Towards a Definition of Repentance

February 8, 2022

Today definitions are assumed rather than investigated. Yet we live and "define" our lives by them. A definition in need of investigation is repentance.  A good way to get at defining such important and common terms is by first explaining what it is not. So let us take a moment to  investigate the contrast between Penance and Repentance.

The difference between Penance and Repentance is unclear for many. It's a distinction we desperately need to get clear. There are many Christians who are convinced – based on their despair, regret, and self-loathing – that they are repentant. But in reality, they are not repenting at all. Here is a quote from a little known book on repentance I read years back that helped me see the difference.

Penance… is a religious attitude deeply rooted in the human heart which prompts people to attempt to pay for their own sins by good works and sufferings. Self-justification is the goal of this effort. In practice this means that humanity always has one more scheme for getting things right with God and their conscience. Sinners doing penance always say in their hearts, “Give me one more day, a new religious duty, another program, another set of human relationships or a better education, and then things will come right-side up.

They are preparationists – that is, sinners who are forever getting ready for grace. They want to make themselves worthy of grace so that God will reach out to them once this work of preparation is completed… But they do not know that this is a terrible insult to God and His grace. In their pride they are attempting the impossible… if we are grafted into Christ, if we are rooted in Christ, then we can grow in grace. But we will never have the power to grow into grace as a work of moral reformation.

Therefore, anyone doing penance is sadly mistaken. Things cannot come right for such people. They cannot pay for their sins, because they poison all the best gifts of God. Send them to church and Christian schools for a lifetime and they will never come to know rightly a single thing about the living God and his mercy in Christ. For in their heart of hearts, they are proud – infinitely proud – perhaps without having the slightest idea that this is their basic problem. Having but themselves as the ground of their hope, they will not see the glory of Christ until the Spirit grants them “repentance to life,” which included a genuine turning from penance. In brief, they must repent of their penances.

This matter is very tricky. Self-deception goes right along with self-trust and self-justification (Jer 17:9). You may say, “But you don’t know how earnestly I pray for God’s help. I have shed many tears over my sins.” But friend, this cannot work, because at bottom you are still asking God to baptize your sin – to Christianize an essentially lustful heart by making you a little less nervous and a little more patient. The Heavenly Father, however, does not hear your prayers, because you are in reality asking Him for help so that you can continue to live a life which is independent of God....What these people seek from God is enough grace to be strong in themselves. They do not need or want a constant flow of water from heaven.

…The repentant person repudiates this whole process with its self-justification and pretense. For truly repentant sinners have discovered, through the renewing work of the Holy Spirit, that all their doing is full of sin. Their doing is the source of their wretched emptiness, their black depression and their self-despising. But now they have come undone. They turn from their sinful doing and trust in what Christ has done. This is the essence of repentance. [1]

Key Bible Facts about Repentance

Repentance is a gift of God (2 Tim 2:25, Acts 5:31). In this aspect, Repentance is an inward surrender empowered/enabled by God. In this way, "Repentance has nothing to do with what man has done. Rather it is man’s coming undone in respect to all human righteousness, followed by his going outside himself in faith to Christ alone for salvation.”[2]

Repentance is also the same as turning to God and returning to God (Acts 26:20 Acts 3:19). Here is why it is often thought of as the other side of faith. Saving faith seeks after the object of faith. Saving faith seeks after God and repentance is the act of calling your sin what it is turning from it. SO if faith is turning to God repentance is turning from sin.

Taken together we have the definition of conversion

Repentance is the grace to change your mind (basic disposition) about Your unbelief, mistrust, and rebellion, against God and turn from your sin and in faith turning to God in reliance on his Grace and forgiveness in Christ. (PS. I wrote this in such a way that both Calvinist and Arminians can affirm it)

So Repentance is bigger than saying you’re sorry but it’s never less than that. We have to remember we are not to make just converts but we are call to make disciples, people to follow Jesus. So repentance is more surrender then a choice to sign up for church softball. It has an initial and a continual aspect for the Christian life is a life of follow daily. It initially begins by owning your sin before God acknowledging the punishment you deserve and casting yourself one God’s mercy. It continues on as a lifestyle of repentance. For a short simple definition that includes both the initial and continuing aspect of repentance. I humbly suggest this one.

Dawson’s definition:
Repentance is giving all you know of yourself to all you know of Jesus.

The definition above is easy to explain to a new believer while not watering down the ongoing nature of repentance. It’s aim is to help the new believer to engage in initial repentance with the full gravity that moment deserves and encourage a continual response to the gospel. As they learn more of Jesus in the gospel, they see who they are by way of contrast and as they learn more of who they are, they can give more of themselves to Jesus. Rinse, Repeat (See Calvin institutes 1:1).

Our approach to daily repentance
Daily repentance is not a burden for God’s children! Rather, it is good news. It’s just not easy:

Be encouraged then, fellow believer. In calling you to daily repentance, the Lord Jesus is not simply giving you good advice. He is saying, ‘If you are a child of mine, you must continue to repent.’ He does not say to reform your human nature inherited from Adam. Instead, He says to ‘put to death your members which are on the earth’ (Colossians 3:5). And dying is not easy. Nor…does it all happen at one’s conversion.

Now there is grand encouragement here. The putting to death of the flesh—ongoing repentance—is not something reserved for the select few. For repentance, in the larger use of the New Testament word, includes trust in Christ which unities the believer to the Lord in His death, burial and resurrection (Romans 6:1-11; Colossians 2:9-12, 3:1-4).

So to be in Christ is to be in possession of the power to put to death the lusts of the flesh (Colossians 3:5), to put off vicious habits like uncontrolled anger, slander and lying (Colossians 3:8-9), and to put on the qualities of love, kindness, meekness and patience which identify a person as one of the elect of God (Colossians 3:12-17). [3]

Conclusion: In living a lifestyle of repentance we are to pursue ongoing repentance as a child of the king, not as an orphan seeking approval from God and acceptance into the family.



[1] John Miller, Repentance, (Fort Washington, PA: CLC Publications, 2009). p. 17-20.
[2] John Miller, Repentance, (Fort Washington, PA: CLC Publications, 2009). p. 63.
[3] John Miller, Repentance, (Fort Washington, PA: CLC Publications, 2009). p. 37


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