With the rapid technological changes of recent decades, including the development of music downloads like MP3s and ITunes replacing records and CDs, I am sure many of today’s youths have never seen an “ancient artifact” which played a major role in my youth: 45-RPM records that had one song on each side. One side was always the “single,” the song that the band and record company hoped would become a hit. That was the song that would be played on the radio. To fill space, another song would appear on the “flip side.” The flip side rarely became a hit, although occasionally it might be a very good song, perhaps a crowd favorite among die-hard fans of the group. The flip side might occasionally be artistically excellent, but not “commercially viable.” I would buy a record because I enjoyed the single, but at times I would find myself enjoying the flip side even more. The single would be incomplete without the flip side.
Many things in the world have two sides, and usually both are necessary. A coin without its “tail” would not be considered legal tender.
Spiritually, many Christians try to walk with a faith that lacks its flip side. When I became a Christian, I heard how I could be born again if I simply believe in Jesus Christ and accept his free gift of salvation. I could simply say a quick prayer and be guaranteed eternal life. Yet, how does this line up with biblical preaching about salvation? As we will see, it is a half-truth with something substantial missing.
Fortunately for me, the person who led me to Christ spoke both of my need to be “born again” and to become a “new creature in Christ.” These concepts have led me to recognize the need for repentance. However, the early Christians did not force their listeners to make that leap of logic. Let us look at the very first “altar call” in church history, reported in Acts 2:37–38:
Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” And Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
Note that Peter did not promise that the people would get saved by repeating
a quick prayer or merely listening and agreeing while somebody else prayed. The first step to salvation was simple and clear: “Repent.” Jesus, John the Baptist, and the apostles often called their listeners to repentance (see Mark 1:15, Matthew 3:8, and Acts 3:19). Hebrews 6:1 places repentance from dead works at the beginning of a list of foundational principles of the Christian faith.
One observation that clearly underscores this point is that, although Paul’s letters and John’s Gospel emphasize faith’s role in salvation, other New Testament writers do not mention faith as often. In fact, if you removed the writings of Paul and John from the New Testament, you would most probably reach the conclusion that repentance is the key to salvation! These books all suggest that a holy life, grounded in a spirit of repentance, is central to the Christian faith. This fact leaves us with two options:
- We can assume that the Bible contradicts itself. Some liberal theologians would even claim that Paul and John taught a completely different theology than the other New Testament authors did.
- We can conclude that repentance and faith go together. This is really the only biblical option.
So, what is repentance? It is much more than feeling sorry about our sins or ashamed that we were caught. It is also not a state of moral perfection. In the New Testament, the Greek word for “repentance” is “metanoia,” which literally means “change of mind.” When a person repents of his sins, he changes his attitude about sin. He agrees with God about the wickedness of sin and acknowledges that God must judge it. According to Easton’s Bible Dictionary, true repentance includes the following elements: a true sense of one’s own guilt and sinfulness; apprehension of God’s mercy (Psalm 109:21–22) in Christ; hatred of sin, leading one to turn from it and to follow God (Psalm 119:128; 2 Corinthians 7:10); and a persistent endeavor to live a holy life and walk with God, obeying his commandments.
True repentance, then, is a spiritual transformation that leads to changed attitudes and changed actions. The Bible shows that repentance is a gift from God (Acts 11:18) as the Holy Spirit convicts a person about sin, righteousness, and judgment (John 16:8). From there, our attitudes change as we develop a disdain for sin, which leads us to live holier lives. Although repentance is in one sense often an immediate decision (around the time of salvation), it is one a believer must repeat throughout his life. The believer may be convicted of sins that he was not previously aware of. For certain habitual sins, one may need to repent repeatedly until a stronghold is finally broken.
Repentance must be distinguished from remorse or guilt. In 2 Corinthians 7:9–10, Paul writes:
As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting. For you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no loss through us. For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.
True repentance brings us into a closer walk with God and personal holiness, producing lasting change. Worldly sorrow brings guilt, shame, and despair. It might lead a person to make temporary changes until the guilt wears off. However, it ultimately ends in spiritual death and can lead a person to self-destructive despair. In Judas Iscariot’s case, it led to suicide (Matthew 27:3–5).
Finally, even though we may repent of our sins generally around the time of salvation, repentance from particular sins is an ongoing process throughout the Christian life. James told already-saved people to cleanse their hands and purify their minds (James 4:8), referring to the need to repent both in action
and attitude. First John 1:8–10 points out that Christians need to confess their sins throughout their lives:
If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.
John was speaking to Christians. They were saved, but there was still sin in their lives. We have no reason to live in denial about our sin. We merely need to confess our sins so that Jesus (who is faithful and justice) will forgive our sins AND purify us from all righteousness. It is important to break this down so we can see all that is promised in this statement. First, we need to confess our sins: We begin by confessing our sins, which is itself one aspect of repentance. When we confess our sins, we agree with God that we have engaged in an act, word, or thought, and that this activity was wrong. Second, Jesus responds by doing two things for us. He forgives us (removing the guilt and punishment of sin). He also purifies us, cleansing us of our tendency to continue sinning. Confession is essential because we must acknowledge the particular sins in our lives so that we know what we need to repent of.
When we become aware of sin in our lives, we should repent immediately. Since Jesus commanded us to be perfect, even as his Father is perfect (Matthew 5:48), we know that we will always have room for repentance and growth. Occasionally, we may need to fast and pray as we seek victory in a particular area. At times, we may need to seek the prayers and guidance of spiritual leaders (pastors, for example) to help us receive deliverance.
It is encouraging to note, though, that God is the one who draws us to repentance and who gives us the victory as we submit to him. Let us joyfully lay our souls bare before him, that he may reveal our hidden sins to us and bring us to repentance and personal revival.