Why does the Bible say we should repent before being baptized?
Some might ask why one doesn't just go ahead with baptism, once he realizes that it is necessary. The Bible instructs us that we must first repent of sin (Acts:2:38), which is an essential and invaluable part of our preparation for receiving God's Spirit. In Jeremiah:4:3, God illustrates the process and helps us to understand its value by comparing it to a farmer preparing the soil before planting seed.
Just like it takes time to properly prepare a field, so also it takes time to come to repentance, time to come to understand how the Bible applies in your everyday life, time to recognize and admit the ways that you have sinned, time for you to turn your life around. All of these matters are part of the process of repentance.
You may be surprised to learn that the word "repentance" doesn't mean sad, sorry or regretful, even though these adjectives appropriately describe the attitude we need to have in coming to repentance. In 2 Corinthians:7:10, Paul refers to a godly sorrow that produces genuine repentance and a "worldly" sorrow that does not produce the right result. The word "repent" itself literally means "to turn." More than just turning away from sin, repentance requires that we turn toward God, that we do our best to live as He expects us to live. Consider what John the Baptist said to some who came to him for baptism: "Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance" (Matthew:3:8).
Showing our repentance through our actions doesn't mean that we are attempting to earn salvation, which is not possible. Nothing we can do can make up for the sins we have committed. Only Jesus Christ's sacrifice can pay the penalty of death we have earned. Rather, showing repentance through our actions is part of the process. Some people receive the "seed" (the word of the Kingdom, Matthew:13:18-23) in a rush of enthusiasm only to lose interest after a while. It is a serious matter to start on the Christian way of life and later turn away from it. Jesus warned that doing so could literally cost us our eternal life (Luke:14:26-35). True repentance insures our mind and heart are thoroughly prepared to receive God's Holy Spirit. Continuing Christ's farming analogy from Matthew 13, true repentance helps ensure a good spiritual "crop."
Some wrongly believe that conversion takes place by a momentary prayer of commitment, and that requiring obedience to specific laws is "legalism" and contrary to living under grace. However, God is in the forefront of repentance: "…the kindness of God leads you to repentance?" (Romans:2:4, Modern King James Version).
It may be helpful to draw an analogy between a convicted criminal receiving a pardon for his offense and a convicted sinner receiving a pardon for his spiritual offense. Is the pardoned criminal now free to ignore the law completely? To the contrary, he is expected to be a law-abiding citizen. The authorities would not grant him a pardon if they thought he would be anything less than that. Similarly, a convicted sinner who receives a pardon is expected to be a good "spiritual citizen," abiding by the laws of God. And he must demonstrate his commitment to that kind of "good citizenship" before he receives his pardon, that is, God's forgiveness through Christ.
In the course of attempting to turn your life around spiritually, you will often find that you come up short. Please do not let that discourage you. It is only confirmation that you need the additional help of God's Holy Spirit to be able to obey Him.
In conclusion, be sure to ask God directly to give you repentance. The Bible shows that coming to repentance is unnatural to the human mind and nature; that it must come from God (2 Timothy:2:25). So, add that request to your regular prayers. If you continue to respond to God, He will continue to give you spiritual understanding and lead you into a Father-son relationship.
For more information, please read our booklet The Road to Eternal Life.
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