The gospel is like a diamond. On the surface it is beautiful in its simplicity and shining clarity. But inside it is held together by forces and interactions so complex that we barely understand them. Likewise the gospel. Even a child can grasp the essentials, but the good news of salvation through Christ contains mysteries beyond human comprehension.

A brief though complete statement of the gospel is found in Acts 20:21. The gospel calls for two things: repentance and faith. Repentance brings a man to the place of wanting a right relationship with God. Faith achieves that relationship.

Repentance Defined

The Greek word for repentance is metanoia, forged from the roots meta (which can mean "change") and noia (which means "mind"). Therefore, a common definition of repentance is "change of mind." Certainly, repentance produces a change of mind. Yet this definition, resting solely on the word's derivation, does not capture its full meaning.

A casual look at an English dictionary proves that a word's meaning is not determined by its derivation. "Prevent" does not mean "go before." "Nice" does not mean "ignorant." "Sinister" does not mean "on the left side." "Villain" does not mean "farm boy." A word's meaning is determined not by its derivation, but by its usage. If we want to know the meaning of "repentance," we must see how it is used in the Scriptures. Such texts as Matt. 9:13, Acts 8:22, 2 Cor. 12:21, and Job 42:6 show that repentance is a way of looking at one's own sin. Specifically, it is a sorrow for sin and a desire to forsake it.

It is important here to emphasize what repentance is not. It is not an actual turning from sin. To turn from sin is impossible for an unsaved man. To do so requires the power of the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit does not come to indwell a man until he is saved. Therefore, to tell a man that he must turn from sin in order to be saved is to ask the impossible. If it were possible, it would be salvation by works.

The Bible conceives of repentance as something internal—as an inward change of heart rather than an outward change of behavior, although genuine repentance (that is, repentance unto salvation) certainly bears fruit in good works (Matt. 3:8).

A Threefold Understanding

Biblical repentance requires a man to put on God's glasses and look into a mirror. Then he will see three things about himself.

  1. He is a sinner. Sin is any thought or deed that violates the law of God, and God declares that all men have sinned. The verse we often use to show someone his true condition is Rom. 3:23. This is a good choice because it contradicts both forms of vanity men use to justify themselves—both of the excuses they like to throw in the face of God.

    1. I'm not so bad. Many resist being called a sinner. They may protest, "Perhaps I have some faults, some imperfections. But I can't imagine that God would send me to hell just because I‘m human." Or, like the rich young ruler (Mark 10:17-22), they may represent themselves as completely innocent of wrongdoing. Yet Rom. 3:23 replies, "For all have sinned."

      In exhorting the young man to "come, take up the cross, and follow me," Jesus was teaching the young man that his root sin was failure to follow Jesus with his whole heart. The young man was therefore breaking the first and greatest commandment (Matt. 22:36-40). In requiring the young man to give his wealth to the poor, Jesus was teaching him that he was callous to their needs. So, he was also breaking the second greatest commandment. As it was true of the rich young ruler, so it is true of all men. We have all trespassed the commandments to love God with our whole hearts and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Can anyone here stand up and say that they have always kept both commandments as they should?

      The Biblical view of human nature is not in the least complimentary. Not just in the New Testament but also in the Old Testament we find assertion after assertion that all men are sinners. The cumulative force of such passages as 1 Kings 8:46, Psa. 14:1, 130:3, 143:2, Eccles. 7:20, and Prov. 20:9 is overwhelming. Who can escape charges brought by an all-knowing God?

    2. I'm pretty good. Apart from the grace of God, everybody flatters himself that he is good enough for heaven. Even the worst criminal thinks he has a spark of good that should satisfy God. Yet Rom. 3:23 replies, "For all have . . . come short of the glory of God."

      In my lifetime I have mingled with all manner of sinners. I have seen society at the bottom. For awhile in my childhood, my father operated a mission in the slums. In college I helped with door-to-door Christian outreach in the black ghetto of Chicago, where I saw the poorest of the poor. Later I served on the staff at a ranch for difficult children, and I went regularly to share my faith with men on death row and in maximum security at Florida State Penitentiary. I have also, in some degree, seen society at the top, which is no less a showcase of sinners. Looking back upon my life, I can truly say that it has been a long pilgrimage through a wide world full of all kinds of men.

      I have often been amazed to find that people in deepest sin seem immune to any worry about what happens after death. One time when going through a wing of maximum security at the penitentiary, I found perhaps the worst sinner I have ever met. I came to a cell window and tried to strike up a conversation with the man inside. Although reluctant to talk, he told me his name was "the executioner." He claimed that he earned the name by killing four men (I believe it was) since coming to jail. My attempts to alert him to the peril of his soul aroused no sign of guilt, or fear, only proud ridicule.

      When pressed by the gospel, many flagrant sinners defend themselves by arguing that they are good enough for heaven. They see their sin as legitimate pleasure, or as somebody else's fault, or as a justifiable payback to a victimizer, or as whatever, but not as sin.

      But what if God took everybody to heaven? Then heaven would not be heaven. It would be much like the world we live in now. In case you do not know it, this world is a terrible place. A heaven open to everybody would be worse than this world, because we would all have greater power to further our own desires.

      Someone might reply, "Yes, but God could take just the nice people to heaven." But God sees man's heart, and He knows that nice people are nice only because they do not have greater opportunity or incentive or provocation to do wrong. Take a nice person and make him an absolute dictator, and you will find out how long he remains nice. "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." This adage would fit no place better than a heaven populated by unregenerate beings who nevertheless have power and abilities on a heavenly scale.

  2. His sin is wrong, and he deserves the punishment that God has ordained. Simply to recognize that you have broken the law of God is not enough. Even the devil knows that he is a sinner. After Satan gained permission to test Job, either Satan himself or one of his emissaries went to Job's friend Eliphaz and manifested himself in a dream. He wanted Eliphaz to take Job the discouraging message that he was suffering for his sins. The spirit said of himself, "Behold, he put no trust in his servants; and his angels he charged with folly" (Job 4:18). The devil knows that he has offended God. But in these words we see no remorse. All we see is bitter complaint. The evil spirit's recognition that he is a sinner falls short of real repentance.

    In real repentance, a man not only recognizes that he is a sinner, but also admits that his sin is wrong. He acknowledges that God's law is just and he is unjust, and, moreover, that he deserves the divine sentence upon sinners. What is this sentence? It is to be cast into hell, a place of eternal separation from God, where the sinner will pay for his own sins. How? By suffering the torments that God's wrath will pour upon him (John 3:18, 36).

    How could a God of love send people to hell? He punishes sin precisely because He is a God of love. You hate whatever is a threat to the person or thing you love. When my sons were little boys, suppose I went out walking with one of them and a big dog attacked us. Suppose the dog lunged for my child's throat. How would I feel about that dog? I would hate the dog. I might even kill it in defense of my child. Likewise, God's hate is simply the other side of love. What does God love? He loves righteousness. Therefore, He hates sin. He loves His own children. Therefore, He hates the presence of evil in the same universe where His children dwell.

  3. He is sorry for his sins. In my prison ministry, I might have had a conversation like the following. "Did you commit murder?" "Yes," the prisoner replies. I ask, "Is it wrong to commit murder?" Without hesitation, he says, "Of course." "Then why did you do it?" "Oh, I guess I just felt like it." (A number of other answers are also predictable here, such as "I couldn't help myself," or "I was getting even.") I persist, "But are you sorry?" "Not really."

    To attain the understanding described in 1 and 2 is not sufficient. Repentance involves more than knowing in your head that you have done wrong and deserve punishment. It involves a heart-level desire to forsake sin and do right.

    As soon as a man comes to the place of wanting to do right, he cannot help but regret all the wrong he has done in the past. A sign that a heart has ripened to true repentance is a godly sorrow for sin (2 Cor. 7:10).

Defective Repentance

Certain Biblical characters exemplify a defective repentance.

  1. Saul. We read that Saul sought forgiveness for sparing the livestock of the Amalekites and the Amalekite king Agag (1 Sam. 15:24-5). Yet, to judge by his subsequent behavior, this was not true repentance. Samuel did not accept it (v. 26). Saul was merely seeking to manipulate Samuel for his own political advantage (v. 30). He was not sorry, although he may have understood to some degree that he was wrong.
  2. Ahab. After Elijah pronounced an awful doom upon his house, Ahab repented in sackcloth and ashes (1 Kings 21:20-9). Yet afterward, when he needed counsel, he chose false prophets and scorned the true prophet Micaiah (1 Kings 22:1-8). Evidently, his repentance consisted of fear rather than of sorrow for sin. As soon as the fear subsided, he returned to his old ways. Scripture remembers him as the king of Israel who "did evil in the sight of the Lord above all that were before him" (1 Kings 16:30).

True Repentance

The Bible also gives us examples of real repentance. The best is David's repentance after he committed adultery and murder. The contrite spirit he expressed in Psalm 51 corresponded to a genuine renewal of righteous living. He never fell into the same sin again, and he meekly accepted God's chastening. He lost his first child by Bathsheba. Violence tore his family apart, leading to the deaths of three of his oldest sons. Yet he raised no complaint against these heart-rending punishments.

The Lies of Satan

When Satan sought to draw our first parents, Adam and Eve, into sin, he came to Eve and told her a series of lies (Gen. 3:1-6). The first was an insinuation that God had not forbidden them to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Eve answered decidedly that in fact God had set the tree off limits. Then Satan told her two lies of the first magnitude. He said that the true result of eating from the tree was not to die, as God had said, but to become an all-wise, self-determining divine being. Moreover, he said that God Himself was a liar, misrepresenting the consequences of eating from the tree because He wished to keep man from becoming His equal. In her eagerness to become godlike and to define right and wrong however she liked, Eve swallowed the lies and ate the forbidden fruit. In essence, she was choosing to obey her own wishes rather than God's demands.

Every human being by nature follows Eve in accepting the same lies. But repentance opens a person's mind to the truth. Whereas he formerly espoused these lies, he now turns his back on them. Instead of continuing to regard himself as a god with final authority over moral questions, he now accepts the true God as his authority. He turns back the clock of history to the moment of first temptation and makes a decision different from Eve's.

Cautionary Conclusion

Repentance is good and necessary, but it does not gain salvation. You are not saved by repentance. Repentance merely brings you to the place where you want to be saved—where you see your need for salvation and desire a Savior.

Further Reading

This lesson appears in Ed Rickard's Primer of the Christian Life: A Detailed Map of the Pilgrim's Road, designed to serve as the textbook for a yearlong course on basic Christianity. For further information, click here.