Repentance -True or False

By Jonathan Michael Dean

Repentance was a message preached throughout redemptive history. The prophets cried out, repent (Eze.18:32); Jesus preached, repent (Mk.1:15); as did the Apostles (Acts 17:30). What were they asking us to do?

Many people are confused by this concept. When asking others what it means to repent, I often get the answer, to confess. Whereas repentance involves confession, confessing our sins is only one aspect of it. 

What is it not?

There are three well-known examples in scripture of false repentance. Esau, Judas, and Simon the Sorcerer…

Simon the Sorcerer

Simon the Sorcerer is the worst of the three. Simon the Sorcerer was exactly what his name conveys -he was a sorcerer who led many astray in Samaria by his tricks. But when Simon saw the power of Philp the Evangelist and heard the message, he believed and was baptized -or so we think…

Later when Peter arrived in Samaria, He laid his hands on the people to receive the Holy Spirit. When the Holy Spirit fell upon the people, Simon was amazed. Lusting for such power, he asked to buy this power with money. Peter’s response is hostile: “But Peter said to him, ‘May your silver perish with you because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money! You have neither part nor lot in this matter, for your heart is not right before God. Repent, therefore, of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity'” (Acts 8:19-23).

It wasn’t that Simon’s repentance was true or false, he had no repentance at all. There was no change of mind. Simon was still separated from Christ. He watched as the believers in Samaria were baptized by the Holy Spirit while he received no such baptism. All he wanted was the power.

1. True Repentance must be for nothing else besides the forgiveness of sin.

Peter recognized Simon’s lust for power as the same root of Simon’s evil past. Simon used his old magic tricks to gain popularity and he wanted the power to give people the Holy Spirit for the same purpose. He was like the seed that fell among thorns. The cares of the world choked the Word and this is what it produced: a self-serving reason for following Jesus. Simon had never truly turned to Christ; he was still clinging to self. His prior confession and baptism weren’t necessarily a show, it was just for the wrong reasons. Simon hadn’t turned to Christ for the forgiveness of sin, but for the fortunes of His power.

The historian Eusebius picks up the story where Luke left it off. Eusebius is even clearer about Simon and states, that he “pretended”. And after being rebuked by Peter, he traveled to Rome, went back to his magic, and led many astray. Peter had to hunt him down and assist the Christians in Rome (B.2.1).

Simon still symbolizes the one who “turns to” Christ for the wrong reasons. These wrong reasons can be many. They include a license to sin, a want for wealth, a lust for power, and many more. The only genuine reason for turning to Christ is for the forgiveness of sin.

Esau

For a piece of bread and a bowl of soup, Esau sold his birthright to Jacob (Gen.25). By doing so, he committed a great sin. He despised his birthright and the grace it symbolized to be in such a position. He put his love for self and satisfaction before faithfulness and love for God. Later, when the blessing of the firstborn was actually given to Jacob -though deceptively -Esau wept and mourned. He was sorry. But not for what he had done. He was sorry for the consequences. And even if he was truly sorry it was too late: “For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears.” (Heb.12:7).

2. True repentance is sorry for how their sin wronged GOD and others, not themselves. Instead of weeping over one’s own grief, they weep for the grief of the other.

3. True repentance is immediate. It doesn’t wait until the consequence arrives like Esau. Esau should have been sorry a long time before the consequence arrived.

Judas

Judas is another character to observe. He sold out Jesus for thirty pieces of silver. After seeing that Jesus was condemned, he was sorry. Matthew 27:3 says, he “changed his mind”, or in the KJV, “he repented”. To change one mind is the definition for repent.

4. True repentance first involves one’s acknowledgment of sin, then a complete change of their mind about it; agreeing with God that it was wrong. But true repentance also goes deeper than this; true repentance starts in the head but reaches the heart. It is a complete change of heart.

Judas’s repentance may have even reached his heart. Problem was, it wasn’t mixed with faith in the mercy of God found in Christ. “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death” (2 Cor.7:10). Judas’s sorrow was a worldly sorrow, and he killed himself. Unlike Esau, Judas was genuinely sorry for what he had done. But repentance “without” faith in Christ will save no one. Even a pagan can acknowledge one’s sin, and be grieved by it. But if they do not trust in Christ then it will only bring death.

5. True repentance is accompanied by faith. “Repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:21).

Repentance and faith are fraternal twins. Though they are different words in Greek, they are so closely related that they cannot be separated. When one places their trust in Jesus for the forgiveness of sin, they are repenting. The decision to turn to Christ involved a choice to turn from sin. Repentance was the turning away from and faith was the turning too. These two, repentance and faith, are both a change of mind and heart. They are the two compelling attitudes of the mind and heart. Repentance is the rope that tugs us away from evil and faith is the wind that carries us forward to Christ.

But where does repentance come from?

6. Repentance is a gift from God. As the human heart is dead in sin, God must awaken the heart and grant repentance. Without God’s intervention, no one can turn to Christ.

“God exalted him (Christ) at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins” (Acts 5:31).

“God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim.2:25b).

What are some misconceptions about repentance?

1. That I do not need any outward change.

Though repentance is primarily a change of heart and mind, it will produce a drastic change in one’s life. John said to “bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matt.3:8). Jesus said, “the tree is known by its fruit” (Matt.12:33). As an apple tree bears apples, a Christian will be like Christ.

2. That I can wait to repent.

As we previously looked at, repentance is immediate. True repentance isn’t like Esau, it doesn’t wait to be found out or for the consequence to come. True repentance turns to God the moment that the conviction of sin hits the mind and heart. And as repentance is a gift from God, you do not get to set the appointment for when you will turn to God. He is a Holy God. He does not invite you to repent, He commands you to repent (Acts 17:30). Repentance isn’t you “inviting” God into your heart; it’s surrendering your heart, mind, soul and body to Him.

3. That repentance will save me.

Though repentance is commanded by Christ it must be accompanied by faith in Jesus Christ. The sorrow for sin is not enough. Just because you are sorry for your sin doesn’t mean that you have turned away from it. Your sorrow may be an indication that you are on the brink of a new birth and that you need to cry out to Christ to save you.

Yet even the faith won’t save you, only Christ can save you. Your repentance and faith are only the conditions for salvation. Jesus is the cause of salvation. He effects it and the holy Spirit applies it.

Repentance is a gift given by God to one dead in sin. He opens the eyes of the sinner to see one’s sin; He opens the mind of the sinner to understand one’s sin, and He opens the heart of the sinner to hate one’s sin. A genuinely repentant person knows that Jesus came to save us from sin. “Immediately”, the effect is a godly sorrow evidenced by tangible grief. Instead of loving the sin, the sinner is now sorry for how it offends God and hurts others. It reaches the heart. God effects a permanent change. Now seeing Jesus as a Savior rather than a spoiler, the sinner turns to Him for refuge; trusting in Him for the forgiveness of their sins. And of course, the good tree bears good fruit.