Judas Iscariot and King Saul both recognized their sins, but did they actually repent? What is God really looking for in a repentant sinner today?
Maybe you have come to realize that sin is breaking God’s commandments (1 John 3:4) and that you no longer want to live a life of disobedience to His laws. Your desire is to fully surrender your will to God’s perfect will and change your sinful ways in order to walk in harmony with your Creator.
In faith you are turning to Jesus Christ as your personal Savior, knowing that through His shed blood your guilty past can be forgiven. In sincerity, you understand that your transgressions caused Christ to be nailed to the cross and to suffer a horrible death. The death penalty you incurred was fully paid for by your Savior.
Now, more than ever, you want to think as God thinks and have a close, personal relationship with Him.
The way forward
What now? What does the Bible say we must do to become true Christians? What does the process of conversion include?
- To be accepted by God as true Christians, we need to have His Holy Spirit. God’s Word states that without the Holy Spirit we are not Christians: “So then, those who are in the flesh cannot please God. … Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His” (Romans 8:8-9, emphasis added throughout). When a person has the Holy Spirit, he or she is converted, belongs to Christ and is considered a true Christian.
- How do we receive the Holy Spirit? “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). God promises that, upon genuine repentance, He will grant us His Holy Spirit and we will be called “His own elect” (Luke 18:7).
- Only after repentance can we be baptized, which is an outward demonstration of our inner faith in Jesus Christ. Repentance is more than being sorry for past sins; it is a total change of mind leading to living a new way of life. It is turning away from being concerned solely for the self and turning to obedience to God and having outgoing concern for our fellow humans (Matthew 22:36-40).
- True godly repentance is a key component in the process of conversion. It is critical to our future spiritual growth and development.
The missing dimension in godly repentance
But the Bible tells us that there is a wrong way to repent—a worldly sorrow.
The following three biblical examples provide insight into a vital dimension of genuine repentance. All of them sinned, but consider what two of the examples did wrong, and what the other did right, in seeking repentance and forgiveness.
1. Saul, Israel’s first king
Saul is one of the most tragic figures in the Old Testament. He was appointed by God to be the first king of the nation of Israel.
Before a battle against the Philistines at Gilgal, the prophet Samuel gave Saul explicit instructions not to begin the battle until he arrived to offer a sacrifice (1 Samuel 10:8). Saul also should have known the strict requirement that only Levites should offer sacrifices. But instead, Saul, who was not a Levite, disobeyed and took upon himself the duty of offering a sacrifice. Samuel arrived as soon as Saul finished presenting the burnt offering. Instead of expressing genuine repentance, Saul made excuses for his actions (1 Samuel 13:8-14).
This same pattern of disobedience continued to be a factor in Saul’s reign, until God told Samuel: “I greatly regret that I have set up Saul as king, for he has turned back from following Me, and has not performed My commandments” (1 Samuel 15:11).
On another occasion Saul disobeyed God’s instructions about how he should deal with the Amalekites—the archenemies of the Israelites (1 Samuel 15:1-4). Saul refused to carry out all the instructions he was given, and he spared the Amalekite king and the best of the animals (verses 7-9).
When confronted by Samuel, Saul blamed his misconduct on the people—he did not see his own rebellion and lack of obedience (verses 20-21). Subsequently Samuel uttered these distressing words: “Because you have rejected the word of the LORD, He also has rejected you from being king” (verse 23).
Now notice carefully Saul’s reaction: “Then Saul said to Samuel, ‘I have sinned, for I have transgressed the commandment of the LORD and your words. … Now therefore, please pardon my sin’” (verses 24-25).
Saul asked Samuel to pardon him. However, God did not forgive him (verse 26). Something was terribly wrong with Saul’s apparent attitude of repentance.
What was so wrong with Saul’s seemingly heartfelt approach? Was his response purely intellectual and academic? What was lacking?
Continue reading to find the answer.
2. Judas, disciple of Christ
Let’s consider another well-known and tragic personality in the Bible.
After his betrayal of Jesus, Judas realized the awful consequences of his actions. He took the 30 pieces of silver back to the chief priests and elders and in remorse (“repented himself,” King James Version) threw the coins on the floor of the temple (Matthew 27:3-5).
Again, notice carefully what he said: “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood” (verse 4).
But then he shamefully departed and hanged himself! He recognized his sinful actions and guilt. However, his outward acknowledgement of wrongdoing did not lead to the response God desired.
“I have sinned.” These are the same words King Saul used! But, as with Saul, Judas tragically did not make the changes God tells us to make.
Continue reading to discover the answer.
3. David, king of Israel
After God rejected Saul, Samuel said to him: “The LORD has sought for Himself a man after His own heart, and the LORD has commanded him to be commander over His people, because you have not kept what the LORD commanded you” (1 Samuel 13:14). See also Acts 13:22.
Samuel was then sent to anoint David to eventually become king over Israel (1 Samuel 16:1-13), and God told Samuel what He looked for in the next king: “For man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart” (verse 7). It is from the heart and mind that one repents and in all sincerity turns and goes the opposite way.
Although David had certain weaknesses and committed serious and grievous sins, he did have an outlook that was different from both Saul and Judas. One episode virtually all Bible readers know about is his adultery with Bathsheba and how he then wickedly planned the murder of her husband, Uriah.
These were terrible sins; and from a human perspective, they appear even greater than Saul’s sins. But there was an important difference between how the men responded to their sins.
When confronted by Nathan the prophet, who was sent by God, David’s response is extremely instructive and vitally important to understand. Nathan presented a compelling story that led David into acknowledging his guilt, iniquity and sin.
“So David said to Nathan, ‘I have sinned’” (2 Samuel 12:13).
It’s the same phrase used by both Saul and Judas! But notice how God responded to David: “The LORD also has put away your sin; you shall not die.”
Why were David’s serious sins “put away” and forgiven, but not Saul’s and Judas’—even though they seemed to express similar sorrow?
There is more in verse 13 that was not quoted above. Notice: “I have sinned against the LORD.”
Why is this expression “against the LORD” so important to understand?
All sins are against God
David recognized that by sinning he had broken his Creator’s eternal and righteous law and displeased God. In an emotional plea he cried out to God and asked for forgiveness: “For I acknowledge my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. Against You, You only, have I sinned, and done this evil in Your sight—that You may be found just when You speak, and blameless when You judge” (Psalm 51:3-4).
Repentance and the process of conversion involve a complete change of mind and direction in our lives. Once we genuinely repent, our actions will reflect a God-centered, deep-seated desire to please our Father in the way we live, coupled by an inner concern and love for other humans.David was terribly upset because he had disappointed God and let Him down!
King David had faults, but he repented of them in a godly manner, showing a true fear and deep respect for God. He also determined that in the future he would live as God desired. This frame of mind and commitment to live in accordance with God’s instructions pleased God, who out of the abundance of His mercy forgave David.
It is also possible that David realized that his sins, along with all sin, would be the reason for the future death of the Messiah, our Savior Jesus Christ. David was the author of Psalm 22, which gives a graphic account of the horrible suffering and death Christ would experience.
Godly or worldly sorrow—which?
The biblical teaching on the subject of repentance is that the heartache, sorrow and remorse we show when we repent must be directed to God. We must recognize that when we sin we let God down and disappoint Him and break His holy, just and good law (Romans 7:12). The apostle Paul stated that we need “repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:21). After we have a repentant heart, our faith will be demonstrated by how we live (James 2:20).
Unfortunately, well-meaning people may experience a deceptive and false sorrow—a counterfeit conversion—that the Bible calls “a sorrow of the world” that “produces death” (2 Corinthians 7:10). On the other hand, there is a genuine repentant outlook, described by Paul as a “godly sorrow” that “produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted” (verse 10, first part). Paul was pleased that members of the Church at Corinth “sorrowed in a godly manner” (verse 11), motivated to live a new way of life never “to be regretted.” Verses 11 and 12 outline the attributes that a true, godly repentance—one directed to God—produces. Read more about this in our article “Godly Sorrow.”
David, a man after God’s own heart, had this godly sorrow and demonstrated it by his subsequent actions. And so God “put away” his sins—forgave him.
Do we understand the essential and critical difference between a worldly and a godly sorrow? One may lead to eternal death; the other, to eternal life.
One motivation for repenting of sins and changing the way we live is the realization that when we sin, we disappoint God, so after repentance we try our best not to let Him down anymore. Furthermore, we come to understand that our sins caused the death of our Savior, Jesus Christ. These are reasons we are daily “striving against sin” (Hebrews 12:4).
Godly repentance—a new way of life
Repentance and the process of conversion involve a complete change of mind and direction in our lives. Once we genuinely repent, our actions will reflect a God-centered, deep-seated desire to please our Father in the way we live, coupled by an inner concern and love for other humans.
Real repentance includes acknowledging our sins and then living in accordance with God’s commands. Saul and Judas acknowledged their sin but did not follow through by living changed lives. God did not want Judas to kill himself; He desired Judas to repent of his sin and then demonstrate his repentance by living a changed life.
God looks on the thoughts and intents of our hearts. When we repent of our sins, may our thoughts echo the attitude of King David: “Against You, You only, have I sinned, and done this evil in Your sight.”
May God help us to experience this change of heart and live in accordance with this genuine, godly repentance! It is the path that leads to life—for all eternity.
Read more about repentance and how to repent in the following articles:
And read about the entire process of conversion in our free booklet Change Your Life!