What is Repentance?

Because my series on biblical counseling has been so intense, I wanted to take a brief break to talk about repentance. Given some of the BCM material I will be covering in future posts, I think this topic fits in nicely.

The Church talks a lot about repentance, as well it should. It is one of Christianity’s cornerstones, recalling that Christ came “not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:32). However, whenever the word “repentance” is tossed around, I sometimes feel a bit like Indigo Montoya from Princess Bride:

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

So, today, I want to talk about what repentance means and what it looks like.

The problem in the Church is that people often mistake confession or apology for repentance. True, repentance begins with an acknowledgment of wrongdoing. But confession is not repentance. Neither is apologizing for offense repentance. According to the Strong’s Concordance, almost anytime the word “repentance” is used in the New Testament, it means “reversal.” In other words, a repentant person will not just acknowledge his or her wrong, but will immediately reverse the wrong behavior. Also encapsulated in the Strong’s definition is compunction, or a genuine feeling of remorse for the pain that was caused by the offense.

Too many times, hurting people have been urged to reconcile with oppressors and abusers because “he said he was sorry.” Church leaders and counselors, in a hurry to ‘restore’ broken relationships, have been fooled into thinking that confession equals repentance. But repentance isn’t something that comes out of one’s mouth. It is a total transformation of attitude, action and character. That’s why we have these verses in the Bible:

“‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.’” ~ Matthew 15:8-9, Isaiah 29:13

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” ~ Matthew 7:21-23

“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” ~ Luke 3:7-9

So if a person says they are sorry but continues to act in the same hurtful way, he or she has not repented. And scripture obligates no one to reconcile with an unrepentant abuser. In fact, just the opposite:

But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people. ~ 1 Corinthians 5:11

When One is Unrepentant

How can you know if someone is truly repentant? Look for the fruit. For instance, a repentant person should never do the following things:

– Display a bad attitude.

– Make excuses as to why he/she committed the offense.

– Blame or demand that others take responsibility for their share in the offense.

– Suggest that he/she may commit the offense again if certain conditions aren’t met.

– Expect or demand immediate forgiveness or reconciliation based solely on his/her apology.

– Whine about being persecuted or misunderstood.

– Complain when forgiveness or reconciliation is not extended to him/her by a certain time.

– Accuse his/her victim(s) of being unreasonable, bitter or hardhearted.

– Shift focus to the flaws in others.

– Use his/her status as ‘repentant’ to gain allies or draw attention to oneself.

When One is Repentant

However, a repentant person will demonstrate fruit in keeping with that repentance, such as:

– Exude an attitude of humility and gentleness.

– Take full responsibility for his/her offense without excuse.

– Acknowledge the pain of those hurt by his/her offense.

– Listen to and respect the feelings and boundaries of others.

– Submit willingly and eagerly to constructive feedback and accountability.

– Work patiently and lovingly to restore trust in broken relationships, even if that means distancing oneself for a time.

– Seek help for areas in which he/she struggles.

– Refrain from repeating the offensive behavior.

Let me say this again: No one is obligated to reconcile with an unrepentant abuser or offender. Not only is it unhealthy and dangerous, it is unbiblical. God Himself does not reconcile with the unrepentant, even those who do works in His name. The Apostle Paul is likewise clear: “Expel the wicked person from among you” (1 Corinthians 5:13).

Repentance cannot be adequately demonstrated in a 30-second come-to-Jesus chat session. Repentance is more than words; it is a complete reversal of behavior, a transformation of character. Don’t be led astray by those claiming to be repentant simply because they issued a public apology. Look for the fruit. Settle for nothing less.

For more on this topic, visit A Cry for Justice. Be blessed today. 🙂

12 responses to “What is Repentance?

  1. Unfortunately, it’s the one in power that gets to decide who is in need of repentance. My family demanded all of your proper repentance actions from me. I was to have a humble attitude, admit to my offense, accept the blame for my family’s pain without excuse, submit to their advice, listen to their feelings, work on trying to fix our relationship, etc. And every time I failed or began to protest, I was being unrepentant and would be subject to more spiritual pressure and emotional manipulation. What was the offense I had committed against them? I was in a homosexual relationship.

    Having the right definition of repentance does little good in practice for many situations, I think. These definitions can be turned around on the victim just as easily. My family would have said that I had a bad attitude, I kept trying to shift the blame to them, etc. These definitions are just as likely to be used to harm as to help. What do you think?

    • Yes, I have seen this happen. It is abhorrent. That’s why I focused this post on abusers – people who intentionally hurt or manipulate others (or withhold justice or charity). Your family saw your homosexuality as a personal offense to them, but they were wrong. You weren’t in the relationship to hurt or embarrass them. The fact that they felt that way and demanded change for their sake shows that the problem was theirs, not yours.

      But the definition is helpful for those dealing with abusers, who are told that an apology is sufficient for reconciliation.

      Thanks for the comment. It’s a relevant point.

      • That’s fair. I guess that abusers demanding that victims accept their apology as sufficient for reconciliation and abusers that demand the victim themselves needs to repent do have a common theme: they tend to be the ones in power. They maybe have emotional power over the victim or authority in the church or any number of other positions that give them leverage to manipulate the victim into being helpless. These definitions are probably helpful to someone who feels pressured to reconcile, at least to accept that they are not in the wrong and they have a right to set their own boundaries. Unfortunately, as long as the church often continues to support power hierarchies, the victim will still likely be punished or shunned for bucking the system and refusing to reconcile. It’s a power problem in the end. I wish voices like yours were more listened to in the church. Then maybe I’d be willing to consider going back to one some day.

  2. Reading this made me want to clap and sing and shout AMEN! My abusers insisted that they were reconciled with me because they’d said they were sorry I felt hurt! Therefore, I was the evil one (again!) because I “broke the power of our reconciliation, instigated by Jesus” by asking for actions to back up the words which had been spoken!

  3. On a car trip, my nine year old was reading a story (unremembered title) about an Indian boy who had saved his money to buy his grandmother (caregiver) a box of candy. The shopkeeper sold him a dying calf ( which died on the trip home) the whole time proclaiming that he could be trusted because he was a “good Christian” man. When the grandfather asked the child what lesson he had learned, he said, “Don’t trust Christians?”
    That is to me the quintessential problem, the abusers claim to be “good Christians” but do not live a life I would want to emulate on any level. As my partner and I withdraw from toxic family interactions, see clearly the dances of anger and blame that we are no longer interested in playing, we simply keep our thoughts, opinions and judgements to ourselves, look at the roots of where they come from and basically turn it over to Gods judgement and be as loving as we can. Judgements hurt me, leave me with the damage, but toxicity of blame and shaming cannot be underestimated.

  4. “But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us.” I John 1:7-10 NKJV

    It is HIs Light we seek ~ Amen :Y

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