What does repentance really mean?

Repent, repentance or any other form of the word gets used a lot in ministry, churches, sermons and any other place the gospel is being preached. However, I do not think everyone is using the word in a truly Biblical way. It’s a great word that means: to change your mind, think differently about something, reconsider. In order to believe that God is for you and not against you, (if you once thought He was against you) you would have to change your mind from thinking God is against you, to God is for you. That is the essence of what it means to repent. In 2 Cor 7:8 and Heb 7:21 the KJV uses the word repent, but there is means to regret, not change your mind. Now when you change your mind about God, it may involve having some regrets, but no where in the New Testament does it mean to beat oneself up, to be overly sorry, to cry, to confess sins to another.

Our English often does not do justice to the real meaning of original words and ideas. Over centuries, a word that once meant this or that, now means something else in our 21st century lingo. Even the English word repentance, has something of the word penance in it. I really think that is how we use the word repent today. I hear all the time that our nation has to repent in order for God to hear us and heal our land. I think when we use repent in that context, what we really mean is: “Do something to show how very, very sorry you are for what you have done, for the sins you have committed. Punish yourself just a little to show God how sorry you are. Then and only then maybe God will forgive you. But He will not forgive you if you haven’t done this type of sorrowful turning around.” And so I ask, “How would we ever possibly know if we’ve repented (punished ourselves) enough? Do we really think we can remember every little sin we’ve every committed?”

Brothers and sisters in Christ, the type of thinking I just described is how things were under the Old Covenant. The old way of relating to God only worked if people did certain things that God asked for and then and only then would God act accordingly. This is the very essence of the law that man could never keep. That’s why Jesus came; to fulfill what man could never keep! Romans 8 states, “For what the Law could not do [that is, overcome sin and remove its penalty, its power] being weakened by the flesh [man’s nature without the Holy Spirit], God did: He sent His own Son in the likeness of sinful man as an offering for sin. And He condemned sin in the flesh [subdued it and overcame it in the person of His own Son].” Jesus came to take all our sin for all time. In almost every healing that Jesus did, He did not demand, “First repent (I mean our inaccurate use of the word; show me how sorry you are for your sins) and then maybe I’ll heal you.” Never! He came to bring in the New Covenant which is all based on God doing everything.

Hebrews 10 says it this way:

This is the covenant that I will make with them
After those days, says the Lord:
I will imprint My laws upon their heart,
And on their mind I will inscribe them [producing an inward change],”

He then says,And their sins and their lawless acts I will remember no more [no longer holding their sins against them].” Now where there is [absolute] forgiveness and complete cancellation of the penalty of these things, there is no longer any offering [to be made to atone] for sin.”

Notice all the “I will” promises God makes and there are no conditions on mankind. God will be the one changing our minds about who He is. There is absolutely no power in us to accomplish all the things in the New Covenant. Without the Spirit drawing us to God we can’t even come on our own power or strength because we have none. John the Baptist came as Jesus’ forerunner and asked people to repent. But still that word does not mean to beat one’s chest and punish oneself mercilessly to show you are sorry for what you did. It simply means to change your mind and once you change your mind about who God is; that He loves you, that He paid for all your sins, then the Spirit comes in to reside in your heart and eternal life is provided. But it’s not based on anything you did but it’s based on what Christ did for you.

I find myself repenting, in the true sense of the word, all the time. I hear the truth and the Spirit shows me what I used to think and so I change my mind and my heart follows. Jesus said that the truth will set us free. This freedom is so wide and vast we don’t really conceive of all it brings us. This is why getting in the Word and hearing the truth is so important in the life of a believer. The Word is the truth and it’s the only thing that can assist us to change our minds. The world’s voice is over-the-top loud these days. Try not to allow its voice to be louder than God’s voice to you. Set your mind on Jesus and repentance will just follow. Your mind will be changed effortlessly. There is no need to do penance under the New Covenant. Jesus took all the punishment for your sins and the sins of the world.

A good example of the real meaning of repentance is found in the thieves that hung on the cross the same time Jesus was crucified. You are probably familiar with this event but allow me to expand it around repentance. Matthew 27 describes the taunting of people passing by, the chief priests, scribes and elders. Here is the actual text of what their jeers: “You who are going to destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save Yourself! If You are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” In the same way the chief priests also, along with the scribes and elders, were mocking Him and saying, “He saved others; He cannot save Himself. He is the King of Israel; let Him now come down from the cross, and we will believe in Him. He trusts in God; let God rescue Him now, if He delights in Him; for He said, ‘I am the Son of God.’”

Then in the next verse there’s a remark made of the 2 thieves hanging there: “The robbers who had been crucified with Him were also insulting Him with the same words.” If you read the time line, these jeers were all made between 9am and noon, the first 3 hours they hung on their crosses. 3 hours is a long time to be in excruciating pain and there were 3 more hours to go for Jesus. But somehow during that time period one of the thieves, who at first hurled the same insults everyone did, changed his mind (repented) about Jesus. Luke 23 records it for us just after Jesus asked the Father to forgive them (those killing Him) for they did not know what they were doing. “One of the criminals who were hanged there was hurling abuse at Him, saying, “Are You not the Christ? Save Yourself and us!” But the other answered, and rebuking him said, “Do you not even fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed are suffering justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he was saying, “Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom!” And He said to him, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise.”

Did the thief beat his chest with remorse over his own sin in such a way as to show Jesus he was very, very sorry for his sin? Repentance includes admitting we are sinners and often the change of mind is about who we really are; that we indeed need forgiveness. The thief did just that in admitting he was being crucified due to his own sin. Notice though, that he did not even ask for forgiveness or say he was sorry for his sins. But he had 3 long hours to observe Jesus and I believe when he heard Jesus forgive those who were killing Him, he then knew Jesus was not just man but was God. He changed his mind and that change prompted him to ask Jesus to save him. It happened in a moment of time without fan-fare, without sackcloth and ashes or without showy remorse. It was a simple change of mind and heart and Jesus responded immediately to the honest request of the thief.

I think when we want others to “repent” what we really mean is that we want them to suffer, even if just a little, for their sins. That is being hypocritical to the core. We are all sinners no matter if it was a showy sin or hidden sin. If we want others to change their minds about who God is, then we simply need to show them the real Jesus – who forgives all their sin and loved them before they ever knew Him. And any suffering/penance we think we may or may not do to show we’re sorry for our sin, would still not pay for sin. So if you are caught in believing that you have to repent/beat yourself up a little, before God will hear you, know that is erroneous teaching. Set yourself free from that. Sure we can be sorry for our sins. I’m not saying we should be arrogant about past sins or present ones. But changing your mind about God isn’t a self-beating practice. Allow the truth to sink in and before you know it you will have already repented, changed your mind, about God. Receive all He died to give you and your mind will be renewed like it says in Romans 12:2. Change your mind about the word “repent” and allow the Spirit to flow life in and through you!


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