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?
What does repentance mean?
Repentance is a change of heart and change of direction. It involves a determination to stop sinning and not to sin in the future.
Definition of 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 looking at 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 of repentance
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).
Repentance requires that we understand what sin is—the breaking of God’s law (1 John 3:4). John explains why keeping the commandments is important: “For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome” (1 John 5:3). God’s laws are beneficial, but we all have broken them (Romans 3:23). Sinning automatically brings curses and ultimately, eternal death (Romans 6:23).
True repentance is characterized by an understanding of the seriousness of sin (Ephesians 2:1-3), a deep desire to be forgiven (Hebrews 9:14) and a determined commitment to change behavior and thoughts in order to stop sinning (Matthew 3:8; Acts 26:19-20).
Godly sorrow leads to repentance
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. “For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death” (2 Corinthians 7:10).
Verse 11 highlights the diligent effort and vehement desire to change that godly sorrow produces. “For observe this very thing, that you sorrowed in a godly manner: What diligence it produced in you, what clearing of yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what vehement desire, what zeal, what vindication! In all things you proved yourselves to be clear in this matter.”
Study the meaning of this important passage further in our article “Godly Sorrow.”
Repent and believe the gospel
Jesus’ gospel message includes a call to repentance. As Mark recorded, “Now after John was put in prison, Jesus came to Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel’” (Mark 1:14-15).
Jesus was calling for a repentance that 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.
Examples of true repentance in the Bible
One of the most memorable and detailed examples of repentance in the Bible is David’s repentance after his sin with Bathsheba and his attempted coverup that led to the murder of her husband Uriah.
The story is told in 2 Samuel 11 and 12, but the details of David’s repentance are found in Psalm 51.
“To the Chief Musician. A Psalm of David when Nathan the prophet went to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.
“Have mercy upon me, O God, according to Your lovingkindness; according to the multitude of Your tender mercies, blot out my transgressions.
“Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.
“For I acknowledge my transgressions, and my sin is always before me” (Psalm 51:1-3).
Read the rest of Psalm 51 for further details of his prayers of repentance.
Other examples of repentance in the Bible include Daniel’s prayer in Daniel 9 (see “What Can We Learn From Daniel’s Passionate Prayer?”) and Peter’s sorrow after denying Jesus three times (Mark 14:66-72; see “After Sin: Lessons From Judas and Peter”).
Learn more in our article “How to Repent.”
Repentance is 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.
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.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).
God wants all to come to repentance
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).
Learn more by downloading our free booklet Change Your Life!