Repentance is both the beginning of the Christian life and its continuation. While our place in Christ is doubtlessly secured when we come to Him in faith, part of what it means to be in Christ is to routinely and readily reject sin as the Holy Spirit makes us aware of it. As we read our Bibles and come to a greater knowledge of God’s holiness, He reveals sin to us that we had been ignorant of before as well as sin that arises from new temptations. A healthy Christian walk involves a habit of self-examination and repentance as we steadily draw nearer to Christ.
Repentance is a key doctrine of Christian faith. From John the Baptist’s wilderness cry in the Gospels (Matt. 3:2, Mark 1:4, Luke 3:3) to Paul’s defense before King Agrippa (Acts 26:20) and beyond, it’s a regular topic of the New Testament’s teaching. In fact, right after His resurrection, Jesus told His disciples, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations” (Luke 24:46–47). A call to repentance, the Lord said, is a fundamental part of Gospel proclamation.
Nevertheless, many Christians don’t seem to understand what repentance is, and even those who believe it’s important tend to embrace an incomplete picture. Some dark and gloomy churches constantly urge confession of sin but never offer the adequate cure. Others urge us to “let go and let God,” rightly treating Jesus as the antidote to loneliness and purposelessness but never really confronting the overarching problem He came to deal with: our sin.
In contrast to both of those incomplete pictures, biblical repentance is a fundamental life change that requires both a turning from sin and a turning to God. It involves both a change of mind and heart and a change of behavior. As we come to understand the fullness of repentance, we can begin to grasp its importance for our Christian walk and ask ourselves the key question: “Have I truly repented?”
Biblical Repentance Means Turning from Sin
Human beings are sinners. We all walk according to our own self-centered concerns unless God renews our hearts. While there may be a religious component to our lives—we may attend church frequently or do good works—at our core we are each going our own way (Isa. 53:6). But if we discover God’s holiness revealed in His law and commandments, we will recognize that we are not meeting God’s standard of right living. Because of that, we are guilty before Him.
It’s common today to suppose that any sense of guilt is counterproductive and wrong. While there is a pathological sense of guilt from which we need to be set free, we also do indeed bear real guilt before God. When we sense this guilt, we shouldn’t ignore it, nor should we think we have done enough simply by feeling it. We need to respond to it. Understanding our guilt opens the door to the possibility of forgiveness and liberation as we turn from the sin that made us guilty in the first place.
A biblical response to guilt involves an internal change first and an external change second. The Westminster Confession describes this well when it says, “A sinner, out of the sight and sense, not only of the danger, but also of the filthiness and odiousness of his sins, as contrary to the holy nature and righteous law of God, and upon the apprehension of His mercy in Christ to such as are penitent, so grieves for, and hates his sins…” This is an internal response to sin, a change in outlook and affections. And it results in a change of behavior: “… so grieves for, and hates his sins, as to turn from them all.”1 Repentance, in other words, is more than simply sorrow at having been found out or regret for bad choices in the past. Godly sorrow for our sin will cause us to hate sin and to turn and seek to do right (2 Cor. 7:10).
Biblical Repentance Means Turning to God
Of course, we may understand our predicament before God, come to a point of remorse, and reject our former sin and yet not be fully repentant. It is not enough that we only turn from sin; we must also turn to God. As the Westminster Confession continues its definition of repentance, it says this very thing: “A sinner … grieves for, and hates his sins, so as to turn from them all unto God, purposing and endeavoring to walk with Him in all the ways of His commandments.”
Sin is not a problem that human beings can overcome in their own power.