When someone is hurting me or someone I love, I become upset or angry. I want the offender to stop hurting people. In some cases I may resort to punishment. If one child is hurting another, for example, I may give a time out, but my first goal is not revenge or causing pain but simply to stop the hurting. It’s better if I can avoid punishment and instead stop the hurtful behavior through distraction, reasoning, or reinforcing positive behaviors.
In the Bible God often asks for repentance. It is easy to see that as a threat from a vengeful God, as if God is saying, “I’m going to make you suffer if you don’t do as I say.” But God doesn’t want us to suffer, and when He calls for repentance, He is essentially saying, “Stop hurting each other!” We humans like to get revenge, so when people hurt us (to get power over us, to take our things, or just for fun) we hurt them back. Then they hurt us back. And we hurt them back. But they started it, so we feel justified. God knows that’s how we operate, and the whole system leads to a lot more suffering. He warns us: “If you hurt people, you will suffer.” So now when we suffer, we blame God, because He knew those people would hurt us back, and He didn’t stop them. Those people making us suffer must be a punishment from God. So the whole idea of “Stop hurting each other” became “You’re bad, and you should feel bad, or I will make you feel really bad.” Then instead of a compassionate God we end up with an angry, punishing God who is just as vengeful as we are, and more so.
When God took on a human manifestation as Jesus Christ, He showed us that He is a God of love and compassion who wants to end human suffering. Yet Jesus talked about repentance even more than the Old Testament prophets did. The Greek word for repentance is metanoia, literally meaning “change of mind.” When Jesus told people to repent, He wasn’t saying that we should feel bad or feel afraid of God’s punishment, but that we should change our minds—get rid of our old thoughts and intentions and get some new ones. And yes, there was also the original warning—Stop hurting each other, or you will suffer—but the purpose of that is to reduce human suffering. The main message was simply about loving God and loving the neighbor, and it’s hard to do that unless we get rid of hurtful, vengeful thoughts and get some kind, compassionate ones instead. So we certainly should hear Jesus’ message of repentance, and also realize that repentance is not about having crippling guilt and paralyzing fear of God’s wrath, but about taking a very simple, positive step—Change your mind. Stop hurting. Start loving. With this in view, let’s look at what the Bible says about repentance.
Jesus Taught Repentance
When Jesus began to preach, His first message was, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” ( Matthew 4:17, Mark 1:15) He said the reason He came was to call sinners to repentance. (Mark 2:17, Matthew 9:11-13, Luke 5:32) “Unless you repent you will all perish.” (Luke 13: 1-5) Jesus repeated this message throughout His ministry, rebuking those who did not repent. (Matthew 11:20, 12:41)
Many years later Jesus emphasized repentance in His letters to seven churches in the book of Revelation. He cautions the church at Ephesus, “Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the first works, or else I will come to you quickly and remove your lampstand from its place—unless you repent.” (Revelation 2:5) To the church at Sardis Jesus says, “Remember therefore how you have received and heard; hold fast and repent.” (Revelation 3:3) Again, to Laodicea, “Be zealous and repent.” (Revelation 3:19) Repentance is also part of the message to the churches in Thyatira (Revelation 2:21-22) and Smyrna. (Revelation 2:15)
The Disciples Preached Repentance
To prepare the way for Jesus, John the Baptist preached the same message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (Matthew 3:2) “He went into all the region around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.” (Luke 3:3, Mark 1:4)
Later, when Jesus sent out His disciples, they also preached repentance, both before His resurrection (Mark 6:12) and after it (Acts 2:38, 3:19, 5:31, 3:26, 8:22, 17:30). Jesus said that “it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day, and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations.” (Luke 24:47) So they carried the message: “God now commands all people everywhere to repent.” (Acts 17:30)
Angels Love Repentance
Even the angels look for our repentance. Jesus said, “I say to you that likewise there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine just persons who need no repentance.” (Luke 15:7, 10)
The Bible from Beginning to End Teaches Repentance
The message of repentance runs through the whole Bible. Though the word “repent” is not so often used the message of turning from evil and doing good is the same, beginning with the warning to Adam and Eve not to follow the serpent of self-importance (Genesis 3), and the warning to Cain, “If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin lies at the door” (Genesis 4:7). The message “Cease to do evil, learn to do good” (Isaiah 1:16-17) continues with almost every story that follows. The simple message is that bad intentions have bad results and good intentions have good results. The Lord says in Ezekiel,
“If a wicked man turns from all his sins which he has committed, keeps all My statutes, and does what is lawful and right, he shall surely live; he shall not die. None of the transgressions which he has committed shall be remembered against him; because of the righteousness which he has done, he shall live. Do I have any pleasure at all that the wicked should die?” says the Lord God, “and not that he should turn from his ways and live?” (Ezekiel 18:21-23)
As Jeremiah wrote, “The Lord has sent to you all His servants the prophets, rising early and sending them, but you have not listened nor inclined your ear to hear. They said, ‘Repent now everyone of his evil way and his evil doings.’” (Jeremiah 25:4-5)
We Must Repent to Be Saved
Some people have said that we are saved by faith alone, and therefore repentance is not necessary, but passages in the Bible show that repentance is necessary for salvation and connection with God.
Godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death. (2 Corinthians 7:10)
O Jerusalem, wash your heart from wickedness, that you may be saved. How long shall your evil thoughts lodge within you? (Jeremiah 4.14)
Repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord. (Acts 3:19)
Baptism of Repentance
Christians have sometime argued about whether baptism is necessary for salvation. Jesus said, “He who believes and is baptized will be saved.” (Mark 16:16) If we think of baptism as no more than a ritual that involves sprinkling, dipping, washing or immersing in water, then it doesn’t make any sense that it would be necessary for salvation. How could such a simple ritual act determine who gets to experience eternal happiness? On the other hand we might recall that baptism is a symbol and reminder of repentance. John “preached a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.” (Mark 1:4, Matthew 3:11, Luke 3:3, Acts 13:24, 19:4) Part of the baptism was “confessing their sins” (Matthew 3:6). Baptism washes the body as a symbol of the cleansing of the spirit. The baptism of a clean conscience is what we need for salvation: “There is also an antitype which now saves us—baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God).” (1 Peter 3:21) That’s why Peter said, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins.” (Acts 2:36)
To Repent We Must Know What Is Good and Bad
We have seen that there are many passages in the Bible which tell us to repent, or to turn away from sin and evil. As this is crucial to our salvation there are also many passages which tell us how to repent, or how to overcome the evil in our lives. The first step is to learn what is good and what is evil or hurtful. How can we avoid evil and do good if we don’t even know the difference?
Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; who put darkness for light, and light for darkness; who put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter! Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes, and prudent in their own sight! (Isaiah 5:20)
And they shall teach My people the difference between the holy and the unholy, and cause them to discern between the unclean and the clean. (Ezekiel 44:23)
For My people are foolish, They have not known Me. They are silly children, And they have no understanding. They are wise to do evil, but to do good they have no knowledge. (Jeremiah 4:22)
Her priests have violated My law and profaned My holy things; they have not distinguished between the holy and unholy, nor have they made known the difference between the unclean and the clean; and they have hidden their eyes from My Sabbaths, so that I am profaned among them. (Ezekiel 22:26)
We can learn what evils to avoid from Scripture.
How can a young man cleanse his way? By taking heed according to Your word. (Psalm 119:9)
Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all the day long….Good and upright is the Lord; therefore he instructs sinners in the way. He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way. (Psalm 25:4-5, 9)
All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness. (2 Timothy 3:16)
For the Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. (Hebrews 4:12)
The Ten Commandments, which are the way to heaven (Matthew 19:17-19, Mark 10:17-19, 1 Corinthians 6:8-10, Revelation 22:14), mostly tell us what evil things we should not do, showing us that repentance is at the heart of everything the Lord asks of us, and also guiding us to know what evils we need to overcome. We could say that repentance is simply choosing to follow the Lord’s commandments. “Turn from your evil ways, and keep My commandments.” (2 Kings 17:13)
To Repent We Must Examine Ourselves
Thus says the LORD of hosts: “Consider your ways!” (Haggai 1:7)
Let us search out and examine our ways, and turn back to the LORD. (Lamentations 3:40)
I thought about my ways, and turned my feet to Your testimonies. (Psalm 119.59)
Examine yourselves as to whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. (2 Corinthians 13:5)
Whoever eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a person examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup…. For if we would judge ourselves, we would not be judged. (1 Corinthians 11:27-28, 31)
We Can Ask the Lord to Show Us What We Need to Overcome
The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it? I, the LORD, search the heart, I test the mind, even to give every one according to his ways, according to the fruit of his doings. (Jeremiah 17:9)
How many are my iniquities and sins? Make me know my transgression and my sin. (Job 13:23)
Who can understand his errors? Cleanse me from secret faults. Keep back Your servant also from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over me. Then I shall be blameless, and I shall be innocent of great transgression. (Psalm 19:12-13)
Examine me, O LORD, and prove me; try my mind and my heart. (Psalm 26:2)
Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me, and know my thoughts; and see if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. (Psalm 139:23-24)]
To Repent We Must Confess Our Sins
When people came to John for the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins, they all confessed their sins. (Mark 1:5, Matthew 3:5) Confession is a necessary part of repentance. “Return, backsliding Israel,” says the Lord…. “Only acknowledge your iniquity, that you have transgressed against the Lord your God.” (Jeremiah 3:12-13)
We have a tendency to criticize others for their faults, while not taking responsibility for our own faults.
You have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things. (Romans 2:1)
Part of confessing our sins is recognizing that we can’t get better by blaming someone else. Instead we can say, “This is about me. I am responsible for what I have done, and for making a change.” We must each be responsible for ourself. (Galatians 6:5)
King David provided an example of confession when he repented for numbering the people: David’s heart condemned him after he had numbered the people. So David said to the LORD, “I have sinned greatly in what I have done; but now, I pray, O LORD, take away the iniquity of Your servant, for I have done very foolishly.” (2 Samuel 24:10, 17)
David also confessed after his affair with Bathsheba: “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 51:2-3) Again he writes, “I acknowledged my sin to You, and my iniquity I have not hidden. I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,’ and You forgave the iniquity of my sin.” (Psalm 32:5)
On the day of atonement the high priest was to “confess all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions, concerning all their sins.” (Leviticus 16:21) In prayer Daniel confessed his sin and the sin of his people Israel. (Daniel 9:20) Solomon wrote, “He who covers his sins will not prosper, but whoever confesses and forsakes them will have mercy.” (Proverbs 28:13) John wrote, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9)
In can also help to confess our sins to each other. James wrote, “Confess your trespasses to one another.” (James 5:16) And Jesus said that when we have wronged someone, we should reconcile with them before worshiping (Matthew 5:23-24), and He seems to support expressing our repentance to people we have wronged. (Luke 15:18, 21; 17:4)
To Repent We Must Ask the Lord for Help
We cannot overcome evil through our own power. When the disciples heard that it is difficult for those who trust in riches to enter heaven, they asked, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus replied, “With men it is impossible, but not with God; for with God all things are possible.” (Mark 10:24-27, Matthew 19:25-26, Luke 18:24-27) We need the Lord’s help. “Without Me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5) “A person can receive nothing unless it has been given to him from heaven.” (John 3:27)
James writes that after you confess you should “pray for one another, that you may be healed. The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.” (James 5:16) The Lord Himself tells us to pray, “Forgive us our sins…lead us not into temptation, deliver us from evil,” (Luke 11:4, Matt 6:13) because we can’t do it alone. When we make the effort to turn from evil and pray for help, the Lord listens:
If My people who are called by My name will humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven. (2 Chronicles 7:14)
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,” and You forgave the iniquity of my sin. For this cause everyone who is godly shall pray to You in a time when You may be found. (Psalms 32:5-6)
After David confessed his sin of numbering the people, he prayed, “Now, I pray, O LORD, take away the iniquity of Your servant.” (2 Samuel 24:10) He wrote, “When I cry out to You, then my enemies will turn back.” (Psalm 56:9)
When When Simon tried to buy the power of the Holy Spirit, Peter said to him, “Repent of this your wickedness, and pray God if perhaps the thought of your heart may be forgiven you.” (Acts 8:22)
When the people of Nineveh heard that disaster would come on their city because of their sins, the king decreed prayer and repentance: “Let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily to God; yes, let every one turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands.” (Jonah 3:5-10)
To Repent We Must Resist Evil
Prayers for help against evil are vital, because we can’t overcome evil without strength from the Lord. But prayers by themselves do no good. Along with prayer we have to actively work to remove evil from ourselves. The Lord says,
When you spread out your hands, I will hide My eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not hear. Your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; put away the evil of your doings from before My eyes. Cease to do evil, learn to do good. (Isaiah 1:15-17)
Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded. (James 4:7-8)
Again and again the message is to stop doing bad things:
Return now every one from his evil way, and make your ways and your doings good. (Jeremiah 18:11)
Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the Lord. (Isaiah 55:7)
Amend your ways and your doings. (Jeremiah 7:3)
Let everyone who names the name of Christ depart from iniquity. (2 Timothy 2:19)
To Repent We Must Live a New Life
The goal of repentance is to have a new life.
Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death… even so we also should walk in newness of life. (Romans 6:4)
When a wicked man turns away from the wickedness which he committed, and does what is lawful and right, he preserves himself alive. Because he considers and turns away from all the transgressions which he committed, he shall surely live; he shall not die….Cast away from you all the transgressions which you have committed, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit. For why should you die, O house of Israel?” (Ezekiel 18:27-28, 31)
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new. (2 Corinthians 5:17)
I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. (Ezekiel 36:26, 11:19)
Put off, concerning your former conduct, the old man which grows corrupt according to the deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and that you put on the new man. (Ephesians 4:22-24)
Do Good to Others
Part of living a new life is doing good. “Depart from evil, and do good” the Lord says (Psalm 27:37, Isaiah 1:16-17). One leads directly to the other. After turning from evil we should do what is lawful and right. (Ezekiel 18:21-22; 33:14-16) After giving up the “works of the flesh” which are all kinds of evil, we can bring forth the “fruit of the spirit, which is “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” (Galatians 5:22-23) “To him who knows to do good and does not do it, to him it is sin.” (James 4:17)
When people came to John for baptism, repenting and confessing their sins, he told them to “bear fruits worthy of repentance,” which meant being faithful and honest in their work and dealings with others (Luke 3: 8-14, Matthew 3:8). Paul said something similar: “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.” (Ephesians 4:28)
Another part of living a new life is making restitution where possible for harm we have done or property we have stolen. (Exodus 22:1-7; Proverbs 6:30-31; Ezekiel 33:14-16; Luke 19:8)
Part of the new life we receive from the Lord is the recognition that our change of heart is through His power, not something we can do on our own. “Be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might.” (Ephesians 6:10) We ask for His help because we cannot overcome on our own; afterwards we should remember that He is the one who gives us power to resist and recover from hurtful intentions.
Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but to Your name give glory, because of Your mercy, because of Your truth. (Psalm 115:1)
Forget not all His benefits: He forgives all your iniquities, He heals all your diseases, He redeems your life from destruction…. As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us. (Psalm 103:2-4)
Fools, because of their transgression, and because of their iniquities, were afflicted…. Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble, and He saved them out of their distresses. He sent His word and healed them, and delivered them from their destructions. Oh, that men would give thanks to the Lord for His goodness, and for His wonderful works to the children of men! (Psalm 107:17-21)
Jesus asks us to eat and drink at His table “in remembrance” of Him. Food and drink give energy to the body, and likewise the Lord’s love and power nourish us and give us the ability to change our hearts, so through communion we remember and give thanks for His work in us.
We Must Repent Again and Again
Jesus said that we should forgive a brother if he repents seven times in one day (Luke 17:4), even as many as seventy times seven times (Matthew 18:21-22). The Lord sent messages of repentance to the seven churches in Asia (Revelation 2-3). These were not unbelievers or new Christians, but people who had spent many years as faithful Christians. Likewise, Paul’s message to examine ourselves before partaking of communion (1 Corinthians 11:28) is for everyone, not just new believers.
The Lord knows that our spirit is willing but our flesh is weak (Matthew 26:41, Mark 14:38). Even after we have become Christians we can turn back to our weaker elements, giving in to our physical desires. (Galatians 4:7, 29; 5:16-26; Romans 8:1-14) The struggle between the “flesh” and the “spirit” is a battle that requires your greatest effort—“all your heart and all your soul and all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:4). “Be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.” (Ephesians 6:10-11) “Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life.” (Revelation 2:10)