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What is Repentance and How Do I Do It?

Not many people talk about repentance in our day – even in the church. But repentance is an essential theme in Scripture. The words repent, repents, repented, and repentance appear over 70 times in the Bible. Repentance was the message that Jesus went about proclaiming: "Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near" (Matthew 3:2). Repentance is the message that the apostles preached on the first day of Pentecost: "Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins."

And repentance isn't just for unbelievers. Repentance is an activity for believers which we continually practice as we fall into sin: "Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent" (Revelation 3:19; see also Luke 17:3-4; 2 Corinthians 7:9-10; 2 Peter 3:9; Revelation 2:5,16,22; 3:3).

What Is Repentance?

Some people teach that repentance merely means "changing your mind" and has nothing to do with changing your heart or sorrowing over your sin or hating your sin. It is true that the Greek word for repentance metanoia is made up of the two words meta meaning "change" and nous meaning "mind," but to say that this is all the word means would be to commit the root meaning fallacy.

The root meaning fallacy is described in D. A. Carson's book Exegetical Fallacies:

One of the most enduring fallacies, the root fallacy presupposes that every word actually has a meaning bound up with its shape or its components. In this view, meaning is determined by etymology; that is by the roots of a word. How many times have we been told that because the verbal cognate of apostolos (apostle) is apostello (I send), the root meaning of "apostle" is "one who is sent."? In the preface of the New King James Bible, we are told that the literal meaning of monogenes is "only begotten." Is that true? How often do preachers refer to the verb agapao (to love), contrast it with phileo (to love) and deduce that the text is saying something about a special kind of loving, for no other reason than that agapao is used?

All of this is linguistic nonsense. We might have guessed as much if we were more acquainted with the etymology of English words. Anthony C. Thistleton offers by way of example our word nice, which comes from the Latin nescius, meaning "ignorant." Our "good-by" is a contraction for Anglo-Saxon "God be with you." Now it may be possible to trace out diachronically just how nesciusnice became "nice"; it is certainly easy to imagine how "God be with you" came to be "good-by." But I know of no one today who in saying that such and such a person is "nice" believes that he or she has in some measure labeled that person ignorant because the "root meaning" or "hidden meaning" or "literal meaning" of "nice" is "ignorant."

The same caution should be applied when we talk about the root meaning of the Greek word "repentance." The root meaning points you in the right direction, but it doesn't go far enough. To the idea of the root meaning we need to add all background of repentance in the Old Testament. Repentance was something that God had spoken about on many occasions before and hence the word has a richer context and meaning than simply "changing ones mind." In fact, repentance had much more to do with the heart, than the mind, in Hebrew thinking (1 Kings 8:47). We also need to allow Jesus and the apostles to define the word for us.

So what is repentance? The following six items come from Thomas Watson (a famous Puritan) who wrote about repentance. Please read this with an open Bible, so you can read each Scripture:

1. Seeing your sin – 1 John 1:8,10.
2. Sorrowing over your sin – We must do more than admit it. We must internally engage with it. Psalm 51:17; Isaiah 57:15; 2 Corinthians 7:9.
3. Confessing your sin – We must put our sin into words and agree with God that what we did was wrong. Psalm 51:4; Hosea 14:1-3; 2 Corinthians 7:11; 1 John 1:9.
4. Being ashamed of your sin – Watson: “blushing is the color of virtue.” Jeremiah 6:15; 31:19.
5. Hating your sin – Job 42:5-6.
6. Turning from your sin – Watson: “Reformation is left last to bring up the rear of repentance. It is not the heart of repentance, but the fruit of repentance.” Matthew 3:7-8; Acts 26:20.
1. At the very least, this means removing yourself as much as possible from places of temptation (Proverbs 4:14-17).
2. If your sin was against other people, then you must go to them and ask their forgiveness (Matthew 5:23-24).
3. If the sin involves stealing, then restitution must be made (Luke 19:8).

Repentance is necessary for God to forgive us (Acts 2:38; 3:19; 8:22). Forgiveness will not happen until these take place. If we do not repent we will perish (Luke 13:1-5).

Do We Have Help Repenting?

This may surprise you, but repentance is not something we do by ourselves. Repentance is not purely our work. Repentance is something that God must do in us. The Bible tells us that "God grants repentance" (2 Timothy 2:25-26; Acts 11:18). You can only repent when the Holy Spirit has brought you conviction.

The Christian life would be very much simpler if we grasped that it consists of working together with whatever the Holy Spirit is seeking to do in and with us. We should live life in sensitivity to whatever God is doing in our lives and collaborate actively with Him. Repentance consists of quitting my resistance to the Holy Spirit, seeing matters God's way, and going along with the process that God is doing in me.

There must be repentance before forgiveness can be expected. Jesus said, "Take heed to yourselves. If your brother sins against you, rebuke him; if he repents forgive him" (Luke 17:3). Note the order of events that our Lord sets forth: if repentance, then forgiveness. Forgiveness comes from repentance, not by accident.

Repentance is no pleasure trip. It may involve tears. The Bible calls it "godly sorrow" (2 Corinthians 7:8-11). This godly sorrow contains "earnestness, eagerness to be clean, indignation, alarm, longing, and concern" (v. 11). The Old Testament believers showed their repentance with tearing of their clothes, wearing sackcloth (very uncomfortable clothing), and ashes on the head. Repentance is no pleasure trip.

It can be extremely painful to admit that you have been wrong. C. S. Lewis said, "Repentance is something much harder than merely eating humble pie. It means unlearning all the self-conceit and self-will that we have been training ourselves into for thousands of years. It means working with God in killing a part of yourself, undergoing a kind of death."

But weeping is only one of the emotions associated with true repentance. Paul tells us that "godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret" (2 Corinthians 7:10). Delirious joy is a fruit of true repentance. Joy over the wonder of sins forgiven, of God's loving acceptance of me, of new power cleansing and transforming my wicked heart.

Practical Considerations

The whole life of a Christian should be one of repentance. So how do we repent?


First you must truly want to repent. You must avoid that caricature of repentance that is merely a cover for sorrow over consequences. This is called "worldly sorrow" and "it leads only to death" (2 Corinthians 7:10). Esau is given as an example of false repentance. He was rejected because he did not really want to change his mind (Hebrews 12:15-17).

Then you must ask God to search your heart to show you your sins as He sees them. You must call them by their names--even write down a list of them as God searches your heart. Then add to the list your "problems" and ask God whether you should not call them sins, rather than problems. Take time in quietness to let God speak to your heart.

All the time your focus must not be on your sins but on your Savior, on what your sins cost Him and with what love He paid for them. Don't focus on the grime, but on the gospel.

As far as you are able you must refuse to go on practicing the sins (Matthew 3:7-8). At the very least, this means removing yourself as much as possible from places of temptation (Proverbs 4:14-17). If your sin was against other people, then you must go to them and ask their forgiveness (Matthew 5:23-24). If the sin involves stealing, then restitution must be made (Luke 19:8). Forgiveness will not happen until these take place.

Finally ask God to change your heart with an infusion of His righteousness. This is the good news: that we do not have power to transform ourselves, but God does. We do not have the power to be a holy, truly repent person. Only Father working through the Cross can change us -- and He desires to do so.

As you follow this process of repentance, you will not entirely succeed in getting rid of the practice of sin. It may not come at once, but when you ask God something like that, sooner of later He will answer. By all means go on asking and one day under the moving of the Spirit of God, you will have repented truly. C. S. Lewis wrote: "Can we do it if God helps us? Yes, but what do we mean when we talk about God helping us? We mean God putting into us a bit of Himself." That is what we are looking for when we repent: "God putting into us a bit of Himself."


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