The first words of the Lord Jesus Christ’s public ministry were, “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the gospel” (Mark 1:15). We tend to focus a lot on the “believe the gospel” part of that charge. But how often do we think about repentance? Is repentance a one-and-done event? The Protestant Reformer Martin Luther once wrote, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said 'repent,' he intended that the entire life of believers should be repentance.”
Repentance isn’t only what we do to start the Christian life, it’s also the way that we grow in our love for God and neighbor. And Jesus didn’t only start his ministry with a call to repentance. The resurrected and reigning Jesus encourages genuine Christians to practice repentance as part of the Christian life (Revelation 2:5). For the Christian, all of life is repentance. All of life is letting God the Father take us by the hand and graciously lead us to turn from disobeying or ignoring him to loving him, which includes obeying his commands (John 14:15). So what is repentance, exactly? Repentance is one of those old-fashioned words you don’t hear a lot outside of church. Repentance may be defined as turning from one thing to another. So when Jesus or the apostles say, “repent and believe,” they’re inviting us to turn from disobeying or ignoring God and turn to Jesus in trust and obedience. The Westminster Catechism describes this kind of repentance as “a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, doth, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavor after, new obedience.” It puts us into a joyous, spiritually and psychologically healthy place. True repentance isn’t drudgery, but delight.
How do I repent?
If you’ve ever tried to muster up a sincere “sorry” to offer someone—along with a heartfelt conviction that you need to change—you’ll know that when it comes to repentance, we need all the help we can get. The good news is, God doesn’t require repentance of us and then leave us on our own to figure it out. God’s Word gives us the map and the means for learning how to truly repent.
How does reading the Bible encourage and inform life-giving repentance? When we engage the Bible with our spiritual eyes open, the Bible exposes areas of independence from God in our lives. We might think of independence as a good thing, but independence from God is the root of all other sins. It is disobeying or simply ignoring God. In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve sinned by disobeying God’s instructions. They acted independently of God and his Word (Genesis 3:1-6). Since then, we’ve all tried to claim independence from God in one way or another.
God’s Word can help us figure out how we need to repent. When we read the Bible, keeping in mind the question “how does this passage reveal independence in me and encourage dependence on God,” then every passage becomes an opportunity to repent and believe.
I had several opportunities to practice repentance when I was first planting a church with my wife. In my Bible reading, I came upon the Lord’s Prayer in the Sermon on the Mount. I had read and recited the Lord’s Prayer hundreds of times, but in that season of stress and uncertainty, reading the Lord’s Prayer revealed that I was living in independence from my heavenly Father. This conviction led to a sweet season of repenting for my independent prayerlessness and learning to live a life dependent on God through prayer. That kind of experience happens again and again. As I read the Bible alone and with others, my independent approach to life is exposed, dependence is encouraged, and I can turn and choose the direction of dependence.
Repentance refocuses us and invites us to depend on God in fresh ways. I depend on God by going to him more often in prayer. When I repent, I depend on God by asking for his power to help me turn from my sin. I depend on his Word by reminding myself of Scripture verses that describe how Christ sacrificed himself so that I could be forgiven. Then, I find myself naturally praising God for the way he forgives me. Over time, I find that my desires are in more in line with God’s will and less like my old wishes. Repentance changes me. The next time you read the Bible, read with repentance in view. Ask God to expose areas of independence that Jesus died to forgive and free you from and ask him to lead you to depend on Jesus in fresh ways so that you can go an entirely new direction.
Is my repentance genuine?
Repentance is a lifestyle empowered by engaging Scripture, but the topic also raises many questions from church members with whom I interact. Perhaps the most important and frequent question I receive from church members is, “How do I know my repentance is genuine or true?” One verse that has been helpful to me in answering this question comes from Paul’s letter to the Corinthian church: “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death” (2 Corinthians 7:10). One reason I love this verse is that it assures us that our emotions aren’t the best gauge of repentance. The sorrow we feel can produce genuine repentance or go no further than our being sorry about the consequences of our actions. Instead of spending too much time worrying about whether your repentance is true, ask God to help you genuinely grieve your sin and turn from it, and to empower you to walk in obedience.
King David offers an example of this godly repentance in Psalm 51. After David has sinned grievously, causing the death of a man so that he could take advantage of that man’s wife, God sends a prophet to confront him. David’s repentance means reckoning with the severity of his sin. David realizes that his sin was really against God himself. He admits that he is much more sinful than he had thought. He finds himself freshly dependent on God to cleanse him and make him willing to turn from his sin. He is freshly in awe of God’s mercy.
True repentance leads to more life in God because true repentance opens our hearts to God’s gracious Lordship over our lives. Repentance is laying down our defenses and inviting the gracious rule of God into every nook and cranny of our lives. That’s true, abundant life from Jesus (John 10:10). So, get busy enjoying real, abundant life with God by opening God’s Word every day, asking God to give you eyes to see your independence, and when you see it, turn from sin to God through the grace that Christ provides. You’ll enjoy more life with God than you’ve ever known.
Thanks to the support of our faithful financial partners, American Bible Society has been engaging people with the life-changing message of God’s Word for more than 200 years.
Help us share God's Word where
Sign up to receive Bible-reading tips, tools and resources.