"Repent, and turn from all your transgressions, so that iniquity will not be your ruin" (Ezekiel 18:30). "God gives His Spirit to those who obey Him" (Acts 5:32, New Life Version).
"Good Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may have eternal life?" The question was addressed to Jesus Christ (Matthew 19:16). What would your answer be?
Our sins place a barrier between us and God but committed obedience has the opposite effect.
Here was Jesus' answer: "If you want to enter into life, keep the commandments." When the man asked, "Which ones?" Jesus quoted several commands from the Old Testament, mostly from the Ten Commandments (Matthew 19:18-19).
This is one of many, many scriptures that make it absolutely clear that God still requires obedience to His instructions—yet many churches teach the opposite! Why is this? Because of human nature influenced by Satan and this world under his evil influence! "For the outlook of the unspiritual nature is enmity with [or hostile to] God; it is not subject to the law of God and indeed it cannot be" (Romans 8:7, REB).
But God's laws are good and good for us (Romans 7:12)! If we want to become more and more like Jesus Christ, God's laws define the godly character He wants to see in us.
Two obstacles and a twofold solution
Two major obstacles stand in the way of our attaining eternal life. First, it's impossible for us on our own human strength to perfectly obey God's commandments. Second, even if perfect obedience from now through the rest of our lives were possible, it still would not make up for the guilt of past sins. The death penalty we had incurred would not be removed.
So what are the solutions? First, we must somehow receive God's forgiveness for all our past sins. Second, we must receive the gift of God's Holy Spirit that will gradually replace our ingrained selfish nature with a new Christlike nature.
And what must one do to receive these precious gifts? In Acts 2 we read about the apostle Peter preaching to the assembled crowd on the day of Pentecost. His powerful sermon convinced those gathered that Jesus was the promised Messiah and that their sins were responsible for His death by crucifixion. How did they react?
"Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, 'Men and brethren, what shall we do?'" (Acts 2:37). They felt the deepest shame and sorrow. They were willing to do whatever it took to obtain forgiveness, reconciliation to God and salvation.
"Then Peter said to them, 'Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission [forgiveness] of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit'" (Acts 2:38).
Each part of Peter's authoritative statement has great significance. And note that in this one sentence Peter refers to the twofold remedy for human sinfulness—forgiveness of sins and the gift of God's Holy Spirit!
What is repentance?
On a later day, Peter similarly instructed others, "Repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out" (Acts 3:19). In both cases the first thing Peter said to do was "repent." What exactly is that? It's vitally important that we understand!
Dictionary definitions of "repent" and "repentance" emphasize feelings of remorse, regret, contrition and penitence for one's wrongdoing. Indeed, God expects deep feelings of "godly sorrow" for our sins (2 Corinthians 7:9-10). The more we recognize how numerous our sins have been, and how evil they are in God's sight, the greater will be our shame and sorrow.
But feelings alone aren't enough. Saying "I'm sorry" over and over again is not enough. The biblical meaning of "repent" emphasizes change—change of attitudes and actions to completely forsake one's lifestyle of habitual disobedience.
A biblical synonym for repent is turn. Paul said, "I preached that they must repent of their sins and turn to God and do the things that would show they had repented" (Acts 26:20, Today's English Version).
Besides one's initial repentance, a person must repent each time he realizes he has slipped and sinned—and this applies long after conversion to the end of one's physical life. When a person first comes to God, initial repentance is a surrender to God and an about-face from life aimed away from God to one of heading in God's direction. After that, whenever a believer strays even a little from the "way of God," He must repent or return to the right path, making a course correction to get back on track with God (Acts 18:25-26).
What is God's way? It is the way of genuine love, for "God is love" (1 John 4:8; 1 John 4:16). Jesus Christ taught that the two greatest commandments are love for God and love for our fellow human beings (Matthew 22:37-40). And love for God includes obedience to His laws. "For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome" (1 John 5:3).
The Ten Commandments broadly define how to love God and how to love one's neighbor, which includes everyone. The other spiritual laws in the Bible give us additional details about how to love God and all people. (For a broader overview, read our free Bible study aid The Ten Commandments.)
Repent of what?
This brings us to the question, "Of what do we repent?" The answer is sin. But what is sin? Ask a dozen people and you would likely get a dozen different answers. But the Bible is where we should look for the correct answers to life's important questions.
The clearest definition of sin is found in 1 John 3:4: "Whoever commits sin also commits lawlessness, and sin is lawlessness." Any breaking or violation of God's law is sin.
Repentance, therefore, means to turn away from lawbreaking and turn to lawkeeping! God summed up true repentance when He pleaded with His people: "Repent, and turn from all your transgressions, so that iniquity [lawlessness] will not be your ruin. Cast away from you all the transgressions which you have committed, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit" (Ezekiel 18:30-31).
God then went on to express His deep love and desire to forgive and save everyone: "For why should you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of one who dies ... Therefore turn and live!" (Ezekiel 18:31-32). Yes, you can have a joyous life now—and, more importantly, everlasting life!
In addition to repenting of our sins, we must repent of sinful attitudes and the downward pull of human nature, as they are the main cause of our sinful actions. Jesus made it clear that, compared to God, all of us are evil (Matthew 7:11). God said, "The heart is the most deceitful thing there is, and desperately wicked. No one can really know how bad it is!" (Jeremiah 17:9, Living Bible).
Like King David, we must repent and pray, "Wash me ... create in me a clean heart" (Psalm 51:7-10).
Godly sorrow vs. worldly sorrow
God gave us a conscience so that when we are aware of wrongdoing, we will feel guilt, shame and sorrow. Once a person clearly sees the great love of his Creator plus his own lack of love, of gratitude and of righteousness, he should feel truly sorry—with godly sorrow!
Paul explained, "For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death" (2 Corinthians 7:10).
What is the difference between the two kinds of sorrow? Godly sorrow is directed toward God (Psalm 51:4; Acts 20:21). It is grief and mourning over having disappointed and transgressed against Him, the One who gives us every good thing. It leads to a commitment to permanently change—to truly repent.
Worldly sorrow, however, is self-centered—feeling humiliated that one's wrongdoing has been exposed, or feeling sorry for oneself because of the penalties he is suffering, such as Jacob's twin brother Esau experienced (see Hebrews 12:16-17).
In Romans 7, we read how the apostle Paul felt deep sorrow over his sins of commission (doing sinful things) and sins of omission (failing to do the right things). In Psalm 51, we read of David's heartfelt prayer of sorrow and repentance. When the patriarch Job came to better understand the greatness of God and at the same time his own weakness and self-righteousness, he said, "Therefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes" (Job 42:6).
It is very hard for human beings to see their faults, admit them and apologize. But real repentance requires confessing your sins to God, telling Him how sorry you are and asking for His forgiveness—and determining to change, to strive with His help to turn from and overcome your sins. (God does not require confession of sins to a human priest or minister to obtain forgiveness, as some claim.)
David said, "I acknowledge my transgressions" (Psalm 51:3). John said, "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).
Maintaining our relationship with God—obedience and the supply of the Spirit
John wasn't speaking to those who were not yet converted but to those who were already Christians—showing that confession of sins and repentance is an ongoing process through the Christian life.
But again, it isn't enough to just admit our faults and be sorrowful. To maintain our relationship with God and continue to grow spiritually, we must commit to obeying God's laws and follow through.
Consider our communication with God. The first spiritual tool covered in this booklet is prayer. Do you want your prayers to be answered? Then, as previously pointed out, you must be striving to obey God.
Our sins place a barrier between us and God: "Behold, the Lord's hand is not shortened, that it cannot save; nor His ear heavy that it cannot hear. But your iniquities have separated you from your God; and your sins have hidden His face from you, so that He will not hear" (Isaiah 59:1-2).
But committed obedience has the opposite effect: "Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Lament and mourn and weep [in contrite repentance]! ... Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up" (James 4:7-10).
Then our prayers to God will be answered. John tells us that "whatever we ask we receive from Him, because we keep His commandments and do those things that are pleasing in His sight" (1 John 3:22).
What about hearing from God in the second spiritual tool we covered—studying the Bible? True spiritual understanding comes through God's Holy Spirit: "God has given us His Holy Spirit that we may know about the things given to us by Him" (1 Corinthians 2:12, NLV).
God's Holy Spirit is a source of spiritual empowerment given to us from Him as a "supply" (Philippians 1:9; Galatians 3:5). (To see that the Holy Spirit is not a person, as widely believed, read the Bible study aid Is God a Trinity?)
God initially gives the Spirit upon repentance in faith and baptism (see "Steps to Initial Repentance and Conversion"). Yet we are also told that "God gives His Spirit to those who obey Him" (Acts 5:32, NLV). This shows that our initial repentance must include committed obedience. And for the supply of the Spirit to continue, our commitment and obedience must be ongoing through our Christian lives, repenting and striving to obey anew whenever we slip and fall.
As we grow in obedience, so will our comprehension of God's Word, thus making our use of the tool of Bible study more fruitful, as touched on earlier: "A good understanding have all those who do His commandments" (Psalm 111:10).
Realize too that obedience through faith empowers further obedience. We need God's help through His Spirit to continue in obedience. And when we submit to His help and obey, He supplies more of His Spirit to obey further. Then, as we obey more and more, it becomes habit—and eventually instilled as our character (see our the Bible study aid You Can Have Living Faith to learn more).
Of course, we will not achieve instant perfection. Our transformation is a lifelong process. But remember that whenever God's children stumble, our Father in heaven is always willing to help us back on our feet. But we must repent, confess and ask for help. After that, know that God has forgiven you. Then joy and peace of mind should once again blossom and dominate your heart because you know that your sins are no longer separating you from God (Psalm 32:1-2).
Remember also that God loves and wants to save every single person. He is "not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance" (2 Peter 3:9). In Luke 15:10, Jesus said, "There is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents." Will the next one be you?