What does it take to become a Christian? The New Testament passages come together in a logical and simple progression: faith – repentance – baptism (Acts 2:37-38 etc). Every group claiming to follow Christ admits the key role of faith, and nearly all include baptism as necessary for being part of the body of Christ (the church). I’m not saying every group teaches correctly about the nature of faith and baptism, only that they regard these as somehow essential. But over the subject of repentance there is considerable confusion.
Many Protestants and independents view repentance as penitence — feeling really bad about our sin. Certainly this is one characteristic of genuine repentance (2 Cor 7:9-10), yet the part is not equal to the whole. If our perspective has changed, then action follows (Matt 3:8; Acts 2:20).
Evangelicals emphasize the importance of telling God you’re sorry, then saying a prayer to invite Jesus into your heart. Repentance is downplayed, probably out of fear of “works righteousness.” Yet faith and works are two side of the coin (James 2:14-26). Oddly enough, although more and more evangelicals are talking about discipleship (which is based on genuine repentance), few are willing to hold their fellow church members to Jesus’ standard, perhaps out of a fear of being thought judgmental.
Others (principally Catholics) view repentance as penance — performing religious actions to somehow compensate for sin, or to enable the one confessing sin to be healthy again and move on. Yet biblically speaking, repentance is a decision, not a penalty or some type of “homework.” Furthermore, iterating rote prayers (for example) does not purify the heart.
Even the reformer Martin Luther translated Acts 2:38 “Do penance and be baptized,” rather than “Repent…” Many religious people are inconsistent in how they understand this important topic.
So what is repentance? It’s a decision, not the entire process of removing every trace of sin from our lives. A serious seeker will be able to stop the egregious sin right away (John 8:11 comes to mind). Yet deeply engrained sins and unhealthy habits (like self-centeredness, overeating, disorganization) may take years to give way to righteousness. We should remember that some Ephesians didn’t deal with their sin of sorcery (Gal 5:20) until some time after their conversion (Acts 19:18-19). We should also recall that the epistles frequently urge disciples of Christ to become more Christlike. This doesn’t happen overnight — even with the indwelling Spirit — so it’s unfair to expect a non-Christian to make every moral change before he or she has shared in Christ’s death and resurrection!
Once again, repentance is a response to the gospel message, turning away from sin and turn towards righteousness. Lest decision smack of humanistic effort — the temptation to go in our own strength (“the flesh”), which is actually something we must repent of! — here are a few other terms describing biblical repentance: reorientation, mind swap, life shift, realignment. The best thing I’ve ever read on the topic is my friend Ed Anton’s Repentance: A Cosmic Shift of Mind and Heart.
–from my good brother Douglas Jacoby
For further study: