Repentance in Christianity means a sincere turning away, in both the mind and heart, from self to God. It involves a change of mind that leads to action — the turning away from a sinful course to God.
In a biblical context, repentance is recognizing that our sin is offensive to God. Repentance can be shallow, such as the remorse we feel because of fear of punishment (like Cain) or it can be deep, such as realizing how much our sins cost Jesus Christ and how his saving grace washes us clean (like the conversion of Paul).
In the New Testament, the key term for repentance is metanoia – It has two usual senses: a “change of mind” and “regret/remorse.” In both books of Mark and Matthew Jesus began his public proclamation with the call “Repent.” In addition, Paul is said to have preached to both Jews and Gentiles/Greeks to “turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus”
In modern times, it is generally seen as involving a commitment to personal change and the resolve to live a more responsible and humane life. In other words, being sorry for one’s misdeeds. It can also involve sorrow over a specific sin or series of sins that an individual feels guilt over, or conviction that he or she has committed. The practice of repentance plays an important role in the soteriological doctrines of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Analogous practices have been found in other
Repentance is only a condition of salvation and not its meritorious ground. The motives for repentance are chiefly found in the goodness of God, in divine love, in the pleading desire to have sinners saved, in the inevitable consequences of sin, in the universal demands of the gospel, and in the hope of spiritual life and membership in the kingdom of heaven.
World religions as well. In religious contexts, it often involves an act of confession to God or to a spiritual elder (such as a monk or priest). This confession might include an admission of guilt, a promise or intent not to repeat the offense, an attempt to make restitution for the wrong, or in some way reverse the harmful effects of the wrong where possible.
Repentance is the activity of reviewing one’s actions and feeling contrition or regret for past wrongs, which is accompanied by commitment to and actual actions that show and prove a change for the better. In Judaism and Christianity it is often defined as an action, turning away from self-serving activities and turning to God, to walk in His ways.
STEPS FOR REAL REPENTANCE
1. DEFINE THE SIN.
The first step to meaningful confession is understanding what sin is. David uses three different words for it in Psalm 51: “iniquity,” “sin,” and “transgressions” (vv. 1–3). Each term has been deliberately chosen for its unique meaning. “Transgression” is rebellion against God’s authority and law, “iniquity” is a distortion of what should be, and “sin” is missing the mark. David also says his sin is deep—there is no minimizing or excusing it.
2. APPEAL TO GOD’S MERCY.
The psalm begins: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love” (v. 1). Here, David appeals for forgiveness based on what he knows about God’s character: that he is merciful. David knows God is committed to him in a relationship of “unfailing love”—and when we come before God in repentance, we do so because of his covenant with us through Christ.
3. AVOID DEFENSIVENESS AND SEE GOD RIGHTLY.
David’s sin hurt multiple people. He committed adultery, orchestrated a murder, and tried to cover it all up. And yet he says to God, “Against you, you only, have I sinned” (v. 4). How can that be? Sin is missing the mark—God’s mark. Our sin does hurt others, and we must seek forgiveness from them, but all sin is ultimately against God.
4. LOOK TO JESUS.
David writes, “Cleanse me with hyssop, and I shall be clean” (v. 7). He knows hyssop signifies purification with blood (see Ex. 24), and he knows that blood alone can make him clean. What he doesn’t know is exactly how this will be done. But we do. We have the full revelation of Jesus, who “has appeared once for all at the culmination of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Heb. 9:26).
5. ASK GOD TO BREAK AND HEAL YOU.
David prays, “Let the bones you have crushed rejoice” (v. 8). When God reveals our sin to us, it’s painful. It’s never pleasant to confront just how unholy we are. But like a doctor resetting a fractured bone, it is God who breaks, God who sets, and God who heals.
6. BE COMFORTED BY THE SPIRIT.
Next David prays, “Do not . . . take your Holy Spirit from me” (v. 11). But the fact that David is grieved over his sin is a sign that the Spirit is at work in him. Have you ever been so discouraged by your sin that you’ve wondered, how can God love me? Surely I’m not really a Christian. Take comfort in knowing that the grief you’re experiencing is a sign that you have the Holy Spirit working in you, causing you to hate what God hates.
7. REJOICE AND PROCLAIM TRUTH.
In verses 12–15, David asks God to make him so joyful about his salvation that he can’t help but proclaim the gospel to others: “Open my lips, Lord, and my mouth will declare your praise.” This is important, because so often we do the opposite—we wallow in our sin and draw back from serving others because we think we’re unworthy. But the joy of forgiveness should compel us to share the good news with friends, family, co-workers, and neighbors.
8. RESOLVE TO OBEY.
We can do all the steps above, but if we’re planning to sin in the same way again, then grace isn’t truly taking root. What God desires is the mark of true repentance—a heart that is “broken” by sin and truly “contrite.”
As Puritan pastor Thomas Watson wrote, “‘Til sin be bitter, Christ will not be sweet.” If we come to God with a heart set on obedience, he “will not despise” it because of Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf (v. 17).
Unlike my childhood bedtime apologies, practicing this kind of repentance has led to deep joy as I learn to hate my sin and love my Savior more. It has also led me to open up with others, not seeking to hide my sin, but enlisting others in praying for me and building a community of women who fight our sin together. Like David, it’s my joy to tell others of God’s grace and forgiveness, depending on Christ each step of the way.