God's forgiveness is a free act of grace that cannot be earned, but it does require two critical steps. We cannot receive forgiveness unless we repent from our sins (Acts 2:48 Acts 2:48
American King James Version×) and accept the sacrifice of Jesus Christ to pay the death penalty for sin (Hebrews 9:22 Hebrews 9:22And almost all things are by the law purged with blood; and without shedding of blood is no remission.
American King James Version×). Once we have believed in Jesus' redeeming power and make the commitment to "go and sin no more" (John 8:11 John 8:11She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said to her, Neither do I condemn you: go, and sin no more.
American King James Version×), there is a simple way to pray for forgiveness based on confessing your sins to God (1 John 1:9 1 John 1:9If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
American King James Version×). We do not need to recite a specific formulaic prayer or construct a lengthy eloquent prayer to be forgiven. Instead we should honestly tell God what we've done and ask forgiveness from the heart, like the tax collector from Jesus' parable who humbled himself and cried out, "God, have mercy on me, a sinner" (Luke 18:13 Luke 18:13And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes to heaven, but smote on his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner.
American King James Version×).
Regretting our sins and even changing our behavior is not enough on its own.
Forgiveness begins with the realization that we have done something wrong that has to be set right with God, and, as the apostle Paul put it, "Godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted" (2 Corinthians 7:10 2 Corinthians 7:10For godly sorrow works repentance to salvation not to be repented of: but the sorrow of the world works death.
American King James Version×). To repent literally means “to turn away.” When we pray to God for forgiveness we must commit to doing our part in turning away from our sinful behavior, and toward Him. That does not mean we will always be successful in not sinning again, which would be ideal, but rather that we will take on the mindset of not wanting to sin again. And that we will earnestly fight against our carnal desire to sin (Romans 7:22-25 Romans 7:22-25  For I delight in the law of God after the inward man:  But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members.  O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?  I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord. So then with the mind I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin.
American King James Version×).
Regretting our sins and even changing our behavior is not enough on its own. This is made clear in Hebrews 9:22 Hebrews 9:22And almost all things are by the law purged with blood; and without shedding of blood is no remission.
American King James Version×, which says that "without the shedding of blood there is no remission [of sin]." The penalty for our sins must be paid in order for us to be forgiven because God requires justice; however, in His great mercy, God allows the death of Jesus Christ to count in place of the death that we deserve for our sins. This is why John the Baptist described Jesus as "the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the whole world" (John 1:29 John 1:29The next day John sees Jesus coming to him, and said, Behold the Lamb of God, which takes away the sin of the world.
American King James Version×), and only the shed blood of Jesus makes forgiveness possible.
Once we are convicted by the monumental truth of Jesus' sacrifice, then, with our sincere repentance, we can ask God for forgiveness with confidence through faith in His promise that He will indeed forgive us. As the apostle John explained, "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9 1 John 1:9If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
American King James Version×). The final step in receiving forgiveness is to "confess our sins." This means that we must talk to God in prayer, admit to Him the wrong that we have done and repented of, and ask that our sins be forgiven by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
For further reading and a more in-depth study of God's forgiveness, see our free Bible study aid, Forgiveness Is Possible.