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The topic of repentance is central throughout the pages of the Bible. Repentance is also at the core of many of Jesus’ warnings to His audiences. Repentance applies to everyone, for God “commands all men everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30). Yet when the subject is discussed in the religious world today, it is not well understood.
True repentance is much more than a momentary emotional reaction; it is actually a lifelong process! Many people see a need to change something in their lives, but what exactly needs to be changed? What must one do to be in a continued repentant attitude? What does the Bible say about how to repent?
One of the first things to consider on a regular basis is that God’s mind and His thoughts are truly higher than ours. “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways. … For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9).
The apostle Paul discusses how man thinks: “For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh” (Romans 8:5). The human mind does not think like God does.
Christ shows the results of what happens to those who set their minds on the flesh: “What comes out of a man, that defiles a man. For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lewdness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within and defile a man” (Mark 7:20-23, emphasis added throughout).
Our fleshly, carnal mind produces thoughts and actions that are not acceptable by God. The natural “works of the flesh are … adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like” (Galatians 5:19-21).
So, in order to please God, we must learn how to repent and change how we think. That is, we must resist the downward pull of the fleshly, carnal mind because “the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be (Romans 8:7). We must therefore recognize the importance of aligning our minds with God’s thoughts and ways.
The apostle Peter’s stirring sermon on the Feast of Pentecost in Jerusalem struck the conscience of his audience. Thousands of Jewish worshippers 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). Their guilt demanded that they find out how to repent and begin changing their lives.
Repentance must go deeper than merely recognizing what is right or wrong. One must admit personal guilt for breaking God’s holy law. Repentance is a godly sorrow that is so deep and profound that it leads to our diligently changing our lives (2 Corinthians 7:9-10). Repentance is an acknowledgement that our entire way of life was apart from God. We must understand that our sins separated us from God and required the death of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Our desire to be forgiven and obey God from now on must be motivated from the heart.
Repentance leads to conversion—the change of our lives. God’s laws define what we must change. We must take God’s instructions seriously. “Repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out,” Peter said (Acts 3:19).
Through the prophet Isaiah, God says, “On this one will I look: on him who is poor and of a contrite spirit, and who trembles at My word” (Isaiah 66:2).
The foundational teaching of Jesus is recorded in Matthew 5-7. He dogmatically stated: “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled. Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments … shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does … them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:17-19).
A person who is learning how to repent will begin to obey God by keeping His commandments. “For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments” (1 John 5:3). The last book of the Bible focuses on those end-time Christians “who keep the commandments of God” (Revelation 12:17; 14:12; 22:14).
The prophet Isaiah stated: “Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, and He will have mercy on him; and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon” (Isaiah 55:7).
Not a single person is immune to sinning: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. … If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us” (1 John 1:8, 10).
The end result of sinning is death—everlasting death. “For the wages of sin is death,” Paul wrote (Romans 6:23). Jesus stated, “Unless you repent you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3, 5). God does not want us to pay this ultimate price. His desire is for each of us to learn how to repent, to be forgiven of our sins and to have the death penalty removed. “The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).
Repenting requires that we turn from our sins—both actions and thoughts—and turn to God. We must confess our sins to God and stop sinning. For those who sincerely want to please God, this process requires a lifelong commitment.
Left to ourselves, we will not understand the importance of learning how to repent. Our carnal mind will resist repenting. God gives us the attitude to repent. He helps us comprehend the importance of repenting. Paul wrote, “Do you despise the riches of His goodness … not knowing that the goodness of God leads you to repentance?” (Romans 2:4).
As God leads us, we must come to the place in our lives where we clearly see that our natural thoughts and ways are unacceptable to Him and we must change. Notice what Paul instructed Timothy: “In humility correcting those who are in opposition, if God perhaps will grant them repentance, so that they may know the truth” (2 Timothy 2:25).
God also provides us with the determination and strength to face our sins and overcome them without becoming discouraged. This spiritual battle requires more than human determination. Regardless of how long it takes us to succeed in this process, God must be involved. He provides us with the extra strength “both to will and to do for His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13).
“Whoever commits sin also commits lawlessness, and sin is lawlessness” (1 John 3:4). Repentance is turning from our lawless thoughts and ways, which are sin, and then turning to God’s thoughts and ways. The laws of God define God’s thoughts and ways.
Repentance involves far more than feeling bad about our sins. It is “repentance toward God” (Acts 20:21) who is the Lawgiver. When we sin, we break God’s “holy … just … good … spiritual” law (Romans 7:12, 14, 16). Repentance is a process of correcting our lives to be in agreement with His laws.
King David fell victim to the very strong pulls of his carnality. When confronted with his sins, he did not excuse himself. He immediately recognized how offensive his sins were to God and that he had “sinned against the LORD” (2 Samuel 12:13; Psalm 51:4).
He understood what Isaiah wrote later, that “your iniquities have separated you from your God; and your sins have hidden His face from you, so that He will not hear” (Isaiah 59:2). David understood the severity of his sins and did not want to destroy his relationship with God. He repented bitterly “toward God.”
Paul not only preached “repentance toward God,” but also “faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:21). We confess our sins to God, and He forgives us because of what Jesus Christ has done for us and what He continues to do for us.
Jesus Christ is our Savior. His death paid the penalty for our sins. “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
Our faith toward Christ, in what He did for us, continues for the rest of our lives. Every time we sin, we must go to God and ask for forgiveness, which is made possible through the sacrifice of our Savior. We must have faith that Christ’s sacrifice will be applied to us each time we repent.
Christ fulfills the role of our spiritual High Priest in heaven at God’s right hand. “Seeing then that we have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession” (Hebrews 4:14). In this exalted position, He functions not only as our Savior but also as our Mediator between God and man.
By Christ’s death we are reconciled to God by forgiveness of sins. We must exercise faith daily toward the living Christ as He guides us down the road of salvation. We “shall be saved by His life” (Romans 5:10).
Our human nature is affected by the carnal mind, and it will never go away in this life. We will spend the remainder of our lives struggling against the pulls of our nature. We will win some battles; we will lose others. But so long as God sees we sincerely desire not to sin, that we hate sin and struggle against it, He is merciful.
“For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is His mercy toward those who fear Him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us. As a father pities his children, so the LORD pities those who fear Him” (Psalm 103:11-13). He understands that we are flesh and is quick to forgive us when we repent.
The apostle John summarized both how to repent and God’s merciful response to our repentance: “The blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin. … If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:7-9; see also Psalm 51:2, 7).