What is Repentance?
It is clear that the preachers of the New Testament preached that men should repent. John the Baptist (Matt. 3:2), Jesus (Matt. 4:17), Paul (Acts 20:21), and Peter.
Acts 2:38 “Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.” (KJV)
Acts 3:19 “Repent ye therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, when the times of refreshing shall come from the presence of the Lord.” (KJV)
This was not a new theme, but a continuation of one spoken often by the prophets of the Old Testament.
“Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil; Learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow. Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool. If ye be willing and obedient, ye shall eat the good of the land: But if ye refuse and rebel, ye shall be devoured with the sword: for the mouth of the LORD hath spoken it.” (KJV)
It is obvious that God, through Isaiah, called for those who heard Isaiah to turn away from their sins, put them away completely, and take up obedience to God and His Word. It is also obvious that John the Baptist’s hearers understood exactly that.
“In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judaea, And saying, Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. For this is he that was spoken of by the prophet Esaias, saying, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. And the same John had his raiment of camel’s hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins; and his meat was locusts and wild honey. Then went out to him Jerusalem, and all Judaea, and all the region round about Jordan, And were baptized of him in Jordan, confessing their sins. But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees come to his baptism, he said unto them, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance.” (KJV)
Repentance is a complete change of mind and heart concerning a number of things: sin, obedience to God, God Himself, and Jesus Christ as the Son of God. Repentance is the twin of faith. Saving faith does not exist apart from a commitment to be obedient to God.
“What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him? If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit? Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.” (KJV,)
Saving faith is necessarily accompanied by a devout forsaking of sin and a turning toward obedience that is just as devout. This is the reason that sound churches and sound preachers proclaim repentance.
How is repentance proclaimed in scripture? It is taught by an open and frank discussion of the nature of sin which includes a discussion of the law of God and the duty of man to obey it. Those who believed to the saving of their souls in the Bible were most often confronted in a very powerful way with those things which they had done in violation of God’s commands. It is clear that the preachers of scripture considered it their duty to speak openly and plainly about those things which men had done to offend the Holy God. Often those discussions also involved the eternal consequences of failing to repent.
But the scriptures are also clear that sin has so totally invaded the sinner and captured his heart that he cannot turn from it even if he had the desire to do so. We speak of this under the heading of Total Depravity or Total Inability. This does not mean that every person is as bad as he could possibly be but points to the fact that sin and rebellion have so completely infected every person that he does not have one remaining faculty, including his will, which is not influence and controlled by sin.
Enter Saving Grace. Paul teaches in Eph. 3:8,9 that we are saved by grace through faith and that the faith is not out from ourselves but is the gift of God. Jesus said ‘no man can come to me unless the Father drags him,’ ‘unless it is given to him by the Father,’ John 6:44,65.
Therefore we preach that men must repent. We confront them with the issue of sin and we tell them ‘except ye repent ye shall…perish,’ Luke 13:3,5.
Repentance begins, then, with God changing the heart of the sinner, as Jeremiah wrote, ‘turn thou me, and I shall be turned; for thou art the LORD my God.’ Jer. 31:18. It proceeds to a broken heart over one’s violations of God’s law and a heartfelt confession of those sins. Then it produces a sincere and God-given purpose to make right the wrongs that one has done (consider Zacchaeus, Luke 19:8). The sinner is convinced that he cannot remedy his situation and realizes that only the sacrifice of the Holy One of God in his place can satisfy the justice of the Infinitely Holy God. So he casts himself upon the mercy of God with his only hope being the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. This is repentance. This is saving faith.