What Is True Repentance?

Most people do not know—yet this vital truth is a matter of life and death!
From the April 2019 Trumpet Print Edition

True repentance is one of the most misunderstood doctrines in mainstream Christianity today. It is also one of the most important for a true Christian to understand.

Before Jesus Christ’s ministry, John the Baptist boldly proclaimed that mankind needed to repent. Christ started His ministry by emphasizing the exact same truth. And at the beginning of God’s one true Church, Christ’s apostles continued proclaiming the need for true repentance.

As a reader of the Trumpet magazine, perhaps you have thought about repentance. You may have heard this subject discussed at your local church. But do you really know what repentance is?

What does a person repent of? Who is repentance toward? It is vital you understand this subject. No person will inherit eternal life who has not truly repented. It is truly a matter of life and death.

Not Just Sorry

“Repentance is not merely being sorry for something one has done—or even many such sins,” Herbert W. Armstrong wrote in his book The Incredible Human Potential. “It is a real repentance of what one is and has been—of his whole past attitude and life apart from God.” Have you ever thought of repentance to that degree and depth? This is what your Bible teaches.

Repentance is more than just being sorry. Many times, individuals have thought that they have repented of a sin. Yet merely asking God for forgiveness is not true repentance. It is important that we confess our sins before Him and ask for His mercy and forgiveness, but true repentance goes much deeper than that.

“It is a total change of mind and heart and direction of life,” Mr. Armstrong continued. “It is a change to a new way of life. It is a turning from the self-centered way of vanity, selfishness, greed, hostility to authority, envy, jealousy and unconcern for the good and welfare of others to the God-centered way of obedience, submission to authority, love toward God more than love of self, and of love and concern for other humans equal to self-concern.”

If you are to reach the deep level of repentance God seeks, then you need to pray about and meditate on what you just read. To truly repent, you must honestly see yourself for what you are and who you are apart from God. This is what we all must do!

Human nature is filled with the evil fruits of “vanity, selfishness, greed, hostility to authority, envy, jealousy and unconcern for the good and welfare of others,” as Mr. Armstrong wrote. We have to recognize this reality about ourselves, but can only do that if we get God involved in the process. Then, with His Holy Spirit and His perfect love shed abroad in our hearts (Romans 5:5), we can begin to learn and think differently. We can have that “change of mind and heart” we so desperately need—the change that is true repentance.

What Do You Repent Of?

Mainstream Christianity today sometimes speaks about repentance. But do they really understand the kind of repentance God requires? Do they even understand what one must repent of?

Notice the answer in 1 John 3: “Whosoever committeth sin transgresseth also the law: for sin is the transgression of the law” (verse 4). We repent of breaking God’s law.

One of the greatest deceptions in so-called Christianity is the notion that God’s law is done away. If that is the case, then what do we repent of? If you think God’s law is done away, then you cannot understand true repentance.

God’s law is His way of thinking; it is His perfect way of life. Anything contrary to that is sin. That is what we must repent of. That is more than being sorry for doing something wrong. It is about changing—a complete turnaround and moving forward in the other direction. Repentance is about going in the opposite direction of sin.

The process of repentance requires that we know what sin is and that we come to recognize it in our own lives. Otherwise, how could we overcome it? Again, understanding the law of God is vitally important.

True faith—the faith of Jesus Christ—is critical as well. The Apostle Paul wrote, “But without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him” (Hebrews 11:6). Do you diligently seek God? Do you approach Him with faith? Without faith, it is impossible to please God. Elsewhere, Paul states that whatever is not of faith is sin (Romans 14:23).

Not doing what God says to do is sin. Doing things that God says not to do is sin. Not walking by faith is sin. Anything contrary to living and thinking like God is sin. That is what we must change. In all cases, the common denominator regarding sin is God’s law.

True repentance has more to do with the future than with the past. Yes, we should have remorse. We should be sorry for the wrong ways of our past. But true repentance is about turning around and going in a different direction. It’s about changing and moving in a new, different and right way.

God Leads You to Repentance

However, not one of us can do this on our own. Without God, we are woefully inadequate. To be successful, we need to beseech God for help. When we go before God, we must know that He will hear and answer us. Remember, as the Apostle Paul wrote, that God is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him.

Notice what God can do for us: “Or despisest thou the riches of his goodness and forbearance and longsuffering; not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance?” (Romans 2:4). God expects us to come to Him with a humble and teachable spirit. Then with the power of His Spirit, He will lead us to true repentance. We cannot work up true repentance on our own. It can only be done by the power of God.

Humbly and diligently ask for God’s help! Go before Him in faith with a humble and teachable spirit, desiring to learn to think and live like Him. If you want to live according to His way, then ask in faith for Him to lead you to repentance. That will lead to a total and complete separation from your former ways. Let it cut deeply to the point that you want to change your ways.

Repentance Is Toward God

Another very important aspect we must understand is found in the book of Acts. “Testifying both to the Jews, and also to the Greeks, repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:21). We must have faith toward Jesus Christ, yes—but our repentance is toward God the Father. He is the great Lawgiver. When we break His law, our repentance must be toward Him. When we sin, we are violating His way of life and what He has established as right.

Trumpet editor in chief Gerald Flurry has written a booklet titled How to Be an Overcomer. We want to send you this book free of charge. Take the time to study it deeply. It shows you the attitude you must have in order to totally repent. In fact, the first chapter is titled “Repentance Toward God.”

That booklet highlights King David’s example. David made some serious mistakes and committed some terrible sins. But he knew how to truly repent toward God. Because of his attitude and the changes he made in his life, God called him a man after His own heart (Acts 13:22). That is quite a reputation for this king! God would never have called David that if he didn’t know how to repent.

We have all sinned, just like David (Romans 3:23). But do you want to be a person after God’s own heart?

In the first chapter of How to Be an Overcomer, Mr. Flurry writes: “Sin is something that needs to horrify us. We must be aware of what Christ did for us. Grow in ‘repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ.’ Have faith in that sacrifice. Then repent toward God, who planned the whole thing. You know, especially if you’re a parent, that the Father must have suffered horribly along with Christ.

“If you have problems that keep recurring in your life, evaluate yourself by this measure. Are you repenting toward God? Realize your evil before God!”

Think about what Jesus Christ and God the Father did for you. We need to come to a depth of repentance where it is as though our own firstborn was pierced! (Zechariah 12:10). God the Father had His own Son brutalized, crucified and a spear pierced into His side. Sin should horrify us as it does our spiritual Father.

A Message Through the Ages

Even before Christ’s earthly ministry, emphasis was placed on true repentance. “In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judaea, And saying, Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:1-2). John the Baptist was telling those gathered around (ahead of Christ’s ministry) to repent. The time had come for God to begin preparing pillars, helpers and leaders for the Kingdom of God. It all starts with repentance. It starts with us recognizing who and what we are apart from God. It starts with us seeing the need to change and to begin learning how to become more like God. It is a complete change from sin to living and thinking like God.

We have to make that change permanent. Some in John the Baptist’s day did not like his message. They did not want to change. “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” (verses 7-8). They were told they wouldn’t be baptized. No matter how much they tried to be righteous, they didn’t show evidence that they were changing from their own carnal way. Where were the fruits? Where was the evidence that they were striving to change? Where was evidence that they were submitting themselves to God and He was leading them to repentance?

We have to ask ourselves those same questions today. What are your fruits? Are there fruits in your life to show that you are truly repenting and changing, humbling yourself and allowing God to lead you to repentance? As covered earlier, only by God leading you can you achieve true repentance.

Now notice how Jesus Christ began His earthly ministry: “From that time Jesus began to preach, and to say, Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). Christ’s message was for people to repent first and foremost. Otherwise, the full weight of the gospel couldn’t be understood.

Why don’t you hear people in this world talking about the Kingdom of God, a literal kingdom and government that is going to rule this Earth? After all, that is the message Christ brought (Mark 1:14-15). He instructed His disciples to do the same: to go out and preach “that men should repent” (Mark 6:12). That is instruction for anyone who serves under Christ.

After Jesus Christ was resurrected, the true Church of God was established. Christ had prepared leaders. The foundation was laid. Acts 2 describes the history of the very first Pentecost. This was a momentous event in Church history! Notice the message that was preached in the very first sermon: “Now when they heard this, they were pricked in their heart, and said unto Peter and to the rest of the apostles, Men and brethren, what shall we do? Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy [Spirit]” (Acts 2:37-38). Once someone hears and believes the true gospel message that Christ brought to this Earth, he or she must repent! True repentance is the beginning of the entire process.

This theme of repentance appears over and over again! Think about how prominent repentance is in the verses at the beginning of the New Testament and at the foundation of God’s true Church. Clearly this subject is important to God!

Paul wrote, “Therefore leaving the principles of the doctrine of Christ, let us go on unto perfection; not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works, and of faith toward God” (Hebrews 6:1). Here Paul is listing the basic doctrines of God’s Church. At the top of the list, he points to repentance! Repentance is absolutely critical for any of us if we are going to have a future with God.

The Path to Joy

True repentance will bring joy into your life. Sin brings misery and complications. Remember this: Obedience to God and His law will simplify your life; disobedience will always complicate your life.

Mr. Armstrong said that it was in surrendering to God in complete repentance that he found unspeakable joy in accepting Jesus Christ as his personal Savior and his present High Priest. You can find that same joy! But you must repent and accept Christ as your personal Savior. That is what God instructs us to do.

We must understand and be brought to true repentance in order to enter into God’s Family and receive eternal life.

Remember this crucial point, as well—as you go through the process of being led by God’s goodness to real repentance, never get negative, discouraged or depressed. Never give up! In The Incredible Human Potential, Mr. Armstrong wrote: “The truly converted Christian will find that he often stumbles, under temptation, and falls down—even as a physical child learning to walk often falls down. But the year-old child does not get discouraged and give up. He gets up and starts out again.” You do not have to get discouraged. You do not need to give up. You do not need to be down. You need to repent. Then God will help you; He will lift you up and continue leading you to overcome.

Mr. Armstrong continued: “The truly converted Christian is not yet perfect!

“God looks on the heart—the inner motive—the real intent! If he is trying—if he gets up whenever he falls down, and in repentance asks God’s forgiveness, and sets out to do his very best not to make that mistake again—and to persevere with renewed effort to overcome, God is rich in mercy toward that man in his striving to overcome.”

There is so much hope in true repentance! Strive to more perfectly repent toward God, reaping the abundant joy and blessings that come from true, godly repentance.