5 Things Repentance Isn’t & 2 Examples from the Bible on What It Is

Two images of a man, one with his arms outstretched, symbolizing the act of repentance, with arrows and a heart in the background and foreground

What does it mean to repent? If you’re not sure, how will you know if you have done it? The cost of not repenting is one you do not want to pay.

If a man does not repent, God will whet his sword; he has bent and readied his bow; he has prepared for him his deadly weapons, making his arrows fiery shafts. (Ps 7:12–13)

They were scorched by the fierce heat, and they cursed the name of God who had power over these plagues. They did not repent and give him glory. (Rev 16:9)

Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. (Luke 13:5)

This article will cover:

What is not repentance?

To help us arrive at a definition, let’s first take a look at examples of incomplete or counterfeit repentance. By identifying what repentance is not, we’ll be in a better position to grasp what it is.

1. Repentance is not a guilty feeling

Saul felt guilty, upon being caught, for disobeying God’s command to wipe out the Amalekites (1 Sam 15:24–25). But he didn’t repent, and he lost his kingdom. Judas felt guilty for betraying the Lord Jesus (Matt 27:3–5). But he didn’t repent, and he took his own life.

2. Repentance is not confession

In the examples just mentioned, Saul and Judas both acknowledged that they had sinned. Both of them confessed the truth without, in the end, making self-justification. But neither demonstrated repentance, and God whet his sword against them.

3. Repentance is not a feeling of grief, regret, or sorrow

The apostle Paul once wrote a letter that led its readers to grieve over sin. In a follow-up letter, Paul commented that grief in itself is not the same as repentance. But grief that is godly will produce the fruit of repentance. Worldly grief produces only death (2 Cor 7:8–11). Grief or sorrow alone does not mean a person has repented. Case in point: Esau grieved over his loss of blessing, likely regretting many choices that led him to that place. But despite his tears, he never found repentance (Heb 12:15–17; Gen 27:30–41).

4. Repentance is not a liturgical act

Religious ceremony is often an appropriate expression or sign of repentance, but it is not in itself the same as repentance. Similarly, repentance in the Bible is often accompanied by outward, visible acts of voluntary humiliation such as wearing sackcloth or putting dust on one’s head. But those visible acts of humiliation can be performed without repentance taking place. “Is such the fast that I choose, a day for a person to humble himself? … to spread sackcloth and ashes under him?” (Isa 58:5).

5. Repentance is not a mere state of mind or heart

John the Baptist preached about repentance, calling people to bear fruits in keeping with it (Luke 3:8). Upon being questioned, he provided particular people with observable behaviors that would qualify as the fruits of repentance (Luke 3:10–14). He did not send them off to cultivate an inner affection or attitude alone; he sent them off to obey the will of God from the heart. Therefore, while repentance is not a merely outward formality and must involve the heart (Joel 2:12–14), it does not stay in the heart and must be expressed in outward behavior.

What does repentance mean in the Bible?

If repentance is not a mere feeling or state of mind, a verbal confession, or a liturgical act, then what is it?

Two examples will highlight the precise nature of repentance.

1. Liberation of Hebrew slaves

In Jeremiah 34, God complains through the prophet that many generations of Israelites failed to obey his command to set their slaves free every seven years (Jer 34:13–14). However, “You recently repented and did what was right in my eyes by proclaiming liberty” (Jer 34:15).

The current generation repented by changing their ways. They stopped doing what they had been doing for generations, and they began to do what God had commanded instead. Sadly, this generation’s repentance didn’t last long (Jer 34:16–17).

2. The people of Nineveh

The second example is the people of Nineveh to whom Jonah preached destruction (Jon 3:3). They believed God’s word of judgment and immediately responded in visible and voluntary humiliation (Jon 3:4). The king’s decree then called for not only public demonstrations of guilt and regret (Jon 3:7–8a), but especially for an immediate change of behavior (Jon 3:8b). Jesus later affirms that what the Ninevites did qualified as true repentance (Matt 12:41). And that which secured the lavish mercy of God was not their acts of public humiliation, but the fact that “they turned from their wicked way” (Jon 3:10).

Both examples highlight the fact that the essence of repentance is life change. Repentance is when a disobedient person stops disobeying and begins obeying. Such repentance ought to be accompanied by confession of wrongdoing, feelings of guilt or regret, and liturgical acts that demonstrate voluntary humiliation. But none of those things qualifies as repentance until the person involved stops doing what they are doing and does something else instead. In particular, when they stop doing evil and start doing good instead.

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How is true repentance shown?

The ministry of John the Baptist explains the sort of life change expected from a lifestyle of repentance.

  • Those who have been selfish begin to share (Luke 3:11).
  • Those who have used their authority to benefit themselves begin treating people fairly (Luke 3:12–13).
  • Those who have used their strength to benefit themselves stop doing it and learn to be content (Luke 3:14).

And from other parts of Scripture:

  • Those who turn away from their sins find forgiveness and refreshment (Acts 3:19–20).
  • Those who were not seeking God begin to seek him (Ps 78:32–34).
  • Those who suffer judgment for their sin turn away from that sin and stop doing it (1 Kgs 8:46–50).

People demonstrate true repentance when their lives change. Guilt, regret, and sorrow may accompany the exposure of their sin. But guilty, regretful, and sorrowful souls are not properly repentant until change takes place—until they stop doing the wrong thing in order to start doing the right thing.

How to repent—what does the Bible say?

It should be clear by now that when the Bible commands people to repent (e.g., Ezek 14:6, 18:30), it commands them to change. It commands them to stop doing what they are doing and to do something else instead. It commands them to stop disobeying God and to obey him instead.

An angry person has not repented until they set their anger aside and choose to treat people with kindness and gentleness. An adulterer has not repented until they completely end the affair and cease contacting the illicit partner. A thief has not repented until they stop stealing, make restitution, and develop better work habits so they give to others instead of taking from them.

The Bible’s method for repentance is not complex. It has only one step, and we can summarize it in a single word: STOP.

What did Jesus say about repentance?

Repentance was the foundation of Jesus’s teaching. Knowing that in himself the Scriptures were being fulfilled and the kingdom of God had come, his fundamental instruction to Israel was “repent and believe the gospel” (Mark 1:15, cf. Matt 4:17).

Jesus denounced entire towns that refused to change their ways (Matt 11:21; Luke 10:13). He assured the unrepentant that the evil Ninevites would stand gaping in astonishment at them at the final judgment (Matt 12:41; Luke 11:32).

Jesus’s entire mission had the goal of bringing sinners to turn from their sinful ways (Luke 5:32) so they could avoid the just retribution due them (Luke 13:3, 5). He assured people of heaven’s ecstatic joy over even one sinner turning away from sin (Luke 15:7, 10).

Jesus declared repentance as the proper response not only to him as Lord and God, but also to each other. Those who sin against fellow Christians must repent. And when they do, offended parties must forgive (Luke 17:3–4).

Repentance mattered so much to Jesus that he made it a priority in his followers’ teaching (Mark 6:12). The forgiveness of sins must be proclaimed, yet not as an automatic reality for all humanity. Forgiveness is available, but only to those who repent (Luke 24:47). His disciples followed through in maintaining the priority of repentance in their own preaching (Acts 2:38; 3:19; 5:31; 8:22; 11:18; 13:24; 17:30; 19:4; 20:21; 26:20).

Why is repentance important?

When the Holy Spirit came upon the first non-Jewish converts to Christianity, Jewish believers could not help but conclude: “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life” (Acts 11:18).

That’s why Paul concludes that the end of repentance is not self-loathing or abject despondency but “salvation without regret” (2 Cor 7:10). If a person’s ceasing from sin leads them to wallow in guilt and despair, their grief is not godly but worldly (2 Cor 7:9–10). True repentance produces tremendous relief and joy in a believer’s life.

David speaks of the severe emotional and psychological distress on the person who tries to hide or cover up their sin (Ps 32:3–4). With confession comes a releasing of the floodgates of stress and anxiety over sin (Ps 32:5). The apostle John goes even further when he elevates a transformed life (the fruit of repentance) as one of the main proofs that a believer is, in fact, in possession of eternal life (1 John 3:4–10). The ceasing of sin is a primary evidence that you are a child of God and not a child of the devil.

This does not mean that perfection is attainable in the Christian life. John presumes that sin will always be present in the current age (1 John 2:1). But it does mean that, by the power of the Holy Spirit, there is hope that anything can change (1 John 2:4–6).

By contrast, to follow Jesus without repentance—without turning aside from sin—is to presume upon his grace. The unrepentant life is a functional declaration that one has not been saved; that a person has not yet died with Christ in order to be raised with him (Rom 6:1–14).

What role does repentance play in salvation?

It’s worth noting that repentance is not the sum total of your salvation. Jesus declares that people must repent and believe the gospel (Mark 1:15). Repentance is therefore a companion to faith.

Repentance does not save us; Jesus Christ saves us. However, turning away from sin out of hatred for it, and turning to God, is considered in some traditions “a saving grace” (Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q. 87). In other words, repentance is one of the means God has given us to grab hold of the life he offers to us in Jesus Christ.

May the Lord bless you as you grow to hate your sin, turn from it, and cling in confident trust to your Savior.

For further reading

‘Return To Me’: A Biblical Theology of Repentance (New Studies in Biblical Theology)

‘Return To Me’: A Biblical Theology of Repentance (New Studies in Biblical Theology)

Regular price: $19.99

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The Power of Repentance: How God Changes Lives

The Power of Repentance: How God Changes Lives

Regular price: $9.60

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Amos, Jonah, & Micah: Evangelical Exegetical Commentary (EEC)

Amos, Jonah, & Micah: Evangelical Exegetical Commentary (EEC)

Regular price: $66.99

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Lent: The Season of Repentance and Renewal (The Fullness of Time)

Lent: The Season of Repentance and Renewal (The Fullness of Time)

Regular price: $14.99

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Written by
Peter Krol

Peter Krol is president of DiscipleMakers campus ministry in Pennsylvania, and the author of Knowable Word: Helping Ordinary People Learn to Study the Bible and Sowable Word: Helping Ordinary People Learn to Lead Bible Studies.

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