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What Happened to Repentance?

I had the privilege of speaking to a group of students recently and I conveyed to them my deep concern that repentance has become largely lost in this generation. My concern was verified as I listened to Christian students share openly and honestly about the rarity of repentance in their lives. I went around a circle and noted how often students gave themselves a “D” or an “F” when it came to the concept of repentance.

This deeply concerns me because where there is no repentance, there can be no true relationship with Christ.

Throughout the New Testament, the concept of repentance is clearly communicated. The beginning of the ministries of both John the Baptist and Jesus began with a call to repentance. John preached, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2). A few verses later, Jesus begins his ministry by preaching, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). Repentance is confirmed in the Apostles teaching. On the Day of Pentecost In Acts 2:38, Peter preached to the masses proclaiming, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.” Even Paul emphasizes repentance in several of his letters.

What is repentance, and why is it so important for our faith?

Repentance comes from the Greek word metanoia which means to change one’s mind, to change direction, or to convert. This implies a stronger action than simply being “sorry.” Repentance is birthed out of a realization of sin, a sorrow for sin, a desire to turn away from that sin, and a yearning to be cleansed from sin.

Scripture clearly teaches in several places that repentance is the first step in the process of salvation. As I mentioned earlier, repentance was a theme in the ministry of Jesus. Luke 15:7 records Jesus telling the parable of the lost sheep. At the end of the parable Jesus says, “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need to repentance.” The clear distinction that Jesus makes between the outwardly religious and the truly saved hinges on the act of repentance. It is the first step in saving faith.

In his final words to his disciples in Luke 24:46-47 Jesus said, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations.” It was repentance that paved the way for forgiveness and salvation to the nations.

Paul also understood that repentance was the precursor to salvation. In 2 Corinthians 7:10 Paul writes, “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation…” Later in his letter to Timothy Paul demonstrates again the concept of repentance preceding salvation, “God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy 2:25).

Why is repentance important?

Repentance is the precursor to authentic faith. Without repentance, there is no authentic faith.

So clearly, repentance is paramount to saving faith. Yet, as important as it is, repentance is not consistently nor commonly talked about. The Gospel is often presented as a gift of God granted to sinners for the forgiveness of sins and eternal life. This leads many to view the Gospel as the means to a happy and fulfilled life.

Salvation is a gift from God. Salvation is granted to sinners for forgiveness of sins. Salvation does offer the blessing of eternal life. Salvation does bring a deep joy and peace. But salvation is accessed by faith birthed from repentance.

Could it be that there are some professing Christians who “received” the Gospel without understanding repentance?

The scary truth is that this is all too common. What is even scarier is that the result is a “Christianity” clothed with the outer trappings of religiosity but void of true sorrow for sin.

R.C. Sproul noted that in the Old Testament the outward sign of repentance was conveyed through the rending of a garment. He emphasizes that the New Testament conveys the truth that it is not enough to tear one’s clothes as a sign of repentance; the heart must be torn as well.[1]

Christianity is repentance. And if a person has faith but not repentance, that person does not have authentic faith.[2]

Sproul writes, “The prayer of repentance is the refuge for the believer.”[3] It is the refuge because it is the place where a believer receives forgiveness and cleansing. Therefore, it is the godly response of one who knows that he is in sin, and should mark the lives of all who are converted.[4]

I pray that this generation would be drawn by the Holy Spirit towards true repentance.

May the faith of this generation not be one that is shallow or lacking, but may it be rich and true and birthed from a repentance that produces authentic faith.

[1] R.C. Sproul, What is Repentance (Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust, 2014), 11.

[2] Ibid., 31.

[3] Ibid., 25.

[4] Ibid., 25.

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