirection of the human will, a purposeful decision to forsake all unrighteousness and pursue righteousness instead.”[5]

The Elements of Repentance
While defining repentance is helpful and necessary, it will be of even more value to us if we understand the various elements of repentance. It’s important to note that simply feeling sorry for sin is not by itself repentance. Often times, the kneejerk reaction of sorrow is tied more to the fact that a person has been caught and have to suffer penalty; not that one is sorry over the sin itself. And so, in order to shepherd us into a right understanding of repentance, we must see that there are three main elements.

The first is intellectual. At a certain point, one needs to recognize that they’ve sinned. God’s command has been transgressed and rebellion is taking place. It’s a mental acknowledgment; a realization. This is what it means to “come to your senses” (cf. Luke 15:17). After all, the New Testament Greek word metanoia pertains mostly to the mind, as it comes to the awareness of sin and experiences a change in thinking. King David, after sinning with Bathsheba, wrote “I acknowledged my sin to you, and did not cover my iniquity” (Ps. 32:5). John MacArthur writes “repentance begins with a recognition of sin—the understanding that we are sinners, that our sin is an affront to a holy God, and more precisely, that we are personally responsible for our own guilt.”[6] One of the biggest problems we face is an inability, even an unwillingness, to recognize and admit our own guilt over sin. However, we must call it what it is and be prepared to follow through with what we have purposed in our mind.

The second is emotional. This is where the feelings enter into the equation. It’s important to note that remorse over our current situation isn’t necessarily a sign of true repentance, but there needs to be genuine sorrow over our sin (2 Cor. 7:9-11) and over transgressing God’s law. As a Christian believer, we should be deeply troubled that we have offended God with our transgression. Further, we have broken communion with Him. Again, David declares to the Lord, “For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it… The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Ps. 51:16a-17). God wants us broken and mourning over our sin. That is the mark of true repentance. But there is still more.

The third is volitional. This is an act of the will. Surely the first step is the confession of sin; working in league with the first part—the intellect—to realize and own up to the sin. Louis Berkhof notes that there is “a volitional element, consisting in a change of purpose, an inward turning away from sin, and a disposition to seek pardon and cleansing.”[7]

When King Solomon set out to dedicate the new temple, the Lord came to him and affirmed the promise of the covenant, that if the people obeyed, they would receive divine blessing. The Lord told him, “If My people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land” (2 Chron. 7:14, emphasis mine). A definite turning must occur, otherwise there is no visible evidence of repentance (see Matt. 3:8)!

Repentance and Faith
We must remember that it is not by repentance that we are saved—it is by faith alone in Jesus Christ (Rom. 3:28; Gal. 2:16; Eph. 2:8-9).  In fact, Richard Owen Roberts writes, “Repentance is not the entry ticket into the kingdom of God, but it is a condition of citizenship.”[8] However, the link between the two is unbreakable, as “repentance and faith are wed together, never to be divorced. True repentance does not stand alone but is always linked with true faith. True faith does not stand alone but is always linked with true repentance.”[9] By faith, a step away from the rebellion of sin is also a step toward obedience to God. Louis Berkhof writes, 

[T]rue repentance never exists except in conjunction with faith, while, on the other hand, wherever there is true faith, there is also real repentance. The two are but different aspects of the same turning, -- a turning away from sin in the direction of God… the two cannot be separated; they are simply complementary parts of the same process.[10]

By faith, we recognize and trust that God is who He says He is and what He has revealed is good, right, and true. By faith, we repent of transgressing His perfect law. By faith, we trust that what He has promised to those who obey is greater than the short-sighted kick we get from sin, as a lifetime of unrepentant sin condemns us to hell. By faith, we repent; our repentance is a fruit of our faith. So there can be no confusion, Roberts asserts, “Both repentance and faith are mandatory to salvation. You must turn from your sin in order to turn to Jesus Christ. You cannot turn to Christ unless you have turned from your sin. Repentance and faith belong together. Any attempt to separate them is a grievous mistake.”[11]

What is God’s promise to us with regards to repentance? “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). The promise is two-fold; He will forgive our sins, removing our transgressions from us (cf. Ps. 103:12; Col. 2:14) and will cleanse us, washing us from the inside out, restoring our souls (Ps. 51:7; Eph. 5:26-27; Titus 3:5). While sin must be confessed because of its sheer offense to God, He is also gracious in desiring to forgive and restore us.

 [1] J.C. Ryle, Holiness: Its Nature, Hindrances, Difficulties, and Roots. (1879, reprinted; Darlington: Evangelical Press, 1979), 2.

[2] Sinclair Ferguson, The Grace of Repentance. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), 15-16.

[3] Ferguson, The Grace of Repentance, 18.

[4] Thomas Watson, The Doctrine of Repentance. (1668, reprinted; Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1987), 18.

[5] John MacArthur, The Gospel According to Jesus. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1988), 178.

[6] MacArthur, The Gospel According to Jesus, 179.

[7] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1939), 486.

[8] Richard Owen Roberts, Repentance: The First Word of the Gospel. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2002), 28.

[9] Roberts, Repentance, 68.

[10] Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 487.

[11] Roberts, Repentance, 70.

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