What is Repentance?

Repentance has always been a slightly problematic concept for me. I don’t think I have a lack of it in my life—I remember even as a child feeling moved by the pricking of conscience when I did wrong, and still feel that. But I’d never felt that my grasp on what it is and what it means was strong.

I remember being a child and hearing my pastor, in a sermon, describe repentance as having a sense of turning from a path, a way of walking. I can’t quite recall if he was talking about a Hebrew or Greek root word that was translated as repent, but I really liked that imagery and how active it was. It’s more than just feelings of sorrow and contrition.

But actually doing the action of repentance – making changes and working to walk, to live differently – it isn’t easy to do. And so despite how the imagery resonated (and still resonates!) with me, the idea tripped me up. In fact, as sinful human beings, we can’t even make a start at repentance.

Read Ephesians 2:1-3.

If you are dead, can you move? Are you capable of doing anything about your state of “deadness”?

Silly questions, yes, but let’s apply it to being “dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked” and ask again: Can dead people change their course?

Of course not.

When we look at the whole of those three verses, there’s a lot of description to say that someone is sinful. Paul almost seems to be harping on it. (Those of us who are parents or who have parents: Does this seem familiar? Child does something wrong, parent maybe goes a little overboard with correction? I’m guilty, on both sides of this.) Consider, though, how the volume of the description illustrates the significance of what he is writing. Not only were you sinful, Paul says, but you were dead and lost! You were beyond saving…by any earthly force. More on that later. 😉

Notice how in Ephesians 2:3, Paul identifies himself also as one who was once dead – “we all once lived in the passions of our flesh…”

Who in your life has identified or related himself with you? Who has sat down with you in the muck of life, saying “I’ve been in similar places, too. I’ll sit with you here, in yours.”? What did that do in the midst of your struggle? If no one has ever sat with you in this way, consider how it would have impacted you. To whom might you offer that relationship?

Let’s continue reading in Ephesians 2: 4-7.

“But God…”

Did you feel the coming contrast in the words? This is a stop-and-take-notice moment. Paul has, for lack of a better term, lambasted his readers with the severity of sin’s former hold on them. But God.

But God wasn’t content to leave us in our misery, because He is love.

But God had a plan from the beginning, because He is rich in mercy.

But God knew that even the most faithful of Christians would struggle, so He helps us in our weakness.

Think for a moment about the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry. We see amazing miracles, heart-touching scenes of mercy, strong words spoken with authority…now look in the background and observe the disciples. Do they have it all together? Sometimes, yes, it seems like they do. Look up the following passages. What do the disciples “do right” here?

Matthew 4:18-22; Matthew 9:9-13

Luke 10:1-20

Mark 8:27-30

But we all know that the disciples weren’t always on point when it came to their faith in Jesus. Look up these verses; how did they “fail”?

Mark 8:31-33

Matthew 26:56

But God didn’t act based on the disciples’ ability to get it together and do what they should. And neither does He act now based on our ability to do what is right, to repent sufficiently, to follow Him as we ought. Because we can’t do it, except with His gifts of repentance and faith through grace.

Repentance is about so much more than Merriam-Webster’s definition of turning from sin or feeling regret or contrition. Repentance is about God coming to be with us in our messes, in our struggle, in our heartache.

Read again the blessed words of His mercy:

But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. (Ephesians 2:4-7)

Sin is no small thing. It’s serious enough that God can’t simply ignore it, we can’t sweep it under the rug or hide it behind the couch. It needed to be addressed and further, atoned for. It’s bigger than we can handle. Period. No “handle on our own” or “handle without help”, just “handle.” As the verses at the beginning of Ephesians 2 describe, someone who is dead can’t handle anything.

“But God…”

Repentance (2)
graphic made with canva.com

During these weeks leading up to the time that we remember and even rejoice in Christ’s Passion – His suffering and death – and celebrate His Resurrection, I pray that this time of reflection upon and studying of repentance will be a time that God immerses you in His love, poured out on the cross and living in our hearts.

For quiet devotional time, I invite you to pray Psalm 51.

If you are a journaling type of person, consider writing about this today: What “But God…” moments have you experienced in your life? Maybe you’re in the midst of one now, maybe you have too many to count. Even in the middle of muck and heartache, remember that God is faithful, and that He is rich in mercy for you.


5 thoughts on “What is Repentance?

  1. It’s quite amazing to me that God gives us the gift of being able to turn toward Him at all. I really can’t imagine life without somewhere to drop all that shame either. Our God is so gracious to offer us a place to bring all the junk of our sin and the sin in this world- at His feet, through Jesus. I’m so thankful!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So true, Heidi! He is Righteousness, and really didn’t have to bother with us sinful humans…but He’s also Love, and so that Love moved him to act on our behalf, to call us and cleanse us. ❤


    1. Donna, this is a great question! We’ll be getting more into it in the coming weeks, but my take on it is that rather than grace tying into repentance, repentance is an act of mercy and a gracious gift.

      We can’t repent on our own, lost in sin. We repent at the stirring of our conscience by the Holy Spirit. As a little sneak-peek into one of the days next week, 2 Corinthians 7:10 reads, “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.” Repentance leads to salvation, both of which are gifts of God’s grace.

      Now, for a more daily application (and I was just thinking about this as I fell asleep last night, and how I could incorporate it into the coming studies, so thanks!), repentance ties into daily living by grace as “by daily contrition and repentance” (explanation of Baptism in the Small Catechism) our sinful nature is drowned in the remembrance of our baptism and the benefits it gives, together with the Word of God.

      Maybe it’s like a complex tapestry, with all of these amazing things woven together and holding together to be God’s mercy for us.

      What are your thoughts on repentance and living by grace?


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