Chapter 5: What is repentance?

We have seen that repentance is a requirement for salvation. We have seen what repentance is not. May God now open our mind to understand what repentance is.

In my conversations with Christians I have found that very few realize that repentance is a requirement for salvation. Of these few, only some have attempted to define repentance. Further, it seems as if a mere handful have attempted to study the Bible to obtain their definition of repentance.

This is a sad thing. It is not that we lack Bibles. It is not that we lack Bible study tools. It is not that we lack Bible teachers. It is not that we lack time. No. We have been taken for suckers. The one who wages war against our soul has managed to distract us. He has managed to divert our attention to that which is not essential. He has thus managed to steal what is ours.

I say this out of a sense of my own need. I have seen how Satan has distracted me. I have seen how he has led my thoughts to that which is not essential. I have seen how he has led me down the paths of sin with no desire to repent. I have seen how years have past by before I began to understand my need to repent.

All I ask is that you recognize that Satan will try to distract you from repentance. He will try to get you to choose the wide gate and broad way. He will try to steal what is yours.

Don’t you let him.

Repentance is a desire to stop sinning

The first step in understanding what repentance means is to realize that Jesus came to save us from our sins. We are not saved so that we can have good health, or financial success, or a good spouse, or a trouble free life, or even a long life. No. We are saved from our sins. This is what Mt 1:21 tells us.

Mt 1:21 "She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins."

A repentant person is one who wants to be saved from his sins. It is as simple as that. The proof that one wants to be saved from his sins is that he does not want to sin in any way anymore. It is a contradiction to want to be saved from your sins and to yet want to continue sinning. So we can also say that a repentant person is one who does not want to sin in any way anymore.

We all hate something or the other. Some people hate spiders. Some hate cockroaches. Some hate the dark. Some unfortunate ones hate their in-laws. A repentant person hates sin. He is tired of its mastery over his life. He wants out. He wants to be free from sin.

To repent is to change your mind about sinning. It is to want to not sin in any way anymore. It is a conscious decision that leads to action. To be repentant is to want to stop sinning – it is to stop sinning willfully (i.e. intentionally). In a repentant person, the spirit is willing to stop sinning, although the flesh may be weak.

Computers are wonderful things. They can do amazing things. To manufacture the microprocessors that are the heart of computers you have to have a very clean environment. A single speck of dirt that lands on a microprocessor can prevent it from functioning correctly, or from functioning at all. Therefore, companies that manufacture microprocessors hate dirt. They take great care to remove dirt from their manufacturing facilities.

A repentant person treats sin the way a microprocessor manufacturer treats dirt.

Here is what Ezek 14:6 says.

Ezek 14:6 "Therefore say to the house of Israel, 'Thus says the Lord GOD, "Repent and turn away from your idols and turn your faces away from all your abominations.""

You are walking down the road. Suddenly, your nose picks up a dirty smell – a stench. What do you do? You turn your face away immediately. That is a picture of a repentant person.

A repentant person turns his face away from his idols and his abominations. When they come to entice him he looks the other way. He no longer wants to have an affectionate relationship with these things. He wants to break away from them.

Ezek 18:30 gets even more specific.

Ezek 18:30 "Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, each according to his conduct," declares the Lord GOD. "Repent and turn away from all your transgressions, so that iniquity may not become a stumbling block to you."

From Ezek 18:30 we see that repentance involves turning away from all our transgressions. Not just the idols and all the abominations. Not just the big ones. The big ones, and the small ones – all our transgressions.

So a repentant person turns away from sin. Is that all? No. Ac 20:21 and Ac 26:20 add to the picture.

Ac 20:21 solemnly testifying to both Jews and Greeks of repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.

Ac 26:20 but {kept} declaring both to those of Damascus first, and {also} at Jerusalem and {then} throughout all the region of Judea, and {even} to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds appropriate to repentance.

A repentant person turns from sin to God. God and sin don’t mix. Some of us forget this all the time. Perhaps all of us forget this sometimes. But it is worth remembering, or as Paul would say, it is a trustworthy saying – God and sin don’t mix. They are on opposite sides of the ocean. When a person turns away from God he is turning towards sin.

When a person turns from sin, he must take care to ensure that he is turning toward God. It is possible for him to turn to other things that don’t look like sin, but they are. Unless a person turns to God he has just turned from one sin to another.

The above verses are a good example of how the sum of God’s word is truth. You don’t get the whole picture from any one verse. Ezek 14:6 gives the basic idea of what repentance is by explaining that it is a turning away from sin, or perhaps all big sin (abominations). Ezek 18:30 clarifies the scope by including ‘all’ transgressions. Ac 20:21 explains that repentance is toward God, and that repentance applies to both Jews and Gentiles. Finally, Ac 26:20 points out that true repentance is accompanied by action – the performance of deeds appropriate to repentance.

Let us look at an example.

Consider a cigarette smoker. He is addicted to smoking and cannot stop. Is he repentant? It depends. Does he want to stop smoking? If he wants to stop smoking because God doesn’t like it then he is repentant even if he has not yet stopped smoking.

The proof that he truly wants to stop smoking is that when he feels like smoking he fights that feeling. He turns away from it and tries to run away from it (figuratively speaking).

The motive for turning away is also important. He turns away from smoking to God. His motive for turning away is not because he does not have money or because his hands are tied (literally). His motive for wanting to stop smoking is because he knows it offends God.

A person may be addicted to smoking for the rest of his life and still be repentant if, each time he is tempted to smoke, he struggles against it and desires to not do it. He may end up falling every time, for the rest of his life, due to the weakness of his flesh but he is still repentant because he does not want to fall.

A non-repentant smoker on the other hand does not want to stop smoking. He smokes whenever his body puts the demand on him. He doesn’t fight against his body’s demand but readily gives in to it. Sometimes he might be in a position where he cannot smoke (an airplane, for example). Even though he is not smoking there, as long as he does not want to stop smoking he is not repentant. Since repentance is a requirement for salvation he is not saved.

Consider another example.

A couple engages in sex outside of marriage. Are they repentant? It depends. If they want to stop having sex and are fighting against that temptation because they know that it is sin then they are repentant. On the other hand, if they look forward to it when they are together then they are not.

Let us now examine more carefully why I define repentance as wanting to not sin. Consider Heb 6:4-6.

Heb 6:4-6 For in the case of those who have once been enlightened and have tasted of the heavenly gift and have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance, since they again crucify to themselves the Son of God, and put Him to open shame.

The entire book of Hebrews addresses a certain type of people. In different parts of the book these people are described using different expressions. Heb 6:4-6 describes these people as fallen away.

What did they fall away from?

These people fell away from repentance. They stopped repenting. That is why the author considers renewing them again to repentance. After all, you would only want to renew someone to what they have fallen away from.

Now check out Heb 10:26,27.

Heb 10:26,27 For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a certain terrifying expectation of judgment, and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries.

In Heb 10:26,27 the author of Hebrews refers to the recipients of the letter as those who ‘go on sinning willfully.’ After all, why would the Holy Spirit talk to these people about the dangers of going on sinning willfully if they were not sinning willfully?

Comparing Heb 6:4-6 with Heb 10:26,27, we see that ‘to fall away from repentance’ is ‘to go on sinning willfully.’ In other words, to be in a state of repentance is to not go on sinning willfully. The opposite of ‘to go on sinning willfully’ is ‘to want to stop sinning.’ Therefore we can conclude that ‘to repent’ is ‘to want to stop sinning.’

Each part of ‘go on sinning willfully’ is important. It is not just sinning that indicates a lack of repentance. There is continuity to the sinning. The sinner must go on sinning. A single sin, no matter how great, does not indicate a lack of repentance. Further, even continual sin is not indicative of a lack of repentance. It must be willful, continual sin. The person must want to engage in the sin. He must go on sinning willfully. An unrepentant person decides to continue in sin for the rest of his life. The decision may be implicit or explicit.

The smoker who goes on smoking willfully is an unrepentant smoker. If there was a time when he decided to stop smoking then at that time he would be repentant (with respect to smoking). If he later decided to go on smoking he would have fallen away from his repentant position.

Some people use 1 Cor 10:13 to say that whenever we sin we sin willfully.

1 Cor 10:13 No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it.

Such a conclusion is invalid because several verses in Romans chapter seven clearly say and imply that it is possible to want to not sin and still sin. Consider Rom 7:14-25 (which is a classic description of a repentant man), and especially verses 15, 16, 18, 20 and 23.

At the beginning of this book I posed the following scenario.

You are a Sunday school teacher at your local church. You are teaching new Christians to walk the Christian life. Someone gets up and asks you, "Why is a man who lusts after women allowed to remain in the church but a man who sleeps with a woman who is not his wife put out of the church? Aren’t they both guilty of the same sin according to the Sermon on the Mount? Why is one considered repentant and the other not? Where is the line drawn regarding what sins are acceptable to be considered saved, and what sins aren’t?"

We can now answer these questions. Specifically, whether a man lusts after a woman or a man sleeps with a woman, the answer is the same. If the man does not want to stop that sin he has not repented and is not saved.





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