Now after that John was put in prison, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: REPENT ye, and BELIEVE the gospel.” (Mark 1:14-15)
As a modern believer in Jesus, I find this verse extremely fascinating. Why? Because according to Jesus, the expected response to the KINGDOM message is two-fold: REPENT and BELIEVE. But what’s fascinating about this is the order of the two things. REPENT first, and then BELIEVE. However, growing up in the church, the order was reversed: BELIEVE and then REPENT. But in my mind, His statement does provoke some interesting questions, one of which is WHAT IS “REPENTANCE”? and WHAT DOES IT TAKE “TO REPENT”?
I’VE HEARD MANY AMERICAN CHRISTIANS SAY THAT THEY BELIEVED THAT “REPENTING” WAS MERELY TELLING GOD, “I’M SORRY.” However, when we examine what all of the Bible teaches us regarding “REPENTANCE,” we learn that it involves much more than this, and gaining a proper understanding of REPENTANCE is not a frivolous undertaking. A biblical understanding of REPENTANCE is crucial, in fact, if we want to gain forgiveness and a right standing with God, but since the 1950’s tent revivals and crusades, only a partial understanding of “REPENTANCE” has been taught.
WHAT IS “REPENTANCE”?
So let’s start by asking the question, “WHAT IS ‘REPENTANCE’?” Many Christians today define “repentance” based on the Greek definition only, which literally means to “change one’s mind.” However, in the Hebrew, it’s root meaning is to “turn around” or “return,” or to do a complete 180° degree change in the direction of how one’s been living.
So true biblical repentance involves more than just “changing one’s mind,” it involves a 180° change in the direction of one’s life, from rebellion against God to living in obedience to Him. In other words, there needs to be an inner transformation that occurs. But contrary to what some may think, repentance is NOT a one-time event, as is often portrayed in churches, crusades, or on TV ministries, but it’s a LIFE-LONG PROCESS, which involves a changed heart, a change of attitude, and a change in behavior, and ultimately, a changed life.
REPENTANCE INVOLVES CONFESSING OUR SINS
First of all, repentance involves us acknowledging and confessing our sins. In Leviticus 5, God says,
So it shall be when he becomes guilty in one of these [sins], that he shall CONFESS that sin which he has sinned. (Leviticus 5:5)
In order to repent, we need to ACKNOWLEDGE that we have sinned, and then CONFESS those sins to God. Obviously, we are not going to CONFESS something until we first ACKNOWLEDGE what we’ve done was wrong.
BUT WHAT IS “SIN”?
The biblical definition of sin is “disobedience to God.” For example, four times in Leviticus 4, we have the same repeated definition:
Speak unto the children of Israel, saying, If a soul [person] shall SIN THROUGH IGNORANCE AGAINST ANY OF THE COMMANDMENTS OF THE LORD concerning things WHICH OUGHT NOT TO BE DONE, and shall do against them. (Leviticus 4:2)
And if the whole congregation of Israel SIN THROUGH IGNORANCE, and the thing be hid from the eyes of the assembly, and they have done somewhat against ANY OF THE COMMANDMENTS OF THE LORD concerning things WHICH SHALL NOT BE DONE, and are guilty; When the sin. which they have sinned against it, is known,… (Leviticus 4:13-14a)
When a ruler has sinned, and done somewhat THROUGH IGNORANCE AGAINST ANY OF THE COMMANDMENTS OF THE LORD his God concerning things WHICH SHALL NOT BE DONE, and is guilty; or if his sin, wherein he has sinned, come to his knowledge;… (Leviticus 4:23-24a)
And if any one of the common people SIN THOUGH IGNORANCE, which he does somewhat AGAINST ANY OF THE COMMANDMENTS OF THE LORD concerning things WHICH OUGHT NOT TO BE DONE, and be guilty; or if his sin, which he has sinned, come to his knowledge:… (Leviticus 4:27-28a)
Notice all four times, what is discussed are (1) sins are acts committed through ignorance; (2) sins are committed when we go against ANY of the commandments of the LORD; and (3) it’s still a sin, even when the one who is doing it doesn’t realize it’s wrong at the time, but later discovers that what he or she has done is a sin. A person is not innocent, just because he or she didn’t realize what they were doing was wrong. IGNORANCE IS NOT AN EXCUSE! In fact, in Leviticus 5:17, God says in His Word,
And if a soul sin, and commits any of these things which are forbidden to be done by the commandments of the LORD; THOUGH HE KNOWS IT NOT, yet is he guilty, and shall bear his iniquity. [Emphasis Mine]
Again, ignorance is not an excuse, particularly in America where Bibles can be bought in most book stores, as well as available free online. I think it is also important to note who defines what is or is not a sin. You see what is a sin is not based on what a ruler defines as sin, it is not based on what society defines as sin, nor is it based on what a religious denomination, group, or even your congregation defines as sin, or even for that matter, what we, personally, define as a sin, but only what God defines as a sin. God is the ONLY ONE who can determine what is a sin or what is not a sin, no one else. And He has told us in His Word, the Bible, what is sin and what is not a sin.
REPENTANCE INVOLVES A SACRIFICE
Next, after confessing our sins, we are to bring the appropriate sacrifice. In biblical times, the appropriate sacrifice was based on the sin and the wealth of the person. However, one could only offer a sacrifice for sins done through ignorance, but sins done in willful rebellion against God did not have any sacrifices one could offer. Instead, the only punishment for those sins was death. The sacrifices that were offered had the ability to “sanctify for the purity of the flesh (or the physical body) of the person (Hebrews 9:13), but it could not sanctify or cleanse the person’s heart or conscience.
However, with the death and resurrection of Christ, almost all sins, even those sins that did not have a sacrifice for them under the earlier Temple system can now be forgiven by a person asking for God’s forgiveness and placing his or her faith in the shed blood of Jesus Christ for them. In fact, the Apostle John writes in his first epistle,
If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us of our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (I John 1:9)
But the Bible also states that even after Jesus’ death and resurrection, there are still two sins that cannot be forgiven, neither in this life nor in the next: The blasphemy of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 12:31-32; Mark 3:28-29; Luke 12:10) and the taking or receiving of the Mark of the Beast (Revelation 13:16-17; 14:10-11). This is one reason why it is extremely important for us to read, study and practice the teachings in the Bible in our day-to-day life, so we will know what is and what is not a sin, and how to repent.
REPENTANCE INVOLVES WATER BAPTISM
Although Christianity has relegated water baptism down to be used only for conversion, water immersion or water baptism had many more purposes than this during the biblical period. It’s purpose was to indicate a change of status, whether in one’s physical health, in one’s ritual purity, in one’s occupation, in one’s walk or status with God (e.g., conversion and/or repentance).
In Matthew 3:11, John explains what he is doing: “I indeed baptize you with water unto REPENTANCE:..” (emphasis mine). John here is clearly saying that his ministry was to aid in the REPENTANCE process by baptizing them in water. We see this also in the beginning of Mark’s Gospel:
John did baptize in the wilderness, and preach THE BAPTISM OF REPENTANCE FOR THE REMISSION OF SINS. And there went out unto him all the land of Judea, and they of Jerusalem, and were all baptized of him in the river of Jordan, confessing their sins. (Mark 1:4-5; Emphasis Mine)
And again in the Gospel of Luke,
...the word of God came unto John the son of Zacherias in the wilderness. And he came into all the country about Jordan, preaching THE BAPTISM OF REPENTANCE FOR THE REMISSION OF SINS. (Luke 3:2-3)
So as we can see, water baptism is part of the process of repentance. Did Jesus’ death on the cross remove water baptism from this process?
Go into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. He that BELIEVES AND IS BAPTIZED shall be saved; but he that believes NOT shall be damned. (Mark 16:15-16)
This same basic message is preached by Peter in Acts 2:
REPENT, AND BE BAPTIZED everyone of you in the name of Jesus Christ FOR THE REMISSION OF SINS. (Acts 2:38)
Just as John the Baptist preached “THE BAPTISM OF REPENTANCE FOR THE REMISSION OF SINS,” so Peter here is preaching the same idea. REPENTANCE AND BAPTISM FOR THE REMISSION OF SINS with the addition that we put our trust in Jesus and what He did for us on the cross and through His resurrection, and that we make Him the Lord of our life. And this same message was taught by Ananias to Paul when he was healed after his conversion experience on the road to Damascus:
The God of our fathers has chosen you, that you should know His will, and see that Just One [Jesus Christ], and should hear the voice of His mouth. For you shall be His witness unto all men of what you have seen and heard. And now why do you wait? Arise, and BE BAPTIZED, and WASH AWAY YOUR SINS, calling on the name of the Lord. (Acts 22:14-16)
In fact, throughout the book of Acts, there are TEN (10) examples of people getting baptized in water immediately after believing in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.
REPENTANCE HAS “FRUIT”?
For example, in the gospels, when the Pharisees and others come to him to be baptized in water, he tells them to “Bring forth therefore the FRUITS appropriate for repentance” (Matthew 3:8; Luke 3:8), and when the people began to ask what they should do to prove their repentance was, in fact, sincere, he gives them examples of what they could do (Luke 3:10-14). If the repentance is real, then it will bring forth the FRUIT of a changed life, a change in how we think and act.
REPENTANCE INVOLVES FORSAKING SIN
But according to God’s Word, we are not only to ACKNOWLEDGE and CONFESS our sins, accept the SACRIFICE OF JESUS’ SHED BLOOD on our behalf and be BAPTIZED IN WATER, but we are also to FORSAKE our sins as well. Merely CONFESSING our sins is NOT enough.
He that covers [or tries to hide] his sins shall not prosper: but whoso CONFESSES AND FORSAKES them shall have mercy. (Proverbs 28:13)
We can also see this idea of “forsaking sin” in the teachings of Jesus, for example, when He told the woman caught in the act of adultery to “go and sin no more” (John 8:11), as well as to the lame man Jesus healed at the pool of Bethesda, He told him afterwards, “Behold, you are made whole: sin no more, lest a worse thing come unto you” (John 5:14). Notice that Jesus told him that if he did not stop sinning, something worse would happen to him. There’s no indication anywhere of Jesus telling anyone it was okay for them to continue in their sins.
FORSAKING SIN – AN IMPORTANT PART OF REPENTANCE
Since SIN is “disobedience to God,” whether we are disobeying His written word and/or the leading of the Holy Spirit, then to FORSAKE SIN means that we are to STOP doing the sin, TURN AWAY from it, do a complete 180° degree turn in our behavior and attitude towards the sin, and then to START obeying God, by walking (or living) in obedience to His commandments and to the leading of the Holy Spirit (called “righteousness”). FORSAKING SIN is an important part of REPENTANCE; so much so, that if a person CONFESSES the sin, but they do NOT FORSAKE the sin, they have NOT truly repented. They may feel guilty, remorse and sorry for what they did, but if they have not FORSAKEN the sin, they have not REPENTED.
THE TWO DIRECTIONS OF REPENTANCE
In Ezekiel 18, we learn that “repentance” does NOT happen in only one-direction, but it is bi-directional. For example, God tells us,
But if the wicked will turn from all his sins that he has committed, and keep all My statutes, and do that which is lawful and right, he shall surely live, he shall not die. All his transgressions that he has committed, they shall not be mentioned unto him: in his righteousness that he has done he shall live. (Ezekiel 18:21-22)
This is the understanding of “repentance” that most people know. If we repent from our sins, then our sins are forgiven and forgotten by God. But notice that one who is truly repentant will not continue to live in his sins, but in his “righteousness” (or in his obedience to God). However, there’s another direction that repentance can work as well:
But when the righteous turns away from righteousness, and commits iniquity (or sin), and does according to all the abominations that the wicked man does, shall he live? All his righteousness that he has done shall not be mentioned: in his trespass that he has trespassed, and in his sin that he has sinned, in them shall he die. (Ezekiel 18:24)
In other words, if a man is living in obedience to God, and then for whatever reason starts living a life of sin, then by making that change in behavior or lifestyle, he has “repented” from his life of obedience, and by so doing, God then follows the same rule regarding repentance: what came before the repentance is forgotten, and only what comes after the repentance is remembered. God forgets the time he or she lived in righteousness and ONLY remembers the sin. This side of repentance we don’t like, and neither did ancient Israel.
Yet you say, “The way of the Lord is NOT equal. Hear now, O house of Israel [and Christianity]; is not My way equal? are not your ways unequal?” (Ezekiel 18:25; Emphasis Mine)
We don’t like this view of repentance because it doesn’t work in our favor. We like the process to always give us the advantage, but God applies the process evenly in both directions.
When a righteous man turns away from his righteousness, and commits iniquity [sins], and dies in them; for his iniquity [sin] that he has done shall he die. Again, when the wicked man turns away from his wickedness that he has committed, and does that which is lawful and right, he shall save his soul alive. Because he considers, and turns away from all his transgressions [sins] he has committed, he shall surely live, he shall not die. (Ezekiel 18:26-28)
Because God is equal in applying the process of repentance, what is His advice?
Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel [Christian & non-believer], every one according to his ways, says the LORD God. Repent, and turn yourselves from all your transgressions; so iniquity shall not be your ruin. Cast away from you all your transgressions, whereby you have transgressed; and make you a new heart and a new spirit: for why will you die, O house of Israel [Christian or unbeliever]? For I have no pleasure in the death of him that dies, says the LORD God: wherefore turn yourselves, and live. (Ezekiel 18:30-32)
So biblical repentance involves CONFESSING our sins, bringing the appropriate SACRIFICE (our faith and trust in Jesus’ shed blood on the cross for our behalf), WATER BAPTISM, and to STOP doing evil (those sins) and to then TURN AWAY from those sins (disobedience to God), doing then a complete 180° degree turn, and then to start living a life of obedience to God. Consequently, then, repentance is a PROCESS; it involves CONFESSING, STOPPING, TURNING AWAY, AND STARTING. It begins with CONFESSION and culminates with OBEDIENCE TO GOD. As a result, repentance should follow the process set down by God in His Word; in other words, repentance that does NOT result in heart felt obedience to God is not true repentance.
REPENTANCE – MORE THAN MERE OBEDIENCE
But on the other side of this, merely going through the motions of obeying God without a real heart felt change is still NOT true repentance either. In Isaiah 1:10-20, God criticizes Israel for them bringing Him “multiple sacrifices,” “burnt offerings,” “incense,” and He said that He hated their “new moon festivals and anointed feasts.” Why? God Himself is the One who instructed them to do these things, but the problem here is that even obedience to God and the Bible, if it is NOT mixed with true heart-felt repentance – is NOT acceptable to God. For example, He says, “I cannot endure INIQUITY and the solemn assembly” (Isaiah 1:13d; emphasis mine).
In verse 16, God tells them the first part of what they need to do to repent:
Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from My sight. Cease to do evil. (Isaiah 1:16)
Notice the order here, we are to (1) “wash yourselves, make yourselves clean” (this is an early form of “water immersion” or “water baptism,” which we’ve discussed); (2) remove the evil of your deeds from My sight” (i.e., FORSAKE SIN). Consequently, as I’ve mentioned, “water immersion/baptism” is an intricate part of REPENTANCE. And then, we are to do the following:
Learn to do good; seek justice. Reprove the ruthless; defend the orphan, plead for the widow. (Isaiah 1:17)
In other words, repentance involves “stopping something,” and then doing the opposite instead: “stop doing evil, start doing good.” Good not based on our standards, but on God’s, His word. It is after saying this that God then says,
Come now, and let us reason together, says the LORD, Though your sins are as scarlet, they will be white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they will be white as wool. If you consent and obey, you will eat the best of the land; but if you refuse and rebel, you will be devoured by the sword. Truly the mouth of the LORD has spoken. (Isaiah 1:18-20)
God will NOT accept our praise and worship, if we are still living in INIQUITY (rebellion or sin), just as He would not accept the praise and worship of Israel when they were still living in INIQUITY. In order for there to be TRUE BIBLICAL REPENTANCE, we must change our hearts, our attitudes, and the direction of how we are living by doing a complete 180° degree turn from disobedience to God (sin) to heartfelt obedience to God (righteousness).
Contrary to what some may think, we do have a role to play in our repentance before God. We must do more than say, “I’m sorry,” we must work with God to change our thoughts, our attitudes, and our behavior. And if all we do is say, “I’m sorry,” but we do not change, then according to God, we have not truly repented.
REPENTANCE – BOTH VERTICAL AND HORIZONTAL
Not only is repentance VERTICAL, an important process that connects us to God, but it is also HORIZONTAL, an important process that connects us to one another. Most Christians in church, crusades, and even on TV only talk about the VERTICAL element of REPENTANCE, but in the Bible, the HORIZONTAL element is also discussed; consequently, it is something that God sees to be equally important.
REPENTANCE – INCLUDES FORGIVENESS?
Also, another part of REPENTANCE is that it includes us forgiving others. In the “Sermon on the Mount,” Jesus teaches us,
Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has aught [or something] against you; leave your gift there on the altar, and go your way; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. (Matthew 5:23-24)
Then later on in the Sermon, when Jesus is talking about forgiveness, He says,
For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if you forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. (Matthew 6:14-15)
Obviously, then, if we are wanting to REPENT of our sins and have God forgive us, then we must also forgive those who have hurt us or done wrong to us; otherwise, Jesus says, God will not forgive us (Matthew 18:35; Mark 11:26).
REPENTANCE – INCLUDES MAKING AMENDS OR RESTITUTION?
In addition, REPENTANCE includes us making amends or restitution with those whom we have wronged, if possible. For example, in Exodus 22, there are a number of examples given to teach us that if we steal from someone or cause damage to something, for example, we are to pay back what we have stolen or replace what we have damaged or ruined; in other words, we are to make RESTITUTION for the wrong we have done:
If a man shall steal an animal (an ox, a sheep, and kill it, or sell it, he shall restore more than what he has taken….for he should make RESTITUTION;… (Exodus 22:3)
If a man shall cause property damage [cause a field or vineyard to be eaten, and shall put in his beast, and shall feed in another man’s field; of the best of his own field, and of the best of his own vineyard, shall he make RESTITUTION (whenever it is possible). (Ex. 22: 5)
A good example of this is the account of the tax collector, Zacchaeus, in the town of Jericho.
And behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus, which was the chief among the publicans (sinners), and he was rich. And he sought to see Jesus who he was; and could not for the press, because he was little in stature [he was short]. And he ran before, and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him: for He was to pass that way. (Luke 19:2-4)
As a tax collector, many people considered him to be a traitor against his own people. He was rejected, because many of them, including him, would also charge extra money to pad their own pockets above and beyond collecting the required taxes for Rome. And for some reason, Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus, but he was short, so he runs ahead and climbs up into a tree to see him.
When Jesus gets to the tree, He doesn’t ignore him and go on, which may be what Zacchaeus may have expected, but instead, Jesus stops, looks up into the tree, and addresses him:
Zacchaeus, make haste, and come down; for today I must abide in your house. (Luke 19:5)
This, I’m sure, shocked both Zacchaeus and the crowd. But as a result of him spending time with Jesus, he repents. He tells Jesus,
Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have taken any thing from any man by false accusation, I restore him fourfold. (Luke 19:8)
And what was Jesus’ response to his promise of restitution? Did He rebuff him for what he had done? Did he preach to him about the evils of stealing? No, instead, He says,
This day is salvation come to this house forsomuch as he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man is come to seek and save that which was lost. (Luke 19:9-10)
The willing desire of Zacchaeus to make restitution for the wrong that he had done to others was the “fruit of repentance.” It was a clear demonstration that his repentance was real, and not just words.
So as we have seen, there’s much more to REPENTANCE than saying, “I’m sorry.” It’s a process that begins when we acknowledge and confess our sins, ask God to forgive us and place our faith and trust in Jesus’ shed blood on the cross for our behalf, be immersed or baptized in water, and along with this, we are to make a public confession of our faith and that we are changing our life, giving it over to Christ and that we are going to live in righteousness and holiness from this day forward, seeking to obey God and His Word in our day-to-day lives.
Then we need to honor our confession, by stop doing the sins we were doing, forsaking it (or them), turning 180° degree around, and then to start doing good by obeying God and His Word. This includes forgiving others and making any needed amends or restitution, if possible. And this process is what God defines and describes as BIBLICAL REPENTANCE in and through His Word.