The word “repentance” means a change of heart towards God.
Under the old covenant, the Jews became so self-righteous in their superficial works of the Law that the Pharisees looked down upon the tax collectors, prostitutes, and the Gentiles. They were called to repent from their “holier than thou” attitude, and believe in the grace of God. John the Baptist commanded Israel to confess their sins and repent by loving one another and doing good to others (obeying the law).
Christ preached the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1-48) so that Israel could repent from their self-righteousness of trusting in the Law. Paul told them to repent here:
Romans 2:1-6,21,29 “Therefore you are without excuse, O man, whoever you are who judge. For in that which you judge another, you condemn yourself. For you who judge practice the same things. We know that the judgment of God is according to truth against those who practice such things. Do you think this, O man who judges those who practice such things, and do the same, that you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you despise the riches of his goodness, forbearance, and patience, not knowing that the goodness of God leads you to repentance? But according to your hardness and unrepentant heart you are treasuring up for yourself wrath in the day of wrath, revelation, and of the righteous judgment of God; who “will pay back to everyone according to their works:… You therefore who teach another, don’t you teach yourself? You who preach that a man shouldn’t steal, do you steal?… but he is a Jew who is one inwardly, and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit not in the letter; whose praise is not from men, but from God.”
But for the Gentiles who were never under the law, how did Paul tell them to repent?
Acts 17:29-31 “Being then the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold, or silver, or stone, engraved by art and design of man. The times of ignorance therefore God overlooked. But now he commands that all people everywhere should repent, because he has appointed a day in which he will judge the world in righteousness by the man whom he has ordained; of which he has given assurance to all men, in that he has raised him from the dead.”
He told them to stop trusting in other gods and turn to Jesus Christ for salvation.
Repentance in that specific case was to turn from unbelief to belief.
In the case of Israel, how did Peter command the Jews to repent? He exposed their guilt under the law by showing they had sinned by crucifying Jesus Christ – and then he commanded them to repent by faith in Christ for the forgiveness of sins.
Acts 2:36-38 “Let all the house of Israel therefore know certainly that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit”
In the case of Cornelius, the Gentile, how did he repent? Peter did not expose his sins but simply preached about Jesus and then Cornelius was filled with the Spirit.
Acts 10:43-47 NIV “All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God. Then Peter said, “Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.”
When Peter spoke “these words” that everyone who believes in Jesus Christ receives the forgiveness of sins, the Holy Spirit filled Cornelius and his household.
The Gospel brought instant salvation!
But before his salvation, Cornelius was a very devout man who did many good works and yet he was not saved.
Acts 10:1-2 “Now there was a certain man in Caesarea, Cornelius by name, a centurion of what was called the Italian Regiment, a devout man, and one who feared God with all his house, who gave gifts for the needy generously to the people, and always prayed to God.”
Today many people also do good deeds and repent from bad behavior but they are not saved until they believe in Christ. It’s because man’s good works are nothing compared to the perfect righteousness of God.
Acts 11:18 “When they heard these things, they held their peace, and glorified God, saying, “Then God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance to life!”
Cornelius was the first Gentile to be saved and the Jews said that this event was the “repentance to life”. What was this repentance?
Cornelius was previously trying to attain salvation by prayer and good deeds.
But he was not saved by those deeds. His repentance was to believe in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins and be saved instantly on the spot.
The Gentiles were sinning by worshipping other gods – in other words their sin was unbelief. The repentance of Gentiles is to turn to God by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Acts 15:19 “Therefore my judgment is that we don’t trouble those from among the Gentiles who turn to God,”
This repentance is the great faith of another Gentile who believed in Jesus is found here:
Luke 7:9 “When Jesus heard these things, he marveled at him, and turned and said to the multitude who followed him, “I tell you, I have not found such great faith, no, not in Israel.”
If you believe in Jesus then this is what he tells you:
Luke 7:48-50 “He said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” Those who sat at the table with him began to say to themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” He said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.”
Jesus calls this faith as repentance that brings forgiveness of sins:
Luke 24:47 NIV “and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.”
Repentance is a change of heart from unbelief to belief.
Repentance comes when we hear the love of God through the Gospel.
It is only faith in God’s goodness through the Gospel of Jesus that transforms us.
Who can truly change their hearts by themselves? Nobody can change themselves but only the Holy Spirit does it by faith in Jesus. Human beings need a new heart and spirit. They need to be born-again by faith in Christ. We don’t need behavior-modification but we need the eternal life of Christ.
In Luke 19:1-10, when Zacchaeus repented, it was not because somebody warned him to do so. This sinful tax-collector who had stolen money from so many people was hiding in the trees. But Jesus saw him, called his name and came to his home!
Zacchaeus repented when he saw the love of God coming to his house.
Jesus came and brought salvation to his home by grace. Zacchaeus accepted the love of Christ and then promised to restore the money to those he stole it from. The change in behavior was a by-product of salvation. The name of Jesus means “The Lord Saves”. When a person believes in the goodness of Christ, then there is great joy and repentance is the fruit of the Spirit working in us. For some people, the transformation can be slow. For others, it can be dramatic like Zacchaeus.
We cannot put the cart in front of the horse.
The “cart” is our love and good deeds. But the “horse” is faith in Christ without trusting in our works. The cart does not pull the horse forward.
It is the horse that pulls the cart forward.
This is why we need to hear more and more about Jesus and not our performance.
We need to hear the Gospel repeatedly even after becoming Christians.
Repentance for believers is about changing our minds about sin:
Ephesians 4:17-24 “This I say therefore, and testify in the Lord, that you no longer walk as the rest of the Gentiles also walk, in the futility of their mind, being darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardening of their hearts. They, having become callous, gave themselves up to lust, to work all uncleanness with greediness. But you didn’t learn Christ that way, if indeed you heard him, and were taught in him, even as truth is in Jesus: that you put away, as concerning your former way of life, the old man that grows corrupt after the lusts of deceit, and that you be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and put on the new man, who in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of truth.”
As a believer, our old man was crucified with Christ. The old things have passed away and all things are new. We are new creations in Christ. So then how do we live holy lives? It is by renewing our minds by putting on the attitude of newness in our minds. Repentance is a change of mindset – know that we are righteous and holy in Christ that results in being doers of the word. We turn away from sins because we are righteous. We repent not to become holy but because we already are righteous in Christ.
Repentance for the unbeliever is the change of mind to believe in Christ to be saved.
Repentance for the believer after salvation is the continuous change of mind to know Christ’s love that bears the fruit of the Spirit of love, joy, peace, etc.