“Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord.” – Acts 3:19–20
There seems to be a growing public conversation on the subject of repentance. When a pastor or politician or member of the press fails to live up to the standard they profess, the consequences are swift and significant.
But, are we failing at grace? When does an offender deserve a second chance?
We’ve all seen celebrities with crocodile tears declaring, “I’m SO sorry!” But are they? How can we know if someone truly is repentant for their selfish, shameful, even criminal actions? How can I know if I am? After all what is repentance, really?
The term most frequently used in the New Testament for real change and thinking differently is the Greek word metanoia. At its core, repentance is a recognition of sin, followed by heartfelt sorrow, culminating in a change of behavior.
All change begins with a change of mind.
Self-centered, self-destructive choices happen as a result of the offender becoming convinced that they must, cannot avoid, and truly need what the infraction gives them. Repentance is changing your mind about those rationalizations. It is detecting and destroying the faulty thinking and the mental gymnastics one had to perform in the first place to get to such an awful state.
Repentance is not invisible. We can tell by watching if someone has really changed — we just need to know what those “deeds” or “fruits” actually are. Things get a lot easier when you don’t have to guess whether a fallen public figure whose indiscretions pierce your orbit has actually changed. Just master the evidences given in Scripture and you will be able to recognize a changed man or woman a mile away.
Corinth in the first century was a culture rife with occultic sexual practice and entirely consumed with self gratification. Sound familiar? Christianity’s call to moral purity was a stark contrast to the lives the majority were living. After a harsh letter commanding them to repent, Paul wrote back and in 2 Corinthians 7:10-11 he gives the most concentrated teaching in all of Scripture on the five evidences of true repentance:
1. Grief Over Sin
Paul says in 2 Corinthians 7:9, “For you felt a godly grief,” and then again in verse 10 Paul adds, “Godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation.” The word grief is the Greek word lupeo. It’s the “greatly distressed” feeling the disciples had when Jesus announced His crucifixion in Matthew 17:23.
The grief of repentance must begin with how my actions affect the Lord. When I choose to do wrong, I’m really saying, “You’re not enough, God. I need this too. You have not met my needs, so I’m going out on my own this time.”
Repentance is happening in your heart when you begin to express through your grief, “How can I spit in the face of mercy? How can I slap away the hand of God’s grace? God reaches out to bless me, and I shun His merciful love.”
Repentance continues with detecting the lie that aided the sinful choice and destroying it. It is grief over that lie and the choice made because of it. Repentance shows up in my wounded spirit. How could I have acted that way toward God? How could I treat His love so poorly when He’s given me so much? Real repentance recognizes that my sin is against God.
2. Repulsion Over Sin
Grief over sin leads very quickly to feelings of repulsion about that sin.
Paul says in 2 Corinthians 7:11, “For see what earnestness this godly grief has produced in you.”
That word see means to behold, and the word earnestness implies diligence. When I’m really repentant, I have serious energy about putting sin behind me. Repentance brings with it a new urgency about my relationship with God and strong negative feelings toward anything that would injure it. What used to be so attractive to me now repulses me. I’m indignant about it; I’m strongly opposed to it and resolutely determined that it will always be repulsive in my eyes.
What specific sins repulse you? Those broad categories of pride, pleasure, and priorities are a good place to start. Are you sickened that every time you’re in conversation you have to bring up your accomplishments? Do you name-drop? Do you later privately compare the ways you are better than someone else? Are there things on that list that are injuring your life in God? Do you feel grief about them? Do you regard your relationship with your spouse or with God as a lesser priority that His Word demands?
Will you let God’s Spirit bring you to a place of repulsion about these things?
3. Restitution Toward Others
When repentance is happening in your heart, you will have an immediate and urgent desire to get to the people whom your sin has wounded and fix the fallout. You not only want to be right with God; you want to be reconciled to the people whom your sin has injured. Restitution is a fruit of repentance.
Repentance doesn’t demand anything, but it does request reconciliation. Repentance admits being the reason for the separation in the first place. It is no longer concerned with the other person’s part of the problem, but confesses, “I haven’t been what I’m supposed to be, so I’ll make it right as much as I can and leave the rest with God.”
Restitution is repentance moved to action — doing what I need to do and what I can do.
Many people want to be right with God, but they draw the line on being right with others. Watch out for the people who say that all is good between them and God but have no interest in being reconciled with the people whom their sin has injured. If your heart is really repentant and you see sin for what it is, you see not only how it affects God but how it impacts others.
Repentance involves your mind, emotions, and will. No more rationalizing, no more excusing, no more blaming others. If that’s really happening in your life, there will be grief over your sin, there will be repulsion, and there will be restitution.
4. Revival Toward God
Like a river rushing down a mountainside, like a waterfall from a cool stream, God’s mercy will now begin to wash over your life. Repentance will bring an obvious restoration of your relationship with the Lord. Your heart will become very sensitive to sin, and you will experience an increased capacity to rejoice in the blessings of God. You’ll hunger more after God’s Word and have less craving for things of the flesh.
Previously the Corinthians were involved in all kinds of sexual sin, and they didn’t care what God thought. But their genuine repentance had increased “the fear of God” in them (2 Corinthians 7:1).
Fear is the attitude of a heart that seeks a right relationship to the fear source. If I’m afraid of fire, I stand back a bit. If I’m afraid of water, I don’t go in over my head. If I fear God, I’m very careful to do exactly as He asks, as quickly as I can. Fear of God is a good thing. Every revived heart has an increased sense of God’s nearness and our accountability to Him. The biblical term for that increased awe or respect is fear — and Paul observed that in the repentant Corinthians.
Paul also observed the revival flowing from their repentant hearts as an increased passion for the things of the Lord. He marveled, “What longing!” in 2 Corinthians 7:11. All of a sudden, church isn’t a chore anymore for the repentant person. Bible study is not a burden. You delight in all that God and His Word and His people have for you.
5. Moving Forward
Here’s the final mark of genuine repentance: moving forward and not looking back. So many people spend their lives sadly submerged in a sea of regret and what might have been. It’s easy to spot people who haven’t repented— they live in the past. They’re stuck. Every day is about reviewing a series of tragic circumstances that lock their focus on what is already done.
Genuine repentance eliminates that persistent regret, or as Paul puts it, “Godly grief produces a repentance . . . without regret” (2 Corinthians 7:10). When repentance is genuine, the human heart experiences cleansing —and by God’s grace, it moves beyond the kind of self-punishment that’s stuck in the past and can’t or won’t move into the future. You know repentance is truly happening in your heart when you get locked in on what’s ahead and experience freedom from what’s behind.
That’s why Paul says in 2 Corinthians 7:9, “So that you suffered no loss through us.”
Repentance never takes you to a bad place. Repentance is never a waste of time. It’s never a shortfall or a write-off. It’s not a ceaseless cycle of worldly regret. Paul reminded the Corinthians that repentance was not a loss to them but actually a gain, because it got them out of the rut of a self-condemning past and moved them forward into the freshness of a revived relationship with God.
Today is the first day of the rest of my life. When you can say that and mean it from your heart, it’s a fruit of repentance.
Worldly grief produces death. A lifetime of worldly repentance produces separation from God and hell for all of eternity. You can’t have shallow repentance and pretend that you have God too. Your heart must have true repentance. You’ll know that your repentance is true if you have grief over sin, repulsion over sin, restitution toward others, revival toward God, and are moving forward into a life that is free from regret.
In 2 Timothy 2:25, Paul told Timothy that an effective servant of God would be “correcting his opponents with gentleness.” Going further, Paul says, “God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth.” So please heed this gentle urging: only God’s Spirit can pierce your defenses with repentance. If that’s happening in this moment, don’t turn away or put things off! Humble yourself before your heavenly Father, name and confess the sins, then ask for forgiveness in Jesus’ name. Don’t hurry, but wait for God to point out what needs to change. Your soul and relationship with Him will start to fill with the refreshment that only comes by way of repentance.
Pastor James MacDonald is an esteemed Bible teacher whose “Walk in the Word” radio and television programs are followed by millions throughout the United States and around the world. He’s the Founding and Senior Pastor of Harvest Bible Chapel whose seven campuses are spread throughout the greater Chicagoland area.