Repentance—Not Just for Unconverted Sinners

The word repent and the idea of repentance conjures stereotypical images. Perhaps you imagine someone with a half-crazed look wearing a signboard with the word emblazoned on it— REPENT!

People familiar with the Bible might imagine one of the Old Testament prophets like Jeremiah or John the Baptizer, whose ministry directly preceded and announced the public ministry of Jesus.

John was not a mainstream kind of person. He wore rough clothing, ate locusts and honey, and lived outside the city limits. If you wanted to hear him, you went to him. He didn't do house calls, and his message was direct and impartial (Matt 3:1-12).

It's time to ditch the stereotypes and misconceptions about repentance.

Strong reactions

Last week I posted Repentance—the Heart of the Matter. I wanted to reframe the concept of repentance in a more biblical sense than what is typically thought or expressed by others.

The word repent stirs all sorts of responses. Not all are helpful. Why do the words repent and repentance stir strong reactions? Perhaps the word itself is misunderstood.

This is a follow-up to my previous post but more directed at the value of repentance for Christian believers. The topic of repentance is more typically considered in light of those who are nonbelievers or unconverted—those who are not Christians.

And yet, much of the biblical focus on repentance is directed towards those who believe in God and claim to be His people. The Old Testament is full of examples.

The word repent stirs all sorts of responses—not all are helpful

The meaning of words

Most of the time, we get our understanding of words by how they're used. The words, "Oh, I love you," are understood based on how they're said. It depends on the intent of the speaker—is it spoken with romantic passion or sarcasm? Different intent and tone result in different reactions.

So, it's good to find the original meaning of a word, then understand it within its context. I'll give some biblical examples of this later. But first, some definitions from their Greek origins.

  • Vines Expository Dictionary defines repent (the verb)—to perceive afterwords, and repentance (the noun)—afterthought or change of mind.
  • MR Vincent sheds more light on the subject saying, repentance is the "result of perceiving or observing," or "to think differently after." After what? He points us to what the apostle Paul says in 2 Cor 7:10—Godly sorrow brings repentance....

Repentance is the outcome and action of godly sorrow.

Another perspective

Most often, the idea of repentance is understood as turning away from sin. Yes, but why? If repentance is to "think differently after" as MR Vincent puts it, then we ought to consider what precedes this change in thought and behavior.

This understanding, coupled with biblical examples, helps me see repentance as turning to God, which causes us to turn away from sin and our former way of life. I pointed this out last week.

Most often, the idea of repentance is understood as turning away from sin

If you look at the three parables in Luke 15, each focuses on what was lost and found—a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost son (Luke 15:7, 10, 24, 33). The simple truth of each parable reminds us of the rejoicing in heaven "over one sinner who repents."

In the longer (third) parable, the lost son realizes his situation would be better if he were accepted as a mere servant in his father's household (Luke 15:17-24). The father gives him a very different reception than expected or warranted (see Luke 15:28-32).

God's perspective or our own?

Someone might ask, "Does it really matter? Isn't the idea to change your ways?" This is where our problem lies. We often see repentance as something we need to do.

I've heard many preach and teach this perspective, but is this what we read in the Scriptures? Again, I addressed this in my previous post.

Is repentance based on our own effort to change or a response to God's mercy and grace after experiencing God's kindness?

Is repentance our effort to change or a response to God's mercy and grace?

The message of Jesus—Repent!

When Jesus began His public ministry, His message was one of repentance (Matt 4:17). This also was the message John the Baptizer (Matt 3:2, 8). John spoke to the religious and non-religious in a tone that carried a sense of judgment.

Repentance takes place when our mind and actions change after an initial hardness of heart

But when Jesus was confronted with a situation that demanded justice, He showed mercy to the woman caught in adultery (John 8:2-11). The woman's accusers wanted Jesus to condemn her.

But after Jesus wrote on the ground in front of the men accusing her, they quietly left one by one. Then Jesus said to her— 

“Woman, where are those accusers of yours? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said to her, “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.” (John 8:10-11 NKJV)

More examples

Another example of this change of mind after is seen in the parable of the two sons (Matt 21:28-32). This parable illustrates the same mindset of changing the mind and action after the initial response of these two sons to their father.

It also gives insight into how the message of repentance Jesus declared was received by various people—tax collectors, prostitutes, and the Jewish leaders. Those who knew their life was not right with God received it well but the religious leaders rejected His message.

Again, in one of the letters to the seven churches in Revelation, Jesus tells the church at Ephesus they had abandoned their first love and needed to repent.

But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. (Rev 2:4-5 ESV)
The idea of repentance is a turning back to God as our first love.

A final thought

Repentance is something we all need to practice. It's not just the act of turning away from sin, but turning to God so we may turn from sin. None of us are without sin, no matter how long we've had a personal relationship with God through His grace.

Repentance is something we all need to practice—believers and nonbelievers

In fact, once we have a relationship with Jesus because we experience His forgiveness and the renewal of His Spirit in us (Titus 3:4-7) as we turn to Him in repentance. But believers are to put sin to death, not just turn away from it (Col 3:5). But that's another topic for another time.

Repentance is our response to God's kindness and goodness, not our own effort at goodness. Our own efforts at producing righteousness will meet with repeated failure (Rom 7:15-25). 

But when we turn to God first, He will guide us out of our battle with sin—our selfish nature—(Gal 5:16) and bring transformation from the inside out (2 Cor 3:18).

Repentance is our response to God's kindness and goodness not our effort to be good

I find the need to practice repentance on a daily basis—how about you?