Examples of True Repentance in the Bible

God desires for everyone to repent, but how does one do that? Which biblical examples can offer guidance for how to truly repent?

Almost every public proclamation of the gospel recorded in the New Testament includes a call to repentance (Matthew 3:8; Mark 1:14-15; Acts 2:38; 17:30). But what does true repentance look like?

Thankfully, God has preserved examples of genuine repentance in the Bible. By studying them, we can draw valuable lessons and gain a fuller understanding of the kind of repentance that God honors.

The repentance of Saul of Tarsus

Before he became the apostle Paul and wrote the majority of the New Testament, Saul was a zealous Pharisee wreaking havoc in the lives of Church members. He basically believed that “Christians”—as they came to be labeled—were supporting a movement that effectively promoted blasphemy.

So Saul took it upon himself to try to eradicate the heretical sect, dragging Christians out of their houses and imprisoning them. He was a zealous persecutor of Jesus’ followers in the early years of the Church.

Knowing what Saul did prior to becoming a pillar of Christianity makes his story of repentance all the more remarkable. Acts 9 provides the story of his calling and repentance, and other scriptures fill in some of the details. When read together, we find several takeaways.

Luke wrote concerning Saul, “As he journeyed he came near Damascus, and suddenly a light shone around him from heaven. Then he fell to the ground, and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?’” (verses 3-4).

Jesus did not say, “Why are you persecuting My disciples?” but, “Why are you persecuting Me?” It was vital that Saul understand that his sins were first and foremost against God. Part of genuine repentance is the realization that every sin—as severe as Saul’s or not—is against God.

Saul’s response tells us something important about repentance: “So he, trembling and astonished, said, ‘Lord, what do You want me to do?’” (verse 6). His words display true humility. Paul was embarking on a total surrender of his mind and will to do whatever Jesus Christ wanted.

And what does the Lord and Savior want but wholehearted obedience and loyalty? Notice John 14:15: “If you love Me, keep My commandments.”

Several in Jesus’ day apparently thought that lip service was sufficient, in the same way many do today. But Saul’s repentance shows us he understood that repentance means a change in lifestyle.

Saul’s example of repentance teaches us that it’s not enough to merely feel something; one must actually do something. True repentance always manifests itself in action.

The repentance of King David

Even the most famous king of Israel sinned terrible sins. He committed adultery with another man’s wife and then had him killed to cover it up (2 Samuel 11:1-26).

And for what must have been months after his egregious sins, things were seemingly business as usual. David apparently went about his daily activities as if he had done nothing wrong.

It wasn’t until Nathan the prophet confronted David that he saw himself for the sinner he really was.

David’s response demonstrated why he was a man after God’s own heart and left us an excellent example of heartfelt repentance.

His prayer is recorded in Psalm 51. Notice the following statements:

  • “Have mercy upon me, O God, according to Your lovingkindness.” David first beseeched the Creator of heaven and earth for His mercy. He knew letter-of-the-law justice would have meant his death. He soberly recognized that all he could do was cast himself at the feet of his Creator to seek grace and mercy he did not deserve.
  • “For I acknowledge my transgressions.” A sincerely repentant individual will own up to his or her mistakes—and that’s what David did. Nowhere in his prayer do we find him making excuses or blaming someone else for his failings. He held himself totally accountable and called his actions what they were: sins (1 John 3:4). He did not sugarcoat or rationalize his actions, but openly confessed them. This is what God wants (1 John 1:9).
  • “Create in me a clean heart.” David fell prey to his own wicked heart despite his better judgment (Jeremiah 17:9). He forgot God’s warning to Cain: “Sin lies at the door. And its desire is for you, but you should rule over it” (Genesis 4:7, emphasis added). David realized that praying to God for a radical change of his innermost being was the only real solution. His statement teaches us that when someone truly repents, he or she zealously seeks to change the inside first.

Some may be unsure of what steps to take to seek God’s forgiveness, but the story of David shows us one clear way.

The repentance of the prodigal son

Another profound example of repentance is found in a story told by the Savior Himself (Luke 15:11-31).

The parable goes like this: A father had two sons. The younger son approached his father and asked for his portion of the family inheritance, which the father agreed to grant him. Once he got his share, he left and proceeded to squander it on wild and reckless living.

Fundamentally, repentance comes down to humility, intense remorse, unreserved confession of sin and a commitment to change.So when a famine ravaged the country he was in, the prodigal son had no security to fall back on. He became so destitute and helpless that he wished he could fill “his stomach with the pods that the swine ate” (verse 16).

He finally decided to return home and beg for his father’s forgiveness. When his father spotted his son from a distance, he ran to him, embraced him, forgave him, welcomed him and threw a celebratory feast.

A commonly ignored point in the parable—after the prodigal son suffers the consequences of his actions, but before he returns to his father—is crucial to the topic of repentance. It’s expressed in these words: when he came to himself (verse 17). In other words, he woke up to who he was.

The prodigal son felt the jagged disconnect between the person he should have been and the person he was now. He came to his senses. He finally saw clearly the truth about sin—how it deceives and misleads with false promises. The reality of his dire circumstances helped give him clarity. The end result was that he humbled himself and repented.

Notice what he planned to do next: “I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, and I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants’” (verses 18-19).

The parable of the prodigal son teaches us several lessons, but one that stands out is the blessing of brutally honest self-examination. When an individual comes to himself or herself and sees the reality of sin, he or she begins to take steps toward genuine repentance.

Responding to God’s call

In Acts 17 we find the apostle Paul faithfully carrying out his commission to preach the gospel to the gentiles. In his address to some of the leading men of Athens, Paul explained who God was and what He desired: “Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent, because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained” (verse 30-31).

How could God be just if He commanded repentance, but then left us in the dark about what true repentance is or how it looks in action? Paul, David and the prodigal son are only three of many biblical examples that have been preserved for our benefit.

The examples of Peter, the sinful woman who anointed Jesus’ feet, the Philippian jailer, the man from Corinth who had his father’s wife, and more have been etched into the immortality of Scripture. They serve as a living witness that there is a kind of repentance that God will honor.

A closer study of those accounts will highlight various aspects of repentance. But fundamentally, repentance comes down to humility, intense remorse, unreserved confession of sin and a commitment to change.

May we all strive to repent in the way God wants.

About the Author

Kendrick Diaz

Kendrick Diaz

Kendrick Diaz is a full-time writer at the Life, Hope & Truth offices in McKinney, Texas. He spends his workdays writing blog posts and articles for Discern magazine and LifeHopeandTruth.com.

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