Meaning of Repentance in Christianity

What does it mean to repent of sin?

What Is Repentance?
Joe McBride

Webster's New World College Dictionary defines repentance as "a repenting or being penitent; feeling of sorrow, especially for wrongdoing; compunction; contrition; remorse." Repentance is also known as a change of mind, turning away, return to God, turn away from sin.

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.

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."

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)

This 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 preached:

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

Jesus also called 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.


  • Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, edited by Chad Brand, Charles Draper, and Archie England; The New Unger's Bible Dictionary, Merrill F. Unger