How to Repent

Jesus came preaching a message of repentance. Since all of us have sinned, we all need to repent. But what does it mean to repent? Here’s how to repent.

The topic of repentance is found throughout the pages of the Bible. When Jesus spoke, He often said that His audience needed to repent. He said that He came to call “sinners, to repentance” (Luke 5:32).

That message is just as much for us today as it was for people living 2,000 years ago. Everyone needs to learn how to repent of sin because God “commands all men everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30). For no one can receive the gift of eternal life without first repenting of sin.

Yet repentance is often misunderstood in the religious world. Many see it as an emotional reaction to guilt, feeling remorseful for our sins, or simply asking God for forgiveness. True repentance includes these things—but the Bible shows there’s more to it.  

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?

This article will explore five basic steps of the repentance process. Those steps are:

Step 1: Recognize that God’s thoughts are higher and better than ours.

Step 2: Acknowledge our personal guilt of sin.

Step 3: Turn from our sinful thoughts and ways.

Step 4: Seek to live by every word of God.

Step 5: Continue to seek repentance and rely on Christ’s sacrifice.

Step 1: Recognize that God’s thoughts are higher and better than ours.

The first step to true repentance is changing how we think. We need to come to recognize that God’s mind and thoughts are truly higher (and better) 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).

We don’t naturally think like this. The apostle Paul identified how human beings typically think: “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. The human mind thinks carnally. Paul also wrote that “the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be” (Romans 8:7). Enmity means that we naturally resist and oppose what God’s law tells us to do.

But what does carnal mean?

The basic meaning of carnal is being driven by fleshly and worldly motivations—in other words, thinking and doing what we want to do and what feels good, without regard to God’s law and guidance.

Jesus Christ identified the kind of carnal thoughts that come from our minds: “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 sinful according to 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).

All these evil things are sin; they break God’s law (1 John 3:4). To learn more about sin, read our article “What Is Sin?

So, in order to repent and please God, we must first recognize where our thinking and habits are out of line with God’s thoughts and laws. But we can’t do that until we recognize that His thoughts and ways are higher than ours and are right

And we need to recognize that God Himself leads us to this understanding. As Paul wrote, “The goodness of God leads you to repentance” (Romans 2:4).

Step 2: Acknowledge our personal guilt of sin.

The second step to true repentance is to humbly acknowledge our personal guilt to God—which means confessing our sins and realizing how far we fall short of God’s thoughts and ways in our lives.

The apostle Peter’s stirring sermon on the Feast of Pentecost in Jerusalem struck the conscience of his audience. Thousands of people 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).

They internally recognized their guilt and openly acknowledged it. 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 or feeling bad about our sins. We must admit our personal guilt to God for breaking His holy law. Repentance must go deeper than merely recognizing what is right or wrong or feeling bad about our sins. We must admit our personal guilt to God for breaking His holy law. Christian repentance is a godly sorrow that is so deep and profound that it leads to a diligent pursuit of changing our lives (2 Corinthians 7:9-10).

Repentance is an acknowledgement that our entire way of life is at odds with God—and needs to change. 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.

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). We must always remember that we repent to God (Acts 20:21)—not to a human being.

David 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 confessed those sins openly and repented bitterly to God (Psalm 51).

We must also go to God directly, acknowledging our sins, and asking Him to intervene in our lives and forgive us.

Step 3: Turn from our sinful thoughts and ways.

The third step to true repentance is turning away (or giving up) the sins in our life.

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).

No one is immune to sinning: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Even after baptism and conversion, John tells Christians, “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. The Bible makes this very clear: “For the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Jesus stated, “Unless you repent you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3, 5).

Many believe the consequence of sin is torment in hell, but these verses (and many others) make it clear that death is the ultimate consequence and punishment for sin.

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. We make that commitment through water baptism.

Baptism is a big subject that we can’t cover in this article. To learn more about this important topic, read “What Is Baptism?

Step 4: Seek to live by every word of God.

The fourth step to true repentance is changing our lives to bring ourselves into alignment with God. God’s laws define what we must change. We must take God’s instructions seriously. This is what the Bible calls being converted.

Peter said that conversion (changing our lives) is linked to repentance: “Repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out” (Acts 3:19).

Seeking to change our lives to align them with God’s ways requires humility: “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). A repentant person will respect God’s Word and seek to live by what it teaches.

When we respect God’s Word, we’ll seek to fulfill Jesus words in Matthew 4:4: “‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’”

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; Revelation 14:12; Revelation 22:14).

Looking for the church behind Life, Hope & Truth? See our “Who We Are” page.

God promises to provide 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).

To learn more about what it means to be converted and live by God’s words, read “What Is Conversion?

Step 5: Continue to seek repentance and rely on Christ’s sacrifice.

The fifth step to true repentance is having “faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:21). We confess our sins to God, and He forgives us because of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice. We need to have faith that Christ not only sacrificed Himself for our sins, but also that His sacrifice does remove our sins.

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 the Father and ask for forgiveness, which is made possible through the sacrifice of our Savior. We must have full faith and confidence 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). We grow in righteous character by Jesus Christ living His life in us (Romans 8:10; Galatians 2:20; Colossians 1:27). 

To learn more about having faith in Christ and His sacrifice, read “What Does It Mean to Believe in Jesus Christ?

We must have a repentant mind for the rest of our lives

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, that we continually repent, 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).

It’s vitally important to understand and act on the process of repentance and conversion outlined in the Bible.

This is a big topic, and we only skimmed the surface in this article. If you would like to learn more about how to repent and align your life with God, please download our free booklet Change Your Life.

About the Author

Don Waterhouse

Don Waterhouse served as a pastor for the Church of God, a Worldwide Association, until his death in 2016.

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