“Repent ye therefore, and turn again, that your sins may be blotted out, that so there may come seasons of refreshing from the presence of the Lord” (Acts 3:19).
Perhaps you have come to hear about the life, death, resurrection, and lordship of Jesus of Nazareth. You find the story compelling; you recognize its truth. You are willing to put your trust in Jesus, but what does that look like? What must we do? According to Jesus and His Apostles, we begin with repentance (Matthew 4:17, Acts 2:38, 3:19).
What does it mean to repent? A lot of confusion exists on account of the distinctions between the English word and its Greek antecedent. In English, “to repent” primarily means “to express sorrow or regret” according to Webster. The Greek term is more expansive: metanoeo, defined by Thayer’s as “to change one’s mind; to change one’s mind for better, heartily to amend with abhorrence of one’s past sins.” Metanoeo, then, refers not just to sorrow felt but also a change of mind.
This change of mind is almost universally equated with a mental determination at conversion to no longer walk in the futility of sin and to begin walking in “newness of life” (cf. Romans 6:3-7). Repentance looks forward: we make the mental decision to no longer walk as we previously walked, but instead to follow after Jesus, fully manifesting trust in Him (1 John 2:3-6).
Therefore, whereas repentance is a mental determination, it cannot remain simply a mental phenomenon. We must act on our repentance; in so doing we bear fruit worthy of repentance (Luke 3:8). Furthermore, repentance cannot be just a one-time event; repentance must be continual. If we truly repent, we do not just make a new mental resolution, nor do we simply change our actions; we also must change how we think and how we perceive the world (2 Corinthians 10:5). In this way we “put to death” the way we used to live, called “the man of sin,” which is set on the things of the flesh and thinking worldly things in worldly ways. When we repent, we begin to “walk in newness of life,” not just by doing different things, but also by seeing the world differently. Repentance is indeed a “change of mind”; to fully repent, we change our worldview and perspective.
By looking at repentance in its full meaning, we better understand how repentance from sin can work. While we strive to sin no more (cf. Matthew 5:48), repentance involves the process of going from a mind set on sin to a mind set free from sin and captive to God (cf. Romans 6:16-23). If our fundamental perspective is based on being servants of God, we will look at sin accordingly in its ugliness. We will be tempted, and indeed we will succumb at times, but if we maintain the attitude in keeping with repentance we will do what we can to remove it from our lives (1 John 1:6-8).
Repentance is critical, for it is in repentance that the new believer looks to the future. Baptism proves essential in order to obtain cleansing for what has been done in the past (Acts 2:38, Romans 6:3-7); repentance looks forward to following Jesus from then onward. If we get baptized but do not grow in the faith, do not devote ourselves to spiritual matters, do not spend time learning about the Lord and practicing the faith, and therefore do not change the way we look at the world and ourselves, what will happen when temptations or trials come? We will most likely fall away (cf. Matthew 13:5, 20-21; 1 Corinthians 2:12-16). But what happens if we commit ourselves fully to repentance when we begin to follow the Lord Jesus as Christians? We will be able to better withstand temptations and trials if we have participated in the faith, learned in the assemblies and through our own study, associated with and encouraged our fellow Christians, and have walked as the Lord walked. We will have begun “thinking Biblically” and acting in godly ways; we will see the world and themselves differently (cf. Hebrews 5:14). We will be better able to stand firm against the Evil One and his devices (Ephesians 6:10-18).
It should be manifest that we cannot reach this level of development in the faith by changes in action alone. While changes in action are good, God is more interested in a change of mind; such is metanoeo, repentance. If we develop a godly worldview, mindset, and attitude, godly actions will follow. Change in action without a change in mind will not suffice, for such is not complete repentance.
Repentance is critical if we are going to be saved. Yes, we must express sorrow for the sins we have committed. Yes, we must make the mental determination to change our mind and our actions to conform to Christ. Nevertheless, until we have reformed our mind to think according to the things of God and to have a godly worldview, perspective, and attitude, we have not yet fully repented (Romans 12:2). If we no longer think according to the flesh, we will not act according to the flesh, and sin no longer represents a lifestyle but instead an occasional stumbling (cf. 1 John 1:8-10). Let us then bear fruit worthy of repentance (Acts 26:20): let us change our minds and how we view the world, follow the Lord Jesus, and thus be conformed to His image!
Ethan R. Longhenry