What Is Repentance?

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Image by Ben White. Adapted for Redemption of Humanity. Used under licence.

Last edited on 20/Dec/2020

The Bible’s Answer

Contrition and Faith

Many people think that repentance is a good work that we do for God; that it is all about turning from our old sinful ways and living a holy life. This, however, is a common misconception. Strictly speaking, repentance is that which leads to all of the above and takes place before you actually begin doing any good works. It is divided into two parts: contrition and faith.1,2 Biblical repentance is sincere contrition, grief, and remorse over your wrong actions towards God and other human beings, followed by faith in Jesus Christ, which believes that your sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake.1–4 This then produces a genuine desire to make amends for your actions, which leads to living a better, holier life—known as the fruits of repentance (see Luke 3:8).1–4

Law and Gospel

God’s law and gospel play fundamental roles in biblical repentance. The law of God produces contrition within us when we realise that we do not measure up to its perfect standards and deserve his eternal punishment (James 2:8–11; Galatians 3:10; Matthew 25:46). This terror leads us to the comfort of the gospel of Jesus Christ, from where faith is born (Romans 1:16; Ephesians 2:8–9), and which assures us that we are saved when we believe that our sins are forgiven and that we are received into God’s favour for Christ’s sake, not because of anything we do (Romans 3:21–26; Romans 4:5). Out of gratitude for God’s unmerited and undeserved love, Christians then do good works in keeping with their repentance (1 John 4:19), with the help of the Holy Spirit, who has made them a new creation (Colossians 3:9–10; 2 Corinthians 3:18).

Bible Passages

St Paul wrote to the Corinthians:

For even if I made you grieve with my letter, I do not regret it—though I did regret it, for I see that that letter grieved you, though only for a while. As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting. For you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no loss through us. For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death. For see what earnestness this godly grief has produced in you, but also what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what longing, what zeal, what punishment! (2 Corinthians 7:8–11)

As Paul wrote, repentance is not simply grief, but godly grief—one that is centred on trust in God, which puts us in a right relationship with him and produces within us good works and changed behaviour. After all, no person who is genuinely sorry would continue to willfully do the same evil thing again and again without making at least some attempt to reform. According to the Bible, repentance is not something that we decide to do for ourselves, but it is something that God graciously grants us. In other words, repentance is a work of God; a free gift of his grace:

And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will. (2 Timothy 2:24–26)

Repentance (in this context, the first part: contrition) leads to salvation because it produces within us “knowledge of the truth”—that is, saving faith (the second part of repentance). When we repent, or rather when God grants us repentance, we acknowledge that we are sinners before God who are unworthy of his grace, and put our faith in Jesus Christ as our only Saviour (Romans 3:23; Acts 4:12; Galatians 2:15–16). Similarly, the Bible says:

Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? (Romans 2:4)

God’s desire is for everyone to repent and he is very patient about it (2 Peter 3:9). He shows us grace, love, and kindness in all the good things he gives us in life (James 1:17), even though we do not deserve any of it, so that, moved by his love, we repent, get reconciled to him, and thus spend eternity with him in Heaven (John 14:1–3; Romans 5:1; Philippians 3:20–21). If we do not repent, however, then we reject and cast aside God’s kindness. We say to God that it means nothing to us and, in the end, perish eternally in Hell (Luke 13:1–5).

Repentance—Conversion and a Life-long Process

On the one hand, repentance is the beginning of our Christian life—the moment when someone converts to Christianity and receives the forgiveness of sins (See Acts 2:36–41). St Peter said:

Repent therefore, and turn again, that your sins may be blotted out, … (Acts 3:19)

On the other hand, repentance is also a daily part of the Christian life, because we are called to repent whenever we sin (Revelation 2:2–5). This aspect of repentance involves confessing our sins before God, including those that we are not aware of (1 John 1:8–9), asking God to forgive us for Jesus’ sake (Matthew 6:9, 12), with the assurance that he does forgive those who believe (1 John 5:13), and then putting to death whatever is earthly and sinful in us (Colossians 3:5–11) and instead putting on the fruit of the Holy Spirit (Colossinans 3:12–14; Galatians 5:16–26). It is not the fruit of repentance that saves, though, nor contrition, but faith alone, which follows contrition (Romans 3:20–22, 28).

You Cannot Repent After Death

The time to repent is now. Jesus said:

The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel. (Mark 1:15)

2,000 years ago, the Son of God initiated the last days by becoming flesh and thus bringing with him God’s kingdom—his authority and rule—to the Earth (Matthew 12:28). Jesus is now reigning as King through the church (Revelation 17:14; Colossians 1:18; Ephesians 3:17), those in whom he lives and has granted repentance, and he will come again at an unknown day and hour to judge the living and the dead (James 5:7–8). This life is our only chance to repent for salvation (Hebrews 9:27–28), so do so now to receive forgiveness from God and eternal life before it is too late.

Reference List

1. McCain, Paul Timothy, Engelbrecht, Edward Andrew, eds, Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2005-2006), 38.

2. Pr Moldenhauer, Aaron. ‘Repentance in the Confessions.’ lutheranreformation.org. Accessed 14 September 2020. https://lutheranreformation.org/theology/repentance-in-the-confessions/

3. Pr Jacob, Ricky. ‘What is Repentance? (What do Lutherans Believe?: Part 5).’ Lutheran Indian Ministries. Accessed 14 September 2020. https://www.lutheranindianministries.org/news/what-is-repentance

4. ‘What Lutherans Teach about Repentance.’ Concordia Publishing House. Accessed 14 September 2020. https://blog.cph.org/read/everyday-faith/what-lutherans-teach/what-lutherans-teach-about-repentance

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