Repentance is a major theme of the Bible and a requirement for sinful humans to approach the holy God. But what does repent mean? What is repentance?
The Greek word translated “repentance” in the New Testament means “to change one’s way of life as the result of a complete change of thought and attitude with regard to sin and righteousness” (Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains, J.P. Louw and Eugene Nida, 1988).
Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words (W.E. Vine, 1985) points out that the Greek literally means “to perceive afterwards.” Considering these definitions, what is repentance? It is considering something that you did in the past, recognizing that it was sinful—that it broke God’s good and beneficial laws—and concluding you need to change for the better.
The initial steps
Since it is not natural for us to desire to make the changes necessary to obey God (Romans 8:7), He must lead us to understand the need for repentance (Romans 2:4), which is the starting point of a commitment to a new way of living and to the transformation of the human heart and mind from carnal to spiritual (Acts 3:19; Romans 12:2).
The Bible shows that initial repentance is a significant, personal, life-changing decision that leads to baptism and receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:37-39). Repentance is characterized by an understanding of the seriousness of sin (Romans 6:23; Ephesians 2:1-3), a deep desire to be forgiven (Psalm 51:1-3; Hebrews 9:14) and a determined commitment to change behavior and thoughts in order to stop sinning (Matthew 3:8; Acts 26:19-20).
The apostle Paul emphasized that “godly sorrow” produces genuine repentance, which results in permanent changes that ultimately lead a person toward salvation, in contrast to “the sorrow of the world,” which does not result in permanent change and leads to death (2 Corinthians 7:10). Verse 11 highlights the diligent effort and vehement desire to change that godly sorrow produces.
Jesus’ gospel message includes a call to repentance (Mark 1:14-15), which leads to a change in direction—turning from the natural pursuit of sinful human values to obedience and seeking the Kingdom of God. Jesus used current events of His time to emphasize that a person’s life is futile and random until he or she comes to repentance and begins to pursue the Kingdom of God (Luke 13:1-5).
After His death and resurrection Jesus instructed His disciples to teach about His sacrifice and also “that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem” (Luke 24:46-47; see also Matthew 28:18-20).
Jesus was willing to be beaten and die a horrible death to pay the penalty for our sins. That awesome sacrifice reinforces the seriousness of sin and the thankfulness we need to show to our merciful God.
An ongoing frame of mind
What is repentance? Is it just a single decision that leads to baptism? No, it also must be an ongoing frame of mind, recognizing that overcoming sin is a lifetime effort. Whenever we fall short of full obedience, we need to be forgiven.
In Colossians 3:1-10 Paul calls on those who, through repentance, have been baptized and have received the Holy Spirit to “put to death” the sinful ways of the “old man” and to “put on the new man.” In Romans 7:13-25 he vividly describes our battle to overcome our nature and inclination to sin—and explains that our only hope is through Jesus Christ, by whom we can be forgiven (verses 24-25). After initial repentance and baptism, there is a continual need for repentance and the seeking of forgiveness:
“If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 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).
Ultimately, it is God’s plan that everyone will have the opportunity to receive the gift of salvation, beginning with the experience of personal repentance. As Peter wrote, God is “not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).