What Is Repentance and How Do We Know We've Done it Correctly?

Contributing Writer
What Is Repentance and How Do We Know We've Done it Correctly?

My three-year-old grandson is at the hitting stage. Pretty much anything in his hands can become a weapon. A nasty gash on his older brother’s forehead attests to the fact that he has a dangerous aim. Repentance pours out in the form of loud wails and blubbering apologies. Perhaps his tears had more to do with a sick feeling of regret and fear of the consequences than true repentance of the heart. I suspect it is often the same with us.

What Is the Meaning of Repentance in the Bible?

Modern Society deems the subject of sin and repentance at best uncomfortable and at worst unacceptable. But the Bible isn’t afraid to shine a light on both and their connection to each other. In fact, Scripture reveals just how central true repentance is to the Christian faith.

The word repentance in the Old Testament is most often derived from the Hebrew word shub. Although cited over 1,000 times, English translations frequently use the words, “turn” and “return.” In essence, it means to turn from evil and turn to good.

Another word for repentance in the Old Testament is “nacham,” which demonstrates a sense of regret, sorrowing, or grieving. It is used when referring to God “changing his mind,” relenting, or withholding judgment.

Eerdmans Bible Dictionary defines repentance as a “complete change of orientation involving a judgment upon the past and a deliberate redirection for the future.”

In the New Testament, the English word repentance is most often derived from the verb, “metanoeo” and its related noun “metanoia.” The compound words come from “meta” which means changed after being with, and “noieo” to think differently after.

Metanoia was a military term that meant, “about-face” or “change direction.”

True repentance denotes a spiritual about-face and is an essential piece of saving faith. Without Christ, we are lost, heading in the direction of an eternity separated from Him. At salvation, we do an about-face, leaving behind our former life to put our trust in Jesus.

Repentance and faith are intrinsically intertwined. Repentance spotlights the grace of God and redemption of Christ.

Are There Steps to Repentance?

Scripture instructs, Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death” 2 Cor. 7:10 ESV.

The most important step of repentance is a decision that changes course for life. Salvation is a change of mind and heart concerning our sin and Christ’s atonement for it.

The Holy Spirit continues His work with ongoing conviction in our daily living, turning, and returning us to the right path from wrong. Spiritual growth results as we practice the discipline of true repentance.

David demonstrated a complete and total surrender in his repentance after Nathan the prophet confronted him about his sin with Bathsheba. David’s Psalm of repentance, Psalm 51, gives us an example.

Submit to God.  “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions” Ps. 51:1 ESV.

Agree with God about your sin. “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin!” Psalm 51:2 ESV.

Acknowledge your need. Psalm 51:3-4 For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight” ESV.

Seek God. Turn and return. This involves an intentional redirection to follow God. “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me” Psalm 51:10 ESV.

What Isn't Repentance? 

For as many tears as my grandson cried, he still didn’t quite understand repentance. It didn’t take long to find him again swinging a toy missile aimed at his brother. Fear of punishment may spur us to repentance but that alone does not mean repentance has occurred.

I confess many times my own repentance skims the surface to either make myself feel better, help another person feel good, or just move on. These do not equate to repentance. Remorse and regret do not always signify true repentance either.

Judas repented of his action when he betrayed Jesus in Matthew 27:3. However, the verb “metamelomai” does not necessarily signify a change within the inner person.

In contrast, David acknowledges his sin in Psalm 51, confesses deep sorrow, and demonstrates a deliberate about-face.

“The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” Psalm 51:17 ESV.

Without brokenness there is no true understanding of the nature and need for repentance, nor is there an acknowledgment of God’s holiness. True repentance requires brokenness.

Berkhof, (Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 486) distinguishes three elements of repentance.

The first is the intellectual element of repentance as “a change of view, a recognition of sin as involving personal guilt, defilement, and helplessness."

For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” Romans 3:20 ESV.

Knowledge of sin, as powerful as it is, may include fear of punishment yet without real abhorrence of sin.

Berkhof’s second is the emotional element; "a change of feeling, manifesting itself in sorrow for sin committed against a holy God."

David’s anguish in Ps. 51:4 demonstrates how deeply emotional was his recognition of sin.

“Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight…” Psalm 51:4 ESV.

We love the Psalms partly because we feel deeply their emotion. David’s honesty in his failings and desire for a relationship with God shows a response of repentance.

Berkhof lists the volitional element as the third, "a change of purpose, an inward turning away from sin, and a disposition to seek pardon and cleansing."

In the New Testament, we see the Apostle Peter directing his audience toward a distinct turning away from sin.

And Peter said to them, ‘Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit’” Acts 2:38 ESV.

Peter is not only giving a command to repent of sin for forgiveness, but for a 180-degree change that would transform life from the ungodliness that characterized the listener’s lives before Christ.

Mind, heart, and will are involved in repentance’s complete relinquishment of sin.

Why Is Repentance so Important?

Throughout the Bible, God calls on his people to repent. It was important to God, fundamental to salvation and godly living

Christ’s own ministry began with a call to repentance. From that time on Jesus began to preach, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near’” Matthew 4:17 NIV.

Repentance not only demonstrates a life yielded to God but also bears the fruit of one continuing to grow.  If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” 1 John 1:9 NIV.

Jesus told the story of a rebellious son, who demanded his inheritance and squandered it in a life of ungodly living. Famine in the country, personal need, and hunger drove the young son to want to eat the food he was hired to give to pigs. But he came to himself, Luke 15:11-12 tells us, and the Prodigal Son did the about-face a truly repentant heart brings.

I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants”’ Luke 15:18-19 ESV.

Repentance involves the whole being, intellectual, emotional, and volitional. It asks for total surrender and agreement with God. It exalts His holiness. This is what David demonstrates in the raw authenticity of his return to God after his sin with Bathsheba. Vital also to the message of the gospel in the New Testament, it admits the desperate need for a Savior from sin.

In the story of the Prodigal Son, we find the barriers of sin dissolved and the relationship restored. We too through true repentance are brought into the waiting arms of our Father who loves and lavishes us with His grace.

Photo credit: ©Getty/Tinnakorn Jorruang

Sylvia SSylvia Schroeder loves connecting God’s Word with real life and writing about it. She is a contributing writer for a variety of magazines and online sites. Sylvia is co-author of a devotional book and her writing is included in several book compilations. Mom to four, grandma to 14, and wife to her one and only love, Sylvia enjoys writing about all of them. 

Her love for pasta and all things Italian stems from years of ministry abroad. She’d love to tell you about it over a steaming cup of cappuccino. Connect with Sylvia on her blog, When the House is Quiet, her Facebook page, or Twitter.