Q&A: What is repentance?

What is repentance?

Question

I often say I'm sorry. I say it to God and others. Have I repented when I do that?

Answer

Normally just saying “I’m sorry” or “I apologize” is not biblical repentance. For a more complete view of repentance, let’s consider it at two different stages of a Christian’s life. These two are (1) repentance unto life and (2) ongoing repentance. I’ll attempt to keep in simple so we don’t get into a state of paralysis by too much analysis. However, repentance is in and of itself much more than most people initially think.

Repentance unto Life

As a work of the Spirit, repentance unto life comes prior to justification and after regeneration. Without repentance no one can be saved. Repentance is not the satisfaction for sin or pardon from it. It is the turning from it. It involves all sin, small and great. But even saying small and great is a misnomer because all sin is great. Even what we may consider the smallest of the smallest sins deserves eternal condemnation.

Repentance unto life is not merely fleeting regret for sins which are unto eternal death. It is a sincere, godly sorrow which leads unto life. It is a change of mind or an about face, that is, a turn made so as to face the opposite direction. It is a life-changing radical transformation of heart and mind as well as of life and conduct with regards to sin.

Consider what the Westminster Shorter Catechism states: “Repentance unto life is a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, does, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavor after, new obedience” (A. #87). Notice that, as with faith, repentance is an underserved gift — a saving evangelical grace given by God. Repentance is not something one stirs up in themselves but is a grace the Holy Spirit and the Word of God works within the soul (2 Tim. 2:24-25; Gal. 6:1).

Repentance realizes the ungodliness of sin. It disdains its filthiness and hideousness. It is to see sin as God sees it, which is an offense against his holy character and nature. It observes sin in its relation to the law of God, which is holy, just and good (Rom. 7:12).

Repentance involves a deep apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ Jesus. Sin is dangerous. But a sense of danger alone only alarms. When you are in your home and the alarm system goes off, you don’t just stand there. You get busy. You may grab a weapon or call the police. Or you may run and hide. Likewise, repentance leads to action. It seeks shelter from the impending danger of sin, and Christ is that refuge. His blood cleans the pollution of sin and our repentance finds eternal loving shelter.

Repentance also includes grief over sin. Those who have the gift of repentance loathe sin. It is disgusting, repulsive, detestable and abhorant. There’s a genuine full hatred of it. It breaks their hearts and tears them apart inside. It causes true sorrow, not just a worldly sorrow (cf. 2 Cor. 7:10).

From this inward work of the Spirit in one’s heart flows the outward action of turning from sin. Thus repentance is not only an inward work but evidences itself with outward conduct as well. It is a reformation of life. It sincerely embraces an honest endeavor to walk worthy of God’s ways and commandments. There is a piety of heart and literal transformation.

Ongoing Repentance

While repentance unto life only happens once in a believer’s life, a Christian also embraces ongoing repentance. Ongoing repentance is in the nucleus of the new nature given to a Christian (cf. 2 Cor. 5:17) and is a significant part of sanctification. If there is no ongoing repentance in them, one has reason to sincerely doubt their repentance unto life!

Even with full purpose and endeavoring as much as possible to not sin, Christians still do it. Yes, Christians still sin! It's as John tells us, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8, 10). And sadly, when we sin, it is easy to get into a rut of just saying “I’m sorry” and not really considering the seriousness of our sin. But mere remorse without repentance leads to utter despair. Just saying we're sorry for all the cobwebs (sin problems) we’ve caused isn’t enough. We also have to kill the spider (the root of the problem). We need absolute repentance in matters of sin.

Ongoing repentance is comprised of conviction, surrender, godly remorse, confession, restitution when necessary, reflection, and rest. Please understand, though, as we now separate out all these points, many of them may transpire at the same time.

Just as the Holy Spirit was a part of repentance unto life, he is still the divine agent at work in ongoing repentance. He regularly convicts our heart of sin. Perhaps something in the Bible will jump out and grip our souls, or we may hear a sermon or song, or someone may say something to us. But, in some way, the Holy Spirit communicates to us that we have sinned and need to repent (cf. 2 Sam. 12:1-7). Sometimes it comes quickly, sometimes over a period of time. Don’t let those moments pass. Deal with them right then!

In his conviction of sin, the Holy Spirit provides us with a willingness to be honest with ourselves and before God. In this we observe ourselves as God sees us — sinners and violators of his word. We are humbled and we surrender and are truly remorseful (cf. 2 Sam. 12:13).

Conviction and surrender pave the way for genuine sorrow for our sin (Psa. 51; cf. 2 Cor. 7:10). This brings about candid confession (cf. Jas. 5:16); we make personal confession of our sin to God and sincerely pray for the divine forgiveness. This is when an earnest “I’m sorry” comes in. And the “I’m sorry” is normally followed by numerous specifics and grief.

But repentance isn’t finished yet. When necessary, it involves reconciliation with our neighbors. Often damage has happened by our path of sin. Public and/or private confession and apology to others is often warranted. Sometimes repairs must be made. For example, Zacchaeus repaid four times the money he had extorted from others (cf. Luke 19:8; cf. Neh. 5:1-12).

Possibly the two most neglected areas of genuine repentance are reflection and rest. Reflection includes thinking through the process that led us to sin in the first place. (Please see “How does temptation work?” below.) It includes making plans and forming new habits for walking in a new direction, plans to be victorious over temptation rather than being conquered by it. It may also include such things as an accountably partner or counseling.

However, resting in God’s grace is important as well. Many people have a difficult time with forgiving themselves. This makes it difficult to move forward with a triumphant Christian life and overcome other sins. So, we must embrace God’s Word on forgivingness — “as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us” (Psa. 103:12). When we sincerely repent, it is finished!

Repentance is a loving gift from God. It’s a conduit from sin to Christ’s love, from defeat to triumph. It helps to keep us humble and from being judgmental. It reshapes and refines and refuels us. Moreover, it reveals our continual need of God’s grace and mercy. Repentance is refreshment to the soul and always beats the alternative!

Mark 1:15 “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”

Related Topics

How does temptation work?
Lessons on Repentance - Psalm 51

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill).