by Dr. Bryce Klabunde,
Vice President, Insight for Living
Many changes come naturally as we mature. Sometimes, though, negative habits form deep ruts, and it seems we can’t change, no matter how much we want to. Friends urge us to alter course and warn us of dangers ahead if we don’t. We read in Scripture about God’s path of wisdom, and His Spirit awakens our spirit to a new vision of a better life in Christ. With tears of determination, we tell ourselves, our loved ones, and our Lord that things will be different. “I’ll change, I promise.” And we really mean it. We feel a deep sense of sorrow for our sin, even disgust. However, as time passes, the pull of the rut overpowers our most sincere promises, and we fall back into old patterns.
Part of the problem may be our mistake in thinking that sorrow and confession are enough to produce change. Another part is the misunderstanding of the process of change—a process the Bible calls repentance.
Is Repentance the Same as Remorse?
According to the New Testament, there’s a difference between repentance and remorse. Judas “felt remorse and returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priest and elders” (Matthew 27:3). He even confessed his crime: “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood” (v. 4). Judas had come face to face with the hideous beast of evil in his soul, and he shrank back in terror and shame. Tragically, instead of leading him to God and life, his guilt hounded him to the gates of death. Eventually, his shame turned to self-hatred, and it drove him to suicide.
The apostle Paul calls this “the sorrow of the world” because the world offers no hope for people racked with guilt (2 Corinthians 7:10b). But there is another sorrow that produces life, as Paul describes:
I now rejoice, not that you were made sorrowful, but that you were made sorrowful to the point of repentance; for you were made sorrowful according to the will of God, in order that you might not suffer loss in anything through us. For the sorrow that is according to the will of God produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation. (2 Corinthians 7:9-10a)
The sorrow of an alcoholic, for example, can either drown him in crashing waves of self-pity . . . or carry him to the shores of a new life. The determining factor is not the sorrow itself but whether the sorrow brings the sinner to repentance.
What Is Repentance?
Repentance is first a decision. The most common Greek word in the New Testament translated “repent” is metanoeo, which is based on the word for thoughts or intentions, nous (see Acts 8:22) and literally means to “change one’s mind.” Penitent people take a deep look inside and face the truth about themselves—how they’ve been excusing their sins and hurting others. They come to a decision point, or what Paul called, “the point of repentance” (2 Corinthians 7:9), in which they change their mind from pleasing the flesh to pleasing God, from trusting in self to trusting in a Savior.
This repentance decision may come at the moment of our salvation as we place our faith in Christ for the first time. It may also be a point of recommitment as we determine to follow Christ with our whole heart. In either case, it is the beginning point to a process of change.
Hand in hand with this decision is a second principle: turning. The Old Testament prophets preached a message of repentance using a special Hebrew word that means, “turn around, return.” The Lord urges His redeemed people to return to Him because He has forgiven their sins:
“I have wiped out your transgressions like a thick cloud, And your sins like a heavy mist. Return to Me, for I have redeemed you.” (Isaiah 44:22)
The Lord is asking His people to take a completely new direction in life. This implies two parts: turning away from sin and returning to the Lord. And it implies a relationship between us and God—much like the relationship between the prodigal son and his father in Jesus’ parable. After the son comes to his senses in the pigsty, he turns from his sin and returns to his father (see Luke 15:11-32).
The decision of repentance and the turning of repentance are demonstrated by the fruit of repentance—deeds that flow from the life of a changed person. The prophets described these deeds in practical terms: “Therefore, return to your God, Observe kindness and justice” (Hosea 12:6a). John the Baptizer specified the fruit of repentance this way:
“Let the man who has two tunics share with him who has none; and let him who has food do likewise.” And some tax-gatherers also came to be baptized, and they said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Collect no more than what you have been ordered to.” And some soldiers were questioning him, saying, “And what about us, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not take money from anyone by force, or accuse anyone falsely, and be content with your wages.” (Luke 3:11b-14)
Repentance, then, is not merely feeling sorry for sin. A person may feel deep remorse for his or her critical spirit, anger, or greed. A pastor caught in immorality may kneel before the congregation and weep bitterly over the condition of his soul. As important as it is to feel the weight of our sin, these emotions are not repentance. In fact, if we accept these tears as repentance, we can actually hinder the person from doing the really hard work of change.
With all this in mind, let’s draw up a definition: Repentance is the process of turning from our sinful way of life and turning to godliness. It is characterized by a change of thinking and a change of behavior.
The path of repentance often leads through dark periods of self-examination and painful surrendering of selfishness and pride. Repentance includes letting go of cherished sinful pleasures and being accountable to others who help us lift our wheels out of the rut as we plow a new course in life. It marks a renewed relationship with the Lord based on a revived belief that His way is truly best and His righteousness is life’s greatest treasure.
What Are Practical Signs of Repentance?
How do you know if you’re on the path of repentance? What does the penitent life look like? How can you tell if someone you love is really changing? People who are serious about change tend to display similar behaviors that let you know they are on the right track. Here are a few signs you’ll find in a truly repentant person:
- Repentant people are willing to confess all their sins, not just the sins that got them in trouble. A house isn’t clean until you open every closet and sweep every corner. People who truly desire to be clean are completely honest about their lives. No more secrets.
- Repentant people face the pain that their sin caused others. They invite the victims of their sin (anyone hurt by their actions) to express the intensity of emotions that they feel—anger, hurt, sorrow, and disappointment. Repentant people do not give excuses or shift blame. They made the choice to hurt others, and they must take full responsibility for their behavior.
- Repentant people ask forgiveness from those they hurt. They realize that they can never completely “pay off” the debt they owe their victims. Repentant people don’t pressure others to say, “I forgive you.” Forgiveness is a journey, and the other person needs time to deal with the hurt before they can forgive. All that penitent people can do is admit their indebtedness and humbly request the undeserved gift of forgiveness.
- Repentant people remain accountable to a small group of mature Christians. They gather a group of friends around themselves who hold them accountable to a plan for clean living. They invite the group to question them about their behaviors. And they follow the group’s recommendations regarding how to avoid temptation.
- Repentant people accept their limitations. They realize that the consequences of their sin (including the distrust) will last a long time, perhaps the rest of their lives. They understand that they may never enjoy the same freedom that other people enjoy. Sex offenders or child molesters, for example, should never be alone with children. Alcoholics must abstain from drinking. Adulterers must put strict limitations on their time with members of the opposite sex. That’s the reality of their situation, and they willingly accept their boundaries.
- Repentant people are faithful to the daily tasks God has given them. We serve a merciful God who delights in giving second chances. God offers repentant people a restored relationship with Him and a new plan for life. Listen to Hosea’s promise to rebellious Israel:
Come, let us return to the Lord. He has torn us to pieces but he will heal us; he has injured us but he will bind up our wounds. After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will restore us, that we may live in his presence. (Hosea 6:1-2, emphasis added)
After healing comes living. Repentant people accept responsibility for past failures but do not drown themselves in guilt. They focus their attention on present responsibilities, which include accomplishing the daily tasks God has given them.
One final thought. Repentance is not a solo effort. God doesn’t expect us to lift ourselves up by our own bootstraps. Through His indwelling Spirit, God shapes and molds us to make us pure and blameless in Christ. Listen to Paul’s hopeful words: “for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose” (Philippians 2:13). For many people, the first cry of repentance is, “I can’t change by myself; I need You, God.” Thankfully, those are the sweetest words to God’s ear.
To help you apply the principles in this article, here are two worksheets you might find helpful: Redemptive Divorce Repentance Worksheets