Biblical repentance starts from conviction of our sin. True biblical repentance reveals who we are and who we can be with Christ.
Seek the Lord while you can find him. Call on him now while he is near. Let the wicked change their ways and banish the very thought of doing wrong. Let them turn to the Lord that he may have mercy on them. Yes, turn to our God, for he will forgive generously. (Isaiah 55:6-7)
Have you ever been in a situation where you were confronted with doing something wrong, and your response was a curt “sorry”? The kind of response that implies you’re sorry for having to say you’re sorry? Or that you just want to move past the incident and get back to normal?
It is possible to be sorry for something without true regret. Like when we are sorry if we get caught doing something we aren’t supposed to be doing. We are sorry we didn’t avoid the potential consequences of our actions.
Or maybe we’re sorry on someone else’s behalf. “I’m sorry you’re upset by what I said”. An apology that puts the spotlight on the other person, not on ourselves.
Even genuine sorrow doesn’t necessarily lead to change. And that is the crux of biblical repentance. Repentance can include sorrow, but it is more than that. The distinction is important for us to understand, for we may misconstrue salvation in Christ without it.
Biblical Repentance Defined
When we speak of biblical repentance, we are talking about 3 things. First, conviction of sin; second, acknowledging our hopelessness; and third, a pledge to turn away from sin and towards holiness. Let’s further examine these aspects of biblical repentance.
Conviction of Sin
Biblical repentance starts by acknowledging our sin. We must be willing to admit we are sinners, with something fundamentally unrighteous about us (Psalm 53:1-3). Otherwise, we’ll never begin the path towards biblical repentance.
Here’s the thing, though; this is not a conclusion we can come to on our own. We are born blind to our desperate state. When we look around and compare ourselves to others we decide that we must be good because we aren’t as bad. We decide that if we sincerely try to be good, that’s good enough.
The Bible says that people will see themselves as ok in their own eyes, but God sees past the outside and sees our hearts (Proverbs 21:2). Because this is true, it is God who must convict us of our sin.
The primary way we are convicted of sin is through the ministry of the Holy Spirit. Jesus told the disciples that when He left, the Holy Spirit would come. One of the activities of the Holy Spirit is to “convict the world of its sin” (John 16:5-8).
Christ also directs us to aid in this work. Not to invoke conviction, but as ambassadors of the gospel of Christ. The last command Christ gave His followers was to go and make disciples. To make a disciple requires that we share the good news with those who so desperately need it.
Then, as we share the gospel, some will receive it and consider it. This is the fertile ground for the Holy Spirit to do His convicting work.
The gospel is good news. It is great news! Without Christ’s work in the cross, none of us would have a means of salvation. We would be forever trapped in our sin condition. Which leads us to the next aspect of biblical repentance.
Acknowledging our Hopelessness
Biblical repentance begins with the conviction of sin. Once we realize we are sinners we can begin to understand the gravity of that truth. Because if we die in our sinful state, this will separate us from God for eternity. And there is no amount of effort we can put forth to change our sinfulness. What would be required is for us to live a perfect life, without sin, which is simply not possible for anyone.
Since we cannot be perfectly righteous by our own efforts, we will die in this state without intervention. The good news is that Christ has made a way for us. God sent Christ to earth to live a perfect life and be an unblemished sacrifice for sin. And then Christ proved He had authority to be that sacrifice by raising up again from the grave.
Therefore, biblical repentance does not stop at conviction of sin. Otherwise, we might be tempted to say that being good enough is in our own hands. No, we must be perfect to be able to stand before God in Heaven.
Acknowledging our hopelessness says we have no means on our own to pay the penalty for our sins. Christ offers us the only means of salvation. When we say we are putting our hope and trust in Christ, we are saying we believe Christ is God. That we believe Christ accomplished what He set out to do, and only He could do it, because of His divinity.
By Christ taking our place, He offers us the opportunity to put on His righteousness. To be covered by Christ’s blood (a picture back to the ritual sacrifices of the Hebrew nation). In this way we can be justified before God and have hope to spend eternity with Him (Titus 3:4-7).
Turning Towards Holiness
Finally, biblical repentance calls for those who would receive Christ’s sacrifice to follow Christ in holiness. To turn away from their sinful behaviors and desires. To surrender their lives and their wills to Christ. As Jesus might put it, to go and sin no more.
Some people will hear this and think this is tantamount to saying that someone must work for their salvation. And of course this is false, as we just established in the previous section. The problem is that we begin to conflate the terms repentance and salvation. But they are not the same thing.
Salvation is a promise. We have not inherited salvation yet, because what we are being saved from is an eternity apart from God.
There will come a day when God will judge everyone’s righteousness. For authentic followers of Christ, their righteousness will be represented by Christ’s work on the cross.
On that day, we will discover who belongs to Him, and who doesn’t. And the Bible tells us that some will be surprised on that day, thinking they were part of Christ’s church, when they weren’t.
But this is salvation. Repentance is something else.
Repentance is defined by the act of turning from our sin and then moving in the opposite direction, towards holiness. It can literally be interpreted as changing one’s mind. When we repent, we are changing our minds about sin.
Our behavior is very important to Christ. That’s why He spends so much time in the gospel telling us how we should behave if we are going to follow Him. And if we are unwilling or resistant to submitting our lives to Him, what is our evidence that we have truly repented?
Biblical Repentance Verified
As we said earlier, there will be those who stand before God one day and who are shocked that their names are not writing in the Lamb’s Book of Life. They will be horrified to learn they will be eternally separated from God, destined for Hell (Matthew 25:31-46).
Repentance is a necessary condition of hearing one’s name called into God’s presence on that final day. So how might those of us who claim Christ be sure we have truly repented? By looking at the 3 aspects of repentance, we can have a clue.
Have You Been Convicted of Sin?
Have you fully acknowledged and been convicted of your sinfulness? Not just that you commit sins, but that apart from Christ no level of “goodness” will make up for the sin in your life?
If your religious experience is that you grew up in the church and have never been confronted with your eternal, sinful state, I ask you to examine this. Being in the club house doesn’t make you a member of the club. Having a heritage of family members who are “in the church” doesn’t buy you points you can cash in some day.
It is unfortunately – especially in the West – possible to grow up in church without ever having heard the full gospel of Christ, and why it is necessary to make sure we have responded to it for our eternal destiny.
Have You Acknowledged Your Hopelessness?
It is possible to be in church and get the impression that you are pleasing God by being a “good church person”. You can volunteer for things, be nice to others, feel warm and fuzzy during worship, and never have understood what awaits you apart from Christ.
It can be possible to rely on things other than the blood of Christ to save us, especially inside the church, if we don’t understand what the cross actually means.
As more churches move away from biblical teaching and more towards an attempt at societal relevance, the more of its members will see “doing good” as proof of their salvation. Not a works-based gospel, but a humanized one, relying on our own righteousness.
Have You Turned Towards Holiness?
Are you just “trusting Jesus”? It sounds like the right and “churchy” thing to say, but if your life looks just like the world’s, how has that trust affected change in your heart? Jesus Christ expects His followers to abandon their lives to Him and obey His commands. Christ conquered sin and the grave with His death on the cross. Past tense.
Jesus does love you; He wouldn’t have died for you otherwise. In other words, it cost Christ excruciating pain, humiliation, rejection, suffering, and abandonment. A cost that Christ could have put an end to at any time, thus leaving us without hope for eternity. It is foolhardy to think that almighty God would go through this so that he could give out free tickets to heaven. His offer of salvation is free, but to follow Him, it will cost us as well. Not in payment for salvation, but in abandonment of our very lives.
Perhaps you act one way when you are around your church family but behave very differently when you are on your own. Being “in church” does not inoculate you from the damage that willing sinfulness does to your soul. Following your own desires will eventually lead you astray and will eventually result in you abandoning the faith.
If your faith in Christ does not result in a change in how you live, you need to take a serious look at what your faith is based upon. Self-deception would be a terrible reason to miss out on eternity with God.
The Truth of Biblical Repentance
Please understand – until I learned what it meant to abide with Christ, any of these things could have defined my experience as a churchgoer. And that was with me “walking the aisle” at a young age.
Yes, it is even possible to know the truth and still live in such a way that the truth does not live in you. It required me going back and repenting again because I had strayed so far from living my faith authentically. The good news is, God welcomes back prodigals with loving arms – if we repent (Luke 15:11-32).
Please, if you have read anything here and wonder if you may not be living out true repentance before Christ, now is a great time to do something about it. Walk through the steps of biblical repentance and determine to be an authentic follower of Christ who will hear their name called and welcomed into eternity with God.
More Bible verses about biblical repentance:
Proverbs 28:13; Ezekiel 18:21-23; Matthew 3:7-10; Luke 5:32; Romans 6:23; James 5:19-20; 2 Peter 3:9