From that time began Jesus to preach, and to say, “Repent ye; for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” (Matthew 4:17).
The Scriptures make it very clear that God has called all persons everywhere to repent (cf. Acts 17:30). What does it mean to repent? Why is repentance so important in Christianity? Let us explore these questions now.
In English, “to repent” is “to feel sorrow, regret,” according to Webster’s dictionary. When one has an attitude of repentance, one expresses great sorrow for what one has done. This is certainly one aspect of Biblical repentance, but the idea of repentance in the Bible goes further than simple sorrow.
The Greek term that is often translated as “to repent” is metanoeo, defined by Thayer’s Greek Lexicon as “to change one’s mind, to change one’s mind for the better”. Sorrow, then, will certainly be part of repentance, but the Bible demands not just a display of sorrow but the mental determination to do better.
The importance of true and godly repentance can be seen in the contrasting examples of Acts 2 and Acts 7. In both Acts 2 and Acts 7, the Gospel is preached to a group of Jews (Acts 2:16-36, Acts 7:2-53). In both Acts 2 and Acts 7, the Jews were “cut to the heart” (Acts 2:37, Acts 7:54). In Acts 2, however, the Jews responded by asking what they were to do because of what they had done, and therefore became obedient servants of God (Acts 2:37-47), while in Acts 7, the Jews responded in great anger and ended up stoning Stephen (Acts 7:53-60). The Jews in Acts 2 were repentant; the Jews in Acts 7 were just angry. Paul contrasts this “godly repentance” from “worldly sorrow” in 2 Corinthians 7:8-11:
For though I made you sorry with my epistle, I do not regret it: though I did regret it (for I see that that epistle made you sorry, though but for a season), I now rejoice, not that ye were made sorry, but that ye were made sorry unto repentance; for ye were made sorry after a godly sort, that ye might suffer loss by us in nothing. For godly sorrow worketh repentance unto salvation, a repentance which bringeth no regret: but the sorrow of the world worketh death. For behold, this selfsame thing, that ye were made sorry after a godly sort, what earnest care it wrought in you, yea what clearing of yourselves, yea what indignation, yea what fear, yea what longing, yea what zeal, yea what avenging! In everything ye approved yourselves to be pure in the matter.
When we repent in a godly way, we realize that we have done wrong and we need to humble ourselves and seek God’s path (Romans 6:16-18). We realize that following our own way leads to death (Romans 6:23, Proverbs 14:12). When we repent, we determine to change the way we think, with the goal of taking every thought captive to Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5). We cannot think that we can just change our actions and such is enough; if we do not change our mind, our actions will not truly change. When we change how we think, our actions will follow (cf. Matthew 12:34).
Repentance is a major part of ceasing to serve sin and self and turning to serve Christ and gain eternal life. Repentance is critical if we are going to be “crucified with Christ” (Galatians 2:20). Let us repent and bear fruit keeping with repentance!