The Doctrine Of Repentance

The Doctrine Of Repentance
By J. Mark Jordan

Beginning with the appeal to Cain, the first murderer, down through every age, and extending even to our times, God has always demanded repentance on the part of sinful humanity. Prophet after prophet exhorted backsliding Israel to repent. Every revival in Israel was launched from the platform of repentance. There is no greater folly than for a man to think he can walk in fellowship and harmony with God and yet neglect the divine requirement of repentance. In our study on this most important subject, let us look at an Old Testament example, see how it was incorporated into the teachings of both Jesus Christ and the apostles, and then dissect its real meaning.

Repentance in the Old Testament

An entire city was saved in the Old Testament through repentance. Nineveh was a grossly sin-ridden city, and God pronounced judgment upon it. He first sent the people a warning of the coming doom through the prophet Jonah. Jonah preached an eight-word sermon, and the Ninevites were deeply stirred. “So the people of Nineveh believed God, and proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them even to the least of them. For word came unto the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne…and covered him with sachcloth…saying. . . ,But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily unto God: yea, let them turn every one from his evil way, and from the violence that is in their hands” (Jonah 3:5-8). Their wholehearted repentance stayed the hand of God’s judgment against them, and their city was spared.

From this and other stories in the Old Testament, we see that God places tremendous value upon the act of repentance. We could cite many other accounts that greatly stress repentance or in which men humbled themselves in repentance.

New Testament Repentance

No one should ever say, however, that repentance belongs to the Old Testament era. John the Baptist preached the same message of repentance as did the prophets of old, “saying, Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. For this is he that was spoken of by the prophet Esaias saying, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” (Matthew 3:2-3). His was also a message of stern rebuke. “But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees come to his baptism, he said unto them, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance” (Matthew 3:7-8). John was a strong preacher of repentance.

The ministry of John was completed when Jesus Christ began the years of His public ministry. Upon hearing that Christ had commenced his work, John said, “This my joy therefore is fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:29-30). But what did Jesus first begin to preach? Repentance! “From that time Jesus began to preach, and to say, Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17).

Later, when Christ gathered the twelve around Him and commissioned them to go out and spread the good news of the kingdom of God, their message began from the same point. “And they went out, and preached that men should repent” (Mark 6:12).

Repentance and the Gospel

Jesus expected the message of repentance to be a cornerstone in the preaching of the gospel. “And that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations” (Luke 24:47). That is exactly how the Apostle Peter began his answer to the question of salvation on the Day of Pentecost. “Repent, and be baptized. . .” (Acts 2:38). Always, for a person to receive salvation, he must obey the command to repent.

Repentance is nothing short of a universal command. Paul pointed out to the philosophers on Mars Hill that God “commandeth all men, every where, to repent” (Acts 17:30). God has unleashed the great force of conviction through the Holy Ghost to bring every man to the place where he will repent of his sins. God is “not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (II Peter 3:9).

It is not difficult, therefore, to establish firmly that repentance is a fundamental doctrine of the Scriptures. As such, it is clearly necessary to salvation. The words of Jesus affirm this: “Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3).

A Closer Look

Let us take a closer look at what repentance actually is. There are several false conceptions about repentance that we should examine so that we can arrive at a purely scriptural understanding of the doctrine. One of these false ideas is the confusion between repentance and penitence. Penitence is the emotional side of repentance. It is, of course, a part of repentance, but it stops short of full repentance. The dictionary definition is “feeling pain or sorrow for sins or offenses.” In a further explanation, we find that “penitence implies little more than sorrow or genuine regret.”

A good example of penitence without true repentance is the alcoholic who deeply regrets the day he took his first drink but refuses to turn from his habit. From the Bible, we have the tragic case of Judas Iscariot, who betrayed the Lord for some paltry pieces of silver and was stricken with great sorrow. Instead of leading him to repentance, however, his sorrow led him to suicide. There have been many persons who, when they were confronted with the piercing and painful fact of their sin and were forced to reap some of sin’s bitter harvest, have wept with great sobs at the altar. Somehow feeling that shedding a few tears was enough, they soon returned to the same evil practices as before. They felt the twinge of sorrow, but certainly did not repent. In II Corinthians 7:9-10 Paul addressed this matter: “Now I rejoice, not that ye were made sorry, but that ye sorrowed to repentance: for ye were made sorry after a godly manner, that ye might receive damage by us in nothing. For godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation.” Feeling sorry for sins is only part of repentance.

Repentance should not be confused with penance. The definition of penance is an “act of self-abasement, mortification, piety, or devotion performed to show sorrow.” This implies that the grace and forgiveness of God, which is the object of repentance, can be earned through an act of humiliation. By doing penance, some feel that they are paying for their own sins. But no one can gain God’s favor by doing anything. Dropping a little more money than usual in the offering plate, or doing an extra good deed today to compensate for yesterday’s wrong deed, or merely trying to “do better” is not repentance. “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). Who can improve on Calvary? Who can say that something has to be added to that perfect sacrifice for the sins of the whole world? Our pardon comes not from our own actions, but “through his blood, even the forgiveness of sins” (Colossians 1:14).

What is True Repentance

When, then, is repentance? It is the act of turning away from sin and accepting the Word of God. It involves the whole man–emotion, intellect, and will. The very idea of repentance strikes down any thought of reservation. It carries with it the connotation of complete reversal.

First, it involves the emotions. There must be a stirring in the heart. It is true that every person is different in his emotional makeup. Some are easily moved to tears, while others display their emotions only on rare occasions. However, at repentance, a person must feel that he is wrong, whether or not he expresses that sorrow in tears. “For I will declare mine iniquity; I will be sorry for my sin” (Psalm 38:18).

Several conversion experiences in the Book of Acts demonstrate that emotion is greatly involved in repentance. After Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost, his hearers “were pricked in their heart” (Acts 2:37). The Apostle Paul was visibly moved at his conversion. “And he trembling and astonished said, Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?” (Acts 9:6). The Philippian jailer “came trembling, and fell down before Paul and Silas” (Acts 16:29). Certainly repentance touches the emotions.

Second, repentance involves the intellect. The Greek word for repentance literally means “a change of mind.” This reveals the importance of a mental transformation concerning the matter of sin. Repentance includes a change of thinking, not just about one or two particular things, but rather a new outlook, a new set of values, a new thought pattern about a person’s entire relationship to God. Jesus illustrated this aspect of repentance with the parable of the two sons whose father asked them to work in the vineyard. The son who was truly obedient first “answered and said, I will not; but afterward he repented, and went” (Matthew 21:29). He changed his mind toward the matter. True repentance means that a person will think differently.

Third, repentance involves the will. Another shade of meaning in the word repentance is “turning around.” The emotional and intellectual aspect of the experience are vital, but a person cannot stop there. If those factors are going to be effective, the person must fulfill his intentions and put them into actual practice. For repentance to be complete, the feeling of guilt for sin and the knowledge of the wrong of sin must result in doing something about sin.

The story of the prodigal son provides a good example. He decided, “I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee” (Luke 15:18). At this point, he clearly had a deep remorse for his sin and a definite change of mind concerning his whole life. These would have been of no avail, however, if he had not done what the story describes next. “And he arose, and came to his father” (Luke 15:20). He set the machinery of his will in motion to make good his intentions.

The role of the will in repentance, the actual doing of it, brings to the forefront some vital, specific directions from the Bible. One of them is confession. God will not respect any attempt to cover or hide sin. Open admission of sin must accompany repentance–both to God and to anyone whom the sin was against. A good example of confession is the publican who beat his breast and said, “God, be merciful to me a sinner” (Luke 18:13).

Also, the act of repentance includes forsaking sin. In other words, if a man really means to repent he must, with God’s help, stop sinning. If repentance does not mean at least this much, it does not mean anything.

Of course, a person cannot do anything about his guilt as a sinner. Only the blood of Jesus Christ can take care of that. But he can and must do something about his practice as a sinner–his habitual sin, his sinful lifestyle. “Cleanse your hands, ye sinners” (James 4:8). “Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the Lord” (Isaiah 55:7).

Finally, the act of repentance must result in a turning unto the Lord Jesus Christ, in whom is the saving power of God. I Thessalonians 1:9 describes how even unbelievers recognize the change that repentance brings. “For they themselves shew of us what manner of entering in we had unto you, and how ye turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God.” Repentance comes to its fulness when the sinner makes his way to the open arms of Christ.

The very nature of repentance has made it a requirement for salvation in every age. God will not change or cleanse an unrepentant heart. He will never force salvation on anyone. Only the person who really wants salvation will receive it.

There is a great rejoicing in heaven when a sinner makes the choice to turn from his sins and serve God. “I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth…. There is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth” (Luke 15:7, 10).

True repentance leads a person directly to obeying the Word of God. Instead of standing ready to do the devil’s bidding as he once did, he now stands ready in the presence of God to be a love slave to his new Master. The next chapter discusses the first step of obedience after repentance: water baptism.


J. Mark Jordan, raised in Jackson, Michigan attended Texas Bible College. Later he received a B.S. in Human Relations from the University of Toledo. He and his wife Sandy evangelized several years before he became Associate Pastor to First Apostolic Church, Toledo, OH. In 1978 he founded Apostolic Christian Academy. He served the Ohio District as Youth President, UPCI, from 1977 to 1983. Since 1983 he has pastored First Apostolic Church, Toledo, OH. He has written numerous articles for Pentecostal publications. He now resides with his wife Sandy and three children in suburban Toledo.

The Above Material Was Taken From Measures Of Our Faith, And Published By Word Aflame Press, 1987, Pages 29-37. This Material Is Copyrighted And May Be Used For Study & Research Purposes Only.

This Material Is Copyrighted And May Be Used For Study & Research Purposes Only.