A Practical Guide to Repentance

The necessity of repentance for the forgiveness of sins is central to the message of the gospel.  It’s one of the elementary doctrines of Christ, and leads to salvation and eternal life.[1]  But what exactly is it, and how does one go about doing it?

The term in Greek (metanoia) literally means a change of mind.  As used in the New Testament it can refer to either the initial conversion event, involving a change in one’s entire course of life from disregard for God to reverence for him, or the subsequent, ongoing repentance that characterizes the daily, Spirit-led work of sanctification.

It’s the latter that I want to address, and more specifically, repentance for sins committed against a neighbor.  What does this sort of repentance look like? 

The first thing to be said is that it has a look, which is to say that it can be seen.  It’s not merely an unobservable matter of the heart.  Genuine repentance originates in the heart, to be sure, but it’s not confined to the heart.  It’s insufficient to express repentance toward God for sins against our neighbor without also expressing repentance toward the neighbor we have offended.  This is why Jesus said,

If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you [because you have sinned against him], leave your gift there before the altar and go.  First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. (Matt. 5:23-24)

He tells us to interrupt our sacred duty to worship God if we come to realize we have not properly redressed a wrong done to our neighbor.  But how do we do this?  What is required of us?

Acknowledge the wrong
Repentance requires that we acknowledge or confess the wrong we have done— acknowledge it not only to God, but also to the person we have wronged.  Be sure to acknowledge it as a sin, not a mistake.  A mistake is accidental.  Sin is deliberate.  We often try to go easy on ourselves by using terms that trivialize our wrongdoing.  For the same reason, we should be specific about it.  “I’m sorry that I lied to you when I said….”  “I apologize for stealing your….”  “I regret that I broke my promise to you….”

Refuse to rationalize the wrong
Repentance requires that we own up to our misdeeds without seeking to justify them.  “I’m sorry that I yelled at you and called you that terrible name, but I had a really bad day.”  Having a bad day doesn’t justify bad behavior.  Worse yet is attempting to rationalize bad behavior by turning the table.  “I’m sorry that I yelled at you and called you that terrible name, but you made me so angry.”  It may be the case that that you were provoked to anger, but you’re responsible for handling the anger in a godly way. 

Ask forgiveness
After we acknowledge or confess our sin to the person we've wronged, we should ask forgiveness.  Doing so deepens our sense of wrongdoing and lets our neighbor know that we understand our wrong to have been a real wrong and not a mere mistake.  Also, if we confess without asking forgiveness it may create the impression that we expect it, as if we have a right to it.  "I've done my part by confessing my sin, now you do your part by forgiving me," is the unspoken assumption.  Asking forgiveness lets our neighbor know that we truly feel ourselves to be at his mercy.  Of course, if you don't really feel this, it will be evident in our tone and demeanor.  

Make amends
We should do everything in our power to undo the harm we’ve done.  You may feel regret for the damage you’ve done, but you have not repented unless you’ve attempted to undo the damage.  

In some cases, this is relatively easy.  If you have stolen something, return it.  If you have broken something, fix it or buy a new one.  

In other cases, it’s more difficult.  If you have told a lie about someone, go to the people you’ve told and correct the lie; but who knows how far the lie has already traveled?  Can the harmful effects of the lie ever be completely undone?  

The matter is even more difficult for other wrongs.  How can you make amends for things like causing permanent bodily injury,[2] committing adultery, or murder?

Determine not to sin in the same way again
Repentance is not complete unless there is a firm resolve not to commit the sin again.  Relying on the grace and strength of the Holy Spirit, make such a resolution…and follow through.

[1] See for example, Luke 13:3, 5; Acts 2:38; 3:19; 5:31; Hebrews 6:1; 2 Corinthians 7:10; Acts 11:18
[2] Scripture requires financial compensation, as does modern jurisprudence, but financial compensation can never fully make up for such a loss.  


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