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Is There More to Repentance Than Feeling Guilty?


Repentance is a key doctrine of Christian faith. From John the Baptist’s wilderness cry in the Gospels (Matt. 3:2, Mark 1:4, Luke 3:3) to Paul’s defense before King Agrippa (Acts 26:20) and beyond, it’s a regular topic of the New Testament’s teaching. In fact, right after His resurrection, Jesus told His disciples, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations” (Luke 24:46–47). A call to repentance, the Lord said, is a fundamental part of Gospel proclamation.

Nevertheless, many Christians don’t seem to understand what repentance is, and even those who believe it’s important tend to embrace an incomplete picture. Some dark and gloomy churches constantly urge confession of sin but never offer the adequate cure. Others urge us to “let go and let God,” rightly treating Jesus as the antidote to loneliness and purposelessness but never really confronting the overarching problem He came to deal with: our sin.

In contrast to both of those incomplete pictures, biblical repentance is a fundamental life change that requires both a turning from sin and a turning to God. It involves both a change of mind and heart and a change of behavior. As we come to understand the fullness of repentance, we can begin to grasp its importance for our Christian walk and ask ourselves the key question: “Have I truly repented?”

Biblical Repentance Means Turning from Sin

Human beings are sinners. We all walk according to our own self-centered concerns unless God renews our hearts. While there may be a religious component to our lives—we may attend church frequently or do good works—at our core we are each going our own way (Isa. 53:6). But if we discover God’s holiness revealed in His law and commandments, we will recognize that we are not meeting God’s standard of right living. Because of that, we are guilty before Him.

It’s common today to suppose that any sense of guilt is counterproductive and wrong. While there is a pathological sense of guilt from which we need to be set free, we also do indeed bear real guilt before God. When we sense this guilt, we shouldn’t ignore it, nor should we think we have done enough simply by feeling it. We need to respond to it. Understanding our guilt opens the door to the possibility of forgiveness and liberation as we turn from the sin that made us guilty in the first place.

A biblical response to guilt involves an internal change first and an external change second. The Westminster Confession describes this well when it says, “A sinner, out of the sight and sense, not only of the danger, but also of the filthiness and odiousness of his sins, as contrary to the holy nature and righteous law of God, and upon the apprehension of His mercy in Christ to such as are penitent, so grieves for, and hates his sins…” This is an internal response to sin, a change in outlook and affections. And it results in a change of behavior: “… so grieves for, and hates his sins, as to turn from them all.”1 Repentance, in other words, is more than simply sorrow at having been found out or regret for bad choices in the past. Godly sorrow for our sin will cause us to hate sin and to turn and seek to do right (2 Cor. 7:10).

Understanding our guilt opens the door to the possibility of forgiveness and liberation as we turn from the sin that made us guilty in the first place.

Biblical Repentance Means Turning to God

Of course, we may understand our predicament before God, come to a point of remorse, and reject our former sin and yet not be fully repentant. It is not enough that we only turn from sin; we must also turn to God. As the Westminster Confession continues its definition of repentance, it says this very thing: “A sinner … grieves for, and hates his sins, so as to turn from them all unto God, purposing and endeavoring to walk with Him in all the ways of His commandments.”

Sin is not a problem that human beings can overcome in their own power. The Bible describes us as dead in our sins and by nature deserving of God’s wrath (Eph. 2:1, 3). Unless God in His grace draws us to Himself and makes us alive in Christ (Eph. 2:5), renewing our minds (Rom. 12:2) and transforming us into new creations (2 Cor. 5:17), sin will keep its grip on us, no matter how hard we resolve to escape it. Ultimately, turning from sin without turning to God results only in disillusionment. It’s dangerously possible to engage in all kinds of religious pursuits without experiencing real transformation, maintaining a sense of wretched independence from God even as we struggle to overcome sin. It is a dreadful predicament.

The about-turn of repentance requires that we entrust ourselves completely to the only one who can rescue us. The revelation of God’s holiness should produce within not only a sense of guilt but also, and more amazingly, a discovery of the Gospel: that the Lord Jesus died to be the Savior of those who know themselves to be guilty. That is why the Gospel is good news. We have not been left on our own to try to live a holy life that would be impossible for us to live. Through Christ’s death, resurrection, and exaltation, God has done what we could not accomplish on our own.

Turning from sin without turning to God results only in disillusionment.

In the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15), we see both aspects of repentance. The younger son was in a grave predicament: he was in a pigsty in a foreign land, dreadfully hungry and with no one who cared to help him. He was in this situation because he had turned his back on his father. When he recognized the mess he had made of his life, he did not simply turn from his recklessness and stay in a position of regret. Repentance brought the young man back up along the road of his sinful wanderings to his father’s house. And in a show of God-like grace, the father rescued him from his plight—just as God, our heavenly Father, does for us in Christ.

Biblical Repentance Is Grave, Sincere, and Practical

If we understand biblical repentance to be a matter of turning from sin and turning to God, three important implications follow.

First, repentance is a matter of grave urgency. When John the Baptist preached repentance in the desert, he said to the crowds,

You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our father.” For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. (Luke 3:7–9)

This was a harsh word, but it was and is a necessary one: we must repent or face God’s judgment. It was the staggering nature of John’s message that caused him to address his listeners in such fearless and pointed terms. Human beings in their sin are in a grave circumstance. They face the prospect of condemnation. That is not a reality we can tiptoe around. No one whispers at a house fire, “Is anybody in there?” The coming judgment for our sins is dire, and the message of repentance is urgent. We must heed it, and we must proclaim it.

But repentance must also be matter of sincerity. It is hypocrisy to want forgiveness for our sins without deliverance from them. This is why John called people to “bear fruit in keeping with repentance”—that is, not simply to say “I repent!” but also to experience the regret and change of affections that results in a change of behavior. It’s not repentance to simply be sorry for being caught, like a child caught with their hand in the cookie jar. No, by God’s grace, we are to regret our sin itself and set our feet in a determined march toward holiness. The Bible says that without holiness we will not see the Lord (Heb. 12:14). Sincere repentance is necessary to know Jesus now and to see Him in the life to come.

Repentance is a matter of intense practicality.

Thus, repentance is also a matter of intense practicality. When the people asked John, “What then shall we do?” John gave them straightforward instructions. To those who had been self-centered, he said they should instead be marked by generosity. He called the tax collectors to honesty in the amount of money they collected. He called the soldiers to act in grace and kindness and not to use their power for their own purposes. (See Luke 3:10–15.) Biblical repentance, in short, brings about a profound life transformation that will touch every facet of who we are and how we live.

Have Your Repented?

Have you repented like this? Have you been so grieved at your sin that you have turned from it and turned to Christ in full trust? There is no Christian beginning without turning from sin and to God. It involves a complete transformation of our hearts, minds, and purpose as we lean on Christ in total dependence.

If you have repented once, do you repent still? Repentance is both the beginning of the Christian life and its continuation. While our place in Christ is doubtlessly secured when we come to Him in faith, part of what it means to be in Christ is to routinely and readily reject sin as the Holy Spirit makes us aware of it. As we read our Bibles and come to a greater knowledge of God’s holiness, He reveals sin to us that we had been ignorant of before as well as sin that arises from new temptations. A healthy Christian walk involves a habit of self-examination and repentance as we steadily draw nearer to Christ.

Finally, we need to consider whether our repentance has been sincere and so borne itself out in the practicalities of our day-to-day existence. It’s far too easy to know or talk about the Gospel without ever living it. And so, as we walk today, we must ask ourselves, “Am I harboring certain sins and living for myself, or am turning from sin and living for God?”

This article was adapted from the sermons “Repentance — Part One” and “Part Two” by Alistair Begg.

The Basics of the Christian Faith

  1. The Westminster Confession of Faith 15.2.↩︎


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