“I’ll Change, I promise” Six Signs of Genuine Repentance

by Dr. Bryce Klabunde,

Soul Care Pastor, College Avenue Baptist Church, San Diego, CA

08 - Repentance (iStock_000003690716Small)

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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

31 thoughts on ““I’ll Change, I promise” Six Signs of Genuine Repentance

  1. Hello Mark,

    I post over at SF, but wanted to leave my comment here. This is a very good article, I have read others similiar to this. The part that I wanted to highlight is this:

    “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.”

    This statement rings so true. I think God just waits for us to say, “It is ALL ME God, I cannot put the blame anywhere else, I AM THE ONE who has disobeyed, I AM THE ONE who has dishonored your holy name, I have sinned against you and heaven. I take full responsibility for my sin.” Those dark periods of self-examination are a true blessing. Amen!

    Thank you for posting this, Mark.

    God bless,

    1. Thank you, Mary. Bryce’s article is extremely helpful, particularly for those trying to rebuild a marriage from the rubble of sin. It gives the wounded partner permission to extend trust slowly, and it reminds the offending partner that repentance is a process. Moreover, it offers hope to both. Sin doesn’t have to be the end of joy. By God’s grace, when we surrender completely, it can become His means of bringing us unimaginable happiness.
      I appreciate your comment very much, and I know Bryce will be pleased.

  2. This was a great article. Thanks for posting it.

    I love the fact that it describes repentance as a process, a journey. That is so true. Testimonies take 30 minutes to tell stories that can be 30 years of process! We are often jaded by our own brevity.

    I also am reminded that there is a process to being “surrendered completely” to God, another thing I am happy to remind myself as I deal with those who have hurt me, and myself as I work through my own repentance. Rarely am I completely surrendered to God, but related to a few things I have surrendered completely!

    Swimming in his Grace,


    1. Thank you, Bob. The encouragement is much appreciated. As is your wisdom at the Shepherd’s Forum. Nice to know there are faithful pastors out there who will stand strong for what is right, even when it won’t make them popular.
      Thanks for being one of the good guys!

  3. Good article, but I wonder about #3 and needing time to process before forgiveness takes place. If we are to “forgive as God forgives,” is time a necessary factor? Does God need time to process the hurt before he forgives? I don’t think so.

    Of course we are not God, but I don’t view that as an excuse (as I am sure you don’t either).

    It seems to me that when someone is living biblically in the light of the gospel, forgiveness is immediate. You might take time to process the hurt and deal with it. But forgiveness … the promise of forgiveness … is immediate.

    1. Larry, you make an excellent point, especially in light of the distinctions I make in the article, “I’ve Accepted the Apology, So Why Can’t I Forgive?”. Dr. Klabunde, of course, is using the term “forgiveness” as an umberella term for what I have broken down into “Forgiveness + Healing + Reconciliation + Restoration.”

      Nevertheless, I don’t think that recognizing the vast difference between humanity and God is an excuse. Jesus, who perfectly embodied both natures, acknowledged the frailty of humanity when He said, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Mat 26:41). Because Jesus is fully human, yet without sin, we know that He used the term “flesh” to indicate the human condition, which He shared with us, and should not be confused with Paul’s technical term for our fallen nature. We then see His humanity in full flower as He struggled with temptation to disobey, yet prevailed through prayer.

      All that to say, choosing to forgive is hard! And sometimes we need to give the person we harmed complete freedom to struggle without the distraction of our demanding perfect, immediate obedience. Sometimes our fallen nature delays, and even prevents, obedience. In humility, the offender must leave that matter between the offended person and God.

      Dr. Klabunde’s primary point is this: a truly repentant person does not have a spirit of entitlement; that is, the offender recognizes and accepts that he or she actually deserves punishment and, therefore, has forfeited any right to good treatment, including the grace of forgiveness.

      Yes, Christ has commanded forgiveness, but that is a matter between each individual and the Lord. A genuinely repentant attitude wouldn’t even think to remind the offended person of his or her duty.

      1. I thank you for this article for I could not understand how I felt bad for my sinning but I didnt seem to be able to stop my sinning now I understand the difference thank you very much Joyce H.

  4. Thank you for this wonderful thoughts of ‘authentic repentance’. Continue inspiring other people. don’t stop writing articles that are life changing, you will surely have a place in heaven I’ll pray for you.

  5. Thank you so much for your biblically-based thoughts on true repentance and what it “looks” like. I have been wounded deeply in marriage, and have a question. What do you do with an offender who has dramatically changed his/her abusive behavior(for the better) but doesn’t verbalize repentance…e.g “would you forgive me? I know what I have done for so many years has been hurtful” etc…In short, I have seen the changed behaviors and appreciate them, but I am still hurt b/c he shows no other signs of acknowledgment other than “refraining” from his past behaviors. Any thoughts would be appreciated.

    1. Alicia,

      It’s a difficult question. Ideally, you would want to see all signs of repentance. But ours is not a perfect world, and everyone responds differently. I do see a lot of reason to be encouraged, however. More often than not, the offender responds with words and no action. That’s the point of Dr. Klabunde’s article. Words aren’t enough. Women—more so than men—often find words satisfying in the short term, only to be disappointed later. In your case, the person who caused you harm has responded with action without saying anything, which can be confusing for a woman (more so than a man). Generally speaking, women are more verbal. It’s natural for a woman to speak out loud what she experiences internally, but not so for men. We may feel something deeply without ever verbalizing it. In addition, a person’s temperament, whether male or female, may favor action over words.

      If I were to give you husband the benefit of doubt, I see some possible explanations for his failure to apologize verbally:

      1. Pride will not allow him to admit his failure. A core need for a man is to protect his woman from harm. When a man genuinely comes to terms with the fact that that he, himself, has been the primary cause for his woman’s pain, it’s incredibly shaming. It actually threatens his identity as a “good man.” He’d rather make the necessary changes and pretend the past never happened.

      2. Men, generally speaking, distrust our own emotions. We don’t see them as a reliable indication of reality. Therefore, we often avoid saying much about them until something more reliable reassures us that what we’re saying is true. In the case of your husband, he may feel genuinely remorseful and has decided, internally, to make significant changes, but he’s unwilling to verbalize it because he’s not sure he can sustain those changes. When he’s certain he can “stick to it,” he will likely bring up the subject in a nonchalant manner at an unexpected moment, and apologize then. But that could be years from now.

      3. Everyone reacts differently under stress. Few will perfectly exhibit all signs of complete repentance instantly. Complete repentance may develop over a period of time as the person grows emotionally and psychologically.

      Your desire for a proper apology is normal. An apology acknowledges the offender’s role in causing pain and it expresses empathy for the person who was harmed. It’s like soothing balm on a burning wound. It eases pain and speeds healing. A good apology satisfies our desire for justice and helps us leave the past in the past. Without it—even when behavior indicates genuine repentance—healing takes longer.

      Unfortunately, you may never receive this gift from your husband. You might have to let the grace of God suffice instead. There could come a day when you can express your hurt and he may respond with empathy and apologize. But rather than hope for a day that may never come, perhaps it’s best to accept what you have now and concentrate on building connection. As you see progress in the right direction, praise him verbally and encourage him with demonstrations of deeper trust and expressions of greater affection. Build intimacy. Ultimately, what you want is a strong marriage. Perhaps it’s best to focus on the big picture and submit your need for a proper apology to God’s sovereignty. He will surely do what is best for you, even if your husband never steps up.

      1. Thank you so much Mark for you lengthy, timely response. It has given me hope, and offered me valuable insight into the heart of my husband. I have been so angry about his lack of verbal repentance that I have overlooked the harder work he has done;changing his behvavior. I’ve realized that I have been way too short on grace toward him. Thanks again for your committment to this ministry.

      2. Thank you so much for the insight. I myself is going through this with my boyfriend of three years. i want to forgive him but find it
        very difficult because he has done this more than once.

  6. I read Alicia’s post and thought how “the grass is always greener”. Her spouse has refrained from the behavior; however, he has never spoken words of repentance to her. I’m looking for more than just words; and have been doing so for decades now. After 27+ years of marriage, my husband has again returned to what I now think of as his first love. I believe there was an almost 3 yr stretch where he was not viewing; as we did not have internet in the home. As I have researched the validity of pornography being an “addiction”, I have found that I have probably made this journey more difficult than it needed to be. Twice, I gave the; “if this happens again, we are done” ultimatum, and both times I have not followed through.

    My heart literally feels broken, and I do not understand his words of love & “I can’t live w/o you”. He has shed tears, that seem like genuine remorse, he has asked me not to give up on him. However, the conversation is the same, every time.

    Each time this discovery has been made, I’ve been a little older, a little less able to believe that “it’s not about me”. a little more filled w/sorrow contemplating the remainder of my life w/o him. A little less able to believe that anything I could offer him would compete w/the excitement his hobby brings him.

  7. I read Lisa’s post and my heart breaks for her also. She is right, “the grass is always greener”…it’s my sinful heart wanting more than what God has called me to be content with. Thank you, Lisa, for your gracious reminder that changed BEHAVIOR is the hardest thing to conquer. Your post has given me a thankful heart, one which too often, holds my husband to a standard of repentance of which I am not entitled.

  8. I think forgiving yourself for mistakes made and also receiving God’s forgiveness are also important steps of repentance the enable you to move forward in the right direction.

    1. I don’t disagree. It might be helpful to keep the intended audience in mind. The people most in need of this article don’t struggle with those issues. They struggle, instead, with a sense of entitlement that often keeps them from truly repenting. They forgive themselves too quickly and then lay guilt trips on their victims, saying, “I said ‘I’m sorry, what more do you want?'”

      The article is also for those who have been repeatedly wounded by someone who follows each successive offense with a worthless, “I’m sorry.” It’s helpful to them to know what genuine repentance looks like. They need not feel guilty for failing to trust someone whose apology is less than genuine.

      I explore the issue you raise in the article, “How to Recover from a Fall.”

      Thanks for weighing in!

      1. Mmm. That does make more sense to me now. Was very blessed reading either way. Thank you! And I will check out that article🙂

  9. I feel like I am repenting but it’s coming so slowly. I was speaking with someone and it sounded as if repentance was immediate. I have very deep roots of lust in me that I’ve been battling and confessing. Having confessed almost everything, I find that I still want to lust. I am terrified, because I cry out to God as you said, “Lord I cannot change myself! Fill this addiction’s emptiness and end the compulsions, etc” and I fear greatly nothing is happening as it should. Then the fear shakes me into erratic emotional states. What am I doing wrong in repentance? HOW DO I STOP WANTING LUST! HOW MUCH LONGER WILL IT TAKE? It’s been 2 months and I’m maybe 90% there, but that last step seems like an uncrossable chasm! How do I stop wanting something I’ve been addicted and self-deceived by for almost 20 years? Thank you

  10. I don’t think all of this is necessary to get into heaven. We are saved by grace and not by works. Too many times in the Christian religion it is a backward works method. if someone for instances doesn’t apologize to people they have hurt in the past its not necessary for salvation. This is a backward catholic belief. Yes sin is awful and God will work with the person on changing them but if they don’t have every charterstic you wrote that doesn’t mean someone is unsaved. Sometimes leaving the past behind is the best thing to do and move forward. Like my mothers old bf stole my car but gave it back but didn’t apologize, my old mechanic cheated me out of like almost 2,000 dollars, my neighbor once stole from like 200 dollars and who knows how many other houses he stole from. I don’t expect these people to apologize to me or turn themselves in, in order to get to heaven. I expect them to just change who they are as a person and serve the Lord.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Jeff.

      To clarify, the article doesn’t address salvation or requirements for getting into heaven. This has to do with broken relationships between people. When a significant sin has been committed against someone, reconciliation begins when the offender repents (acknowledges wrongdoing and taking responsibility for sinful actions) and the offended person forgives (releases the offender from justice.) Unless both have taken place, the relationship between them will be strained as they try to move forward.

      Unfortunately, the concepts of repentance and forgiveness are complex, so this article helps clarify some of the issues surrounding repentance. The words, “I’m sorry,” are just words. They may or may not accompany true, genuine repentance. Words must align with actions and behaviors.

      When we have harmed someone we love (and all of us have at one time or another), we should repent (admit wrong, apologize, pledge to avoid a repeat offence, and offer restitution if possible). This helps rebuild trust. This also helps heal the offended person’s emotional wounds.

      Thanks, again, for commenting.

  11. The concept of repentance is wonderfully explain by Dr Bryce here.We can all understand what Paul was trying to tell the Corinthians,that Godly sorrow brings repentance,bbut worldly sorrows brings death.Again It is an excellent message for teachers in church,sunday school ,youth ministries and womens ministries.God blessed the author.

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