Repentance recurs regularly in the Bible. In the New Testament, the Greek word translated repentance is metanoia (μετάνοια), which, in its most basic sense, means “a change of mind.” But as we examine its usage, I think we can see a more precise understanding of all that is involved in that change of mind. I want to point out three parts of this change of mind or, three ingredients of repentance, starting with the first today.
1. Repentance involves remorse over our sinful nature and sinful acts.
There would be no need for repentance if there were no authority, who held no standard, or if we were perfectly obedient to that standard. One of the reasons repentance is not a regular topic of conversation is because we have a relativistic (without one standard) and pluralistic (without one authority) mindset. Biblical repentance recognizes that God is the authority and that His Word is the law.
According to His Word, we are all guilty of disobeying His standard. The very first man God created broke the only rule he was given within the first few days of his existence. Since then, we are sinners by nature. We inherit a sinful nature from Adam. Even more, that nature inevitably causes us to act, and the more we act, the greater our slavery to sin. All of us have sinned. None of us, not even one, does good. We are all guilty.
Repentance begins with a humble, sorrowful acknowledgement of our condition and conduct. The acknowledgment is what we call confession.
If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. (1 John 1:8-10)
1 John is addressed to believers, which means that even after salvation, confession or acknowledgment of sin is an ongoing need. The fact is, “Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy” (Proverbs 28:13). Confession is a part of repentance, not separate from it. I draw that conclusion because John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2). In verse six, those who responded to his message were being baptized and “confessing their sins.” Confessing our sin, therefore, is part of repenting from our sin.
But as I said, it is to be a humble acknowledgment. Again, the “kingdom of heaven” was at stake in Matthew 3:2. Jesus preached the same message about the kingdom connected with personal repentance in Matthew 4:17. Then in Matthew 5:3, the kingdom of heaven is constituted by the “poor in spirit.” In other words, God’s people are spiritually humble people. These blessed ones also “mourn” (Matthew 5:4), presumably over their sin. A truly repentant person is broken over his sinful condition.
Grief, sorrow, and mourning are clearly connected by Paul in 2 Corinthians 7:8-10.
For even if I made you grieve with my letter, I do not regret it—though I did regret it, for I see that that letter grieved you, though only for a while. As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting. For you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no loss through us. For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.
The apostle had written to confront their sin. They responded with sorrow. The acknowledgement of sin, of having violated the standard and offending the Authority, is not an unaffected, cold assessment. It includes remorse, that is, deep regret for a wrong committed. Repentance involves heavy, broken-hearted sorrow. Job illustrated this attitude when, after God confronted him for four chapters, he exclaimed, “I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6).
But grief, in and of itself, does not equal repentance. There is a “worldly grief” that leads to death. It is possible to be sorry and not repent. It’s possible to feel bad, to have pangs of conscience due to sin, and still not be repenting. Augustine spent at least nine years previous to his conversion overwhelmed by sorrow, but not yet repenting from his sin.
For that matter, fear of hell does not equal repentance. Augustine asserted that, “A man who is afraid of sinning because of Hell-fire, is afraid, not of sinning, but of burning” (quoted in Brown, 372). Repentance involves godly grief, remorse over our sinful nature and acts. That isn’t all.