What Does Biblical Repentance Really Look Like?

In recent months there have been some pretty high profile men (Mark Driscoll, Doug Philips,Tullian Tchividjian) who have either stepped down from the pastorate, or have been asked to, due to different sins in their lives. A firestorm of opinions has since lit up the blogosphere and every form of social media. Some have said that these men have not met the biblical level of repentance while others defend these pastors by saying that they have gone over and above what scripture requires for repentance. If you have been a Christian for very long, I hope repentance is something that you seek to do regularly. If we sin much, then we need to repent much. Scripture lays out plainly what repentance looks like. We must be careful not to add to God’s Word, just like we need to be equally careful not to take away from it. Some might want to add a certain amount of works (or penance) to the biblical model, while others may try to water down the Word so much that a person does not even need to confess one’s sin to God. The Bible provides us with the right balance. There are three parts to repentance, no more . . . and certainly no less.

Repentance in the Mind:

For repentance to be a truly biblical response it must have its place in the mind.  Repentance means “a change in your mind.”  Isaiah 55:7 says, “Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.” When we sin, we must come to an understanding that this sin is a violation of God and His law. The first step of repentance is recognition in your mind that you have transgressed a holy God. However, simply acknowledging sin is not full-on repentance.

Repentance in the Heart:

For repentance to be true, one must also be convicted in their spirit (heart) that they have offended the Lord by their sin. Paul writes in II Corinthians 7:10, “For the sorrow that is according to the will of God produces repentance without regret, leading to salvation, but the sorrow of the world produces death.” Unless the Holy Spirit convicts you, there can be no repentance. Confession can happen without the movement of the Spirit, but repentance that comes from a “broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart” is what “God will not despise” (Psalm 51:17). When you come face to face with a Holy God in light of your sin, a broken heart is what the Lord delights in and accepts.

Repentance in your Action:

For true Biblical repentance to happen there is still a third part that must be accomplished. This is also the hardest one to accomplish (not possible apart from the Holy Spirit I might add). It is a change in your actions. One might know they have sinned in their head, and be convicted of it in their heart, but unless they physically turn away from that sin then they have not truly repented of it. Repentance is not just a change of mind, but also a change of action. It literally means turning a 180. Luke 3:8 says that we are to “bear fruits in keeping with repentance.”  In Old Testament times this might look like putting ashes on your heard and wearing sackcloth. There must be an action taken to turn away from your sin. That is not to say that we need to wear ashes or sackcloth, but this action is actually a response to the first two parts of repentance (in the mind and in the heart). Unless, however, this portion of the repentant pattern happens, true biblical repentance has not occurred in the life of the sinner.

John MacArthur has rightly said, “Repentance is not just a change of mind; it is a change of heart. It is a spiritual turning, a total about-face. . . It is an inward response, not external activity, but its fruit will be evident in the true believer’s behavior.” It takes all three parts of the pattern if a person wants to truly repent of their sin. We must never forget, conversely, that all of this is done by the work of God and not done on our own. We could never repent unless the Lord showed us our sin though His word. We could never repent unless the Spirit convicted us. We could never walk away from our sin unless given the power to, through Christ’s death to that sin. When considering what repentance looks like in the life of men like the above stated (or even ourselves) we need to be careful that we do not add man-made requirements to the person in sin. God has told us what repentance looks like. He does not take lightly someone adding to his word. Yes, there needs to be fruit of repentance, but let’s let scripture define this and not try to define it ourselves. On the other hand, God does not take lightly taking away from His divine Word either. Confession is not repentance (much to the chagrin of some of my Catholic friends). Simply being convicted in ones heart that they have sinned is not repentance. It is a complete turning from it (mind, heart, and deed).  Repentance is necessary it we want to please God. So, when we sin . . . let us be quick to repent from that sin.  When a brother is in sin, let us lovingly tell them of their need for repentance. If they do repent, then praise God for it and act accordingly. Don’t add to their reproach, but certainly don’t make light of it either. Repentance is a good thing . . . so let’s make sure that we do it the biblical way.

Soli Deo Gloria

Adam B Burrell

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