Conversion: The Nature of Repentance

By Cecil Willis

As we proceed in our lessons on conversion, we feel confident that we would not do justice to the subject, were we to omit a discussion of the nature of repentance. There is a wide diversity of opinion as to the true nature of repentance, and therefore we want to determine all we can about the nature of repentance from a study of the Word of God.

Before we can see the true, nature of repentance, it is necessary, first, to investigate the modern concept of repentance, as taught by many denominations. Denominationalists teach that repentance is a direct gift of God. They tell us that repentance comes just as does faith, that is, by a direct operation of the Holy Spirit. A few weeks ago, when we were studying the subject of faith, we saw that God does produce faith. It has never been a question of whether God produces faith or not, nor has it been a question of whether the Holy Spirit produces faith or not, b ut it has been a discussion of how God and the Holy Spirit produce faith. It is a matter of whether they do it directly, or through some medium. It is a discussion of whether men become believers because of some mysterious operation of God through the Spirit upon the heart of man, or whether God causes man to believe by the Word of God, which is the product of both God and the Holy Spirit. Paul settled forever the arguments as to how men are made believers, as he said, “So then faith cometh by hearing and hearing by the word of God” (Rom. 10:17). Denominationalists tell us that faith and repentance both come in the same way. They say that God must send some kind of a power upon man and produce faith and repentance in his heart.

To some men, repentance is the gift of God, directly. There is a very basic reason why men teach that God must operate directly and independently of the preaching of the word. A large portion of the denominational world maintains that men are born inherently totally depraved. By this they mean that because of the sin of Adam, a baby is born into the world totally in sin. Therefore since one is a total sinner, then there must not be any good thing that he can do. Since both faith and repentance are good actions, being the commandments of God, and man is totally evil, then it must follow that man cannot do these things, but that they must come directly from God. The logic might be sound, but the premise is false, and therefore the conclusion is accordingly false. If one is a sinner now, it is because of his own sin, and not because of Adam’s. Although, man does bear some of the consequences of Adam’s sin, he very definitely does not bear the guilt of Adam’s sin.

God has commanded that man repent or perish. We saw this to be true from the Lord’s statement in Luke 13:1-5; and then we see it reiterated by Paul in Acts 17:30,31. Suppose these men are correct in what they say about the necessity of God’s sending some direct power upon man in order to produce repentance, then whose fault is it if one does not repent? If one must await God’s decision to send a person repentance, and he never gets it, then it certainly could not be his fault; but then it must be God’s. Certainly there would be no justice in condemning a man for not getting something that he could not get.

Because man thinks that repentance comes as a direct result of the special action of God upon the sinner, then they have come to think of repentance as some mysterious, mystical, incomprehensible act. They go to the “mourner’s bench,” as it is called in denominational phraseology, and there they plead, pray and beg God to send them repentance. Then when they finally get what they think is repentance, they act very odd. Sometimes when individuals tell you about their repentance, they tell you of some weird dream that they have had, something comparable to a nightmare. They call this repentance. This mysterious way in which men speak of the religion of our Lord has driven many away from the Word of God, who otherwise might have obeyed. It is our purpose to investigate just what the Bible says about the nature of repentance.

When one remembers the definition of repentance as defined in the Scriptures, it will then be apparent, that repentance cannot be the mysterious act that some would have us believe it is. Repentance is a change of mind, preceded by godly sorrow, and followed by a reformation of life, but basically, it is nothing more than a change of mind. Repentance is my decision to cease sinning, and to do better in the future. Seeing then that repentance is nothing more or less than a change of mind, it therefore follows that there is no part of it that can be the incomprehensible something that so many would have us believe. Repentance is the result of the calm, sober thinking of the intelligent mind, honestly and fairly weighing the consequences of sin and righteousness, and then the intelligent decision to quit sinning, and to do what is right.

When I seek to get one to repent of his sins, I do not try to get him so emotionally upset that he hardly knows what he is doing, but I try to provoke within him sober thought, and to be sure that he understands the consequences of his decision. One who resolves to quit sinning because of momentary emotional instability will not maintain the life in accord with his change of mind or his repentance very long. When one is prompted to repent because of emotional uncertainty, he will revert back to his former way of life after the emotional uprising subsides. Repentance therefore must be a rational act, prompted by sober thinking, rather than prompted by emotional unrest. When one becomes so emotionally upset, at the mourner’s bench, with a number of people nearby adding to his inner disturbance, then intelligent thought, and therefore repentance is impossible. One cannot rationally decide to abandon sin under these circumstances, and this kind of decision does not constitute repentance.

It is further seen that repentance is an intelligent mental act when one remembers that it is something to be preached. Notice these passages stating such: “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 at Jerusalem” (Lk. 24:46,47); “And in those days cometh John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judea, saying, Repent ye; for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 3:1,2). As Peter, the apostle, preached the first sermon under the gospel commission, on the day of Pentecost, one of the things preached by Peter was repentance. He told the people that they must both repent and be baptized in order to receive the remission of sins. It is easily seen, then, that repentance is a commandment that is to be preached to the world by the speakers of God. If repentance is something that is to be preached to the world, then it certainly must be something that one can understand, or else it would be futile to preach it to men. What good would it do for me to preach that one must repent, if repentance is an act so mysterious that men cannot understand it?

In connection with this same thought, let us refer again to the idea taught that God sends repentance directly. Repentance is an act of man, and not of God. When one goes into some denominational meeting and they are all down at the front kneeling around the mourner’s bench, and especially around some particular candidate, they usually are praying that God will send His converting power upon this candidate, in order that he might believe and repent-or as they prefer to state it, in order that he might repent and then believe. But friend, God has already done all that He is going to do in order to get one to repent.

I am conscious of the statements in the Bible stating that God has something to do with one’s repentance. A favorite passage of denominationalists used to prove that God sends repentance upon man directly is Acts 11:18, which reads: “And when they heard these things, they held their peace, and glorified God, saying, Then to the Gentiles also hath God granted repentance unto life.” While it is here stated that God grants repentance unto life unto the Gentiles, just a moment’s reflection will reveal to us how this repentance was granted. Peter had gone over to the household of Cornelius and had preached to them, using the powers that God has given that produce repentance. God produced the repentance, but He produced it through the forces that we considered in a preceding lesson. Since repentance is an act of man, and not an act of God, then it must follow that repentance is an action understandable by man. It is comparable to saying that God produces bread that we eat, but it would be very foolish of one to say that God does it directly. Even though we have to work for the bread that we eat, it is still a gift of God. One might as well sit idly by and wait for God to send him bread to eat, as to go to the mourner’s bench and there wait for God to send him the power to repent. God has already sent the power, and man only needs to respond to that power.

In all the examples of individuals’ repenting in the New Testament, one finds no trace of the mysticism (emotionalism) characteristic of the modern misnomer, styled by man as repentance. What men style “repentance” is not repentance. In Acts 3:19 we hear Peter soberly tell the Jews that they must repent to have their sins blotted out: “Repent ye therefore, and turn again, that your sins may be blotted out, that so there may come seasons of refreshing from the presence of the Lord” (Acts 3:19). Here one does not see a group of people conducting themselves as modern sensationalists do as they try to get one to repent, or more properly stated, as they try to get God to grant repentance unto one. We find no crying, shouting, mourning, or any of the other actions that ordinarily transpire at one of the modern revivals, that precedes one’s repentance.

We are often called upon to believe that repentance is what leads one to throw himself violently upon the ground, to roll, tumble, and shout. Friend, do not misunderstand my motive. I am not ridiculing these people, but I am plainly declaring that what they style as repentance very definitely does not coincide with repentance as pictured in the Bible. Repentance is not described in the Bible as a convulsion!

It might be worthwhile in this lesson, also, to point out that repentance is not an act for which one has to wait years to experience. We are often told that certain individuals have persistently gone to the mourner’s bench for years, and yet they have not been granted repentance. They have not gotten any strange feelings indicating that they have decided to reform their lives. Repentance, as pictured in the Bible, being a mental act, occurred simultaneously with one’s decision to abandon sin. It was not necessary for one to entreat God to grant repentance, for God had already done that. It is now dependent upon the cordial acceptance of God’s benevolence by man. When the young man was approached by his father, as recorded in Matt. 21:29, at first he rebelled and refused to go into the field as his father requested. “And he answered and said, I will not: but afterward he repented himself, and went.” As soon as the young man changed his mind regarding his reaction to his father’s command, he had repented. It takes no longer to repent than it does to change one’s mind about sin.


From our study we see that repentance is an act of man, and not of God. God does not send repentance to man directly, but He uses the powers that we discussed in the former lessons to produce repentance. We further may see that repentance is removed from the mystical realm, for it is a commandment to be obeyed by man, it is preached to man, and because of its very simple definition of being a change of mind. All of these points bring repentance into the realm of intelligence. It is hirther seen that repentance does not make one con duct himself like many today do who say that they have been saved, or that they have repented. Finally, we see that it takes no longer to repent than it does to change your mind, and that the modern way of “praying through” in order to get God to grant repentance and faith is a farce. It is improper and unscriptural.

It is understood by all who have followed us in our studies on this subject that repentance is a prerequisite to salvation. Repentance comes by the forces taught in the Word of God, rather than by a direct force. Repentance is the act performed by man, commanded by God, that changes man’s feeling about sin, and in which he resolves to obey all the commandments of the Lord. Repentance is preceded by faith, and is followed by the act of baptism. It is our plea that many will decide now to leave sin, and be baptized immediately into Christ in order to receive the remission of sins.

Truth Magazine XX: 33, pp. 515-518
August 19, 1976