Repentance is generally defined as a change of mind that leads to a change of actions (behavior), but this definition can be somewhat vague. After all, what sort of change of mind is meant? Is it just moving from unbelief to belief in certain facts or doctrines? What kinds of actions does repentance lead to? Does it go deeper than this?
Perhaps asking a different question will help: What does real repentance look like? In other words, how would you recognize someone who is repentant? Or rather, how would you recognize it in yourself?
The Bible contains plenty of examples of true and false repentance towards God. The following is my attempt to distill what I believe are some of its main qualities – the kind of repentance that God is looking for in each one of us. (Note that this is not meant to be an exhaustive list.)
First, when you repent, you cease to resist or defend yourself against God. The essence of repentance is humble and willing surrender – a deliberate abandoning of some personal desire that you have found is in opposition to God.
Job is a good example of this. He was a righteous man (Job 1:1,8,2:3), but during his sufferings, he wanted to know why he was suffering unjustly (Job 10), and he desired to confront God to defend his own righteousness (Job 13:3, 23:3-4). But then God confronted him. Afterwards Job acknowledged he spoke rashly. He withdrew his request and said:
“…therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”
– Job 42:6 (ESV)
While God was hard on Job, He never accused him of sin or wickedness. God did not tell him to offer a sacrifice for his sins like He told the others. In fact, God still called him righteous (Job 42:7-8). Job had no need to repent of anything his friends falsely accused him of. But he did repent of his desire to defend himself before God and demand a reason for what he went through. Job swallowed his intense longing for a satisfying explanation.
Second, when you repent of sin, you fully accept God’s evaluation of the state of your relationship to Him, and your personal responsibility for being in such a state. That means no making excuses, and no pointing fingers at the more guilty party, even if they did twist your arm the wrong way. Adam blamed Eve and even God Himself for eating the forbidden fruit, but he was still responsible for making the choice to disobey God. His proper response should have been to swallow his pride and confess what he’d done without dragging everyone else into it.
I’m not just talking about an intellectual nod of the head to the fact that you did something wrong, but a heart-felt awareness and shame of having personally offended the Great Creator and Lover of your soul. Sin really bothers a repentant man! It disturbs him that he can’t come out from under it.
“…my iniquities are gone over my head, as a heavy burden they are too heavy for me”
- Psalm 38:4 (ESV)
When Ezra heard that some of the remnant of the Jewish captivity had married foreigners, in some cases against the direct command of God (Deuteronomy 20:17, 23:3), he owned the sin of his people:
…”O my God, I am ashamed and blush to lift my face to you, my God, for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has mounted up to the heavens. … And now, O our God, what shall we say after this? For we have forsaken your commandments …”
- Ezra 9:6,10 (ESV)
As priest, Ezra was responsible for the moral and spiritual welfare of his people. Even though he had not taken a foreign wife, he still acknowledged his hand in the sins of his people, as well as his oneness with his people.
When someone in the church sins, do you put him or her down? Or do you acknowledge your part in the matter and your unity with the body of Christ, and call upon God saying, “Lord, we have sinned!”
This may be difficult to accept, but this is part of what oneness is about – a sharing not only of blessings, but responsibilities and consequences. This is why all of Israel suffered when one sinned (Joshua 7:1). This is also part of our relationship with Jesus. For us to be one with Him, He shared in the consequences of our sin – He became sin for us, so that we could share in His righteousness (2 Corinthians 5:21).
Third, if you are repentant of sin, you have become willing to accept any consequences of being found in a guilty state.
If then their uncircumcised heart be humbled, and they then accept the punishment of their iniquity, …
- Leviticus 26:41 (JND)
Why should a living 1 man complain, a man, about the punishment of his sins?
- Lamentations 3:39 (ESV)
…after all that has come upon us for our evil deeds and for our great guilt, seeing that you, our God, have punished us less than our iniquities deserved…
- Ezra 9:13 (ESV)
When we sin, we deserve punishment. This doesn’t mean it’s wrong to ask God for mercy. It just means that when you are repentant, you recognize God does not owe you mercy. If He chooses to exercise justice instead, then so be it – He is perfectly right to do so. 2
After the reading of the Law and the history of Israel’s rebellion against God and its consequences, Nehemiah prayed:
“… You have been righteous in all that has come upon us, for you have dealt faithfully and we have acted wickedly. Our kings, our princes, our priests, and our fathers have not kept your law or paid attention to your commandments and your warnings that you gave them …”
- Nehemiah 9:33-34 (ESV)
Like Ezra, Nehemiah used the word “we” instead of “they”. Nehemiah accepted the consequences of his people’s sins. However, he also sought God’s mercy – not on the basis of self-merit or downplaying their guilt, but because God is loving and faithful to His covenant:
“Now, therefore, our God, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who keeps covenant and steadfast love, let not all the hardship seem little to you that has come upon us, …”
- Nehemiah 9:32 (ESV)
A repentant man ceases to bargain with God, and only seeks mercy as a gift from Him.
Fourth, to repent of sin is to be willing to accept and obey whatever God tells you to partake in the restoration of your relationship to Him.
John the baptist prepared the way for Jesus by preaching “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (Matthew 3:2, Luke 3:7-9). He baptised people as a symbol of their repentance (Acts 19:4). When asked how they were to live, John gave them practical examples:
And the crowds asked him, “What then shall we do?” And he answered them, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.”
- Luke 3:10-14 (ESV)
None of these works earned them a place in God’s kingdom, but they did demonstrate one aspect of true repentance: the desire to be free from sin. A repentant man is sick and tired of his sin. This kind of repentance prepares the way for God’s forgiveness and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
- Acts 2:37-38 (ESV)
What does God require of the repentant man to restore his relationship with Him? A simple belief in Jesus, trusting in His completed work (John 1:12, 3:16, Acts 16:31).
As I said earlier, the essence of repentance towards God is surrender. Like a defeated nation submitting to the terms given by the victor, a repentant man submits to the authority of God.
On July 26, 1945, the Potsdam Declaration was issued which defined the terms for Japan’s surrender to the Allied forces during World War II. The Allied forces were “poised to strike the final blows”, which would mean the “inevitable and complete destruction of the Japanese armed forces and… homeland”. Japan would be “given an opportunity to end this war”, but only according to the terms given in the document, which included the destruction of Japan’s war-making power and their occupation by the Allies.
At first, Japan rejected the terms. On August 6, the United States dropped the first atomic weapon on Hiroshima, and 3 days later the second on Nagasaki. On August 15, Japan surrendered unconditionally according to the terms given.
When you read the accounts of the apostles bringing the message of Jesus Christ to the lost in the book of Acts, you’ll find various similarities to the Potsdam Declaration. For example, Paul presented God’s terms of surrender to the Athenians, with a warning that God will bring man’s war with Him to a close, and then there will be the judgment.
The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed…
- Acts 17:30-31 (ESV)
God allows men time to surrender to Him… and much more time than the Allies gave Japan! The reason being that He would rather have man reconciled to Him instead of having to be destroyed (2 Peter 3:9). God desires that we humble ourselves, lay down our arms, and submit to His terms (2 Corinthians 6:2, Isaiah 61:1-2). But the time of His grace is not infinite. One day judgment will fall on all those who refuse to turn from their ways.
A Life Of Repentance
What about those who are saved – those of us who have believed in Jesus? Is all that repentance thing behind us? No, repentance is not just for sinners – it is to be a life-long attitude for the believer.
When a nation surrenders at the end of hostilities, it is not something finished in a day. The terms of surrender only begin to take effect when the war ends.
After the Japanese formally surrendered to the Allies, they obeyed MacArthur’s “General Order No. 1” which gave the various parts of the Japanese military instructions on who to surrender to, what to do with its military hardware and installations, what needed to be reported, preserved, and kept operational, and how to deal with its former prisoners of war. All this took time. They had to follow all of the instructions unconditionally after the war was over. A defeated nation submits for however long the victor says.
And so it is with us. When we repent, we not only lay down our arms against God, we continue to do all He requires of us. Mercifully He does not require us to make war reparations (Jesus did that part), but simply to live in the way that He intended us to live all along.
(Note that our works of repentance do not justify us in God’s eyes; they are not meritorious towards our salvation, just as Japan’s surrender and obedience to the terms did not justify them or make them right in the Allied forces’ eyes.)
An Attitude Of Repentance
It’s real easy to confuse the evidence of repentance (called “fruit” in Luke 3:8) with repentance itself. Repentance is not the outward actions, nor does it come about by trying to reform yourself. It is not even primarily a mental change. Repentance is a heart attitude change. If your heart is not repentant, any lifestyle changes you make will only be temporary or inadequate.
After the first Gulf War in 1991, Saddam Hussain was told to submit to the UN inspectors – allowing them unlimited access to various weapons development sites. WMDs (Sarin and mustard gas) were found in Iraq as late as 1996. But Saddam did not provide the required evidence of destruction, and he kicked the inspectors out in 1998, leading to another war in Iraq and his removal from power. Unlike Japan after WWII, Saddam refused to submit – and suffered the consequences. His heart was not in it.
Because repentance is of the heart, it is not something that applies to certain sins, but to the overall sin nature from which individual sins spring forth. You cannot repent of some sins while willingly holding on to others 3. In other words, giving up fornication with all people except with one or two is not true repentance, nor is giving up stealing while refusing to stop lying. If Japan had only obeyed some of the terms of the Potsdam Declaration and General Order No. 1, then they hadn’t truly surrendered.
God does not want you to give up individual sins so much as to give up the underlying sin principle. He is not looking for concessions from you, but for you to give up your right to yourself. It is when you give up all your rights to God that your individual sins will die (1 John 3:6) through the power of the Holy Spirit.
It is when you become gripped with the desire to be free of all forms of sin that the Holy Spirit becomes free to mold you into the image of Christ.
- Note the grace: A man has sinned, yet God hasn’t taken his life. Surely there is no reason to complain! ↩
- In Luke 16:22-24, the rich man knew he deserved hell as he did not ask to be let out. ↩
- One doesn’t repent of “sins” but of “sin”, i.e. the overall sinful way of thinking. The proper response to “sins” is confession. ↩