We are all taught as children to say we are sorry when we have said or done something unkind. Our parents, a teacher, or another adult in authority coached us to make an apology to someone we hurt. As an adult, we may find ourselves in the same situation. We say the right thing to someone we have hurt whether we mean it or not. Often, we feel genuine remorse but fail to make any authentic change to our behavior. Is a feeling of remorse enough to count as genuine repentance? Does apology alone honor God?

The Biblical Meaning of Repentance

The word for repentance in the New Testament comes from the Greek word metanoia. The Greek rendering carries the connotation of a sweeping change of mind and heart that leads to a change in behavior (Thayer’s). It is a full commitment of heart and mind to no longer “walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Rom 8:4). 

As believers, we are called to repent. John the Baptist preached a baptism of repentance (Mark 1:4). Jesus preached that people should repent and believe the Gospel (Mark 1:15). Paul preached that people should repent, turn to God, and prove their repentance by their deeds (Acts 20:20). 

Let’s look at six important heart, mind, and character attributes to watch and strive for if we desire authentic, God-honoring repentance in our spiritual walk.

6 Characteristics of Genuine Repentance

1. Genuine repentance happens in God’s presence. 

Psalm 51 is a famous poem by King David after he ordered the murder of Uriah so he could have Uriah’s wife Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11-12). In the Psalm, David cried out to God “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight” (Ps 51:4). All genuine repentance starts in the presence of God. Any expression of repentance that does not first stand in the presence of God’s holiness is not genuine.

2. Genuine repentance brings godly sorrow.

The Apostle Paul described two kinds of sorrow over sin. Godly sorrow brings a repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret. Worldly sorrow, according to Paul, brings death (1 Cor 7:10). Godly sorrow moves us from sorrow, to confession, to humble contrition, then to grace. We walk in forgiveness with all shame removed. Worldly sorrow, lacking the grace of God, has no power to remove shame or bring peace.

3. Genuine repentance in God’s presence results in joy.

David prayed for God to restore the joy of salvation (Ps 51:12). Repentance brings us joy because we know we can trust in God’s mercy and forgiveness. David also expected to be restored to God’s favor and service. He prayed to be cleansed and made pure so that he could “teach transgressors Your ways” (Ps 51:13). Apparently, David understood the mercy of God that John wrote about in the New Testament. “If we confess our sin, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).

In another biblical example, the Apostle Paul wrote about a “sorrowful” letter that he sent to the Corinthians to correct behavior problems within the Corinthian church. He knew that the harsh words of correction hurt them for a time (1 Cor 7:8). But when Paul was told about their repentance and change of heart, mind, and behavior, his joy was “greater than ever” (1 Cor 7:7) because they had become sorrowful as God intended (v. 8). Sorrow became joy.

4. Genuine repentance is a desire from God through the Spirit.

Not only does repentance begin in the presence of God’s holiness, but repentance is also a gift of God’s grace. God desires that we know Him, so God’s grace seeks us first. “Instead, He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).

Paul wrote that it is God’s goodness, forbearance, and longsuffering that leads us to repent (Romans 2:4). Without God’s help, we do not have strength or desire to change our ways. The good news is that the Spirit helps us in our weaknesses and intercedes for us (Romans 8:26).

5. Genuine repentance bears fruit.

Paul rejoiced when he heard that the Corinthians had repented and changed their hurtful behavior. “See what this godly sorrow has produced in you; what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done” (2 Cor 7:11).

Another way to understand the fruit of repentance is to think of it as a product or result of repentance. Jesus prevented the stoning of a woman caught in adultery (John 8:2-11). When the people who wanted to stone her had walked away, Jesus told her, “Go now and leave your life of sin.” A change of behavior was expected.

An example of this can also be seen in the story of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10). Zacchaeus was a tax collector known for taking more money from people than he should. When Jesus called Zacchaeus by name and stated that he was going to dine in his house, Zacchaeus repented of his sin. “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount!”

In response, Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house…”

6. Genuine repentance brings restoration.

Peter three times denied knowing Jesus in the hours before the crucifixion (Luke 22:54-62). After His resurrection, Jesus appeared numerous times to his disciples. In one appearance recorded in John 21:15-19, Jesus provided Peter an opportunity to be restored in relationship to Himself and the other disciples. Three times Jesus asked Peter “do you love me?” Three times, Peter replied, “Yes, Lord, I love you.” Each time Peter responded, Jesus gave Peter an act, a behavior, a way to prove that he loved Jesus; feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep.

Peter’s true repentance and obedience to Jesus meant that Peter’s relationship with Jesus was restored. Peter went on to carry the Gospel message to other parts of the ancient world. 

Bearing the Fruit of Repentance Is a Daily Commitment

Genuine repentance begins in the presence of the holy God. When we stand in the light of God’s holiness, we experience godly sorrow that leads to a change of heart, mind, and behavior. The result of repentance is a life lived in obedience and right relationship to Jesus.

Repentance is more than a feeling of regret or a few words of apology. Genuine repentance is a daily, hourly, moment-by-moment decision to change in heart, mind, and behavior when the Spirit prompts. 

Godly sorrow may be painful for a time. But in the end, godly sorrow produces in us the fruit of genuine repentance that restores right relationship with Jesus and makes us useful for kingdom service. 

“No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11). 

We can find joy in repentance knowing that repentance is God’s gift to us to bring us joy, forgiveness, and restored relationship to Him.

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Photo credit: ©Getty Images/Tinnakorn Jorruang

Author T.A. Boland holds a BA in Biblical Studies and is working to complete MA in Biblical Exposition.