Acts 26:20 (CSB) — 20 Instead, I preached to those in Damascus first, and to those in Jerusalem and in all the region of Judea, and to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, and do works worthy of repentance.
Ambiguity is one of the enemies of conviction, which is why the enemy of our souls loves to cloud our thinking about the most basic aspects of the gospel. He does this through uninformed and lazy preaching, which promotes human purposes and does not tremble at God’s word. He does this through skeptics who drown God’s word in an unending flood of questions and doubts. For this reason we must clarity to God’s word so that sinners can be delivered from sin and rejoice in the salvation of Christ to the everlasting glory of God!
Jesus preached a message of repentance, whereby he calls on us to “turn to God and do the works worthy of repentance.” But what does it mean to repent? What does Jesus require of those who turn to God?
We might benefit from a brief exegetical survey:
μετανοέω (metanoeō): to change one’s mind, repent, be converted; ἀμετανόητος (ametanoētos), unrepentant, impenitent.
The noun μετάνοια occurs 22× in the New Testament, but half of the occurrences are found in Luke-Acts (only 4× in the Pauline corpus, 3× in Hebrews, 2× in Matthew, plus Mark 1:4 and 2 Pet 3:9).
The verb μετανοέω is used 34×, with 14 instances in Luke-Acts and 12 in Revelation (otherwise 5× in Matthew, 2× in Mark, and 1× in 2nd Cor 12:21).
According to Luke 5:32, Jesus stated that he had come (ἐλήλυθα) to call the sinners, not the righteous, “to repentance” (εἰς μετάνοιαν). Because God has turned to sinners through the coming of Jesus, sinners may and should turn to God. Hence conversion and repentance are accompanied by joy, for they mean the opening up of life for the one who has turned.
Silva, M. (Ed.). (2014). New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology and Exegesis (Second Edition, Vol. 3, p. 290-292).
When Jesus calls on people everywhere to repent, we see God turning to sinners so that sinners may turn to God. Repentance, then, is framed as both a joyful deliverance whereby sinners are set free from the darkness of their past and ushered by grace into the presence of God, and a transformation wherein sinners who once embraced the works of darkness now explicitly reject those works and embrace the works of the Holy Spirit.
Repentance does not denote a set of ritualistic responses that are ceremonially performed at certain designated times. Such ritualistic responses fail to evoke genuine changes in the person’s sense of identity, lifestyle, and unique purpose. Religious notions of repentance settle for simple transactions whereby the individual “pays” each debt with certain designated responses, but God has already warned us that the payment for sin is too high for us to bear on our own:
Ezekiel 18:20 (CSB) — 20 The person who sins is the one who will die. A son won’t suffer punishment for the father’s iniquity, and a father won’t suffer punishment for the son’s iniquity. The righteousness of the righteous person will be on him, and the wickedness of the wicked person will be on him.
Romans 6:23 (CSB) — 23 For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
This kind of transactional view of repentance has the unintended consequence of setting us sinners at ease with our sin by convincing us that we can take care of our sin afterwards by performing whatever ritualistic ordinance or ceremony we’ve been taught to perform. For some, they have been told that a certain amount of internal emotional turmoil counts as sincere repentance; if they can just “be sorry” enough, then it is ok. Others have been given more formal guidelines about what kind of prayers they are supposed to offer, what kind of recitations they are supposed to recite, and so on and so forth. But none of this meets Jesus’ demand for repentance head on.
Leroy Forlines described repentance in a manner that I think might be helpful:
To change the mind in repentance refers to the change of the mind, heart, and will. One viewpoint is exchanged for another viewpoint. There is an appropriate change of attitude and behavior to go along with the exchange of viewpoint. It is a reference to a change of attitude and behavior that Paul has in mind in Acts 26:20.
Forlines, F. L. (1975). Biblical Systematics: A Study of the Christian System of Life and Thought (p. 200).
True repentance is necessarily accompanied by a change of mind, of opinion, of viewpoint, and of conviction, whereupon the sinner is inwardly convinced of their wrong, embraces heavenly truth, and brings their behavior in line with the new viewpoint that they have embraced in Christ.
When someone repents of sexual immorality, for example, they must first be convinced that God’s sexual ethics are correct; they must believe that the worldly sexual ethics by which they once viewed human sexuality are wrong, and that the spiritual truth that has been illuminated for us by our Creator in the pages of Scripture are, indeed, right. Then, based on these new convictions, they begin to bring their behavior into line with the truth that they have embraced in Christ.
This is what Scripture accomplishes in us through the love of Christ:
Ephesians 5:25–27 (CSB) — 25 …Christ loved the church and gave himself for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing her with the washing of water by the word. 27 He did this to present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or anything like that, but holy and blameless.
Jesus works in us to wash us clean by the water of the word, by which we are convinced of the truth with the kind of inward spiritual conviction that produces changed external behavior. In this way, we are changed from the inside out by the power of his gospel when we are convinced by the word of our Lord.
Taken from this perspective, then, what does it mean to repent?
You must hear the word of God and be convinced by the Holy Spirit with inward personal conviction of the truth, and then turn to God according to the truth that you have embraced in Christ, and begin bringing your life into alignment with your new truth-convictions. This is what it means to “repent and turn to God, and do works worthy of repentance”.
When we are convicted that anger, infighting, bitterness, envy, greed, hatred, and perverse lusts are wrong, we must first agree with God on what is right, and then begin bringing our lives in line with those things that we now confess are right. We do this by the power of the Holy Spirit according to the grace that now works in us from God through Christ. We do this in response to the powerful and effectual word of God, which we have heard with our minds, believed with out hearts, and now confess in truth. This inward conviction is what produces genuine repentance and effects real obedience to God.