What Is Repentance?

When John the Baptist comes on the scene in Judaea, the theme of his message and baptism ministry is summed up when he cries, ‘Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’ (Matt 3:2). Similarly the first message Jesus preaches in his earthly ministry is ‘Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’ (Matt 4:17). Likewise, at Pentecost Peter’s response to the penitent Jews at Pentecost is ‘Repent and be baptized’ (Acts 2:38). Yet, what does it mean to repent? Understanding repentance can be essential to our presentation of the gospel. However, its misapplication can trample upon the message of God’s grace in this dispensation.

Repent is the action that brings forth the possession of repentance. To repent means simply to change one’s mind or attitude. It can be somewhat similar to conversion from one mindset to another, yet it usually is accompanied by sorrow, grief, or regret towards some action. Let’s see some examples.

Repentance and war

“And it came to pass, when Pharaoh had let the people go, that God led them not through the way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near; for God said, Lest peradventure the people repent when they see war, and they return to Egypt:” – Exodus 13:17

The context of the final phrase helps us understand the meaning of repent. God did not lead the Israelites through the land of the mighty Philistines because when they saw the prospect of war they might have fled and went back to Egypt. When the people saw the war they would repent. In this case, the Israelites would see war, feel sorrow or regret towards ever leaving their comfortable homes in Egypt, and change their mind to follow Moses into the wilderness. After this repentance they would’ve fled back home to Egypt. This is the idea of repentance: a change of mind that is often accompanied by sorrow, grief, or regret.

Repentance and sin

Knowing man’s fallen condition and sinful nature, we can understand God’s call for repentance in the attitude of man from sin and towards God. There is a clear example of this sort of repentance in Solomon’s supplication to God at the inauguration of the Temple. In 1 Kings 8:46-52 Solomon addresses the issue of forgiveness for sinning Israel who may be delivered up to captivity. He says,

“…if they shall bethink themselves in the land whither they were carried captives, and repent, and make supplication unto thee in the land of them that carried them captives, saying, We have sinned, and have done perversely, we have committed wickedness;” – I Kings 8:47

Notice that the sinning Israelites could repent, which accompanies a contrite spirit and grief over their sins. This is evident by the description of their sins as perverse and wicked. This demonstrates their repentance from sin. It shows their change of mind and attitude towards how they were behaving towards God. When they were performing the sins, they were proving their rebellious heart and neglect towards God. Then they repented, or changed their heart and mind attitude about their sin. Solomon says that if they would repent, seeing the wickedness of their ways, God would forgive them.

After repentance Solomon says that God would hear their supplication and forgive them their sins because of the promises He made to the fathers (1 Kings 8:49-50).

Clearly we can determine that repentance is simply a change of mind, heart, and attitude. In the Bible, most often it is directed at people’s need to repent from their sin and turn towards God. This helps us to understand the need for John the Baptist, Jesus, and Peter to preach repentance to the ‘wicked and adulterous generation’ of Israel. They needed to repent of their sin, change their attitude towards God, so that they could take part in the promises of God in the coming kingdom. If they did not repent, then they could not take part in those promises.

The Proper Response to Repentance

Today, Paul describes how when we see our own sinfulness in light of God’s justice, we also develop a godly sorrow which ‘worketh towards repentance to salvation’ (2 Cor 7:10). When we see our own incapability and rejection of God’s righteousness, we feel sorrow towards our sin and regret towards our behavior. This godly sorrow brings forth a change of mind and attitude towards God.

Today the proper response after repentance from sin is faith in Jesus Christ and his sacrifice. Through this faith as a result of godly sorrow and repentance we gain salvation by the grace of God.

In the time of John the Baptist and Peter the proper response to repentance was getting ready for the coming kingdom through baptism both by water and subsequently by the Holy Ghost. Thus, Jesus preaches ‘Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ While both John and Peter both preach ‘Repent and be baptized.’

In any age, repentance from sin describes the change of mind and attitude with grief towards our behavior.

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Published: Tuesday, November 8th, 2005
Last Modified: March 23, 2016