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Jesus Defines Repentance

The Bible clearly teaches that repentance is a command of God to all men (Acts
17:30) and that if we fail to repent we shall perish (Luke 13:3, 5). It is essential
then that we come to a proper understanding of the meaning of repentance. What
does it mean to repent? Jesus tells us and we can find no higher authority on the
subject than Christ himself. Let us hear what he has said.

“The men of Nineveh will rise up in the judgment with this generation and condemn
it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and indeed a greater than Jonah is
here.” (Luke 11:32 NKJV)

The book of Jonah where we are told about this is a very short book of only 4
chapters so it is not hard to find out what the men of Nineveh did which Jesus calls

Nineveh was a city God described as a wicked city (Jonah 1:2) to which God sent
Jonah in order to give them the message that in 40 days Nineveh would be
overthrown (Jonah 3:4). Now note the first response to this message.

“So the people of Nineveh believed God, proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth,
from the greatest to the least of them.” (Jonah 3:5 NKJV) Now belief is not
repentance but it is a prerequisite to it. Where there is no belief there will be no
repentance. In fact, such is an impossibility. We say it is hard to get people to
repent and so it is but why? One of the biggest reasons is disbelief.

What must one believe in order to repent? He must believe God is. He must
believe he stands guilty before God. He must believe he is a condemned man in his
present state. Belief is thus a necessary prerequisite to repentance.

There are two or three passages in the New Testament that put repentance before
belief (Acts 20:21, Heb. 6:1, Mark 1:15). I will make a comment or two and go on
without going into a long excursion on these passages. If Jews are being addressed
in a passage it is evident that before Jesus came to earth they had already believed
in God. What they needed to do was to repent of their sins against him and then
believe in Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God and the Savior of the world.

The second comment I will make in passing is that the order of the wording does
not necessarily imply that the one action preceded the other. Paul, in Rom. 10:9,
puts confession before faith, “that if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus
and believe in your heart that God has raised him from the dead, you will be
saved.” (NKJV) Do you think Paul meant to imply that confession is to come before
faith? How would that work? How could Jesus be Lord if God did not raise him
from the dead – if you did not believe that he did? So we see that faith precedes
the confession even though the word order is what it is. Faith must precede
repentance if there is to be repentance.

The faith of the people of Nineveh was so strong that they had no doubt that what
Jonah was telling them would come to pass. They saw themselves as a doomed
people. They were confirmed believers that disaster was about to befall them.

Having believed they then humbled themselves before God. All put on sackcloth
from the least to the greatest (Jonah 3:5), they fasted (3:7), they cried to God
(3:8). One of the hardest things for a man to do is humble himself before God and
man. To admit sin is belittling to the proud of heart.

Pride is a great destroyer of men. Pride is one of the things God hates (Pro. 8:13).
It is a forerunner of shame (Pro. 11:2) and comes before a fall (Pro. 16:18); it will
bring a man low (Pro. 29:23). Those who are proud cannot humble themselves and
confess they have sinned and repent. They will pay for their arrogant spirit. The
men of Nineveh will not be of their number.

What more did the people of Nineveh do? Jonah 3:8 says the King decreed that
“every one turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands.”
(NKJV) What did they do? They ceased doing evil.

Let us summarize the events that transpired here in a city that Jesus said repented.
Here is what we have seen:

(1) People heard a message from God condemning them and believed it.

(2) This brought godly sorrow to their hearts.

(3) They humbled themselves and sought God turning from their evil ways.

That about sums up the process of repentance from beginning to end. Today when
we hear the gospel message if we believe it we see we are in a condemned state
before God. Believing this it brings sorrow to our hearts. If we are then willing to
humble ourselves before God, seek him, and turn away from evil to do good we can
rest assured that we have met the requirement for repentance for we have fulfilled
all the things the people of Nineveh did and Jesus said they repented.

How long does it take to repent? Just as long as it takes you to be convicted in
your heart and then will to cease your sin and turn to God in faith and obedience.
Repentance is not reformation of life for reformation of life is a result of repentance.
Repentance is a matter of the heart.

One can hear a single gospel sermon and repent immediately if the heart be good
and honest and tender toward God. Thus we have those 3,000 who repented on
the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2 after hearing Peter’s sermon. The Bible says of that
day and of that preaching that when the people heard it “they were cut to the
heart.” (Acts 2:37 NKJV) They saw themselves as condemned before God and were
ready and willing to repent. This Peter told them to do as well as be baptized for
the remission of sins. (Acts 2:38)

So, how long did it take them to repent? Not long. Just as long as it took to hear
the preaching and be pricked in the heart by it creating a willingness of heart to
seek God and turn away from evil. The time it takes to repent depends on the
hardness of heart. There will never be enough time for some hearts. For the good
and honest heart it will not take long.

I want to deal very briefly with a few common misconceptions before closing. Many
believe that sorrow for sin is repentance and that the giving over of the will to God
is faith. Neither is true. Godly sorrow for sin leads to repentance and is not
repentance itself. “For godly sorrow produces repentance.” (2 Cor. 7:10 NKJV) I
might add not all sorrow for sin is godly. Prisons are full of people who are sorry for
their sin because they got caught but God and his will has no part in their thinking.

The giving over of the will to God is often called faith but God calls it repentance.
True, the giving over of the will is based on faith but is not faith itself but rather
repentance. We ought to call Bible things by Bible names as it allows us to reason
more correctly.

Reformation of life can also easily be misconstrued as repentance. You can turn
away from doing evil for various reasons. Men quit adultery for fear their wife will
find out and their marriage be destroyed. Others quit cheating on their taxes for
fear of getting caught and serving time in jail. The list could go on. This kind of
reformation of life is not repentance nor does it have anything to do with
repentance. God is left out of the picture. All concerns are over worldly matters
and relationships, not God.

Repentance is repentance from sin and thus God is always in view in true
repentance. He is not in view in reformation of life for worldly reasons.

True repentance results in a reformation of life growing out of faith and a seeking of
God. It means necessarily a turning away from sin to righteousness. One ends up
with a changed life because of a changed outlook. The proper order of events is
godly sorrow first resulting in repentance (a changed outlook – a changed will) that
leads to reformation of life.