(Reading time: 8.9 minutes)
God has a plan to redeem humanity, buying us back from our enslavement to sin, replacing our sinful nature with godly nature, and restoring us to his image. Our repentance is essential to that process, but it may not be what you expect.
Many Christians think repentance is confessing one’s sins, or turning around and going the opposite direction. But the Greek word translated “repent” in the New Testament is a compound word, in which the first part means to change or transform, and the second part refers to one’s mind or thinking. So repentance in the New Testament literally means transforming our minds, or changing the way we think and what we think about. Confessing our sins or doing things differently are results of repentance, not its definition. As we’ll see in these articles, repentance is our responsibility; not something God does for us.
God has done absolutely everything he needs to do for us. He defeated our enemy, Satan. He set us free from our enslavement to sin. He adopted us into his family, making us his legal heirs. He made his resources available to us. So the only barrier to our success as believers is thinking differently than he does. That’s why we must learn how to repent.
Christianity is not a supplement to normal life, something we add to everything else we do. Rather, it’s an intimate relationship with God Almighty. It should permeate everything we do and influence every attitude and action. It’s not a weekly social engagement on Sunday morning or a traditional prayer before meals that buys us a ticket to heaven. Christianity is at odds with the entire world system, normal human thinking and attitudes, which is why God insists that we change the way we think.
The Apostle Paul made a clear contrast between conforming and transforming. “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will” (Rom. 12:2, NIV).
We’ve conformed our lives to the pattern of this world, the spiritual and moral characteristics of our environment. We’ve thought the same way the world thinks and developed the same attitudes. We’ve studied its wisdom and copied its fashions and mannerisms, but now is the time to stop. Instead of continuing to conform to the world system, we can and must transform, which occurs as we renew our minds, radically adjusting the way we think.
What do people in the world think about? They think about themselves and how to get what they want. They compare themselves with others to measure their own worth. This is all based on self-centeredness.
Paul explains what we should do instead. “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you” (Rom. 12:3). This addresses our self-image, how we think about ourselves. It suggests that the only standard of judging ourselves is that which God empowers us through faith to do. We simply can’t compare ourselves with anyone else, as the world does.
In Second Corinthians, Paul described some hardships he suffered and discussed the hope of resurrection. Then he made a significant statement: “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Cor. 4:16–18).
Notice the change in perspective Paul described. He contrasted what he called light and momentary troubles with eternal glory. Elsewhere in this letter Paul listed some of his “light and momentary troubles”: he was flogged five times, beaten with rods three times, shipwrecked three times, and once he was stoned and left for dead (2 Cor. 11:24-25). We would call any of these life-threatening experiences catastrophic, yet Paul called them all light and momentary troubles.
He wasn’t suggesting those experiences were painless or insignificant in themselves. His point was that they were earning for him “an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.” The pain of those experiences was “light” compared to the glory he would experience. The years of suffering were “momentary” compared to eternity.
Paul’s message was about priorities and perspective, based on the way he thought. The correct perspective tells us that what is eternal and unseen is more important than anything we experience in this life. Paul’s response was to fix his eyes on what is unseen, which means he made spiritual and eternal matters the center of his attention.
The Holy Spirit actively helps us renew our minds, as shown by the following scripture. “At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:3–5).
Foolishness, disobedience, deception, preoccupation with passions and pleasures, malice, envy, and hatred all have to do with the way we thought before salvation. We used to think just like the world, but he saved us “through the washing of rebirth” and the Holy Spirit began to renew us. Our redemption began with spiritual rebirth, continues as we renew our minds, and will be complete when the Lord gives us new bodies. The current phase involves renewing our mind, and is a crucial part of our redemption.
“And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:18). The word “transformed” is the same as in Romans 12:2, “transformed by the renewing of your mind.” It’s part of a process, because it’s “with ever-increasing glory.” The goal of this transformation is for us to have his “likeness,” which means we’ll be like the Lord.
Does this suggest that we can become like Jesus simply by controlling our thoughts or changing the way we think? Not at all. We can’t save ourselves or develop godly character by our own efforts. However, our participation is vital to the process.
God made us free moral agents and he honors our choices. Prior to salvation, we were slaves to sin and unable to exercise our will except to indulge in sin. But now the Son has set us free and we can choose between right and wrong. If we choose to serve ourselves, God lets us. If we choose to let him do his work in us, then the Holy Spirit can develop godly nature in us. We’re to work out our own salvation (Phil. 2:12), but God does the actual work as we do our part. It’s a joint effort, and our role is to reprogram our minds. We need to change what we think about, plus our attitudes, values, standards, and priorities.
Here’s another passage addressesing the process. “You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph. 4:22–24). “Put off” means we’re to get rid of our old ways and “put on” essentially means to dress ourselves with something that’s not inherently part of us. It specifically refers to an attitude of our minds that is righteous and holy. Both phrases, “put off” and “put on,” are imperatives, so we’re responsible for changing the attitude of our own minds, which by definition is repentance.
With our worldly mindset demanding we think, say and do whatever we want, and our culture encouraging us to do so, it’ll take great effort to change. But we must change and we can, because God never asks us to do something he doesn’t help us do.
As stated earlier, biblical repentance literally is transforming our minds, or changing the way we think and what we think about. It’s our responsibility and something we must choose to do. God honors our free will and helps us repent, but doesn’t do it for us.
I suggest there are two aspects of repentance we must consider. One is a general transformation in which we conform our thinking, attitudes and perspectives to scripture. To the New Testament, in particular, because it vividly reveals God’s nature, mindset and behavior. We achieve this by studying the Bible – not just casually reading it – and through prayer and meditation. As we learn more about God and our relationship with him develops, we become aware of specific changes we need to make.
In addition to that general transformation, we repent specifically by strongly rejecting our sinful thinking and its resulting behaviors. God typically brings a specific problem or group of related problems to our attention so we can repent of it. It’s important to identify that sin by name, consciously reject it, accept God’s forgiveness, and receive his help overcoming it. Then repeat as needed, because repetition is a key to success. As we gain victory in one area, God will bring another to our attention. He does this gradually so we don’t feel overwhelmed and give up.
As we reject an ungodly way of thinking, we must replace it with a godly one. Repentance isn’t just eliminating old ways, but transforming our ways from old to new. For example, if I hate someone, I need to replace that hatred with godly love for them. As I learn more about God’s nature and perspective, and my relationship with him improves, I begin to see people differently; more like he does. Then I begin to see why my old perspective is unacceptable and I gladly choose to repent of it.
Because God loves us, he never requires more of us than we can handle. And as our thinking becomes increasingly like his and we realize how much he’s done for us, our love, respect and appreciation for him will grow more than we can imagine.
Repentance is not just a responsibility, but a privilege and an opportunity we have as God’s children.
Biblical repentance is the process of literally transforming our minds; that is, changing the way we think and what we think about. It includes reprogramming our attitudes, values, standards, and priorities to conform to God’s.