What does repentance mean?

Repent, repentance, or any other form of the word is used a lot in ministry, sermons, and places where the gospel is preached. Let’s look at the word in a truly Biblical way. It’s a great word that means: to change your mind, think differently about something, or, reconsider. If you once thought God was against you, you would have to change your mind (repent) and believe God is for you. That is the essence of what it means to repent. In 2 Corinthians 7:8 and Hebrews 7:21, the word repent is used, but there it means to regret, not change your mind. When you change your mind about God, you may some regrets, but nowhere in the New Testament does repent mean to beat oneself up, to be overly sorry, to cry, and to confess sins to another person.

Our English often doesn’t do justice to the real meaning of the Bible’s original words and ideas. Over centuries, a word that once meant this now means that in our 21st-century lingo. Even the English word repentance, has something of the word penance in it (re-penance). That is how we have previously understood the word repent. You probably hear calls for our nation to repent before God will hear us and heal our land. When we use repent in that context, what we 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 I ask, “How would we ever know if we’ve repented (punished ourselves) enough? Do we think we can remember every little sin we’ve ever committed?” That’s a description of how things were under the Old Covenant. Back then, God blessed people if they did certain things God asked for and then, and only then would God bless. This is the very essence of the law that man could never keep. The law wasn’t given to make man right with God, it was given to show us we can’t keep it and therefore need a Savior (to save us from our inability to keep God’s laws). Jesus came to fulfill what mankind could never keep.

Romans 8:3 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 sins for all time. In almost every healing that Jesus did, He did not demand, “First repent (I mean our inaccurate use of the word) and then maybe I’ll heal you.” Never! He came to bring in the New Covenant which is all based on God’s grace; His ability to deal with sin forever.

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 on their mind [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 the promise God makes – without conditions. God changes our minds about who He is. Without the Spirit drawing us to God we can’t come to Him; not in our power or strength because we have none. John the Baptist came as Jesus’ forerunner and asked people to repent. That doesn’t 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. It’s not based on anything you did but it’s based on what Christ did for you. Our part is to believe what Jesus did is true.

We are repenting, in the true sense of the word, all the time. We hear the truth and the Spirit shows us what we used to think and so we change our mind and our heart follows. Jesus said that the truth will set us free. This freedom is so vast we can’t conceive of all it offers. 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 transform us. The world’s voice is over-the-top loud these days. Try not to allow that voice to be louder than God’s voice. 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 real repentance is found with the thieves that hung on the cross with Jesus. Matthew 27 describes the taunting of people passing by. Here is the actual text of 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 there’s a remark made of the two thieves hanging there: “The robbers who had been crucified with Him were also insulting Him with the same words.” If you read the timeline, these jeers were all made between 9 am and noon, the first three hours they hung on their crosses. Three hours is a long time to be in excruciating pain and there were three more hours after that for Jesus. During that 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 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 are; sinners that indeed need forgiveness. The thief did just that in admitting he was being crucified for his crime. Notice though, that he didn’t even ask for forgiveness or say he was sorry for his sins. He had three long hours to observe Jesus and when he heard Jesus forgive those who were killing Him, he 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 without sackcloth and ashes. It was a simple change of mind and heart and Jesus responded immediately to the honest request of the thief.

When we want others to repent what we 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 public sin or private 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 penance we may do to show we’re sorry for our sin, would still not pay for sin. If you believe that you have to beat yourself up a little, before God will hear you, that is erroneous teaching. Set yourself free from that. Yes, we can be sorry for our sins, and I’m not saying we should be arrogant about past or present sins. 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 as 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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