Repentance Definition: What Does It Mean to Repent?

What Is Repentance?
Joe McBride

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 radical turning away from a sinful course to God. A person who is truly repentant recognizes God the Father as the most important factor of his or her existence.

Repentance Definition

  • Webster's New World College Dictionary defines repentance as "repenting or being penitent; feeling of sorrow, especially for wrongdoing; compunction; contrition; remorse."
  • The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary defines repentance in
    its fullest sense as "a complete change of orientation involving a
    judgment upon the past and a deliberate redirection for the future."
  • A biblical definition of repentance is to make a change of mind, heart, and action, by turning away from sin and self and returning to God.

Repentance in the Bible

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).

Calls for repentance are found throughout the Old Testament, such as Ezekiel 18:30:

"Therefore, O house of Israel, I will judge you, each one according to his ways, declares the Sovereign LORD. Repent! Turn away from all your offenses; then sin will not be your downfall." (NIV)

Words like "turn," "return," "turn away," and "seek," are used in the Bible to express the idea of repentance and issue the invitation to repent. The prophetic call for repentance is a loving cry for men and women to return to dependence on God:

"Come, let us return to the LORD; for he has torn us, that he may heal us; he has struck us down, and he will bind us up." (Hosea 6:1, ESV)

Before Jesus began his earthly ministry, John the Baptist was on the scene preaching repentance—the heart of John's mission and message:

"Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." (Matthew 3:2, ESV)

Repentance and Baptism

Those who listened to John and chose to radically reorient their lives demonstrated this by being baptized:

This messenger was John the Baptist. He was in the wilderness and preached that people should be baptized to show that they had repented of their sins and turned to God to be forgiven. (Mark 1:4, NLT)
Baptism
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Likewise, repentance in the New Testament was demonstrated by profound changes in lifestyle and relationships:

Prove by the way you live that you have repented of your sins and turned to God. Don’t just say to each other, ‘We’re safe, for we are descendants of Abraham.’ That means nothing, for I tell you, God can create children of Abraham from these very stones. ... The crowds asked, “What should we do?”
John replied, “If you have two shirts, give one to the poor. If you have food, share it with those who are hungry.”
Even corrupt tax collectors came to be baptized and asked, “Teacher, what should we do?”
He replied, “Collect no more taxes than the government requires.”
“What should we do?” asked some soldiers.
John replied, “Don’t extort money or make false accusations. And be content with your pay.”  Luke 3:8–14 (NLT)

Absolute Surrender

The invitation to repent is a call to absolute surrender to the will and purposes of God. It means to turn to the Lord and live in constant awareness of him. Jesus issued this radical call to all people, saying, "Unless you repent, you will all perish!" (Luke 13:3). Jesus called urgently and repeatedly for repentance:

"The time has come," Jesus said. "The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!" (Mark 1:15, NIV)

After the resurrection, the apostles continued to call sinners to repentance. Here in Acts 3:19-21, Peter preached to the unsaved men of Israel:

"Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus, whom heaven must receive until the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago." (ESV)

Repentance and Salvation

Repentance is an essential part of salvation, requiring a turning away from the sin-ruled life to a life characterized by obedience to God. The Holy Spirit leads a person to repent, but repentance itself cannot be seen as a "good work" that adds to our salvation.

The Bible states that people are saved by faith alone (Ephesians 2:8-9). However, there can be no faith in Christ without repentance and no repentance without faith. The two are inseparable.

Source

  • Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, edited by Chad Brand, Charles Draper, and Archie England. (p. 1376). 
  • The New Unger's Bible Dictionary, Merrill F. Unger.
  • The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary (p. 880).