Repentance is for Believers
(Reading time: 8.1 minutes)
Christians will probably agree that for a person to become a child of God, they must repent of their sin and accept Jesus as Lord and Savior. If someone does not repent, I seriously doubt we can call them 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 converting from sinner to saint. Many seem to think 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 doesn’t mean we should continuously apologize to God for every human thing we do, although that might not be a bad idea at times.
As we saw in the first article in this series, biblical repentance is the process of literally transforming our minds; that is, changing the way we think and what we think about. It includes rejecting the world’s attitudes, values, standards and priorities, and embracing God’s.
Repenting is a process, not an isolated event. As we mature and become more like our Father God, we’ll continue to discover what we need to change. Let me suggest an attitude we 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 problems and prevent us from becoming more like God. It’s been said, repentance is believers’ territory. Let’s examine the scriptures to see whether this statement is justified.
Jesus was teaching his disciples some basic principles of the kingdom when he said something that can be tough to accept. “If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them” (Luke 17:3-4, NIV). 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 or sister,” another Christian, sinning against you and repenting.
The word “repent” occurs twice in these verses and it’s 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 us. The other person’s forgiveness isn’t what releases us from guilt; our repentance does. But repenting is more than apologizing or feeling sorry; it requires a definite change.
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, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance” (Rom. 2:4). We realize God extends his tolerance and patience to sinners so they might repent and be saved. However, this verse shows that he extends kindness to us believers so we also might repent, or change the way we think.
Think about that for a moment. God isn’t kind to us because we deserve it, but in spite of the fact we don’t. He’s forgiven our sins and is tolerant, patient and kind toward us so we’ll change our 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 expressed 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 quarreling and stopped tolerating sexual immorality. Their repentance, or changed attitudes, changed their behavior.
The opening chapters of Revelation address seven churches and require the believers in them to repent. “Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place” (Rev. 2:5). And then, “Repent therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth” (Rev. 2:16). To another church he says, “Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; hold it fast, and repent” (Rev. 3:3). To still another church he says, “Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and repent” (Rev. 3:19). God tells four of the seven churches of believers to repent.
Repentance is not mystical or mysterious. To repent simply means to change your way of thinking, which is synonymous with renewing your mind.
We read in Romans 1:21, “For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.” And Ephesians 4:17 reads, “So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking.”
Both verses refer to futile thinking by nonbelievers. “Futile” means serving no useful purpose, suggesting a preoccupation with insignificant matters. “Thinking” refers to more than just a person’s ideas. “Futile thinking” means that what they think about is meaningless and that their priorities, standards and values are not worthwhile.
By whose standard is a person’s thinking worthless or futile? God’s. His kingdom is the ultimate reality and will prevail over everything else, so anything opposed to God’s kingdom is futile. Because everyone is born with a sinful or carnal nature, their thinking originally is opposed to God’s kingdom and is therefore futile.
Paul wrote the following: “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things” (Phil. 4:8). What standard can we use for what is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent and praiseworthy? God’s standard is the only legitimate one; any other standard is futile.
We can tell when a Christian’s thinking is futile and perverts kingdom principles. The person becomes self-focused, self-assertive, domineering, or critical of those who don’t believe the same way. They emphasize what they are able to do in Christ: “I can do all this through him who gives me strength” (Phil. 4:13), emphasizing “I” instead of Christ. That is carnal Christianity, which is an oxymoron. Because God will not share his glory, it seems likely that he won’t use such a person for long, if at all. Our focus must always be on God doing the work, and we must consider it an honor that he does it through us.
It’s common for people to talk about the authority we have in Christ. How God enables us to live a victorious life and do mighty works for him. How we should put on the armor of God and resist the enemy. How we should raise the dead, heal the sick and cast out devils. I agree we participate in God’s work; that he chose to work through us rather than angels. But it’s possible for a subtle, dangerous change to occur in these kingdom truths when we focus them on ourselves.
Jesus said all authority in heaven and on earth had been given to him; therefore we’re to go and do his work. In effect, he delegated authority to us to work in his behalf, relying on his power to do kingdom work, not our power doing our work. We must learn to think like servants: “I’m an unworthy servant and I’ve only done my duty” (see Luke 17:10). That dictates a radical change in how we think.
God says it’s possible for us to live on an entirely different level by being like Jesus. From our current vantage point, we can’t even imagine what that would be like or how to get there. However, that’s God’s desire for us and he’ll do the work in us if we’ll do our part by repenting.
Now is the time to submit ourselves to the process, even though we have no idea what the results will be like, simply because we trust our Father. The process of transformation will be difficult as we reject the ungodly motivations and desires we developed before we turned to Christ. We must constantly be vigilant to avoid indulging old attitudes and behavior. And for the rest of our lives, we’ll continue learning to use our new nature more effectively.
The world applies constant pressure to get us to accept its way of thinking. To offset this pressure, we must take forceful action and aggressively change our thinking until it conforms to God’s thoughts. Doing that will be more than worthwhile.
It’s been said the first casualty in a conflict is truth. Imagine a conflict between two Christians, each of whom honestly believes the other is wrong.
- Explain how self-centeredness might cause them to view the facts (truth) differently.
- If both parties repented, what results could they realistically expect?
- How could habitually practicing repentance prevent conflicts from occurring?
The New Testament directs most of its statements about repentance to believers, and it repeatedly encourages us to repent.