Question: "What is penitence? What does the Bible say about penitence?"
Answer: Penitence is the state of being sorrowful over one’s flaws or actions. To be penitent is to feel repentant of one’s sins. It is to be “poor in spirit” (Matthew 5:3). The penitent have deep remorse that motivates a change in behavior. Penitence does everything possible to make amends. Penitence involves humility, regret, and sorrow and is the avenue God has provided for us to receive His forgiveness (see Acts 2:38).
It is important to understand the distinction between remorse and true penitence. A person can feel badly about the outcome of a choice but not be penitent. We can hate how our sinful choice made someone feel and regret choosing that path but still not repent of it as sin. Second Corinthians 7:10 says, “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.” Worldly sorrow is self-serving. It is focused on our own bad feelings, what other people think of us, or the negative consequences. Godly penitence agrees with God about how bad our sin is, regardless of how things turned out. We see our sin for what it is and purpose with God’s help to turn away from repeating it (John 8:11; 5:14).
David shows us what true penitence looks like in Psalm 51. He wrote this psalm after Nathan confronted him about his sin with Bathsheba. When faced with his wrongdoing, David broke down and wept over his sin. He sought God with a humble, contrite heart and asked to be restored again to fellowship. Even though the consequences remained—his infant son conceived in adultery died—David’s repentance was real and lasting. He had lost his joy (verse 12); he felt the crushing weight of guilt (verse 8). His words “against you, you only, have I sinned” (verse 4) reveal David’s understanding of the nature of sin and how greatly it offends God. He knew that “a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise” (verse 17). A broken and contrite heart are evidences of penitence.
Penitence is not a list of religious requirements we must perform to pay for sin. We cannot pay for our sin no matter how many rituals we observe. Only the blood of Jesus can cleanse us from our sin (1 John 1:7). Jesus’ death was sufficient payment for any sin we commit. We cannot “help” Him by further punishing ourselves. To insist upon further self-castigation is to nullify the work of Christ on our behalf. We are in effect saying to God, “What Jesus did on the cross is sufficient to pay for all the sins of the world—except for mine. I must help Him by punishing myself until I have decided I’ve paid enough.” That is not penitence; that is a twisted form of pride.
True penitence is humble enough to admit forgiveness is undeserved. But the penitent can still come to God because of God’s invitation through Christ (Matthew 11:28; Revelation 22:17; cf. Isaiah 1:18). It was God’s idea to place the confessed sin of the repentant under the blood of His Son and declare us not guilty. Arrogance declines that full pardon until it decides sufficient payment has been made. Penitence gratefully accepts the pardon while looking into the face of the One who has already made sufficient payment. Penitence would rather die than repeat the offense.
We become born-again followers of Jesus through penitence and accepting God’s forgiveness and restoration. But, even as Christians, we still sin at times (1 John 1:8–10). God has made provision for that and calls us to a lifetime of penitence. When we live in an attitude of humility and confession of sin, we can enjoy the freedom of knowing there is no condemnation for us (Romans 8:1). We walk in fellowship with God, conscience clear, and have the Holy Spirit’s power working through us (Galatians 5:22).