What is Repentance?

Repentance is hardly anyone’s favorite topic or doctrine, and there are many misconceptions of it. Repentance comes with the unpleasant baggage of guilt, shame, and sorrow. Many would prefer to simply move on and try to forget about sins that have been committed, or to pretend as if they do not exist. In contrast to this, some think of repentance as a one-time event that occurred at conversion, and others will think of it as a ritual of penance, or a seasonal event marked by Ash Wednesday and the accompanying fasting of Lent. All of this, however, fails to see repentance for what it truly is. Repentance is about turning to Christ. Being turned to Christ is the true joy of repentance. In this way, repentance is a wonderful grace, and there is “joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Lk 15:10).

True repentance is a turning away from sin, and a turning to the Lord. Never one without the other, for genuine repentance and saving faith are inseparable and essential components of conversion, and they continue throughout the Christian life. Our church’s Statement of Faith reads as follows: “We believe that all who are regenerated by the Holy Spirit repent of their sins and trust in Jesus Christ as Savior (Titus 3:5; Rom 10:9-19).”[1] Repentance is foundational to the Christian life (Heb 6:1), and it is a grace that is granted from God (Acts 5:31; Acts 11:18; 2 Tim 2:25).

True repentance will be marked by good fruit as one continues to put sin to death and finds joy in walking with Christ. While unrepentance brings greater sorrow, repentance always leads to greater joys.

Repentance Must Be Genuine

Repentance must be authentic, or it is not repentance at all. False repentance is distinguished by worldly grief that produces death (2 Cor 7:10). True repentance, on the other hand, is marked by godly grief (2 Cor 7:9) and bears fruit (Matt 3:8; Luke 3:8) that is demonstrated in actions (Acts 26:20; Rev 2:5). The one who has turned to Christ and is therefore abiding in him will bear good fruit (John 15).

Thomas Watson’s The Doctrine of Repentance provides the following definition of true repentance: "Repentance is a grace of God’s Spirit whereby a sinner is inwardly humbled and visibly reformed. For a further amplification, know that repentance is a spiritual medicine made up of six special ingredients: sight of sin, sorrow for sin, confession of sin, shame for sin, hatred for sin, and turning from sin. If any one is left out it loses its virtue."[2]

For a helpful read on marks of true repentance, I encourage you to read Jared Wilson’s post: How do I know I’m really repentant? On the other side of this, Jim Elliff’s article on the “unrepentant repenter” is helpful in discerning characteristics of false repentance.

Repentance is Ongoing

True repentance is not a one-time event, but it is to be an ongoing reality in the life of the Christian. While repentance in conversion is a singular event as one repents from dead works that are unable to save (Heb 6:1), repentance should be an ever-present reality in the life of the believer. Martin Luther presents this argument in his first of 95 Theses: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”[3]

Repentance Requires Daily Mortification of Sin

This means that repentance is not a seasonal activity to be inserted into our calendars. We believe that anticipation and celebration of our Lord’s resurrection is a good thing, but repentance is not something we are to assign to particular times of year. Instead, repentance and faith should mark daily life. For encouragement in this, John Owen’s The Mortification of Sin is an exposition of Romans 8:13 in which he instructs believers in putting sin to death by the power of the Spirit.[4] As our default is to drift (Heb 2:1), so we must cling to Christ. For as long as indwelling sin remains, walking in faith means that saints will mortify sin and keep trusting the Lord until the day when all will be made new in the New Creation.

Unrepentance Leads to Greater Sorrows

Those who do not repent will enter into greater sorrows. Consider the following warnings:
  • “If a man does not repent, God will whet his sword; he has bent and readied his bow” (Ps 7:12).
  • “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3).
  • “I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent” (Rev 2:5).
  • “Therefore repent. If not, I will come to you soon and wage war against them with the sword of my mouth” (Rev 2:16).
  • “Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know what hour I come against you” (Rev 3:3).

Be Zealous for Repentance

If you are struggling with repentance, do not lose heart. Instead, consider Jesus’ admonition: “Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent” (Rev 3:19). What might this zeal look like?

Confess your sin to the Lord and ask him to turn your heart (Ps 119:36). Read Bonhoeffer’s final chapter on “Confession and Communion” in Life Together[5] as he gives an exposition of James 5:16, “Confess your faults one to another.” Pray to the Lord to give you an appetite and thirst for righteousness (Matt 5:6).

Saturate your mind and heart with truth. Work your way through the books and resources in this post, for there are many saints who have gone before us and learned to walk in repentance and faith, and we should avail ourselves of the gift of their wisdom. Read about the doctrine of repentance in the classic confessions of the church.[6] In all these things, learn to set your eyes on Christ.

Repentance Leads to Greater Joys

Though repentance is marked by grief, the repentant one moves from the shame and sorrow of sin and enters into greater joys of light, truth, forgiveness, fellowship, and life. The grief of sin will be utterly eclipsed by the glory of seeing Christ. These are the wonderful realities known by those who have forsaken sin and turned to the Lord.

Let us “repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). Let us not disregard the kindness of God, but walk in repentance (Rom 2:4).

Finally, remember Jesus’ instruction in Luke 15:7, that “There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”
[1] https://obc.org/beliefs
[2] Thomas Watson, The Doctrine of Repentance (Edinburg: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2016), 18.
[3] https://www.luther.de/en/95thesen.html
[4] John Owen, The Mortification of Sin (Edinburg: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2016).
[5] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (New York: Harper Collins, 1954).
[6] Repentance to Life and Salvation: Chapter 15 of the London Baptist Confession (1689)
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Benjamin Purves