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What Is Real Repentance?

It would be difficult to think of a word that is more central to our identity as Christians than the word “repentance”. According to Matthew it was the theme of the first sermon every preached by Jesus. Jesus was travelling around Galilee and saying:

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

It has pride of place in the first sermon ever preached in the Christian church. On the Day of Pentecost Peter was filled with the Holy Spirit and preached a sermon that cut his Jewish audience to the heart. They asked him how they should respond to what they had just heard and Peter said:

“Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:38 ESV)

From these passage it is clear that repentance is associated with everything that matters in the Christian life! You have to repent to enter the Kingdom of heaven! You have to repent to be welcomed into the Christian church. You have to repent in order to be forgiven. And you have to repent in order to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

While repentance is obviously associated with the beginning of the Christian life, it does not appear to decrease in significance once a person has been admitted into Christian community. In Luke 17 Jesus said:

“Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, 4 and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.” (Luke 17:3–4 ESV)

We enter the Christian life through repentance and we remain in the Christian life through repentance. Obviously then it is absolutely critical that we have a proper understanding of this term. The Greek New American Standard Dictionary defines it this way: “to change one’s mind or purpose”[1]

Strong’s Greek Dictionary provides a similar definition: “to think differently or afterwards, i.e. reconsider (morally, feel compunction): — repent.”[2]

There are also two very helpful stories in the Bible that provide inspired illustration.

Psalm 51 is often called “The Sinner’s Guide”. It was written by David as he was repenting of his sin in the matter of Bathsheba and Uriah. It provides a blueprint of true repentance. To listen to a full podcast on this Psalm see here.

2 Corinthians 7:2-16 is also useful. It represents the conclusion to a very long and difficult saga stretching all the way back to the incident described in 1 Corinthians 5. There had been a man in Corinth who was living in gross sexual immorality. He was being treated as a member of the church despite that he was having an adulterous affair with his step-mother. The Corinthians were proud of their open attitude on matters of sexuality and Paul wrote to them in very strong terms demanding that they practice church discipline. He followed up with a personal visit that apparently did not go well. There was a showdown between Paul and the supporters of this particular individual. Paul decided to temporarily withdraw so as not to precipitate a church split.  From a distance he wrote what scholars commonly refer to as “The Severe Letter”. In it he gives them an ultimatum: do the discipline or stop calling yourself a Christian church. Titus was commissioned to deliver the letter and to report their response back to Paul. He very happily reported that the church responded well. They faced the issue and excommunicated the offending brother. The discipline appears to have been effective; the brother repents and desired to be restored. In 2 Corinthians 2 Paul urged the church to turn back towards this brother in love and mercy. In chapter 7 Paul reflects upon the process as a whole and summarizes what he perceives to be the definitive evidence of their saving repentance. The passage is an absolute goldmine with respect to our understanding of this very important term.

Putting this all together we may define true repentance in the following way: 

1.  A change of heart

In 2 Corinthians 7:10 Paul talks about a type of repentance that doesn’t qualify as true or saving. He says:

“For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.” (2 Corinthians 7:10 ESV)

Worldly grief, or “shallow remorse” as one commentator puts it, is a sadness based solely on carnal concerns. It is being sad that you were caught. It is being sad that you will experience consequences. It is being upset that people know. It is about embarrassment, hurt pride and the loss of a cherished indulgence.

That is not real repentance.

Real repentance is a change of heart.

Real repentance happens when God opens your eyes to see the reality of your sin. It is that instant when you realize that you have dishonoured the Lord, injured precious people, endangered fragile faith and imperiled your eternal soul.

It is that moment when you realize that you’re a hair’s width from the gaping mouth of hell.

It is change at the root of who you are.

You can see that in the matter of David and Bathsheba. Nathan the prophet confronted the king and told him a story about a rich, arrogant man who stole a lamb from his poor neighbour, killed it and served it to his guests. Nathan stuck his finger in David’s chest and said:

“You are the man!”

And in that moment – in that very instant – David had a change of heart.

He saw.

He understood.

And he trembled.

You could hear it in his voice. No excuses. No defense. Just repentance.

David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the LORD.”  (2 Samuel 12:13 ESV)

We don’t get to see that moment in the story of the Corinthian church – or in the story of the young man whose sin initiated the entire confrontation. At some point, after being excommunicated, like the Prodigal Son, he came to his senses, turned around and went home. The church too had a change of heart. They went from rejecting the necessity of church discipline to being a little firm in their application. Having put him out they were slow to let him back in after he had repented. Paul had to encourage them to be as diligent in mercy as they had become in discipline. The change in them was quite remarkable.

Without such a change – at the root of who we are as people and who we are toward the sin in question – there is no real repentance.

2.  A full disclosure

Real repentance also involves a full disclosure of sin. Real repentance doesn’t minimize, hide or defend. In Psalm 51 David uses just about every word in the Hebrew language to confess his sin. 

In verse one he uses the word“pesha” which is usually translated as “transgressions” and means to rebel against authority – either human or divine. David admits that he is a rebel. David understands full well that that he had to cross a number of lines – lines that God had drawn – in order to do the wicked things that he did.

In verse 2 he uses the Hebrew word aon which is translated as “iniquity” and also the word khatta’ah which literally means “evil”. David uses grown up words – Bible words – to describe his own sin. He doesn’t say: “I made a bad decision” or “I made a mistake”.


Wearing white pants to a baseball game is a bad decision.

Putting two cups of sugar into your muffin mix instead of one is a mistake.

Raping your neighbor and killing her husband and lying about it – is evil.

David knows that and David admits that.

You aren’t repenting unless you are doing that.

If you are hiding the parts of your sin that haven’t yet been discovered or minimizing the sins that have been discovered you aren’t repenting in an authentic and saving way. If you are defending your actions or blaming other people then you aren’t repenting in an authentic and saving way.

There are always contributing factors – maybe it wasn’t a good idea for Bathsheba to be bathing naked on the roof of her house – but David never mentions that. He takes ownership of his own sin. He confesses to the wicked deeds that he conceived of and executed out of his own twisted and fallen will.

That’s repentance.

Real repentance says: “This is what I did. It was evil. It was sin. It hurt other people. It dishonoured the Lord. I knew it. I did it. It was wrong. Lord have mercy!”

If you aren’t talking like that, then you aren’t really repenting.

3.  An active response

In 2 Corinthians 7:11 the Apostle Paul says:

“For see what earnestness this godly grief has produced in you” (2 Corinthians 7:11 ESV)

This “earnestness” was an indication to the Apostle that the repentance of the Corinthians was authentic and saving in nature.

So what does it mean to be “earnest”?

The BDAG Dictionary defines the Greek word used here as describing “a swiftness of movement or action”.  Paul is saying that their swift move towards real action in this situation is proof of their saving repentance.  Specifically it seems that Paul is referring to the fact that once they read Paul’s ultimatum and they understood what was really at stake they immediately took real and tangible action: they did the church discipline that was required. 

Real repentance isn’t just about feeling really bad, it is about taking appropriate action.

If that was what Paul expected of the church then we can assume that it was also what he expected of the individual. Paul accepted his repentance as real as well so he must also have taken appropriate action. Appropriate action in his case would have involved breaking off the relationship with his step-mother and apologizing to his father for the public humiliation and deep personal hurt that he had caused.

The story of Zacchaeus provides a further illustration of this principle. When he repented of his sins he was eager to immediately make amends to all those that he had previously wronged. Luke 19:8-10 says:

Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” 9 And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham.” (Luke 19:8–9 ESV)

Zacchaeus’ repentance received the validation of Jesus after he demonstrated his eagerness to make appropriate restitution.

This is what John the Baptist meant when he told the Pharisees:

“Bear fruit in keeping with repentance.” (Matthew 3:8 ESV)

Real repentance demonstrates an eagerness to take appropriate action and to make all necessary restitution.

4.  A shift in concern

Truly repentant people are seized by new and constraining emotions. The Apostle Paul commented on that in 2 Corinthians 7.

“For see what earnestness this godly grief has produced in you, but also what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what longing, what zeal” (2 Corinthians 7:11 ESV)

In 1 Corinthians 5 they were eager to look merciful, reasonable and accommodating – but at the end of the process in 2 Corinthians 7 they were concerned to look righteous, they were upset that sin had been tolerated, they were eager to be restored to Paul and they were zealous for the purity of the church.

Even their fear appears to have been redirected.

We often sin or tolerate sin because we fear men or we fear the censure of the culture. Real repentance therefore involves the release of that fear and the embrace of another. Jesus said:

“do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matthew 10:28 ESV)

Real repentance involves the recollection that God is holy, holy, holy. He is Sovereign and he is Judge. Real repentance involves a fresh reckoning with that reality and results in a complete reordering of all subsidiary considerations.

The leaders of the church in Corinth had obviously been intimidated by certain influential individuals in the church who quailed at any suggestion of church discipline. They were also, transparently concerned about appearing harsh and fanatic in the eyes of the culture. But once they were made aware of their situation their fear of offending God became far more compelling than their fear of lesser parties.

David’s story gives evidence of a similar shift in his concerns. David was obviously focused on immediate pleasures when he committed his sin with Bathsheba, but in his time of repentance his focus has obviously been redirected:

“Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit. Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you. Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness.” (Psalm 51:11–14 ESV)

David is concerned here for his soul! He is concerned for his calling! He is terrified that he will lose the blessing and the presence of the Lord.

And he is also concerned to undo the damage he may have done to those under his care and authority. He says:

“Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness.” (Psalm 51:14 ESV)

Help me get right and I will tell everyone who will listen that your ways are right and lead to life.

All true penitents become preachers.

If you aren’t eager to show that the Lord is right and if you aren’t concerned to help others avoid the mistakes that you made then you aren’t repenting in any kind of real or authentic way.

5.  An embrace of discipline

Perhaps the most interesting thing that Paul says in 2 Corinthians 7 comes at the end of verse 11:

“For see what earnestness this godly grief has produced in you, but also what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what longing, what zeal, what punishment! At every point you have proved yourselves innocent in the matter.” (2 Corinthians 7:11 ESV)

What punishment!!

Paul says that the firm and courageous discipline effected by the church was evidence of their real repentance.

He is referring of course to the excommunication that he originally commanded back in 1 Corinthians 5:

“When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, 5 you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 5:4–5 ESV)

He gave them a direct order: kick the brother out! At first they were paralyzed by opposition from within the church, but then once Titus delivered the ultimatum in The Severe Letter, they did what they were told to do. They excommunicated the offending person. Their willingness to do that is the final piece of evidence remarked upon by Paul as proof of their right standing in the Gospel. 

Doing hard things does not make you a Christian; but not doing hard things may show that you are not a Christian. Sometimes our faith or lack of faith is made evident through the things we are willing or not willing to go through.

A church that refuses to discipline shows that it loves the world more than Jesus.

A person that refuses to confess sin shows that he loves his reputation more than he loves Jesus.

A person that refuses to accept a season of chastisement or heightened accountability shows that he loves his freedom and his dignity more than he loves Jesus.

But a person who embraces the discipline as a gift from God and a lifeline from the church shows that he has a broken and contrite spirit.

He is a penitent and he is on the path of salvation, restoration and joy.

The Apostle Paul saw all these evidences of real repentance and was comforted. He said:

“I rejoice, because I have complete confidence in you.” (2 Corinthians 7:16 ESV)

Mistakes had been made, sins had been committed, relationships had been strained, but real repentance had been manifested – and therefore all was forgiven.

That is the Christian way.

Jesus said:

“Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, 4 and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.” (Luke 17:3–4 ESV)

Real Christians sin – but by the grace of God – real Christians repent and are forgiven, even seven times in a day.


Pastor Paul Carter

To listen to Pastor Paul’s Into The Word devotional podcast visit the TGC Canada website; you can also find it on iTunes.

[1]Greek Dictionary of the New American Standard Exhaustive Concordance, s.v. “μετανοεω,” paragraph 3480.

[2]Strong’s Greek Dictionary of the New Testament, s.v. “paragraph 1.