What does repentance really look like?

Repentance is a fundamental part of the Christian faith. Both John the Baptist and Jesus entered into their ministries saying:

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 3:2, 4:17)

But how does repentance really work? Does it just mean saying you’re “sorry”? Does it mean trying really hard not to mess up again? Which comes first anyway? Repentance or belief? Because Jesus said we are supposed to do both (Mark 1:15).

Belief and repentance go hand in hand. True faith in God will be marked by a repentant heart, by a longing to turn away from old ways toward obedience. A disdain for one’s sin or a feeling of unrest or discomfort with unrighteousness is a mark of growing faith in a God who saves believers from sin and enables them to live a righteous life. Sure, you will still mess up. It might be difficult to make this turn. You might not abandon sinful patterns and habits all at once. But the desire to live a life that pleases the Lord will begin to bloom in your heart. I promise. It happened to me. For way too many years of my life, I refused to admit my sin. I hid my shortcomings. I knew what God’s Word required of me, but when I fell short of it, I told no one. I didn’t even really confess it to the Lord. I just moved on and covered up my sin with more service. More good works. I did good things (most of the time). But I was a bad person. My heart was not humble and honest before the Lord and lived on my own sufficiency (or perhaps it was my own insufficiency) until God finally showed me how to truly repent. And I did. It was hard. One of the hardest seasons of my life. But I praise the God who made it happen! And the fruit of my repentance is indescribable. I cannot begin to explain the peace, joy, rest, and contentment that come from true repentance.

Many people have an incorrect view of repentance. They see it as a negative feeling of sorrow and an almost-futile attempt to get rid of bad habits. That’s not what repentance is. Mere sorrow over doing something wrong (usually only because you are caught and there are consequences, not because you are truly sorry) will never result in the repentance God desires. While repentance can feel negative at first, as you humbly admit your sin to the Lord, it quickly turns into JOY as you realize that your Savior has already removed that sin from your life! Once you understand that Christ’s sacrifice means you are forgiven, you are then able to deal with your ongoing sin differently. Yes, you are trying to get rid of negative actions, habits, and thoughts, but you aren’t simply trying to stop doing something wrong. If that were the end of repentance, we would always fall back into our sin in a matter of days, weeks, or months. Instead, repentance means not only getting rid of a negative action/habit, but replacing it with a positive, obedient action or habit in order to please and glorify the God that forgives you of all your sin. 

God enables real repentance. Because we have Christ, we have the ability to live out Christ’s righteousness in our own lives. We are able to turn away from sin and replace it with the holiness of our Savior. This is what repentance really looks like. It looks like love, humility, generosity, joy, and an ever-growing faith in the One who forgave us of all our sin and who teaches us to repent. Don’t discount the need for repentance in your own life. What do you need to turn away from? What sin are you wallowing in and refusing to be freed of? What grievous actions, habits or thoughts in your own life need to be replaced with obedience?

Turn, my friend, turn. Live the sweet and joyful life of humble repentance.