Conversion: Repentance

By Cecil Willis

For the next few weeks it is our plan to be studying the theme of repentance. We are hoping that you have a deep interest in this vital theme, and that as we progress in our study, that the deep interest which you now have in this subject, will become an ever deepening one.

The Bible has a great deal to say about repentance, “We find that the word repent occurs in our common English Bible forty-two times; repented occurs thirty times; repentance twenty-six times; repenteth five times; and repentest, repenting, and repentings one time each-in all, one hundred and six time . . . . Tn all the forms in which the word is used it refers to God thirty-seven times, and in reference to man sixty-nine times. It is used to indicate sorrow or regret twenty-eight times, a change of mind or will twenty-five times, and a change of mind resulting in reformation of life fifty-three times” (Brents, The Gospel Plan of Salvation, pp. 235, 236). Surely, when one recognizes the large number of times that repentance is referred to man, he must be made to realize its great importance.

Repent or Perish

We should be made to want to learn more about repentance when we open our Bibles and read in so many different places that repentance stands between us and salvation. Without repentance one cannot be saved, therefore we must know something about it. The necessity of repentance as taught by our Lord may be summed up in the words, “Repent or Perish.” This is exactly the relationship that our Lord made between repentance and salvation. Luke described the teaching of Christ on the subject as he said, “Now there were some present at that very season who told him of the Galileans, whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered and said unto them, Think ye that these Galileans, were sinners above all the Galileans, because they have suffered these things? I tell you, Nay: but except ye repent, ye shall all in like manner perish. Or those eighteen, upon whom the tower in Siloam fell, and killed them, think ye that they were offenders above all the men that dwell in Jerusalem? I tell you, Nay: but expect ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish” (Lk. 13: 1-5). In the words of Christ, either the people must repent or they must perish. There was no other alternative. As Luke gave us an account of the giving of the great commission by our Lord, he said, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer, and rise again from the dead the third day; and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name unto all the nations beginning from Jerusalem” (Lk. 24: 46, 47). Repentance stands in this passage inseparably connected with the remission of sins, and the name of Christ, and this preaching must begin in Jerusalem. A few days later when preaching under this great commission first began, Peter, the key speaker on the day of Pentecost, told the Jews in Jerusalem, to “Repent ye, and be baptized everyone of you. in the name of Jesus Christ unto the remission of sins” (Acts 2:38). Repentance was a prerequisite that stood between man and his salvation.

Paul, as he preached to the Athenians, declared the universality of the necessity of repentance, in saying, “The times of ignorance therefore God overlooked; but now he commandeth men that they should everywhere repent; inasmuch as he hath appointed a day in which he will judge the world in righteousness by the man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead” (Acts 17:30, 31), Ali men, everywhere, are commanded to repent, or they must perish as a consequence of their impenitence.

What It Means to Repent

It is not enough merely to know that one must repent in order to be saved, but one must also know what it means to repent. It is an impossibility for one to do a thing commanded of him, if he does not understand the command. I cannot do a thing that I know nothing about. Therefore, let us reflect on what repentance is, or what it means.

Modern theology has obscured the meaning of repentance and has clouded the eyes of men and women who otherwise would see and understand what repentance means. We want to try to push aside the modern concept of repentance and permit the true import of the command to repent to shine brilliantly. In order for us to have an accurate understanding of what repentance is, and what it means, first, we must remove the perverted definitions of it. We must first view its definition negatively, that is, we must first point out what repentance is not.

To many people, repentance is nothing more than fear, but repentance is not fear. Fear of judgment, and punishment might be one of the things that prompts one to repent, but repentance is not fear.

To others repentance is conviction of sin. The denominational world speaks considerably about being “under conviction,” and I sometimes wonder if even they understand what they mean by the expression. They use the expression “under conviction” and repentance synonymously in some instances, but repentance is not conviction, We can very readily see this to be true if we examine Acts 2. In this sermon Peter boldly asserted that the Jews, to whom he was speaking, were guilty of crucifying the Son of God with their own wicked hands. The force of Peter’s argument was brought to bear upon their minds, and they were made to believe that what Peter said was true. ‘They were convinced, convicted, that they had killed God’s Son. By a great number, it would be said that these people had repented. They were “under conviction,” as expressed in denominational phraseology. But they had not repented. When they cried out and asked what they must do, Peter told them to repent and be baptized (v. 38). It was a different thing to be persuaded that one was a sinner, and to repent, according to Peter. Repentance is not conviction of sin.

Neither is repentance the confession of guilt, for on this same occasion to which we referred, just the day of Pentecost, these people certainly admitted their guilt when they asked Peter what they must do. They believed what Peter had said about their having killed the Christ sent of God, and therefore they admitted their guilt, but still they were commanded by Peter to repent, so repentance is not confession of guilt.

Regret is not repentance. Some definitions of repentance teach that to repent is to regret your sin. There have been many who have regretted their sins, but who have never once repented of them. Some of the regret that men have had for their sins was only that they were exposed in their sin. They only regretted that men found out about their sin. While this is regret, it is not repentance. It is a far cry from it. Mere regret is not repentance.

Others, in rendering a definition of this important word, would tell us that repentance is godly sorrow. I know that this could not be true, for Paul says that “godly sorrow worketh repentance” (2 Cor. 7:10). Godly sorrow only works, or produces repentance. Repentance is the effect of godly sorrow, and if repentance is the effect, then godly sorrow is the cause. The cause and effect could not be the same in any instance. Godly sorrow is the cause of repentance, and therefore -it could not be repentance itself.

The majority of the world think of repentance as a reformation or change of life. But this also is an improper definition of this important word. A reformation of life very definitely follows repentance, just as repentance follows godly sorrow, but the change of life is not repentance. It is a product of repentance. John the Baptist said to those that came out to be baptized of him, “Ye offspring of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of repentance” (Lk. 3:7, 8). In other words, by the fruits that they bore in their lives, they were to indicate to others that they had repented. The fruit bearing was the result of the act of repenting. Peter, in delivering another sermon, commanded the people to “Repent ye therefore, and turn again” (Acts 3:19). What were they to do? They were to repent and turn. The turning was to change their way of life, or their reformation. Repentance could not mean to transform one’s life, or Peter is made to say “turn ye, and turn again,” which would be tautology. Hence, repentance stands in between the time that a man becomes sorry for his sins and when he abandons his sins, and begins the better course of life.

Seeing then, that repentance is not fear; it is not conviction of sin; it is not confession of sin or guilt; it is not regret; it is not godly sorrow; it is not the transformation of one’s life, the question arises, “What is repentance?”

Repentance fully defined is a change of will or mind. This change is preceded by godly sorrow and followed by a transformation of life. We see this definition of the word taught in many instances in the Bible. Man would do well to define Biblical words in the light of Biblical usage.

In Lk. 11:32, Christ said, “The men of Nineveh shall stand up in the judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: for they repented as the preaching of Jonah; and behold, a greater than Jonah is here.” The people of Nineveh repented at Jonah’s preaching. What does this mean? Jonah came telling them that unless they repented God would destroy the city. As a result of his preaching, they repented unto the thing he commanded. Their repentance brought them into the course of life that the preaching demanded. But what about the meaning of the word repent? These people changed their mind about their manner of life, and determined to alter it. Their repentance was their change of mind. Repentance is a mental change that produces a change of action.

In connection with this same case, Jonah said, “And God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God repented of the evil which he said he would do unto them; and he did it not” (Jonah 3:10). What does it mean when the text says that God repented? It means simply that He changed His mind about the impending destruction to be brought upon Nineveh. He decided that He would not destroy the city, and His decision not to do the thing He had purposed to do, led to His altered action. Therefore as a result of His change of will or mind, His repentance, God spared the city, or He transformed His action.

Christ further defined the word for us as He said, “A man had two sons; and he came to the first, and said, Son, go work today in my vineyard. And he answered and said, I will not: but afterward he repented himself, and went” (Matt. 21:28, 29). The young man at first refused to go work in the vineyard in compliance with the command of his father, but later he repented and went. What did he do? He changed his mind about his will toward his father’s command. As a result of his change of mind, his action also changed, but the change of action was not the repentance, but it was the product of the changed will.

Repentance is then properly defined as the change of the will. This makes repentance the hardest command of God for man to obey. It is made difficult to obey because it involves the will of the man, and it has always been the will of the man that has prohibited his salvation. The will of man is yet the greatest single obstacle in the way of his salvation. With the abundance of evidence, to the man who has not chosen to close his mind, it is a rather simple matter to produce faith in his heart. Once the faith is produced, then the problem of changing the will of the man arises. It is a difficult matter to get man to decide that he is going to cut himself off from sin. It is hard to get man to resolve to cease sinning, to live no longer in rebellion to the commandments of God, but once the stubborn will is subdued, and man resolves to abandon sin, and to obey God, then baptism is an easy matter. The man who is determined to quit sin, and who has set his mind upon doing every single thing that God has commanded for the purpose that God commanded, will not hesitate to comply with such a plain command as that of baptism. The whole difficulty in converting one is to change his will, to change his mind about sin, to get him to repent sincerely and genuinely.


We have seen that repentance is one of the commands of God, and is therefore standing between man and his salvation; that with God, it is a matter of a man’s repenting or perishing. We have seen that almost the whole world misunderstands the meaning of the word repentance, but then we have pointed out that repentance is a change of mind preceded by godly sorrow and followed by a reformation of life. Finally we pointed out that repentance is the most difficult command to obey for it involves the will of man, and it is man’s will that has always kept him from being saved. Therefore resolve now to cease sinning, and to comply with God’s divine decrees, and search the Word of God for the commandments that you must obey.

Truth Magazine XX: 30, pp. 467-469
July 29, 1976