I know, repentance isn’t your favorite word. It’s not mine either. No doubt it conjures up something like an angry turn-or-burn “preacher” (either pounding the pulpit or screaming in the streets) letting people have it or an ultra-fundamentalist family member unhappy with your choices of what’s right or wrong. Despite the bad taste that might be lingering in your mouth for words like “repent” and “repentance”, let’s together seek to move past those barriers and rediscover what God actually says about repentance. It might never be for your favorite word or your favorite part of being a Christian, but as we look into God’s Word I think we’ll see that repentance is meant to be a life-giving, sin-replacing, gospel-rooted posture of the Christian life. Easy? No. Good? Yes.
The Bible talks a lot about repentance. Sometimes it talks about repentance as being tied to specific sins while other times we’re called to repent from sinfulness as a lifestyle where we’ve pursued idols rather than God. We’re called to repent over both our wrong deeds and our “good deeds” done for the wrong reasons.
Repentance is tied to faith both when we repent at conversion where we turn to Christ for the first time but’s also tied to ongoing life of faith as we confess and repent of ours sins and return to Christ. Not only that, but repentance is layered, meaning it refers to an inward change of mind and heart as well as an external change in behavior and actions. It’s not either/or but both/and. All that to say, repentance is a theme deeply embedded into the Biblical story and theology and it is a regular, essential aspect of the Christian’s life.
It’s such a key part of the Christian life that the 1st of Martin Luther’s famous 95 Theses begins by saying, “When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said ‘Repent’, He called for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”
How might we synthesize some of the biblical data to better understand what repentance should look like in our own lives, as we’re convicted of specific sins (ex: pride) as well as our pattern of sinfulness (ex: I’ve been exalting myself above God in many ways)? How do we both repent of specific sins as well as live a life of repentance? What are some things to look for in our lives—and in those around us we’re seeking to love and encourage—that might help us know if our repentance looks biblical?
Below are seven elements of repentance to help us get a more rounded picture of repentance. These aren’t mean to be a seven-step program we work through, things to check off to make sure repentance is legit, and they might not all be equally present in the same way. Instead, they’re simply common aspects of biblical repentance where inward change moves to outward change. My hope is that they help us know how we might properly turn away from our idols and return to the Living God.
Conviction of my sin
Acts 2:37; Is. 6:5; Jn. 16:8; 2 Tim. 3:16
Biblical repentance begins with the Spirit of God convicting us of sin. Conviction includes the awareness—the conscience’s red-alarm—that we’ve turned from God and have gone after other idols or pursued our own kingdom. God works through His Spirit as the Spirit of truth convicts and comforts. First, He convicts us of sin (John 16:8) and then offers comfort by redirecting us to the gospel of Christ (Jn. 14:26-27; 15:26-27). Conviction can be ignored or heeded, and repentance begins as God begins drawing us back to Himself by alerting us that we have left him.
Diagnostic Question: Do I know—am aware of and awakened to the reality—that this action/lifestyle/way is sin or that I’ve wrongly chosen something other than God?
Contrition (sorrow or brokenness) for my sin
2 Cor. 7:9-11; 2 Sam. 12:13; Mt. 26:35; Ps. 51:3, 17; Ezra 10:1
Contrition is often tied to conviction, although we might think of it more as the emotional side (or even response) of conviction. To be contrite or to experience contrition is to feel sorrow, sadness, brokenness, even guilt or shame for our sin against God. While conviction might make us aware that we have done wrong, contrition is the appropriate response of seeing that sin and wrongdoing and what is entailed with it. What we bring to God in repentance is a contrite heart (Ps. 51:7).
To be clear, contrition is not merely remorse for being caught or fear of punishment (though those can exist as well), but it’s more like sorrow for having wounded a friend or for having been an unfaithful in our relationship (2 Cor. 7:9-11). Discerning the exact emotions we feel is difficult so one must be careful. This idea could easily be abused and certainly has been over the history of the Church. There is no required level of contrition and it is not uniform among people in how it is felt or expressed. It isn’t something we need to stir up or that earns anything from God. We don’t pile on the guilt, wallow in it, beat ourselves up with it, or get stuck in contrition. But, if confession and repentance is merely formal and mechanic, lacking any sense of our guilt or sorrow for it, then we must ask whether we’ve seen our sin for what it is before God.
God’s Spirit convicts to lead us to seeing our sin so that we can repent and be cleansed from it. This is quite different from how the Enemy condemns us for our sin by removing the hope of forgiveness and cleansing for sin. Don’t confuse the Spirit’s good conviction in you from the Enemy’s destructive condemnation of you.
Diagnostic Question: Do I feel a sense of sorrow, guilt, or sadness for the fact that I’ve turned from God and rebelled against Him (again)?
Confession of my sin to God (and maybe to other believers)
Ps. 51:3-4; 32:3-5; 38:18; Pr. 28:13; 1 John 1:9; James 5:16
Confession is the act where we actually acknowledge, state, and recognize our sin before God, often including the deserved consequences and what havoc our sinfulness involves and could lead to (Ps. 51:3-4). Confession is at the heart of repentance (which is why the two are often paired together or even used interchangeably). In confession, we see the conviction and contrition of the heart running its course as it leads to action, our giving up on self and making the turn to God. In confession we do not make God aware of our sin, but we agree with His understanding of our sin—that it is wrong, dangerous, and self-destructive. In other words, in confession we stop seeing our sin through rose-colored glasses and we see it as it truly is (as God sees it). We name our sin and come clean on what we’ve done. We quit hiding, give up on self-justification or blame-shifting, and we own our sin.
Sometimes this includes confessing our sin to a person we’ve wronged, or it might include confessing our sin to the believers closest to us who can pray over us and keep us accountable. Unfortunately, we often avoid really confessing our sins—and truly repenting—by cleaning up our sin-talk with Christian euphemisms. We say, “I’m struggling with…(lust, for example)” rather than confessing our sin as sin. We say, “I’m just frustrated” rather than confessing our anger. In confession, we’ve seen our sin for what it is and we’d rather fess up and receive God’s forgiveness, cleansing, and power to change than keep holding on to our pride, saving face, or feeling like we’re not all that bad.
Diagnostic Question: Do I see my sin for what it is and have I come clean before God (and others, if necessary) by telling him I’m sorry for what I’ve done?
Calling on God for undeserved mercy, forgiveness, and cleansing
2 Sam. 24:10; Ps. 51:1-2, 7-12; Rom. 10:10-13; Luke 18:13; Acts 2:38
Calling on God for his mercy, grace, forgiveness, cleansing, and restoration to his presence is intimately tied to the act of confession. By saying we are a sinner or that we have committed sin, we are not only acknowledging who we are and our need but we are also coming to God because of who He is and what He offers. We come to him in confession of our sin so it can be cleansed. We come to receive the forgiveness He’s offered us in the gospel by acknowledging our need and desire for it. We don’t solely come to God for forgiveness or even restoration to God, but ultimately that is the goal or end-game of repentance. We turn from our sin and idolatry because we want forgiven and cleansed by God, and we believe He alone is the one who provides it. Not only that, but ultimately we want God back. We call on our good and merciful God to forgive and clean us but we also ask for a restored relationship and the gift of His presence. In fact, we want the sin out of the way not merely so there’s a weight off our mind but so that there’s nothing in the way of our relationship with Him. We realize our need and desire for fellowship, relationship, and intimacy with him. We confess and turn from the things that have gotten in the way, lied to us, and stolen our affections. Confession of our sin and calling on God then go hand-in-hand.
Diagnostic Question: Having become aware of my sin, have I humbly asked God—in his mercy—for redemption or restoration from my sin?
Consecration to God (and his ways) again as we return to him
Rev. 2:5; Zech. 1:3; Joel 2:13; Ps. 51:11-12; Acts 2:38
Part of the turn of returning to God is saying again, “I am yours.” (Consecrate simply means to set yourself apart, dedicate, or live unto God alone). If repentance involves “putting off and putting on” (and it does) then we might think of confession as the putting off and consecration as the putting on. Calling on God and consecration are related here, as they are both returning back to life walking with God. To differentiate, in “calling on God” we’re asking for restoration from things in the past but in “consecration to God” we’re making a statement about our future direction. In confession we say, I no longer want this sin and no longer want to give myself over to these idols (including the idol of my own kingdom). In calling on God, we ask for forgiveness, cleansing, and restoration. In consecration, we say “I no longer want to live for myself but for God and I no longer want to walk down that path but want to follow the path God has laid out for me.” Repentance is both turning from something and turning to something (or someone), and this turning to involves living again as one who has been redeemed by Christ to belong to him.
Diagnostic Question: Have I turned from my sin and again submitted myself to Christ, wanting to follow Jesus (rather than the way of my sin) and live for him (rather than myself)?
Clinging to the gospel for pardon and assurance
Ps. 51:1-2, 14; 1 John 1:9-2:2; Rom. 10:9
Confession of sin is grounded in the promise of pardon and assurance to all who repent of their sin as they trust in Jesus for forgiveness and cleansing. This is not only true at conversion, but it’s true each day for the Christian as they repent of ongoing sin and continually put their hope in the gospel of Jesus Christ. When we’re made aware of our sin and acknowledge it before God in confession, we are freed up to do so because the gospel tells us there is more grace in Christ than sin in us. It gives us hope that our standing is based not on our ability (or inability) to stay out of sin but on Christ’s righteousness and God’s mercy. The gospel reminds us that God accept us fully, forever, and freely because of who we are in Christ. Whether we are confessing ourselves or hearing the confession of those we live in biblical community with, confession must always be grounded in and leading to the gospel. This is why liturgical churches move from “confession” and to “assurance” or “pardon.” This is why in John’s famous encouragement to confess our sin (1 John 1:9) it is seamlessly tied to the good news of the gospel (1 John 2:1-2), that in Jesus we have atonement and an advocate.
Diagnostic Question: Am I trusting in Jesus alone as the one who can and does provide the complete forgiveness, cleansing, and restoration that I so desperately need?
Change in actions and behaviors (fruit that manifests repentance)
Ps. 51:15-19; Pr. 28:13; Matt. 3:8; Rev. 2:5; Luke 18:18-30
Finally, part of repentance includes “fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matt. 3:8; Acts 26:20). The change in actions or external manifestations of internal change demonstrate our repentance. (Note, this “action” of change might not always be visible, since often it might be a change in our thoughts, desires, and internal responses.) When God calls people to repentance throughout the Bible, that includes casting aside their idols and putting off their sinful practices alongside of rightly worshipping God and walking in His ways. If there is no change in our lives at all, including no commitment or intentionality to try to change, then whether we are truly repentant or not is strongly questioned. When we turn from our sin and turn to God, there will be certain words, thoughts, deeds, or habits that exhibit the turnaround of repentance.
This is not to say that we will be perfect or that change will be immediate or that it will always be crystal clear. But, part of repentance is not only feeling contrition, confessing sin, and calling on God for mercy but it also includes forsaking our sin so that we gain the greater pleasures of knowing God and walking with him (see Matt. 13:44-46).
Diagnostic Question: Is there any evidence—even if small—in my actions, thoughts, or desires that might demonstrate that there’s been a real change in my heart?