What exactly is repentance?

My sermon last Sunday touched on ‘repentance.’ It noted the fact that Acts 2v39 urges repentance for forgiveness. This set me thinking. We can stress we don’t repent to earn or deserve forgiveness as the gospel of grace declares. But in what sense is it ‘for’ forgiveness. If repentance is necessary for forgiveness, it is still difficult for many to grasp how forgiveness is not dependent on works.

The answer surely lies in correctly defining repentance. The common definition of “turning from sin” is OK as far as it goes, but it can be misleading because it can suggest that repentance is the actual doing of good.

Repentance literally means “a change of mind” and that is “a change of mind that leads to a change of life.” We might say it is “a turning of our attitudes that then leads to a turning around of our actions.” So when God “repents” in scripture, he is not turning from sin; he is changing his mind and this then leads him to turn from one course of action to another. So we see God call people to “repent and turn away from” idols and sin (Ezek 14v6; 18v30). The latter follows the former, the turning in our actions follows the turning in our attitude, but it is the turning of our attitude that is repentance.

All this fits a number of other passages. John the Baptist calls people to “show fruit in keeping with repentance.” In other words, the good deeds were not the repentance itself, but the fruit of it. Again, in Acts 26v20 Paul calls people to “repent and turn to God and prove their repentance by their deeds.”

So repentance is to change our minds and so the course of our life. Essentially it is not the same as faith per se, for when we continue in faith we are not changing anything. No it is more akin to coming to faith – to changing our mind about God and Jesus and so choosing to believe and then put them at the centre of our very selves.

This actually helps us see that there are actually two aspects to repentance: First, the response to the call to change our thinking, which is the moment of faith. Two, our commitment to then turn ourselves to God, which assumes prior faith, for there could be no other right motive. As Paul puts it, it is change our minds in a way that means we “turn to (or back to) God.” And it is only then that we do the good “deeds.”

What this all means is that the preaching of the gospel is very much a call for people to change their minds, believe and so turn to God. And this is why we read so much of Paul "reasoning with" and trying to "persuade" people in Acts.

The question this then leaves us with is whether reliance on God for forgiveness is an aspect of repentance itself or the good deeds that follow? This may be slightly pedantic, as the two are so linked that the one naturally flows into the other. Yet it seems that such reliance is primarily one of attitude.

Repentance is often equated with sorrow, because this is an attitude of mind (and heart). Moreover, by urging repentance for forgiveness, Jesus urges us to a change of mind that accepts that he is Lord and judge and that is itself an expression of faith in God's promise that those who turn to Christ will be forgiven and share in his kingdom. And so if the gospel has been rightly preached, our willingness to change our thinking about God is to implicitly rely on him for forgiveness. Yes, its initial action should then be to actually call on him for that in prayer. But the moment of changed mind and initial reliant faith is the saving moment.

So our forgiveness IS dependent on repentance, because it is dependent on our coming to faith in this way, and so on turning our minds and hearts to God. But the proof of whether we have done this will be whether or not we turn from one course of action to another - first in continually calling on Christ for forgiveness, and second, in continually seeking to obey him as Lord. It is in this sense that we can talk of repentance as lifelong. Strictly speaking it is our initial turning. But there is a sense that we repent again and again whenever we sin and return to God with sincere confession and commitment.

And here we need to recognise a slight difference in motives. You see, as repentance is "for" forgiveness, the motive for changing our minds and turning to God and Christ is rightly an appreciation of his reality, judgement and grace. As Calvin puts it: It is "induced by the fear of God." This after all is saving faith (Rom 10v9-13). And although its purest motivation should be a realisation that we are created to live to God's glory and a desire to do so, there is a sense in which we repent in order to "get something," or more accurately "receive something." Yet the motive for what follows is different. Having changed our minds and believed, we then seek to actively obey:

(1) because we now accept that Jesus is Lord and our allegiance is his right by creation and salvation (Rev 5v12)
(2) because we want to glorify him before the world with our lives (1 Pet 2v11-12)
(3) out of thanks for the love and sacrifice of Jesus for us (Gal 2v20)
(4) because we realise we are now a Holy People re-created by the Spirit to do good works (Eph 2v10).

Note none of these motives are to “get" or "receive" forgiveness, but are a response to it. Yet all are in some sense necessary for salvation in that they prove a genuine change of mind about God, that we have truly come to believe, that we have “repented.”

So if you struggle as we all do to maintain the new course of your life in all things, thank God again that your forgiveness and salvation is not dependent on perfect living, but on your attitute properly changing - on having come to and continued in a genuine belief that God raised Jesus as Lord and that he forgives those who turn to him.

Yet having said this, if you see little changing in your life, don't get complacent. Ask yourself whether you really have accepted who Jesus is and what he has done. For if you have, then out of love and a desire to honour him, you will seek to, strive to, long to change your life.