Repentance is for Believers

Summary: The New Testament statements about repentance are mostly directed to believers.

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Cover, Transforming Your Mind

The following is an excerpt from a book by Larry Fox, Transforming Your Mind (Copyright © 2009).

Christians will probably all agree that for a person to become a child of God, he must repent of his sin and accept Jesus as his Lord and Savior. If someone does not repent, I seriously doubt that we can call him a Christian, because we consider repentance essential to salvation.

Unfortunately, many of us treat repentance as a once-in-a-lifetime event, a step in the process of converting from sinner to saint. It almost seems that repentance is no longer necessary once a person’s sins are forgiven. However, that first act of repenting should set the pattern for an attitude of repentance.

This is not to suggest that we should continuously apologize to God for every human thing we do, although that might not be a bad idea at times. The biblical concept of repentance is much broader than that. The Greek word translated “repent” is the compound word metanoeo. The first part of the word (meta-) indicates a change or transformation and appears in many English words, such as “metamorphosis,” which means a change in condition. The second part of metanoeo is from the root word nous, which we translate as “mind.” So metanoeo literally means to change your mind, and by extension means to turn about, to express regret or adopt another view.

Whenever the Bible says you should repent or turn away from unrighteousness, its main emphasis is on your will, changing your mind or purpose. To turn to God you must understand the nature of sin and be aware of your personal guilt. The concepts of sin and righteousness are originally perceived spiritually, but understanding and awareness of them are functions of the mind. The fact that God demands repentance shows that it involves your mind; it is something you must choose to do.

Metanoeo suggests more than just rejecting your former position or attitude, and includes turning to and embracing a new one. It means to change your mind, not cease to have one. A Christian’s mind plays a vital role in his relationship with God as he learns what God expects of him and chooses to please Him.

When you accepted Jesus as Savior, He erased the record of your sins, set you free from the law of sin and death and replaced your sinful nature with a righteous one. You became a new creature, your basic motivation changed and you were born again. You have only one nature, not two. Figuratively speaking, your sinful nature died with Jesus on the cross, so it is gone and no longer controls or even affects you. However, the results or by-products of your former sinful nature still remain: sinful attitudes, behaviors, desires, habits, instincts, perceptions, feelings, tendencies, memories and thoughts. Your task is to repent, to reject that sinful mindset and replace it with a righteous one.

Repenting is a process, not an isolated event. As you mature and become more like your Father (God), you will continue to discover things you need to change. Let me suggest an attitude you can change right now. Instead of viewing this as a frustrating, never ending struggle to make God happy, consider it an extended opportunity to get rid of those attitudes that cause you problems and prevent you from becoming more like God. As my pastor says, “Repentance is believers’ territory.” Let’s examine the scriptures to see whether his statement is justified.

Jesus was teaching His disciples some basic principles of the kingdom when He said something that is tough to swallow. “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, ‘I repent,’ forgive him” (Luke 17:3-4). This shocked the disciples because they responded, “Increase our faith!” (v. 5). Maybe you had the same reaction. I want to point out that Jesus was talking about “your brother,” another Christian, sinning against you and repenting.

The word “repent” (metanoeo) occurs twice in these verses and it is something done by a believer. And now that we know what the word means, we can see that Jesus is talking about more than apologizing and asking someone to forgive you. For one thing, the other person’s forgiveness is not what releases you from guilt; your repentance does. But to repent is to do more than apologize or be sorry; it requires a definite change.

Have you ever apologized for something you did and said you were sorry, but you had no desire to change? This probably happens frequently with children whose parents teach them to apologize. In most cases, the child probably regrets getting caught more than he regrets having offended someone, but he still needs to learn to apologize. More important, he needs to learn to repent, to decide to change his behavior. The purpose of punishment is to help him decide to change, because most of us would never learn to repent on our own.

Paul wrote the Book of Romans to the saints in Rome, whose “faith is being reported all over the world” (Rom. 1:8). He longed to see them so they “may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith” (v. 12). Yet Paul reprimanded them for showing “contempt for the riches of [God's] kindness, tolerance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness leads you toward repentance” (Rom. 2:4). We realize that God extends His tolerance and patience to sinners so they might repent and be saved, but this verse states that He treats us in a similar way so we might also repent. This verse also shows that He extends kindness to believers so they might repent, or change the way they think.

Think about that for a moment. God isn’t kind to you because you deserve it, but in spite of the fact that you don’t. He has forgiven your sins and is tolerant, patient and kind toward you so you will change your mind about sin.

Paul took a similar stand with the believers in Corinth. In one of the letters he wrote them, he tried to correct some of their attitudes that were resulting in jealousy, quarreling and tolerance of sexual immorality. In a follow-up letter, he expresses happiness that they had changed their attitudes. “I am happy, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance. For you became sorrowful as God intended and so were not harmed in any way by us” (2 Cor. 7:9). When Paul exposed their attitudes, they became sorrowful and repented; that is, they stopped their quarreling and they stopped tolerating the sexual immorality. Their repentance, or changed attitudes, changed their behavior.

There is a clear relationship between changed attitudes and changed behavior. What you do is not as important as who you are, because your attitudes determine your actions. It is clear from the Old Testament that doing all the right things and performing all the right ceremonies does nothing to change a person’s attitudes. That is why the New Testament’s emphasis is on your attitudes and character. John the Baptist told the Pharisees and Sadducees, “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matt. 3:8). Similarly, Paul said, “I preached that they should repent and turn to God and prove their repentance by their deeds” (Acts 26:20). Your actions are not only consistent with your attitude; they actually reveal your attitude. If you repent, your changed attitude will change your behavior.

If you want further evidence that God requires believers to repent, consider the opening chapters of the Book of Revelation, which are addressed to seven churches. “Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent (metanoeo) and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent (metanoeo), I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place” (Rev. 2:5). To another church he says, “Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; obey it, and repent (metanoeo)” (Rev. 3:3). To still another church he says, “Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and repent (metanoeo)” (Rev. 2:16; 3:19). God tells four of the seven churches to repent.

One of these verses shows that believers will suffer the consequences if they do not repent: “If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.” God expects his people to repent, to change their attitude and outlook on life and then change their behavior.

A related word is metanoia, which usually is translated “repentance” or “conversion.” It literally means your thinking has been converted. So if your thinking did not change significantly, you were not converted. This shows that changing your mind is crucial to your salvation.

Repentance is not mystical or mysterious. To repent simply means to change your way of thinking, which is virtually synonymous with renewing your mind. You can start with a sinful attitude and renew it, changing it with God’s help to a godly attitude.

(End of book excerpt)