Repentance Isn't Just for Unconverted Sinners

Photo credit: The word repent and the idea of repentance may conjure some stereotypical images. Perhaps we imagine someone with a half-crazed look wearing a signboard with the word emblazoned on it— REPENT!

Those familiar with the Bible might imagine one of the OT prophets or John the Baptizer. 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).

Repentance is a common topic in the Bible, but it's time to ditch the stereotypes and misconceptions.

By popular request... sort of

A few weeks back I had a short survey quiz in one of my posts. I asked what important truths in the Christian faith were neglected or overlooked. One of the choices caught quite a bit of interest–repentance.

This is a follow-up on that topic, but probably not what most people expect. The topic of repentance, just the word repent, stirs all sorts of responses, and not all are productive.

Why do the words repent and repentance stir strong reactions? Perhaps the word itself is not well understood.

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," have meaning based on how they're said. It depends on the intent of the speaker. These simple words can be spoken with romantic passion or sarcasm—producing quite different reactions.

So, it's good to find the original meaning of a word and its etymology, 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 that leads to salvation....

Repentance is the outcome 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," 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.

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?" And 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?

Is repentance up to us and our own effort, or is it a response to God's mercy and grace after experiencing God's kindness?

When Jesus began His public ministry, His message was one of repentance (Matt 4:17), so also John the Baptizer (Matt 3:2, 8). But when confronted with a situation that demanded justice, He showed mercy to the woman caught in adultery (John 8:2-11). What did Jesus say to her when no one was left to condemn her? “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.” (John 8:11 NKJV)

Another example of this change of mind after is seen in the parable of the two sons (Matt 21:28-32). It continues the same mind-set of changing the mind and action after the initial response to the father. It also gives insight into how His message of repentance was received by people—tax collectors and prostitutes, and the Jewish leaders.

Again, in one of the letters to the seven churches, Jesus tells the church at Ephesus they had abandoned the love they had at first, and to repent and do the works you did at first (Rev 2:4, 5). The idea of repentance is that of turning back to God, their first love.

A final thought

As I said with the title of this post, repentance isn't just for unconverted sinners. Repentance is something everyone needs to practice. Not just the action of turning away from sin, but turning to God so we may turn from sin.

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

As pointed out earlier, 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)

Repentance is our response to God's kindness and goodness, not our own effort at goodness