What is Repentance?
Mark 1:15 states, “repent and believe in the gospel.” Jesus commanded that “repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations” (Luke 24:47). No one is excluded from this command: “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30). What is repentance? How are we to understand repentance as the means by which forgiveness is attained? This article will focus on repentance as it relates to our justification.
In some religious systems, repentance involves carrying out works and performing certain ordinances in order to be brought into right standing with God and to receive the forgiveness of sins. In certain religious systems, once this “status” is achieved, it can also be lost at any given time when one transgresses. Repentance back into good standing may include an extended period of probation in which the perpetrator is not allowed to serve God, out of His favor—and through weeks or months of probationary penitence and works—must once again prove himself “worthy” of God’s forgiveness. Can such an approach be biblical, though?
The most common rendering of the Hebrew word, shub, in the Old Testament, sometimes translated as “repent,” is “turn,” or “return.” In the New Testament, the Greek word most often translated as “repent” or “repentance” is metanoeo. This word is derived from the roots meta (to change place or condition) and noeo (to exercise the mind, think, comprehend). In a few instances, the Greek word metamelomai (to feel regret) is also translated as repentance. One might say repentance includes a change of mind, thought, attitude, and direction: a turning away from one thing and towards something else, resulting in a changed condition, state, or standing.
Repentance leading to justification is a one-time occurrence. Repentance and belief in the Gospel can perhaps be viewed as two sides of the same coin. It can be argued the two go hand in hand, a work of the Holy Spirit occurring practically simultaneously, at the moment of regeneration. You can’t have the one without the other. Repentance leading to eternal life is a complete gift of grace and not a work—granted by God—and has everything to do with a change of mind about oneself and Christ: a change of mind about oneself in that one comes to acknowledge his sinful, wretched, and condemned state—and therefore his need for a Savior—and secondly, a change of mind about Christ in that one embraces Jesus as his only hope for salvation, trusting in Christ’s finished work on his behalf for salvation. It’s a turning from trusting in oneself to trusting in Jesus alone for eternal life, from dead works to the living Christ, and from the first Adam (man) to the last Adam (Jesus).
Acts 3:19 states, “repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord.” In Luke we read that “repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem” (Luke 24:47). In both of these passages, repentance is connected with the removal or forgiveness of sins. So what is repentance for the forgiveness of sins?
Repentance for justification (forgiveness) must be understood as it relates coming to faith in Jesus. For without faith in Jesus, there is no forgiveness of sins. Faith in Jesus is what saves. This is evident in the fact that in many Bible passages dealing with salvation, repentance is not mentioned but faith alone used to describe the means to salvation. The Philippian Jailers asked, “What must I do to be saved?” Paul and Silas responded, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31). Peter preached that “to him (Jesus) all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (Acts 10:43). In fact, the entire Gospel of John never even once uses the term “repent”. However, this book was “written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31).
This is where it is vital to understand what repentance is, and what it is not in regards to attaining justification. If repentance unto eternal life is to be understood as the act of man forsaking his sin, then we have a problem. Is forgiveness of sins attained through our ability to forsake sin, or by the blood of Jesus, received by faith (Romans 3:25)?
After all, scripture teaches that our redemption is the forgiveness of our sins (Col. 1:14), and that we aren’t saved through works—not of our own doing but by grace through faith (Eph. 2:8-9). Rather, we are “justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by is blood, to be received by faith” (Romans 3:24-25). To believe that forgiveness of sins can be earned by one’s efforts or can be taken away once received is unhealthy, unscriptural, and an assault on the bloodied cross of Christ, through which a true believer in Jesus has forgiveness for all sin: past, present, and future. Justification ensures the forgiveness of sins from God, which is received at spiritual-rebirth as a gift of grace through faith, once for all, for that saved Christian (Eph. 1:13).
Forgiveness of sins therefore cannot be earned, and cannot be taken away once received (Eph. 2:8-9; Romans 11:23). Scripture teaches that “in him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace” (Eph. 1:7). “Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin” (Hebrews 10:18). If this attained forgiveness was only partial or could be taken away every time a person sinned, there would need to be an offering for that sin once again. But as it is, Jesus “offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins” (Hebrews 10:12). It’s by His offering we are cleansed and perfected: “for by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified” (Hebrews 10:14).
In regards to positional justification, those in Christ have had their sins cast “into the depth of the sea” (Micah 7:19), removed from them as far as the east is from the west (Psalm 103:12). In other words, for those in Christ, the Lord no longer counts their sins against them. Rather, their sins are forgiven and covered (Romans 4:7-8). Those in Christ have passed from death to life, from judgment to justification (John 5:24). Those in Christ have peace with God “by the blood of his cross”, which is their justification (Col. 1:20; Romans 5:1). Repentance unto justification (for the forgiveness of sins) cannot be understood in any way that takes away from the cross of Christ thereby opposing the Gospel.
Repentance for the forgiveness of sins must therefore be a turning away from oneself and toward Christ, trusting in the blood of Jesus alone to cleanse sin. Of course, this should result in an attitude in which the newly justified believer in Jesus seeks to live for God and not for himself and sin (Romans 6:1-2). But the forsaking of sin comes as a result of the transforming power of the Gospel, not a prerequisite for salvation. For how can anything good come from someone “dead in their trespasses in sins” (Eph. 2:1)? The work of repentance for the forgiveness of sins must be a gift of grace, initiated by the work of the Holy Spirit to convict a person of sin and draw him into faith in the Gospel.
Let’s see a concrete example where this plays out in scripture. The Gentiles first received the Gospel through the preaching of Peter in Acts chapter 10. In reporting this miraculous salvation event to the church in the next chapter, Peter recounts that, while preaching the Gospel, the Holy Spirit fell on those Gentiles when they believed in the Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 11:15, 17). The Church’s response was to glorify God and say, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life” (verse 18). Let it be noted that the church ascribes Peter’s description of the Gentiles believing on the Lord Jesus and receiving the Holy Spirit as God granting them repentance that leads to life. This is interesting to me, making repentance in this instance appear to be synonymous with believing the Gospel and receiving the Holy Spirit. Also interesting to note is that God is the one who grants the repentance (Acts 11:18), making it a work of God and not of man. God is the one who brings us to repentance (Acts 5:31).
Now let’s go to Acts 10, where Luke records the event: Peter was preaching, “’to him (Jesus) all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.’ While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word” (Acts 10:43-44). Acts chapter 10 does not mention repentance. Peter does not command the people to repent here. Yet they are instantly given salvation when they hear the Gospel and believe. If repentance unto salvation was a prerequisite work that necessitated forsaking sin before you could receive salvation, then Acts chapter 10:43-44 would make no sense. Therefore, repentance for justification must be understood in other terms.
The Gospel that saves us is that “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3-4). It’s fairly logical to understand that in order to believe in the Good News, one must first come to grips with the bad news: our sin and state of condemnation outside of Christ. How can you fully trust in a Savior if you have no reason to think you need one? How can you believe Jesus died for your sins to save you if you don’t believe you’re a sinner? The Holy Spirit helps a sinner do that, convicting that person of sin, righteousness, and judgment (John 16:8). The sinner learns that their sin is committed against God.
Take King David, who after having gone into Bathsheba and having been confronted by Nathan the prophet, exclaimed: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin! For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight” (Psalm 51:1-4). David recognizes that he had sinned against God, and that he needed God’s mercy and cleansing. The fact that David issues a plea for mercy reveals his understanding that judgment is associated with sin. His reliance for becoming cleansed from sin is utterly on God’s mercy, and not his own ability. He asks for God to wash him, for God to cleanse him. This is the type of attitude that accompanies a repentant sinner: the type of repentance that leads to justification.
Compare this with Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and tax collector in Luke chapter 18. Two men went to the temple to pray. The Pharisee was self-righteous and thanked God he was not like other sinners. The tax collector, however, “standing far off, would not even lift his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, me merciful to me, a sinner!’” Jesus says “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:14). The tax collector, like David in the previous example, confesses himself as a sinner and pleads for God’s mercy. God says through Isaiah, “But this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word” (Isaiah 66:2). Scripture also teaches that “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (James4:6).
Let’s look at one more parable. The parable of the Prodigal Son is preceded by Jesus stating, “there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents (Luke 15:10). This parable is Jesus’ telling of a son who squandered away his father’s inheritance in a foreign land. At some point while in the foreign land, he “came to himself” and realized he was perishing. He determined to return to his father saying, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” (Luke 15:17-18). Such is the attitude a repentant sinner ought to have before God.
Repentance seems to involve a supernatural and internal revelation from God about one’s sin contrasted against God’s holiness, as shown in Job’s repentance: “…my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:5-6). The gravity of having sinned against God certainly hit Israel like a freight train in Acts chapter 2, when “they were cut to the heart” after learning they had crucified their Messiah (Acts 2:37). They asked, “What shall we do,” And Peter said to them, ‘Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:37-38). God calls us to repentance from dead works and idols, and faith toward God (Rev. 9:20; Hebrews 6:1).
Implied in David’s, the tax collector’s, the prodigal son’s, and Job’s repentance was a godly sorrow for their sin. Metanoeo, meaning a change of mind, is the Greek word most often translated as “repent” or “repentance” in the New Testament. In some instances, however, the Greek wordmetamelomai is also rendered “repentance.” This word means to feel regret, and is used by Jesus in the following statement: “John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent (metamelomai) and believe him” (Matthew 21:32). Paul says, “For godly grief produces a repentance (metanoeo—change of mind)that leads to salvation without regret” (2 Cor. 7:10). While godly grief should accompany a genuine repentance, extreme sorrow and penitence is not what saves a person. That person must turn to Jesus Christ and believe in the Gospel. The hope is that godly sorrow for sin would lead a person to faith in Jesus. But Judas was an example in which feeling regret for sin did not lead to faith in Jesus—perhaps it was a worldly sorrow which produces death, and not a godly sorrow (2 Cor. 7:10). He betrayed Jesus and was overcome with remorse (metamelomai) in Matthew 27:3. Rather than repenting by believing in Jesus, however, he hung himself.
But repentance leading to justification is a beautiful thing. By the power of the Holy Spirit, we who have come into salvation through repentance have metaphorically beat our breasts in shame, coming to despise our wrongful deeds (Romans 12:9). We’ve trembled at the thought of having sinned against God and stirred up his wrath against us (Phil. 2:12; Romans 2:5; Psalm 51:4; Isaiah 66:2). We’ve embraced the Good News that Jesus died for our sins and rose from the grave, having put our faith in Him alone. Our hearts embrace the Gospel, having received the forgiveness of sins through faith in the name of Jesus (Acts 10:43). God has given us a new heart and a new Spirit (Ezekiel 36:26-27), and began a work in us that He will bring to completion at the day of Jesus Christ (Phil. 1:6).
A Christian, once saved, is called to bear fruits in keeping with repentance (Matthew 3:8; Acts 26:20). These fruits should be evident, and in alignment with the fruits of the Spirit. This is because the Holy Spirit indwells Christians. Paul teaches, “but the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Gal. 5:22). We are called to love one another: “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love” (1 John 4:7-8).
A big way to demonstrate our love to God and our fellow man is to fulfill the Great Commission. We are commanded to “go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation” (Mark 16:15). Jesus said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:16-20).
In conclusion, we see that repentance for the forgiveness of sins (justification) is a gift of grace granted by God and occurring once for all when a person, convicted by his sin and having heard the Gospel, turns to faith in Jesus for salvation. Once a person is justified, he is eternally forgiven and saved from the eternal consequence of sin. In the practical walk of sanctification, Christians are called to good works in keeping with repentance. These good works include loving God, loving others, and fulfilling the great commission.