Biblical Definition of Repentance
Most of us have seen a street preacher shout out for the people around him to repent. But what does this mean? It is easy to use Biblical terms so often that we forget what they mean. In this post, we want to make sure we understand the Biblical definition of repentance. To do this, we’ll answer three questions:
- What does the word repentance mean in the Bible?
- Is repentance necessary for salvation?
- How do faith and repentance relate to each other? Does one come first?
To better answer these, let’s remember the big picture.
Context for the Definition of Repentance
You are an evangelist. As an evangelist, you tell people the Good News of the Gospel: that Jesus died and rose again so that our sins can be forgiven. The reason why this is good news is because our sins have separated us from God. If our sins are not dealt with, they form a barrier between us and God so that we cannot draw near Him.
But here is a question you may have asked yourself: “What do you do if the person you are talking to comes to believe the Gospel?” What if things actually go really, really well, and they say “Wow, that makes so much sense. Thank you so much for sharing this with me?”
How To Respond to News
The Gospel needs to be responded to. There are different kinds of “Good News.” On the one hand, there’s the Good News of “It’s going to be 75 and sunny” today. That’s wonderful! And there’s nothing I really need to do in response to it, except to go outside and enjoy the weather.
On the other hand, there’s the Good News of “Your Father has forgiven you and wants you to come home.” Imagine you’re the prodigal son that Jesus talked about in Luke 15. You’ve spat in the face of your father, run from home, and wasted your inheritance. Now let’s modify the story somewhat. Imagine someone came to you during this time of rebellion and told you: “Hey, listen! Your father told me that if you go back home, he will accept you! He is willing to forgive your sins if you just go back home to him!”
In that moment, what do you do? How do you respond to this kind of good news? There are two logical responses:
- One response would be to say “No, I won’t go home,” and you keep walking further and further from home.
- Or you could respond in joy: “Yes, I’d love to return,” and you turn around and begin walking home.
But let me tell you a third, illogical response: “That’s wonderful that he has a change of heart” — and yet you continue walking the opposite direction from home! That doesn’t make sense. The news that you are welcome to come home is good news precisely because you are free to go back home. It is only good news for the rebellious son if he actually goes back home!
Question #1: Biblical Definition of Repentance
The Good News of the Gospel is that you are free to return to your Father with no shame, no fear, and with full forgiveness guaranteed by your Older Brother. And when you share the Gospel with people, and they respond with belief, be sure to press home to them the importance of returning home.
In fact, this is what the Apostles called people to do when they preached the Gospel. They used the word repentance, which literally means to turn around. It also carries the following ideas:
- Undergoing a paradigm shift about how you view God, yourself, and everything else in the world (a change of mind and heart)
- Agreeing with God and turning away from sin
- Turning to God
But the core idea that unites these other ideas is the imagery of turning around. So what is the definition of repentance?
Repentance is turning to God for salvation, and it is turning away from our sin and from any effort to save ourselves.
Question #2: Repentance and Salvation
Christians can sometimes get confused by whether repentance has anything to do with salvation. According to the Bible, it does! According to Matthew 4:17, this was Jesus’ central message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” In other words, since God’s Kingdom (His perfect plan for the entire world) is about to become a reality, we need to return to God. God is making a perfect Kingdom, and we must go to the King Himself to be made worthy to enter that kingdom.
So it seems that repentance is crucial for responding to the Gospel for salvation. So why do some Christians deny that repentance is needed for salvation?
Usually, the problem is how we define repentance. Many people, even after hearing the biblical definition of repentance, still think of it in terms of doing good works, or abstaining from certain bad behaviors. (Let us be crystal clear: salvation does not depend on good works!) Others associate it with being emotionally devastated over sin. Christians are right to note that these things, though good and often accompanying salvation, are not necessary for salvation.
Others have an issue with repentance because they can’t see how it relates to faith. They are confident that we are saved through faith, so they naturally get suspicious when anyone makes it sound like faith isn’t good enough to bring about salvation. This brings us to our third question.
Question #3: Repentance and Faith
So how do repentance and faith relate to each other? Do people have to do two things in order to receive salvation, or just one?
The best way to think of it, probably, is that faith and repentance are two sides of one coin. Even though we can distinguish between heads and tails — they aren’t the same thing — whenever you find one, you will find the other. A simple example would be eating: chewing and swallowing food naturally go hand in hand whenever someone eats solid food.
Paul seemed to think that the two went hand in hand. When summarizing his ministry in Acts 20:21, he said it was a ministry of “testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.” So the two responses to the Gospel are faith and repentance.
But how exactly do faith and repentance relate? As we discuss elsewhere, faith is simply trust in an authority. In the context of salvation, it is trusting Jesus as our Lord (authority), agreeing with Him in everything He says about us and our need for Him, and trusting Him in a personal way. This fits very naturally with repentance.
Why would you “turn to” someone? Because you trust they can help you.
What do you do when you believe someone can help you? You go seek out their help!
The two naturally go together. Think about it. It makes no sense to repent toward a God you don’t trust, and it makes no sense to say you trust someone if you aren’t willing to go them for help. In the example of the prodigal son, the son is able to go home (repentance) because he believes that the father will accept him (faith).
Summary: The Definition of Repentance
Everything we said so far can be boiled down to three points:
- Repentance is agreeing with and turning to God (while turning away from sin and your own efforts to save yourself).
- It is absolutely necessary for salvation, for you must go to God to be saved.
- It is the other side of the coin of faith: whenever there is genuine faith, there is genuine repentance as well.