What is Repentance?

In the early 90’s Leonard Cohen sang, “When they said Repent, Repent, I wonder what they meant.” Repentance is a significant theme in the Bible and a common message from preachers. Protesters, church groups, religious activists and whacko cults regularly call America to repentance. While many have heard the exhortation to repent, how many who hear the call to repent and, like the songwriter, wonder what is meant?

Repentance is not a difficult concept to define. To repent is to turn away from something. Repentance is a U-turn in life.

To give a bit longer definition, repentance is a change of mind that produces a changed life.

In more theological terms repentance os turning from sin to the Lord. Repentance is a decision that produces a changed life. Turning away from something is not a process, it is immediate. Until a person turns from sin, he cannot rightly be said to have repented. Once he has turned to the Lord a person can no longer be described as repenting. The things that move a person to repentance may work in a life for many weeks or months. The results of repentance will be a life long process of obedience. Repentance itself is not a season, nor a process, it is a momentary decision that has lifelong results.

Many things have been misunderstood as repentance. Penance is not repentance. Penance is a self-punishment designed to show true sorrow and achieve absolution. Repentance is a change, not self-punishment.

Sorrow is not repentance. A person may be sorry for many reasons without turning from sin. Sorrow, guilt and shame will help lead a person to repent. Feeling these things is not repentance. Taking steps to avoid the unpleasant emotions caused by sin is not repentance. 2 Corinthians 7 warns against the fleshly sorrow that does not genuinely repent. A criminal may cry how sorry he is after he has been caught, he may promise to never do it again, he may genuinely desire to avoid any trouble because of his crime, but when the fear of consequences dies down he soon returns to his felonious ways.

Genuine repentance, Godly repentance, sorrows over the sinfulness of sin. The repentant person acknowledges the reality of sin. He confesses “I was wrong” without attempting to justify or explain away the sin. Repentance forsakes sin. To repent is to admit guilt and to reject the sinful behavior. Repentance turns from sin to the Lord. Repentance is more than stopping bad behavior. Repentance is a u-turn, not slamming on the brakes in the middle of the road. Repentance turns around to follow the Lord. Repentance replaces the love of sin with the love of God. Repentance seeks forgiveness for sin. A repentant person seeks forgiveness from the Lord and from anyone who has been wronged by his sin. Repentance rejects sin, desires to live for the Lord and seeks help from God to live in obedience to Him.

The story of Zaccheus in Luke 19 gives an excellent example of repentance. Zacchaeus was a traitor and extortionist who got rich off the bondage of his own people. He desired to see Jesus and then with great joy received Jesus into his home. Zacchaeus turned from his evil ways, gave half his possessions to the poor and paid back to those he had robbed four times what he had taken. He turned to the Lord and forsook sin. This is repentance.