What Does Real Repentance Look Like?

Jesus cried out, “Repent! For the kingdom of heaven is at hand!”

A couple of years ago I posted on Facebook a question about the Greek word translated “repentance.” (It’s metanoia and its variants.)

Yes, I admit, it took me a long time to get back to all the links and ideas people sent me, but here I am again, studying repentance.

It’s because three things happened at about the same time. First, I was praying for pastors and other Christian leaders (the ones who have treated and counseled sexual abuse survivors as if they were pariahs) to repent about their wrongdoing.

Second, I’ve been praying for revival for a long time, and in the context of that, having a discussion with a Christian leader about whether or not repentance is necessary for salvation.

Third, I’ve been studying II Corinthians, where Paul talks about repentance in chapter 7.

I always used to hear repentance being taught as a change of mind. That very sterile, academic definition vaguely dissatisfied me. It seemed to accompany the academic, intellectual acceptance of Christ embodied in the “sinner’s prayer.”

But as I’ve been thinking and praying about the concept this past week, I’ve better understood why that definition is a problem. You know the (sexist) saying from our culture, “It’s a woman’s prerogative to change her mind”? In this statement, it’s understood that the change of mind is completely capricious. “I think I’ll buy this frilly pink dress. No, I’m going to return this one and get that slim black one instead.”

Repentance is technically a change of mind from one choice to another, yes. But not capricious, and not between two things of roughly equal value.

As my friend Heidi said to me, “It’s like choosing between a Thanksgiving feast and a maggoty carcass. Sure, I guess you make a choice, but once you see what it is, it’s really no choice at all.”

Repenting is the change of mind that results in turning from a bad choice to a better choice, not because of caprice or even some logical, intellectual conclusion (“the frilly pink dress made me look fat”), but because you suddenly understand the truth about the two choices. You have come to your senses.

Maybe you smack yourself on the forehead. Maybe you start crying. But the fact is that you understand something crucial that you didn’t use to understand.

The concept of “repenting of your sins because you’re headed for hell and you want to go to heaven” doesn’t match with this idea. (For one thing, “repenting of your sins” is nowhere in the Bible.)

Really, the options you’re faced with are Self and Christ (because no one is actively choosing the biblical hell).

With the eyes of the flesh, Self looks like the obvious choice.

The eyes of faith, though, will result in the repentance that gasps, like the Prodigal Son, “What have I been doing? Look at the terrible choices I’ve made! Look at the maggoty carcass that I thought was a feast! Look at the true feast that’s available to me that I’ve been refusing!”

The Prodigal Son by Harry Anderson

Biblical repentance will probably result in sorrow (or may even be preceded by sorrow, as II Corinthians 7 indicates). But that isn’t intrinsic in the meaning.

Intrinsic in the meaning is that you “get” what you didn’t use to get, and so of course you take a different course of action, like the prodigal son. This is what the “true faith will result in action” teaching in James is all about.

Are you going to weep and wail that you’ve been picking through a maggoty carcass, and perhaps even thrusting it on others? Maybe, but that will look different for different people.

What’s for sure is that you’ll turn from the carcass and toward the feast. You’ll call others to the feast. You’ll call them to come to their senses.

When I pray for repentance from the Christian leaders, I’m actually praying that they’ll come to their senses. When we discuss whether or not repentance is necessary for salvation, it seems to me that we’re actually asking, “Is it necessary to come to your senses in order to be truly saved?”

Maybe it would be better to ask, “Is coming to your senses one aspect of true salvation?”

The answer seems as obvious as the choice between a Thanksgiving feast and a maggoty carcass.

Jesus cried out, “Come to your senses! For the kingdom of heaven is at hand!”

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[…]  Then, repent. This doesn’t have to include an “I’m sorry,” though it can. (I believe that “I’m sorry” has, in our culture, lost a lot of the true “sorrow” it’s supposed to convey.) But it would definitely include a deep sense of seeing the wrongness of what you did, in line of the real meaning of Biblical repentance, which I blogged about here. […]


[…] repent [come to your senses], and do the most important […]


[…] you find yourself attracted to and seduced by an evil thought? Then repent on the spot, right then. Turn to Christ. I do this probably dozens of times a day. Jesus followers […]


[…] If the accused abuser acts remorseful with claims of being the worst sinner he knows (even if true repentance is never shown), then so much the better for him—he will be absolved and restored, while the […]

Mike Smith
5 years ago

“The concept of “repenting of your sins because you’re headed for hell and you want to go to heaven” doesn’t match with this idea. (For one thing, “repenting of your sins” is nowhere in the Bible.) Really, the options you’re faced with are Self and Christ (because no one is actively choosing the biblical hell). With the eyes of the flesh, Self looks like the obvious choice.”

Well said Rebecca, like “the sinners prayer”, the idea of getting saved because one wants to avoid hell is no where found in the NT but has somehow has been the staple of most Fundamentalist preaching for ages. I mean really, what kind of “choice” is that? It’s like “Hi! You can either confess to your crimes and go free OR not confess (here, get comfy in this here electric while you think it over)…what kind of a “choice” is that? However, as you so deftly cut through all the verbal and philosophical clutter, you are really choosing between YOURSELF or Christ, the end results stand in stark contrast to each other.

I used to be of the “repent and believe” crowd until I really had the opportunity to think it over (usually on the drive to or from work) and, call me cynical, but I think people demanding the repentance of sins is just a way to get the lost person to cry “uncle!”. Case in point, while in Bible College, many a preacher boy wouldn’t consider the prayer of the lost for salvation unless the lost person under interrogation would confess to all his or her crimes against God, THEN they were proper subjects for “the prayer”.

I fully agree that REAL repentance is a “coming to your senses”, and to boot, I believe it happens SEVERAL times in a believers life, which in my estimation, shows as growth spurts in one’s spiritual life.

With that, I am

4 years ago

“Repent” is a change of mind – from relying our dead works to a faith towards Christ. Faith is trust and assurance we have in Him to do what He promised the Father.

The Sinner’s Prayer is basically a paraphrase of what the Thief on the Cross said. However, we also have a woman who was saved by faith without a word in Luke 7:36-50 (which is a very profound passage, especially v.47 in light of Galatians 3:10-12 & 5:3, James 2:10 and Romans 3:23).

A good article on the subject:

4 years ago

That’s not at all what “metanoia” means, and is just adding presuppositions to the definition of the word. Sorry, I’m out. This is the same Reformed garbage definition that tries to insert oneself into the language.

4 years ago

I rescind any favorable comments I had about this site and it’s comment moderation.

4 years ago

Because what that means is, if I don’t change my mind in a manner that you find beneficial, then I am guilty of ‘no repentance’ in your eyes. If you can’t see the issue with that then we are done here.

4 years ago

Because then my entire relationship with Jesus is based on their opinions of my life, and I don’t ever grow in Christ, because my relationship with him is stunted because my assurance is based on the opinions of others’ view of my “repentance,” which means something that metanoia doesn’t mean.


[…] Return, return, I call to my generation who are stuck in the idolatry of a system, a person, and an institution. I cry out to you to return to Jesus, the fountain of living waters. Shed the pharisaical baggage of the system, the person, and the institution. Look to Jesus Christ Himself and Him alone to quench your thirst, to give you hope, to provide your salvation. (This is a kind of repentance, truly coming to your senses.) […]


[…] book The Great Meaning of Metanoia, by Treadwell Walden. It expanded some things I was thinking when I first wrote about repentance years ago as “coming to your senses.” I’ll be quoting from his book […]

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