Question: "How to repent—what does the Bible say?"
Answer: Repentance is an important topic in the New Testament.
John the Baptist’s message was “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 3:2, see also Mark 1:15 and Luke 3:3, 8).
When Jesus started His public ministry, He also called for repentance. Matthew 4:17 records, “From that time on Jesus began to preach, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’” Jesus says of repentance, “I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent” (Luke 15:7).
In Mark 6:12, the disciples also “went out and preached that people should repent.” This preaching continued in Acts. Peter preached to Jews, “Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord” (Acts 3:19). Paul preached to Gentiles, “In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30). And later he testified, “I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus” (Acts 20:21). And, similarly, “First to those in Damascus, then to those in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and then to the Gentiles, I preached that they should repent and turn to God and demonstrate their repentance by their deeds” (Acts 26:20).
As demonstrated in the passages above, repentance is an important part of an initial response to the gospel, but it is also an important part of the life of the Christian. Writing to the church at Corinth, Paul says, “Now I am happy, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance. For you became sorrowful as God intended” (2 Corinthians 7:9). To the church at Ephesus, Jesus says, “Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first” (Revelation 2:5).
Even though repentance is extremely important, there is no Scripture passage that explains what repentance means or how to do it. This is probably because repentance is not an inherently theological word. When people heard the command to repent, they knew what it meant because it was a normal word with a normal meaning. Essentially, repent means “to change one’s mind” about something (Thayer’s Greek Lexicon, metanoeo). Of course, when a person has a change of mind about something, the result is a change of behavior as well. If a driver is headed south on a highway and suddenly realizes that he is going the wrong direction, he will then get off at the next exit and head in the opposite direction. He has repented—he has changed his mind about the direction he should be driving. If he realizes he is going the wrong direction but decides to continue on without making any changes, he has not really repented. He has, by his actions, shown that he is just fine with the current direction of travel. In the New Testament, repentance is associated with a change of mind about sin.
Saying, “Sorry,” being sorry, or even feeling sorry are not the same as repenting. A person can feel emotionally sorry for something without addressing the underlying issue. “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death” (2 Corinthians 7:10). Judas felt great remorse over what he had done to Jesus, but he did not repent. Instead, he committed suicide (Matthew 27:3–5). Peter also felt great remorse over his denial of Christ (Matthew 26:75), but in his case it did result in genuine repentance and a change of direction, as later he boldly proclaimed Christ in the face of persecution (see Acts 4).
When a person is doing something that he has chosen to do and may even enjoy a great deal, but then, based on his exposure to the Word of God, he repents, it means he has changed his mind about it. The repentant person comes to believe what she once loved is wrong and that she should stop doing it. In accepting the gospel, repentance is the flip side of faith. It is possible that someone can become convinced that what he has been doing is wrong and then attempt to “mend his ways”—and he may even succeed. But if such a person does not place his faith in Christ and the righteousness He provides, then he is simply trusting his own moral reformation. Biblical repentance is the recognition that we are helpless to save ourselves—it is turning from sin and to the One who paid for it and can forgive it.
So how does a person repent? Like faith, repentance is a response to the work of God, who convicts and convinces a person that he is in error. In Acts 11:18, the Jewish believers “praised God, saying, ‘So then, even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life.’” Second Timothy 2:25 highlights the same thing: “Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth.” These verses indicate a tension between God’s work and human responsibility. We gently instruct sinners in the hope that this intervention will be the means that God uses to bring them to repentance. It is the truth of God’s Word lovingly and accurately presented that God uses to bring about repentance.
If a person is having an extramarital affair, he or she may “know” or “believe” that it is morally wrong. However, repentance that results in a genuine change of mind would cause the adulterer to cut off the relationship. If a person really wants to repent, he needs to not only mentally agree that a thing is wrong, but ask himself, “If I really believe this is wrong, what will I do differently?” And the answer will be to do that different thing. As John the Baptist said, “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance” (Luke 3:8). He followed the command with some specific examples in Luke 3:10–14:
“‘What should we do then?’ the crowd asked. John answered, ‘Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.’
“Even tax collectors came to be baptized. ‘Teacher,’ they asked, ‘what should we do?’ ‘Don’t collect any more than you are required to,’ he told them.
“Then some soldiers asked him, ‘And what should we do?’ He replied, ‘Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.’”
An unbeliever’s desire to know how to repent and trust in Christ is evidence that God is working. If a believer wants to repent of sin that has crept into her life, it is because the Holy Spirit is working in the life of that believer. However, it is possible for a person to come to the point of admitting that a particular attitude or behavior is wrong but then refuse to submit to God’s truth regarding a change. That’s not repentance. Repentance is agreeing with God’s evaluation of the sin and then being willing to follow God’s leading in a new direction.
A person will be in a better position to repent if he is continually feeding on God’s truth through reading and studying the Bible, listening to biblical preaching and teaching, filling the mind with truth so that the mind begins to think the thoughts of God, and associating with like-minded Christians who will foster accountability. In some cases, a Christian may know that something is wrong and that she should change, but she doesn’t really want to. In that case, there is nothing wrong with praying, “Father, I know that I should change, but I am unwilling—please make me willing.”