If you are a Christian, you have some idea of what repentance is. Even if you can’t articulate the best definition of it, you’ve experienced it. But for clarity’s sake, repentance is a turning away from sin and turning towards God. It is a change of mind and a change of behavior in a Godward direction. Repentance coupled with faith is the first step in conversion to Christ, but it is also the bread and butter of everyday living as a Christian. You will never stop sinning in this life, even as a redeemed and forgiven people. So you should never stop repenting of your sins.
Martin Luther pointed this out in the first of his famous Ninety-Five Theses: Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, in saying ‘repent ye, etc.,’ meant the whole life of the faithful to be an act of repentance. He’s correct. The whole Christian life should be a life of daily turning away from specific sins and turning towards God in faith. So what does this look like? I’d like to offer a general outline of what repentance entails. It may not look like this every time, but this should help you think through daily repentance.
First you become aware of your sins by the Spirit’s internal conviction, often in concert with hearing the word of God. You may also become aware of your sin by witnessing the consequences of your actions on yourself or others. It is easy to be blind to your own sin, even as you clearly see the sins of others (Mt 7:3-5). So the first step to true repentance is recognizing “I have sinned.” The question is, what will you do about it now?
This may happen simultaneously with the recognition of sin. You feel the shame of your sin and are broken over it. You may not always have a strong feeling of sadness or remorse each time, but you will feel the wrongness of what you have done. You will be convinced of the sinfulness of your sin. This is what Scripture calls ‘godly grief’ (2 Cor 7:10), a mourning for sin that produces repentance without regret. This is often where you confess your sin to God in prayer, asking for forgiveness and cleansing. Without this step, you could be made aware of your sin and respond: “So what, I don’t care.” We should pray that we think rightly about the sinfulness of sin.
As a response to this realization and revulsion at your sin, you turn away from it. Though you should also repent of loving your sin, be it anger, lust, greed, pride, etc., your first duty is to immediately stop acting on those desires. If you are in a heated conversation and you have begun to speak harshly, make threats, or use coarse language to subdue your opponent, you must immediately stop. It doesn’t mean that your anger immediately subsides, but your expression of it must cease.
Having stopped running in the wrong direction, you then turn around and run towards God. Your focus must shift away from yourself and your sinful desires and focus on God and his will. Your desire must be to obey his commands and will instead of your own. In that same heated conversation mentioned in the previous point, you would not only turn away from sinful anger in your speech, you would in your heart commit to instead speak in ways that honor God.
Not every sin involves other people, but often our actions have direct and indirect consequences to others. Restitution is the fruit of a heart changed by God, the fruit of genuine repentance. It means that you pay what you owe to those whom you have hurt (see the story of Zacchaeus in Luke 19). In most cases this at least means that you apologize, but it may also require that you accept consequences for your actions, return what was stolen, pay to cover damages, etc.
1 John 1:9 says, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Psalm 32 opens with these words: Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man against whom the LORD counts no iniquity. The end of repentance is freedom from sin and peace. It is a blessing. Strangely we often don’t make it our daily (hourly?) practice to repent when we sin. Perhaps it is blindness or a desire to ignore our sin. But this will not lead to peace. You will sin every day in various ways, but by God’s grace you can repent everyday and find freedom, joy, and peace. The more you practice repentance, you will increasingly appreciate the grace of God, recognize sin and grow to hate it, and experience changed desires. Repentance and faith is God’s plan for your sanctification.
After reading this, consider what sins you need to repent of right now. Then get to it and enjoy the blessings of repentance.