Four Elements of Genuine Repentance

When John the Baptist prepared the people of Israel for the coming of the Messiah, he called them to repent. (Matt. 3:2) As we prepare for the Messiah to come again, we are called to repentance, also. After Christ had ascended to heaven, Peter told the people of Jerusalem, “Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord, and that he may send the Messiah, who has been appointed for you—even Jesus. Heaven must receive him until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets.” (Acts 3:19-21)

What does it mean to repent?

The Westminster Shorter Catechism in Modern Englishsays, “Repentance leading to life is a saving grace, by which a sinner having truly realized his sin and grasped the mercy of God in Christ, turns from his sin with grief and hatred and turns to God with full resolve and effort after new obedience.”

This statement identifies four essential elements of genuine repentance.

  1. The emotional element.

True repentance will involve our emotions. The catechism speaks of feeling “grief” over our sin and “hatred” of the ways we have offended God. In Scripture, people expressed their sorrow for their sin in various ways. Sometimes they wept. Sometimes they fasted. At times they clothed themselves in sackcloth and covered themselves in ashes. These were all ways of expressing deep sorrow over the ways they had drifted from God. Though we may express our emotions differently than they did, genuine repentance will always touch what we feel.

  1. The rational element.

The catechism also affirms that true repentance involves a realization of our sin. In other words, it is essential that we think about and understand the nature of our wrongdoing. Self-examination and thoughtful reflection are required.

A realization of sin leads Christians to confess their transgressions to God. In the Bible, a common Greek word for “confess” is the word homologeowhich means, “to say the same thing” or “to agree.” When we confess our need for forgiveness, we examine ourselves in the light of God’s Word and agree with the verdict his law renders on our sin. We “say the same thing” about our sin that God does.

Though honest confession may sound intimidating, when we understand the gospel it will not frighten us at all. We know God’s promise that, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9)

  1. The behavioral element.

It is not enough just to feel sad or to say we’re sorry. When we are truly repentant, we will be willing to change our ways. The catechism says that a repentant sinner “turns from [his/her] sin … with full resolve and effort after new obedience.” The Apostle Paul regularly told people that they needed to “demonstrate their repentance by their deeds.” (Acts 26:20)

Self-aware individuals will, of course, realize the impossibility of truly changing their behavior merely through their own effort. As is said in the recovery movement, we need a “higher power.” The Bible tells us where to find this higher power. It promises that when we trust in Christ, God sends his Spirit to dwell within us. The Spirit provides the strength we need to wage war against the impurity and selfishness lodged in our hearts. Romans 8:13 says, “If by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.”

  1. The relational element.

Repentance is not merely turning “from sin.” It is also turning “to God.” Repentance, then, is much more than an essential step toward self-improvement. Repentance is coming home. It is a return to Someone who created us, redeemed us, and loves us dearly. The gospel assures us that, when we return to God in repentance, we are always welcomed by a loving Father with a warm smile on his face and arms opened wide. (See Luke 15:11-24.)