“Repent and believe” has been the cry of preachers ever since the time of Jesus. However, repentance can seem mysterious and sometimes contradictory to the gospel. Doesn’t the gospel say that I don’t have to do anything to be saved? Is repentance a work—something I do to be saved? How does it fit into the Christian life?
What Is Repentance?
Briefly defined, repentance is turning away from sin and self and looking to God for forgiveness and salvation. The Old Testament uses the word “turn” or “turning” to describe repentance. Those who repent turn their backs on their sin and come around to seek God; repentance is the conviction of guilt before God and the awareness that we are stained and in need of cleansing. This isn’t something we do, but it is something God works in us (Acts 5:31; 11:18). Like faith, it is necessary but given to us, not worked by us; rather, God works in us an inward acknowledgment of guilt which causes us to shrink away from our dirtiness before his perfect and holy character.
Repentance and the Law
Repentance is worked in us by the hearing of the Word of God, especially by the hearing of God’s law (Jer. 23:29; Rom. 3:10-12). Martin Luther describes it this way:
Now this is the thunderbolt of God, by means of which he destroys both the open sinner and the false saint and allows no one to be right…this is not “active contrition,” a contrived remorse, but “passive contrition,” true affliction of the heart, suffering, and the pain of death.
(Martin Luther, “The Smalcald Articles” in Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings [Fortress Press, 2012], 352)
As Luther notes, we are passive recipients of repentance. The law convicts us of our guiltiness, leading us to pain and remorse over our sin. This is why the law is read in church: to remind us of our incapacity so that we might learn to lean more and more upon God.
Repentance that Leads to Salvation
Godly repentance does not lead to a life stricken with guilt and regret, but instead it moves us towards the great love of God and his salvation in Christ. A repentant sinner is ready to receive the grace of God offered in the free gift of the gospel (Lk. 24:47; Acts 20:21). God does not leave us to despair of our brokenness but immediately offers us the comfort and consolation of forgiveness and love, so that when we cry out to God in faith, he willingly forgives us and saves us (Rom. 10:13).
Repentance, then, is the posture that leads us to pray with the tax-collector, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner” (Ps. 51: 2, 10, 14; Lk. 18:13). In fact, repentance is necessary to receive God’s forgiveness. Grief without repentance can lead only to despair (2 Cor. 7:10; Matt. 27:3).
The Fruits of Repentance
Once given to us, we can exercise our repentance by confessing our sin and asking God for forgiveness. Repentance bears the fruit of confession: we confess our sin before God, ask for forgiveness, and pursue godliness in keeping with the new life Christ gives (Matt. 3:8; Acts 26:20). These fruits are born of the tree rooted and watered in Christ.
In this way a repentant heart hates sin and seeks godliness (Acts 26:20). A repentant sinner is willing to be reproved and corrected, is not hasty to judge others, and is not prideful. Repentance kills pride: the more we learn God’s laws and standards, the more we come to know we cannot stand before God on anything of our own doing, so we more acutely realize our own lowliness and humility. Repentance should be practiced regularly, which is why it occurs in many churches’ liturgies. Until final glory, repentance will always be something we return to over and over again. It must start new every morning, recognizing once again our dependence upon God’s mercies. Thanks be to God; God’s mercies, too, are new every morning (Lam. 3:22-23).