What Does it Mean to Repent?

By Justin Johnson

Repentance has grown out of control! To repent simply means a change of mind. Often it happens after someone realizes they made a regrettable or wrong choice.

The Bible only knows this meaning, but religionists want to add works required “improvements” to the meaning. As a result, many people think repentance is loaded with performance and it is a works-based precondition to salvation and forgiveness of sins.

Penance is a Work

For the bigger religions repentance is changed into a means by which people present their own works as a sacrifice for sins.

In Roman Catholicism sins are not forgiven unless there is what is called true repentance which involves penitent works.

The sacrament of penance (the voluntary subjection to punishment for sins) is a large part of the Catholic religion where rosaries, icons, fasting, crucifixes, candles, and priests are used to free people from their sins.

This sacramental practice of self punishment diminishes the judgment for all our sins taken by Christ whereby:

“…we have redemption through his blood, even the forgiveness of sins:” – Col 1:14

“…being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him, having forgiven you ALL TRESPASSES;” – Col 2:13

“our old man is crucified with him…For he that is dead is freed from sin.” – Rom 6:7

For the person who trusts this gospel of Christ, there is no more need for penitent works to pay for sins. Nevertheless, the practice continues every day in religions all over the world.

Turning from Your Sins is a Work

Loading up repentance with religious works is not only taught by the Catholics, but is also promoted by some Protestant and Baptist groups when they define repentance as “turning from your sins”.

Commonly such groups will boldly declare that you cannot be saved unless you first repent, by which they mean turn from your sins or stop sinning.

The only place this is found in the Bible is under the law covenant to Israel and it is not talking about repentance:

“But if the wicked will turn from all his sins that he hath committed, and keep all my statutes, and do that which is lawful and right, he shall surely live, he shall not die.” – Ezekiel 18:21

Repentance is mentioned nine verses later but it is separate not synonymous with “turning from sins”:

“Repent, and turn yourselves from all your transgressions; so iniquity shall not be your ruin.” – Eze 18:30

When the book of Ezekiel was written under the law, nobody knew of the gospel of the grace of God which was kept a mystery until later revealed to Paul.

The “turning from sins” definition has caused big problems when skeptics learn about God repenting in the Bible. Imagine reading verses like this with such a wrong definition:

“For the LORD will judge his people, and he will [turn from his sins] concerning his servants.” – Psalm 135:14

Turn (from your sins)-or-burn is at its best a failure to rightly divide, placing everyone back under the curse of the law, but at its worst is heresy!

Repentance: A Change of Mind

Everywhere in your Bible repent means a change of mind. This change of mind often follows the compunction of making a regrettable or wrong choice.

No where in the Bible does repent/repentance mean to stop sinning, turn from sins, or to punish yourself for your sins.

Joel 2:13-14 prays that the people would turn unto the Lord so perhaps he would repent (change his mind) concerning their destruction.

Jer 8:6 says that no man repented (changed his mind) of his wickedness, saying “What have I done?”

John the Baptist taught for men to repent (change their minds) of their sins and be water baptized for their remission (Mat 3:2, 3:8).

Jesus said that all in Israel would perish unless they repented (changed their mind) about their sins, the Messiah, and the gospel (Luke 13:3).

After preaching the truth about who Jesus was, Peter called on his Jewish audience who at one time crucified the Messiah to repent (change their minds) and be water baptized (a Jewish covenant practice).

Pauline Repentance

Even when Paul uses the word repent or repentance it means a change of mind.

Romans 11:29 says, “For the gifts and calling of God are without repentance.” God will not change his mind about the calling he gave to Israel.

Paul instructs us to be gentle and apt to teach those who oppose themselves, and be patient if God by chance would change their mind:

“In meekness instructing those that oppose themselves; if God peradventure will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth;” – 2 Tim 2:25

By reading the Catholic or Baptist works-based definitions into the word repent, some have erred in thinking that Paul is requiring works for salvation or preaching a covenant gospel in verses like Acts 20:21, and Acts 26:20. He is not.

He is admonishing them to change their minds and “turn to God” (Acts 26:20).


Works filled repentance is one of the most difficult self-righteous works to lay at the cross. It seems so humble, pious, and just for us to try to pay for our own sins with self-inflicted grief, pain, and remorse. The work of confession and penance is a practice that dies hard among the religious minded.

However, by His grace, God suffered and died on the behalf of sinners, so that all of our sins are paid for, forgiven, removed from our account, and will never be imputed to us again (2 Cor 5:19-21).

“Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin.” – Romans 4:7-8

No penitent works, turning-from-your sins work, self sacrificial works, religious works, or confessional works can forgive a single sin in your life.

Only by faith, and by faith only, in the finished work of Calvary’s cross can we receive forgiveness and imputed righteousness by God’s grace.

“But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.” – Romans 4:5

Change your mind about your works based repentance and believe the gospel!

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Published: May 19, 2012
Last Modified: June 13, 2017
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