To become a true and real Christian, one must be baptized and repent. What does it mean to truly repent?
Repentance means to change or to turn. Once a person hears the gospel and is convicted that his/her way of life is wrong, he/she must change his present behavior. Repentance is not just feeling sorry, remorseful, or conscience-stricken, but being so troubled in one’s heart that one begins to live according to God’s standards—according to God’s law. Feeling sorry without changing one’s life is not repentance! The fruits of repentance are visible actions—works—that demonstrate a person has actually changed.
“Repent!”—a word long shouted by hellfire-and-brimstone preachers—is tailored to “scare the hell” out of people and put the fear of God in people. In God’s church, we might half-jokingly use it to inform others of a bad attitude and the need to change. It can become a catch-all phrase that loses its God-emphasized meaning in our lives, yet the Bible frequently uses “repent” and similar words. On that basis, true godly repentance is of primary importance.
We often ask people, “When were you baptized?” but it is quite rare to ask, “When did you repent?” Yet repentance and baptism are linked biblically and inseparable. How does one repent?
What was the first message Jesus delivered, after He emerged from the temptation in the wilderness? Scripture says, “From that time Jesus began to preach, and to say, Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17).
Jesus called people to repent before He even called them to believe! Mark writes, “…Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, and saying, The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel” (Mark 1:14-15). Christ preached, “Repent first — and believe.”
Elsewhere Jesus says of his mission, “…I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Matthew 9:13). And He told the Galileans, “I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3).
The meaning of Repentance
“And it came to pass, when Pharaoh had let the people go, that God led them not through the way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near; for God said, Lest peradventure the people repent when they see war, and they return to Egypt.” Exodus 13:17 (KJV)
“For this shall the earth mourn, and the heavens above be black; because I have spoken it, I have purposed it, and will not repent, neither will I turn back from it.” Jeremiah 4:28 (KJV)
“He answered and said, I will not: but afterward he repented, and went.” Matthew 21:29 (KJV)
In these three instances, the King James Version uses “repent” to show the changing of the mind about a matter, its simplest meaning apart from spiritual implications.
What is initial repentance and why is it tied so closely to baptism?
“From that time Jesus began to preach, and to say, Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Matthew 4:17 (KJV)
“And saying, The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel.” Mark 1:15 (KJV)
“Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. (39) For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call. (40) And with many other words did he testify and exhort, saying, Save yourselves from this untoward generation. (41) Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls. (42) And they continued stedfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers. (43) And fear came upon every soul: and many wonders and signs were done by the apostles. (44) And all that believed were together, and had all things common; (45) And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need. (46) And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart, (47) Praising God, and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.” Acts 2:38-47 (KJV)
“And he arose and went: and, behold, a man of Ethiopia, an eunuch of great authority under Candace queen of the Ethiopians, who had the charge of all her treasure, and had come to Jerusalem for to worship, (28) Was returning, and sitting in his chariot read Esaias the prophet. (29) Then the Spirit said unto Philip, Go near, and join thyself to this chariot. (30) And Philip ran thither to him, and heard him read the prophet Esaias, and said, Understandest thou what thou readest? (31) And he said, How can I, except some man should guide me? And he desired Philip that he would come up and sit with him. (32) The place of the scripture which he read was this, He was led as a sheep to the slaughter; and like a lamb dumb before his shearer, so opened he not his mouth: (33) In his humiliation his judgment was taken away: and who shall declare his generation? for his life is taken from the earth. (34) And the eunuch answered Philip, and said, I pray thee, of whom speaketh the prophet this? of himself, or of some other man? (35) Then Philip opened his mouth, and began at the same scripture, and preached unto him Jesus. (36) And as they went on their way, they came unto a certain water: and the eunuch said, See, here is water; what doth hinder me to be baptized? (37) And Philip said, If thou believest with all thine heart, thou mayest. And he answered and said, I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. (38) And he commanded the chariot to stand still: and they went down both into the water, both Philip and the eunuch; and he baptized him. (39) And when they were come up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord caught away Philip, that the eunuch saw him no more: and he went on his way rejoicing. (40) But Philip was found at Azotus: and passing through he preached in all the cities, till he came to Caesarea.” Acts 8:27-40 (KJV)
Christ links repentance with the Kingdom of God and believing the gospel. Once one hears the true gospel and believes it, he begins to change the way he thinks. Peter ties repentance with forgiveness of past sins and God’s giving of His Spirit. Once the Ethiopian eunuch heard Philip’s explanation of the Bible, he changed his thinking (repented) and was baptized. Initial repentance includes recognition, acceptance and belief of the true gospel and making changes in one’s life to conform to the new way.
What part does emotion play in repentance?
“Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions. (2) Wash me throughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. (3) For I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me. (4) Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight: that thou mightest be justified when thou speakest, and be clear when thou judgest. (5) Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me. (6) Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward parts: and in the hidden part thou shalt make me to know wisdom. (7) Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. (8) Make me to hear joy and gladness; that the bones which thou hast broken may rejoice. (9) Hide thy face from my sins, and blot out all mine iniquities. (10) Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me. (11) Cast me not away from thy presence; and take not thy holy spirit from me. (12) Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation; and uphold me with thy free spirit. (13) Then will I teach transgressors thy ways; and sinners shall be converted unto thee. (14) Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, thou God of my salvation: and my tongue shall sing aloud of thy righteousness. (15) O Lord, open thou my lips; and my mouth shall shew forth thy praise. (16) For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering. (17) The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise. (18) Do good in thy good pleasure unto Zion: build thou the walls of Jerusalem. (19) Then shalt thou be pleased with the sacrifices of righteousness, with burnt offering and whole burnt offering: then shall they offer bullocks upon thine altar.” Psalm 51: 1-19(KJV)
“And others save with fear, pulling them out of the fire; hating even the garment spotted by the flesh.” Jude 1:23 (KJV)
“For godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of: but the sorrow of the world worketh death.” 2 Corinthians 7:10 (KJV)
When David saw the enormity of his sin, he realized he had hurt God and His purpose. His sorrow, chagrin and remorse reached deeply into his heart, mind and entire being. Our opposition to God should create a similar deep emotional response in us, for we have all played major roles in our Savior’s death. He died for our sins. Emotional sorrow alone is not the answer, however. Paul says godly sorrow produces repentance (change) toward salvation, while worldly sorrow is like saying, “I’m sorry I got caught. I’ll be more careful next time I sin.”
What does one repent of?
“Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” Job 42:6 (KJV)
“For we know that the law is spiritual: but I am carnal, sold under sin. (15) For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I. (16) If then I do that which I would not, I consent unto the law that it is good. (17) Now then it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. (18) For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not.” Romans 7:14-18 (KJV)
“Therefore say unto the house of Israel, Thus saith the Lord God; Repent, and turn yourselves from your idols; and turn away your faces from all your abominations.” Ezekiel 14:6 (KJV)
Job finally recognizes that he had met the enemy—himself! He does not say, “I abhor my sins” but “I abhor myself,” recognizing that the problem was not just specific sins—what he was caused him to fall short of God’s righteousness. As explained in Romans 7, we repent not only of what we have done but what we are that caused us to do what we did!
Is repentance a one-time accomplishment or a continuing process?
“Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance” Matthew 3:8 (KJV)
“This I say then, Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh. (17) For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would. (18) But if ye be led of the Spirit, ye are not under the law. (19) Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, (20) Idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, (21) Envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God. (22) But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, (23) Meekness, temperance: against such there is no law. (24) And they that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts. (25) If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit.” Galatians 5:16-25 (KJV)
“Bear[ing] fruits worthy of repentance” implies a process. Just as a tree does not produce fruit overnight, a Christian does not fully repent overnight. It is a lifelong process of making changes, and over time we will produce the fruit of the Spirit more consistently than the works of the flesh.
Through repentance we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, the forgiveness of sin, and the grace and acceptance of God as joint-heirs with Christ. With it comes faith and hope that we will one day rule with Christ for eternity. We not only benefit, but we can also help others turn from their way. Repentance is arduous, but the rewards are beyond human experience and comprehension! Perhaps it is as formidable as the hellfire-and-brimstone preachers contend, but through Jesus Christ, it is positive and quite possible. “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand!”