What Is Repentance?

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What Is Repentance?

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Jesus, Christ, Christian and saved are words familiar to many in the Western world. But repent is seldom mentioned by religious figures, and few people comprehend what it means.

You may be surprised to learn how much the word and concept of repentance are a part of the teachings of Jesus Christ, the early Church and the entire Bible.

For example: “Now after John was put in prison, Jesus came to Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel’ ” (Mark 1:14-15 Mark 1:14-15 14 Now after that John was put in prison, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, 15 And saying, The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent you, and believe the gospel.
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, emphasis added throughout). So begins Mark’s account of the message Jesus brought.

While many religious teachers quote the apostle Paul, they don’t usually point out that repentance was a central part of his message. “Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked,” said Paul to the Athenians, “but now [He] commands all men everywhere to repent, because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world …” (Acts 17:30-31 Acts 17:30-31 30 And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commands all men every where to repent: 31 Because he has appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he has ordained; whereof he has given assurance to all men, in that he has raised him from the dead.
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All followers of Christ should clearly understand repentance. Likewise, every genuine servant of Christ should teach what He and His early disciples taught. “[Christ] … called the twelve [disciples] to Himself, and began to send them out … So they went out and preached that people should repent” (Mark 6:7-12 Mark 6:7-12 7 And he called to him the twelve, and began to send them forth by two and two; and gave them power over unclean spirits; 8 And commanded them that they should take nothing for their journey, save a staff only; no money, no bread, no money in their purse: 9 But be shod with sandals; and not put on two coats. 10 And he said to them, In what place soever you enter into an house, there abide till you depart from that place. 11 And whoever shall not receive you, nor hear you, when you depart there, shake off the dust under your feet for a testimony against them. Truly I say to you, It shall be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrha in the day of judgment, than for that city. 12 And they went out, and preached that men should repent.
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Theme of God’s messengers

What did Jesus, Paul and the original apostles say to people? What did they expect their hearers to do? Most important, what does their message have to do with you and me?

“That people should repent” is a consistent theme of God’s messengers and ministers. We find the message of repentance throughout the Bible, Old and New Testament alike.

In the Old Testament God’s command to repent was most often directed at nations or other groups, whereas the New Testament’s emphasis is most often on the individual’s need to turn from his wicked ways.

If you have thought that “repent” pertains only to criminals, pornographers, drug dealers and the like, you’ve been misinformed.

A good place to begin to understand the meaning of repentance is with these plain words of God through the prophet Isaiah: “Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; put away the evil of your doings from before My eyes. Cease to do evil” (Isaiah 1:16 Isaiah 1:16Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil;
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Evilis a strong word. The phrase “cease to do evil” is foundational to understanding repentance. Simply put, we are to stop doing wrong things.

Wash off the dirt

Starting with God’s words through Isaiah, what do we learn that we need to wash off? What is the evil that God wants us to stop doing?

If you answer that “dirty” and “evil” refer to breaking God’s laws, you are on the right track. Repentance requires that we stop doing bad things-the things that, whether we realize it or not, hurt others and ourselves. God’s laws define the kinds of thoughts and behaviors that cause people to suffer.

Notice Jeremiah 26:1-6 Jeremiah 26:1-6 1 In the beginning of the reign of Jehoiakim the son of Josiah king of Judah came this word from the LORD, saying, 2 Thus said the LORD; Stand in the court of the LORD’s house, and speak to all the cities of Judah, which come to worship in the LORD’s house, all the words that I command you to speak to them; diminish not a word: 3 If so be they will listen, and turn every man from his evil way, that I may repent me of the evil, which I purpose to do to them because of the evil of their doings. 4 And you shall say to them, Thus said the LORD; If you will not listen to me, to walk in my law, which I have set before you, 5 To listen to the words of my servants the prophets, whom I sent to you, both rising up early, and sending them, but you have not listened; 6 Then will I make this house like Shiloh, and will make this city a curse to all the nations of the earth.
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, 13. In this message from the prophet Jeremiah to Judah, God defines “evil” as breaking His law and “repentance” as turning to obedience to God’s commands. When God told the Jews to “turn from [their] evil way” (verse 3), the Hebrew word for “way” means a journey, a course of life, a way of life. An up-to-date synonym is “lifestyle.”

If they didn’t repent, God said, He would make them “like Shiloh.” This warning reminded the people of the Philistines’ annihilation of that city several hundred years before. This was a warning of the consequences for flagrant and sinful courses of action if they didn’t change their ways. God takes sin seriously. (To better understand the purpose of God’s laws, and where sin leads, please read the free booklets The Ten Commandments and Why Does God Allow Suffering? )

So we begin to construct our biblical definition of repentance: Repentance involves turning from a life of evil and disobedience.

But what is “good”?

We’ve seen from the Bible what we need to turn from. But our definition is not complete. Now we need to consider what we must turn to. Not only do we need to stop doing bad things, we must do good things instead.

We read earlier in Isaiah 1:16 Isaiah 1:16Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil;
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that God commands us to “cease to do evil.” The very next words of God that follow are “Learn to do good …” (verse 17).

God expects us to grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ-in the awareness of what He says is acceptable (2 Peter 3:17-18 2 Peter 3:17-18 17 You therefore, beloved, seeing you know these things before, beware lest you also, being led away with the error of the wicked, fall from your own steadfastness. 18 But grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and for ever. Amen.
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). This must be a continual task of every truly devoted Christian, an enduring commitment. Sadly, many religious teachers speak only of an initial commitment to God rather than a new way of life.

Most people normally want to be thought of as good, but few are stirred to investigate what God calls good. In Romans 12:1-2 Romans 12:1-2 1 I beseech you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. 2 And be not conformed to this world: but be you transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.
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Paul urges us to “prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.”

To “prove” in this context means putting something to the test, to examine, to try, to discern. That speaks of learning through doing, accompanied by reason and reflection. In other words, the proof of what is the acceptable-the perfect-will of God is in the doing.

Our lives constantly change. Change comes to us simply through the process of maturing and aging. Circumstances around us change-job, finances, health and family. As they do, pressures and stresses upon us change.

In addition to such physical matters, if God is working with us He brings various spiritual concepts to our awareness at various times. These factors all demand that we continue to ask and discern what is good. The Bible is the source of the answer. Then we must continue proving what is good by putting it into practice, by a changed way of living that is now in accordance with His instruction.

A different way of thinking

Repentance goes beyond living by what we personally consider to be good. Repentance is a way of godly thinking that guides our actions. Notice Jesus’ words in Matthew 9:13 Matthew 9:13But go you and learn what that means, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice: for I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.
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: “I desire mercy [a way of thinking and resultant action] and not sacrifice [religion based only on ritual].”

Christ amplified this thought in Matthew 18:3 Matthew 18:3And said, Truly I say to you, Except you be converted, and become as little children, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.
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: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (New Revised Standard Version). The Greek word translated “change” means “to turn quite around or reverse, to convert” ( Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance ).

This is a much greater commitment than short-lived promises made on the spur of the moment. It’s also deeper than the pledges people make in moments of crisis, sincere though they might be at the time.

While we’re looking at the meaning of words, let’s consider how the New Testament uses repentance and repent. To paraphrase the Strong’s definition, repentance includes a sense of compunction for guilt, a reversal of one’s decision, a resolve to think differently, to reconsider. We find in these meanings a combination of conviction and action.

Now we’ve added significantly to our construction of a definition: Repentance is turning from a life of evil and disobedience to an obedient way of thinking and living.

Feelings can mislead

Our definition is still incomplete. Let’s explore the idea of “compunction” a little further. It is defined in The American Unabridged Dictionary as “uneasiness caused by guilt, a prick of the conscience; remorse.”

We find a biblical example of compunction in Acts 2:37-38 Acts 2:37-38 37 Now when they heard this, they were pricked in their heart, and said to Peter and to the rest of the apostles, Men and brothers, what shall we do? 38 Then Peter said to them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.
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: “Now when they heard this, they were pricked in their heart, and said unto Peter and to the rest of the apostles, Men and brethren, what shall we do? Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy [Spirit]” (King James Version).

This passage demonstrates that repentance begins with the “prick of the conscience” but goes beyond that to thought and action.

Although a sense of guilt can trigger the beginning of repentance, we need to realize that emotions aren’t always an accurate guide in this crucial spiritual matter. We can see how inaccurate one’s senses or feelings can be by looking at Christ’s parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke 18:9-14 Luke 18:9-14 9 And he spoke this parable to certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: 10 Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican. 11 The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank you, that I am not as other men are, extortionists, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. 12 I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess. 13 And 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. 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalts himself shall be abased; and he that humbles himself shall be exalted.
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. Jesus showed that it is possible for a person to feel spiritually acceptable when he clearly is not. The obvious message is this: Don’t rely solely on your feelings when it comes to spiritual matters.

John adds that there is a time to respond to our feelings and a time to ignore them (1 John 3:18-21 1 John 3:18-21 18 My little children, let us not love in word, neither in tongue; but in deed and in truth. 19 And hereby we know that we are of the truth, and shall assure our hearts before him. 20 For if our heart condemn us, God is greater than our heart, and knows all things. 21 Beloved, if our heart condemn us not, then have we confidence toward God.
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). We have to properly educate our consciences, the basis for any sense of guilt or remorse, through study and proper understanding of God’s Word.

In this same chapter, 1 John 3, we read of yet another defining aspect of repentance. We are to learn to love other people, believe in Christ and all He taught and choose ways that please God. These actions will result in a personal relationship with God and godly relationships with other people (verses 22-24.)

God amplifies His expectations in Jeremiah 7:1-14 Jeremiah 7:1-14 1 The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD, saying, 2 Stand in the gate of the LORD’s house, and proclaim there this word, and say, Hear the word of the LORD, all you of Judah, that enter in at these gates to worship the LORD. 3 Thus said the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, Amend your ways and your doings, and I will cause you to dwell in this place. 4 Trust you not in lying words, saying, The temple of the LORD, The temple of the LORD, The temple of the LORD, are these. 5 For if you thoroughly amend your ways and your doings; if you thoroughly execute judgment between a man and his neighbor; 6 If you oppress not the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, and shed not innocent blood in this place, neither walk after other gods to your hurt: 7 Then will I cause you to dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to your fathers, for ever and ever. 8 Behold, you trust in lying words, that cannot profit. 9 Will you steal, murder, and commit adultery, and swear falsely, and burn incense to Baal, and walk after other gods whom you know not; 10 And come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, We are delivered to do all these abominations? 11 Is this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes? Behold, even I have seen it, said the LORD. 12 But go you now to my place which was in Shiloh, where I set my name at the first, and see what I did to it for the wickedness of my people Israel. 13 And now, because you have done all these works, said the LORD, and I spoke to you, rising up early and speaking, but you heard not; and I called you, but you answered not; 14 Therefore will I do to this house, which is called by my name, wherein you trust, and to the place which I gave to you and to your fathers, as I have done to Shiloh.
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, 21-23. First we must change our thoughts, then our actions. Part of the change is to learn to conduct our relationships with other people in a godly manner. “For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you …” (verses 5-7, NRSV).

Notice John’s words on this point: “If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen? And this commandment we have from Him: that he who loves God must love his brother also” (1 John 4:20-21 1 John 4:20-21 20 If a man say, I love God, and hates his brother, he is a liar: for he that loves not his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen? 21 And this commandment have we from him, That he who loves God love his brother also.
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). We must build godly relationships with other people if we are to build the right relationship with God.

Some mistakenly view Bible prophecy as a club and prophets as the men who wielded it. On the contrary, prophecy is an appeal from God to His people, asking them to change so He can fully demonstrate His love for them. Our relationship with God includes responding to His direction and correction. God describes this as an intimate relationship in which “I will be their God, and they shall be My people” (Jeremiah 31:33 Jeremiah 31:33But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, said the LORD, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people.
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; 2 Corinthians 6:16 2 Corinthians 6:16And what agreement has the temple of God with idols? for you are the temple of the living God; as God has said, I will dwell in them, and walk in them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
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; Hebrews 8:10 Hebrews 8:10For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, said the Lord; I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts: and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people:
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Let’s assemble what we have found into our definition: Repentance is turning from a life of evil and disobedience to an obedient way of thinking and living that results in a personal relationship with God and a godly relationship with people.

A comprehensive definition

Do we now have a comprehensive definition? Not quite. We need to add one more important aspect. We have seen this element in several references so far, although we haven’t specifically pointed it out.

When is a person finished with repentance? Never! If you aren’t familiar with the section of Scripture quoted at the beginning of this article, Isaiah 1:16-20 Isaiah 1:16-20 16 Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil; 17 Learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow. 18 Come now, and let us reason together, said the LORD: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool. 19 If you be willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land: 20 But if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured with the sword: for the mouth of the LORD has spoken it.
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, take time to read it. These verses summarize the meaning of repentance. They speak of a lifelong way of thinking and acting. Repentance is not limited to a point in time or an emotional experience when a person makes a commitment to God-commonly said to be “giving your heart to the Lord.” It is much, much more.

So we add this final thought to complete our definition: Repentance is a continual turning from a life of evil and disobedience to an obedient way of thinking and living that results in a personal relationship with God and a godly relationship with people.

If this concept of repentance is new to you, you probably have not repented-as shocking as that might seem. We don’t say this in judgment but to give you the same message Jesus taught. You can see how integral repentance is to the Christian way of life and God’s expectations for us.

Failing to understand and respond to God’s call to repent could prevent us from enjoying all of the blessings He would like to give us. The foremost blessing is salvation itself. So the subject of repentance couldn’t be more important to you. GN