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Jeremiah 25:4,5 - A typical summary of the message of the Old Testament prophets: "Repent now everyone of his evil way and his evil doing..." [35:15; Ezekiel 18:30; 2 Kings 17:13]
Matthew 3:2 - John the Baptist taught, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!"
Mark 1:15 - Mark's summary of Jesus' message includes: "Repent, and believe in the gospel."
Luke 13:3 - Unless you repent you will all likewise perish.
Mark 6:12 - Jesus sent the apostles to preach that people should repent.
Acts 2:38 - In the first gospel sermon, Peter preached, "Repent and be baptized, every one of you for the remission of sins..."
Acts 17:30 - God commands all men everywhere to repent.
Revelation 3:19 - "As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten. Therefore be zealous and repent."
All who study the Bible agree that repentance is fundamental to Bible teaching.
Despite the frequent Bible references to repentance, many people misunderstand it and still more neglect it. Many people commit immorality, indifference, mistreatment of others, or doctrinal error, yet never truly repent.
What is repentance and why is it important? What does repentance require us to do?
Note that people who are not Christians need to repent, but so do Christians when we sin. This is a lesson needed by everyone.
What Does Repentance Mean?
The basic message of the gospel is change. To be forgiven of sins, you need to change. To please God you need to change. To receive eternal life you need to change. This emphasis on change is focused in the word "repent."
"Repentance" - "a change of mind: as it appears in one who repents of a purpose he has formed or of something he has done ... esp. the change of mind of those who have begun to abhor their errors and misdeeds, and have determined to enter upon a better course of life, so that it embraces both a recognition of sin and sorrow for it and hearty amendment, the tokens and effects of which are good deeds ..." - Grimm-Wilke-Thayer.
Repentance is "a change of mind" - a decision, a choice, a determination of the heart, a deliberate exercise of the will - in which one determines to act differently in the future than he has in the past.
Jonah 3:4-10 - When Jonah preached, the people of Nineveh gave heed, were sorry, and turned from their evil ways (vv 8,10). "Turn" and "return" are common Old Testament words meaning "repent." Jesus said these people "repented" at the preaching of Jonah (Matthew 12:41).
Matthew 21:28-32 - A son refused to work for his father, but later repented (regretted it - NKJV) and went. He "changed his mind." Jesus applied this to sinners who repented at John's preaching in contrast to priests would not repent (relent - NKJV).
The change of mind required by the gospel is repentance of sin. This involves changing ones mind about sin - making up ones mind to cease practicing sin and to become obedient to God.
Luke 24:47 - Those who are not God's children should be taught the need for repentance and remission of sin. What they need remission of is what they need to repent of: sin! [2 Tim. 2:25,26; Matt. 9:13]
Acts 8:22 - Likewise, Christians who sin need to be taught to repent of their wickedness. [Luke 15:7,10; 17:3,4; 2 Cor. 12:21]
Repentance is a decision to cease sinning and begin serving God instead.
[Ezekiel 14:6; Deuteronomy 30:2,8,10; Jeremiah 8:4-6; 3:7,10-14; 25:3-7; 36:3,7; 2 Kings 17:13; Zechariah 1:3,4; 2 Chronicles 30:6-9; 1 Samuel 7:3,4; Revelation 2:5. Like hearing, faith, obedience, etc., repentance may refer to a specific decision to obey or may generally include all that a person does to be saved.]
Before people can truly repent, certain other things must occur first. Sometimes people misunderstand or fail to practice repentance because they misunderstand or fail to practice the things that must precede it.
Remember that prophets, apostles, and Jesus all preached and taught repentance (see introduction). Teaching is necessary to lead one to repent.
Luke 24:47 - Jesus commanded repentance and remission to be preached to all men. Men cannot know they need to repent unless they are told to repent.
2 Kings 17:13 - God repeatedly sent prophets to warn the people to repent. Every Old Testament prophet you can name preached this way.
Today people sometimes tire of hearing preachers rebuke sin. But read the prophets! This is God's plan. His way to lead men to leave sin is to warn them to repent.
2 Timothy 2:25,26 - Correct those who are in error hoping they will come to repentance and escape the snare of the devil. No one will ever change until he realizes he is wrong and sees the consequence of his error. To convince people they are wrong we must show them the evidence in God's word.
Romans 2:4,5 - Failure to repent treasures up wrath at the day of God's judgment of mankind. When people are in sin, telling them to repent is not unkind or cruel. It is an act of love, because only in this way can they correct their lives and receive eternal life.
[See other Scriptures in introduction.]
Ezekiel 13:22 - False prophets encourage people to continue in sin by not telling them that they need to turn (repent) from their wicked ways. When people sin, faithful preachers must not let them continue thinking they are acceptable before God. If we do not rebuke them, they may be lost.
Ezekiel 33:7-9,14-16 - If preachers do not warn people of their sins, and the people are lost, God will also hold the preachers accountable. Some cannot bring themselves to tell folks they are wrong, so they compromise the truth. God will hold them accountable for the lost souls that result.
People in sin need to hear exactly what God's word says. To withhold the truth does not do anyone a favor.
[Jeremiah 23:12; 26:2,3; Isaiah 6:10; 2 Corinthians 7:8ff; Acts 20:21; 17:30; 26:20; Luke 16:27-31; 5:32; Jonah 3:4,5; Proverbs 1:23; Revelation 3:19]
When honest people hear the truth preached, they see the application and are convicted of sin.
Psalm 38:18 - I will declare my iniquity. We must admit it as a fact.
Proverbs 28:13 - One who covers his sins will not prosper. In order to have mercy, he must confess and forsake it.
Malachi 3:7 - When confronted about their sins, some people refuse to admit guilt. They ask, "What sin? What do I have to repent of?"
Before one will change his life, he must decide to change (repent). Before he decides to change, he must recognize that he has been guilty. As long as a person defends his practice and refuses to admit error, he has not repented.
[1 John 1:9; 1 Kings 8:47; 2 Chronicles 6:24-39; 7:14; Acts 19:18; James 5:16; Jeremiah 3:12f; 8:4-6; 5:3; 44:4,5; Jonah 3:8,10; Amos 4:6-11; Luke 15:18,21; 17:3,4; Psalm 32:5; Leviticus 26:40]
Simply admitting one has sinned is not enough. Some people know they have sinned but don't care, or at least don't really regret what they did.
Psalm 38:18 - I will declare my iniquity and be in anguish for my sin.
Joel 2:12,13 - Turn to God (repent) with weeping and mourning. Tear your heart, not your garment. God wants, not mere outward expressions of grief, but sincere sorrow. We must sincerely wish we had never done the act.
2 Corinthians 7:10 - Godly sorrow leads to repentance unto salvation. One who does not repent cannot be saved, and he cannot truly repent without sorrow.
James 4:8,9 - Sinners must mourn and weep.
A person may admit he did wrong and may even stop committing the sin, but that does not prove he regrets what he did. He may think it was justified under the circumstances, but he simply has no reason to do it again.
For example, a couple may live together without marriage then get married; they are no longer committing fornication, but that does not prove they regret the fornication committed before marriage.
To be saved one must Scripturally repent. But He will never truly repent until he knows and admits he was wrong and is truly sorry.
[Psalm 34:18; 51:17; 31:10; Isaiah 57:15; 66:2; 22:12-14; Job 42:6; Jeremiah 31:19; 5:3; 6:26; Jonah 3:5-8; Matthew 26:75; 11:20; 2 Chronicles 34:27; Ezra 10:1]
It is also possible for a person to know he is wrong and be sorry without really making up his mind to change. Some people have the idea that repentance just means being sorry - if they just admit they were wrong and say they are sorry, everything is forgiven.
But repentance is a decision to change. Why is this important?
We can never please God till we develop a proper state of mind.
Proverbs 4:23 - Keep your heart diligently because out of it are the issues of life. People do wrong because they chose to do wrong. In order to start doing right, they must change their mind and decide to do right - repent.
The mind is where we decide what we will do. This is why our state of mind is so important.
Romans 6:17,18 - One who is a servant of sin needs to be made free from sin and become a servant of righteousness. To do this, he must obey God "from the heart." You cannot obey from the heart until you have decided in your heart to obey. That decision to do right is repentance.
Joel 2:12,13 - Repentance must involve the heart - the inner man. We can never please God till we get our heart right. That happens in repentance. When people know what God wants but will not do it, they lack repentance. (They may also lack faith, love, etc., but one thing they definitely lack is repentance.)
[1 Kings 8:33-36,46-50; 2 Chronicles 6:24-39; 7:14; Ezekiel 18:31; Jeremiah 24:7; 2 Kings 23:25; 1 Samuel 7:3,4]
2 Peter 3:9 - God is not willing for men to perish but wants all to come to repentance. The alternative to repentance is perishing! [Luke 13:3,5]
Acts 2:38 - Repent and be baptized for remission of sins.
Ezekiel 18:21-23,27,28,30-32 - Wicked men must turn from evil and do right or they will die (spiritually). God does not want us to die. He is willing to forgive, but first we must be willing to change. Before we can change, we must decide to change - that is repentance.
The gospel emphasizes repentance because repentance is essential to changing our attitudes and our life. Until we are willing to change our lives, God is not willing to forgive our sins!
If you have sinned, you must admit the sin and be sorry. Then you must make up your mind to change. Have you done so, or are you just expecting everything to be forgotten because you said you were sorry? Forgiveness comes only after a decision to change!
[Ezekiel 33:10-19; 2 Timothy 2:25,26; Romans 2:4,5; Acts 3:19; 8:22; 5:31; 17:30,31; Revelation 2:5,16,21-23; Luke 3:8,9; 24:47; 2 Corinthians 7:10; 1 Kings 8:46-50; 2 Chronicles 6:24-29; 7:14; Joel 2:12-14; Jeremiah 36:3,7; Isaiah 55:7; Matthew 11:20-24; 21:28-32]
Some think it is enough just to decide to change. That constitutes repentance, but something more must follow the repentance.
What the conditions are depends on whether one has or has not been baptized.
Acts 2:38 - Repent and be baptized for the remission of sins. Some people do not realize that the Bible teaches baptism is essential. Other people have been shown but still will not accept it. These people are not showing true repentance!
Remember, repentance is a decision to do what God's word says. When a person sees what God's word says but will not do it, that person is not showing true repentance.
When a person refuses to be baptized, his primary problem is not baptism: it is his faith or his repentance! If believes the truth he will know he must repent and be baptized. If he then truly repents, you won't be able to keep him from the water!
[Mark 16:15,16; Acts 2:38; 22:16; Romans 6:3,4; Galatians 3:27; 1 Peter 3:21]
Sometimes children of God sin after they have been baptized. They do not need to be baptized again, but they do need to repent again.
Acts 8:22 - Simon was told to repent and pray that his sin might be forgiven. The Christian who sins needs to repent and pray, not repent and be baptized. [1 John 1:9; Matthew 6:12]
If one has wronged other people, he must also confess to them - Matthew 5:23,24. If the sin is known and has been a bad influence on the congregation or hindered the effort of the church to teach, then the whole church needs to be told the person has repented.
[Luke 17:3,4; 15:18,21; Genesis 50:17; James 5:16; Proverbs 28:13; study passages on influence and reputation]
Repentance is a decision to change. After receiving forgiveness, one must follow through and make the changes he decided to make.
Acts 26:20 - After forgiveness men must do works worthy of repentance. [Luke 3:8-14; Matthew 3:8]
Ezekiel 18:21-32 - To avoid death, the wicked must turn from evil and do right and keep God's statutes.
Matthew 21:28-31 - The ultimate question, in the story of the two sons, was which of the two did the will of the father. The son who was right was the one who eventually went and did what he was supposed to do.
Proverbs 28:13 - We prosper, not by hiding our sins, but by confessing and forsaking them.
This is where many members of the church fail. They profess that they want forgiveness, then are baptized or pray for forgiveness, but never follow through and change. They want forgiveness but not change.
There is a difference between repentance and the fruits of repentance. Sometimes people go through the motions of baptism (or public confession), but do not truly repent. These people will never truly be forgiven until they first truly repent.
Other people really did repent and intended to change their lives, but never followed through. These people may have been forgiven the first time but now are back in sin. They need to repent again and this time produce the fruits of repentance.
[Genesis 44 cf. Genesis 37; Luke 13:5-9; 15:19; Ezekiel 33:10-19; Revelation 2:5; Deuteronomy 30:2; 2 Kings 17:13; Jonah 3:8,10; Isaiah 55:7; Jeremiah 4:1; 18:8,11; 44:4,5; 25:3-7; 35:15; 2 Chronicles 30:6-9; 1 Samuel 7:3,4]
The fruits of repentance require more than just deciding to do right "next time" or to "never do that again." To the extent possible we must attempt to go back and correct the harmful effects of our sins on other people.
Ezekiel 33:14,15 - One who was wicked must not only walk in the statutes, but also return what he stole. [Exodus 22:1-15; Leviticus 6:1-5; Numbers 5:5-8; 2 Samuel 12:6]
Ezra 10:3,11,17,19,44 - When Israelite men had married foreign women, contrary to God's law, they had to repent and put away the wives. This is what repentance requires today when people are living in adultery because of unscriptural divorce and remarriage [9:1-10:44; Matt. 19:9]
Luke 19:8 - Zacchaeus had been a publican. When he was converted, he determined to return the taxes charged wrongfully.
This can be a difficult principle to apply because sometimes the effect of a sin cannot be undone (for example, murder). But it is a Bible principle and must be accomplished to the extent possible.
[Philem. 10-14,18,19; Matthew 21:28-31; Nehemiah 5:11-13; 2 Corinthians 7:9-11; Genesis 20:1-14; 1 Samuel 12:3; Proverbs 6:31; Acts 16:33; 26:20; 19:18,19]
Luke 15:17-24 - The story of the prodigal son illustrates all the principles we have studied. The younger son wasted his inheritance in riotous living (vv 13,30). He came to be in need and "came to himself" (vv 14-17). [The story does not use the word "repent," but the parallel stories do in vv 7,10.]
* He acknowledged his error: "I have sinned" (v18).
* His sorrow was implied by the fact he no longer believed himself worthy to be called a son (v19).
* He then decided to go back to the father (vv 18,19). This decision is repentance. (Cf. vv 7,10)
* He met the conditions of forgiveness by confessing his sin to the father (vv 20,21).
* He left the practice of sin (vv 20,21).
* He offered to make restitution by being just a servant of the father, not even a son any longer (vv 19,21).
The gospel is a message of change. Sinners can change. You can change.
Note the attitude of the father when the son did return: vv 20,22-24. Truly there is joy in heaven among the angels when a sinner "repents" (vv 7,10).
Copyright 2004, David E. Pratte
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Things that Are Essential to Salvation
Is Obedience Essential to Salvation?
The Purpose of Baptism
Individual Responsibility in Salvation
Importance of Repentance
Should Babies Be Baptized?
Is Baptism Sprinkling, Pouring, or Immersion?
Salvation by "Faith Only" vs. Obedient Faith
Confessing Christ in Conversion
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Scripture quotations are generally from the New King James Version (NKJV), copyright 1982, 1988 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. used by permission. All rights reserved.