Over 500 years ago, when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg, the first thesis explicitly reminded the reader of that truth:
“When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said “Repent,” he intended that the entire life of believers should be repentance.”
So one ingredient of a vibrant Christian life is repentance. Turning from sin and trusting in the good news that Jesus saves sinners should be a continual principle operating in our lives. The gospel is not a message we move on from but is essential for every day and every moment, bringing conviction, grace, forgiveness, and power.
What is repentance?
A basic biblical definition is: “Repentance is a change of heart that leads to a change in the direction of life”. One of the clearest summaries of what repentance looks like can be found in the book of Joel:
“"Now, therefore," says the Lord, "Turn to Me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning." So rend your heart, and not your garments; return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness; and He relents from doing harm” (Joel 2:12-13).
Notice that God does not call disobedient people to tear their garments (external behaviour) but to tear their heart (sorrow for sin with an accompanying desire to change). Changing external behaviour in word or deed without the necessary internal change (belief, thoughts, motives, and desires) is akin to sticking apples on an orange tree. The fruit may look different, but the root is unchanged. Similarly, with repentance the heart is the issue. When the heart is profoundly changed the consequence will be a change of action. If the heart is unchanged then any behavioural adjustments will be temporary.
The second thing we can notice in the passage is true repentance is rewarded with wonderful and gracious promises from a faithful God. He will show grace, mercy, and patience. The gospel message is filled with hope for the repentant believer.
What are the signs of genuine repentance?
Paul, in writing to the Corinthians, states that there is “godly sorrow” and “sorrow of the world”:
“For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death” (2 Corinthians 7:10).
Godly sorrow honours God, trusts in the grace of the Lord Jesus and is enabled by the indwelling Holy Spirit. It comes from a change of heart that has thought differently and produced deeds in line with that change. Examples of those who showed “godly sorrow” include Joseph’s brothers (Genesis 42-45) and the Corinthian believers (2 Corinthians 7).
The “sorrow of the world” has not honoured God and is often associated with remorse over the consequences of sin. Judas (Matthew 27) and Esau (Genesis 27) are examples of individuals who displayed “the sorrow of the world”.
Is there any way I can make a judgement about my repentance? How can I know it is not just remorse? How can I discern if someone else’s repentance is genuine? I will suggest four tests that we can use to help answer those questions.
The repentant person will be sickened by their sin.
If I am truly repentant about my sin, I will not treat it as a small issue. Psalm 51 details David’s repentance towards God. He acknowledged that his sin was significant and that, although he had wronged many people, it was primarily and ultimately against God.
A simple “Sorry”, with no consideration of any required change, is like sweeping the problem under the carpet. It may join an increasing pile “under the carpet” that will one day cause a major stumble. It is worth noticing that in Psalm 51 David was dependent on the Lord to change him, knowing that the heart was where the change was required:
“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10).
The repentant person will seek to right wrongs.
If I am repulsed by my sin and am genuinely repentant, I will seek to right any wrongs. The classic example of this is seen in the life of Zacchaeus (Luke 19), when he saw his sin from God’s perspective and sought to pay back those whom he had wronged. The Lord Jesus confirmed the genuineness of this repentance.
Similarly, the repentant believer will, as far as possible, make restitution. If I communicated sinfully to another person I will not only tell them I am sorry but will inform them what I am sorry for. If I slandered someone’s character to others, then I will seek to tell all those to whom I spoke that my words were incorrect.
A good rule in this matter is to genuinely repent and seek forgiveness in the sphere in which the offence occurred. Thus, if I had immoral thoughts about someone, I would confess that to God but there would be no need to tell the person concerned. Likewise, words spoken to one individual do not require confession to a wider group. However, if my actions impacted a wider group then I should apologize to that whole group and be diligent to demonstrate to them all my repentant attitude.
The repentant person will not apologise conditionally.
I have too many childhood memories of having to apologise for bad behaviour. Oftentimes the instruction was given for the quarrelling parties to say “sorry” to each other. If one party did not utter that one short word, then neither would the other.
The attitude and actions of the believer should be quite different from my childish ways. Instead of seeking a reciprocal apology we should unreservedly and unconditionally repent of wrong actions. Although we may also have been wronged by the person(s) we are repentant towards, our thoughts and actions should not be predicated on the actions of others.
True repentance will be marked by an unconditional and complete apology, as far as possible, to all we have sinned against.
The repentant person will change their behaviour.
When the heart is changed there will be behavioural change. The church at Corinth, although not perfect, did manifest the change that the Holy Spirit produces:
“Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:9-11).
In the past they had practised all manner of sin but now, due to the indwelling Holy Spirit, they had the power to say “No” to these practices. These sins no longer characterised their lives.
Permanent, God-honouring change can only be produced by the Holy Spirit but needs the co-operation of the believer. For example, if I am convicted that I have not been using my time in a way that honours God, then I will need to confess that to Him, knowing that my sin has not made God love me less and I will be forgiven based upon the finished work of the Lord Jesus.
“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).
However, as genuine repentance is a change of heart that leads to a change in the direction of life, then my use of time will now be different. I will think and believe differently about how I use it and my actions will be the fruit of my new thinking. If there is no change of action then there has been no repentance.
True repentance can only be witnessed over a period of time but these four tests will help in identifying its reality in a believer’s life.