What Is Repentance?

Inquiring sinners asked Peter and the other apostles, “Brethren, what shall we do?” Peter answered, “Repent ye, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ unto the remission of our sins” (Acts 2:37-38).

Repentance is an absolute requirement if a man wishes to be saved. Both John and Jesus commenced their earthly ministries with that command. John said, “Repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:3). Jesus commanded, “Repent ye and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). The first twelve apostles commanded repentance and Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, commanded the same. He said to the Athenians, “The time of ignorance therefore God overlooked but now he commandeth men that they should all everywhere repent” (Acts 17:30). Jesus said, “Except ye repent ye shall in like manner perish” (Luke 13:3). So what is repentance?

“Sorrow” is the response of some. Sorrow plays a role in producing repentance but is not technically repentance. Paul had written a stinging letter to the Corinthians rebuking them for their lawsuits with other brethren (1 Corinthians 6:1-5); for the unholy and “God dishonoring” way they kept the memorial supper of Christ (1 Corinthians 11:17-34); for their divisions over men (1 Corinthians 3:1-23); and, above all, for their tolerance of a brother who had taken his father’s wife (1 Corinthians 5:1-13).

It was in regard to this evil that the apostle wrote a second letter to them, saying, “For though I made you sorry with my epistle, I do not regret it: though I did regret it (for I see that that epistle made you sorry, thought but for a season), I now rejoice, not that ye were made sorry but that ye were made sorry unto repentance … For godly sorrow worketh repentance unto salvation, a repentance which bringeth no regrets; but the sorrow of the world worketh death” (2 Corinthians 7:8-10). Godly sorrow works repentance. The Corinthians were not just sorry that their failure had come to light (worldly sorrow); they were sorry they had failed to correct the sinful brother and so they did what they should have done first. Their sorrow came about through God’s goodness: “The goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance” (Romans 2:4). The godly sorrow they felt led them to repentance. Godly sorrow produces repentance. It is not repentance, but without godly sorrow, there would be no repentance.

“When the Corinthians withdrew from the sinful brother as they were commanded, was that their repentance?” No, the Corinthians’ withdrawal from the sinful brother was not their repentance. They had repented before they withdrew from him. Their action in their withdrawal was the fruit of their repentance. John rebuked his nation for sinful conduct and commanded, “Bring forth fruit worthy of repentance” (Matthew 3:8). In two parables of Jesus, both of which involved two sons who had wronged their fathers (the parable of two sons in Matthew 21 and the parable of the prodigal in Luke 15), the subsequent obedience of the two wayward sons was the fruit of their repentance. Standing between sorrow and correction of their wrong was repentance.

Look at the parable of the two sons. A father had two sons and he came to the first and said, “Son, go work today in the vineyard. And he answered and said, I will not, but afterward he repented and went” (Matthew 21:28-29). Notice the son first repented, then he went. He did what first he had refused to do. His going and working in the vineyard as his father commanded was the fruit of his repentance, not his repentance. He repented, but what did he do?

Look now at the parable of the prodigal. After first receiving his inheritance from his father, then spending it foolishly, that son fell into dire circumstances. “But when he came to himself, he said how many hired servants of my father have bread enough and to spare, and I perish here with hunger. I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father I have sinned against heaven and in thy sight. I am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants. And he arose and came to his father” (Luke 15:17-20). Both these sons sinned against their fathers. Both then did what they hadn’t done before. In between rebellion and obedience, the first son “repented”. In between rebellion and obedience, the prodigal changed his mind and resolved to correct his wrong. This is what repentance is — a change of mind.

The people on Pentecost were commanded to repent. Three thousand of them did and they showed they had by complying with the command their heavenly Father, through His apostles, had given them. They were baptized (Acts 2:38). God has not changed His command for those who seek salvation today. Change your mind about sin. Resolve you will cease and correct your sins. Be baptized that you might be saved. That is what your Father commands you to do. Will you do it?

Jim McDonald

Bible Lectureship

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