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Going Beyond 'I'm Sorry' - A Biblical Understanding of Repentance

full moon lighting the road introducing article on a biblical understanding of repentance

It’s rated one of the more difficult hiking trails in the province; through the forest, up and down rocky crags,  roots muddling the way, and a few spots to climb. It’s quite the contrast to our endlessly flat prairies. On a hot summer day, we traversed the uneven path, the trees providing good cover from the sun. The trek took us along a lake, so as beads of sweat began trickling down our face, we took a quick dip in the water to cool off before carrying on.

On this out-and-back trail, the return trip proved to be more of a challenge. While it was well-marked going in, the directions to get back were less frequent, camouflaged among the bush. 

I got a sense of familiarity about a particularly steep climb. As we completed it (again), I breathlessly asked my husband if we hadn’t been here before. Unsure, we kept going, but then, the third time facing the foreboding wall of rock, he agreed we had been walking in circles. 

I was exhausted, my feet were aching. Resting on a boulder, taking a long swig of water, a few hikers came by. We learnt there are a few ways to get back, and getting caught in this loop is common. We followed them and found the correct turn along an unmarked path leading us in a new direction-the one to get back.

Until we pause for a moment to investigate, our natural tendency is to follow the path before us, putting one foot in front of the other. We may not notice the turn or the arrow showing us the way unless we’re looking for it.

In the same way, we walk through life with our same habits and patterns, until we stop and pay attention to the path we’re on. The sin that so easily entangles, keeps tripping us up but we carry on the same way we always have, often leaving sin unaddressed. What we forget is that even as believers, our hearts can be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin (Heb. 3:12-13), that we’re warned not to become burdened again by a yoke of slavery to sin (Eph 5:1), and that we’ve been raised to walk in newness of life (Rom 6:1-4) by putting our old, sinful ways behind us.

This turning away from sin is known, in biblical terms, as repentance. Robert Letham defines repentance as, “a change of mind and will. This includes internal sorrow, but it requires more, a turning from sin, the cause of the grief or sorrow. The popular idea that repentance is feeling sorry for your sins is inadequate.”[1] 

Repentance encompasses the whole of us, not just our minds and not just our hearts.

God does this work in us by opening our eyes to see spiritual truths, drawing us to grieve our sin in light of his holiness, that we may become more like Christ.

Grace of Repentance

In order to repent, our eyes must first be opened to spiritual truths. This happens in our spiritual lives as we are born again; we are justified. This is described by Jesus as he sends out the apostle Paul, “to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me” (Acts 26:18). We are saved by grace through faith (Eph 2:8), our position is then in Christ.

So then our ongoing repentance as believers, “is not a new justification but a renewed application of our justification.”[2] Saved and sustained in the arms of Christ we are completely secure, but there’s an invitation to pursue Him, to go deeper into the Word that we may know Him more.

Thomas Watson tells us “the Word preached is God’s engine he useth to effect repentance.” [3] Jesus prays for the church, asking the Father to “sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth” (Jn. 17:17). It’s our daily presence in scripture where we discover the character of God, to glory in who He is, which starkly contrasts against who we are. Then, the Spirit works in our hearts to teach and remind us of His words (Jn. 14:26) and this is all a gift of grace in our lives that we can become more like Him.

quote from John 17:17 to help provide a biblical understanding of repentance

Grief of Repentance

True repentance always leads us to our knees in godly sorrow, for “the eye is made for both seeing and weeping. Sin must first be seen before it can be wept for.”[4] If we’re honest, we often hide behind our sin because it benefits us in some way...we may even like it: the way everyone laughs after embellishing a story, the calmness we feel after ‘borrowing’ some money from the petty cash box, or the lie we tell to avoid a hard conversation. 

Yet, “the fear of the Lord is the hatred of evil” (Prov. 8:13). As the Word enlightens us to the sin in our lives, we can brush it off or label it a lesser sin. The prompting of the Holy Spirit will convict us of the truth, but we need to pray our hearts will bend from satisfaction to revulsion.

You know what this looks like. It’s not the defiant apology your child gives to the other as they shout, “fine. I'm sorry.” It’s the contrition you see when they know deeply they’ve sinned against the other, and are wrought with tears. That’s a picture of us before our Father in heaven when we experience the godly sorrow of our sin. Then, if you finish the story, you watch the reconciliation that takes place between the siblings, a warm hug, words of love and affirmation and restored relationship. The grief and guilt of our sin finds loving forgiveness in the arms of the Father.


quote from Thomas Watson about a biblical understanding of repentance

Goals of Repentance

We may wonder, if we’re already saved, why we should confess and repent from our sin.  First, because he commands us to; 1 John 1:9 tells us “if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” We confess our sins because this is his design to provide us forgiveness.

Second, it’s an integral piece of our sanctification. The Westminster Shorter Catechism teaches us, “sanctification is the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.”[5] This means as we continue traveling along our journey in the faith we’re intended to become more like Christ, by shedding off the sin which hinders us. Knowing and grieving our sin is the good work of God leading us toward greater righteousness and humility.

Paul’s prayer for the church in Thessalonica, “may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus” (1 Thess. 5:23). Our old selves were crucified with Christ, we’re not slaves any longer to sin, so our daily obedience is walking in His ways, empowered by His grace.

quote from. 1John 1:9 teaching a biblical understanding of repentance

Gains of Repentance

The pitfall of sin is self. It’s creating solutions for ourselves with number one in mind. James 1:14 says, “each person is tempted when lured and enticed by his own desire” reminding us that sin begins first with our desire, a focus on ourselves.

As our spiritual eyes open to see our sin, the practice of repentance turns our head toward the Father. “Repentance is less about feeling bad over behavior, and more about feeling awe and delight towards God. The more glimpses we have of the glory of God, the more we mourn for scorning that glory.”[6] We come to know His holiness and our failures. We experience his forgiveness in our brokenness. We lavish in the goodness of his grace in our efforts. We gain his strength in our weakness.

This is our experience of faith, fighting the good fight, standing firm in the faith, persevering through our shortcomings to receive the hope promised us.

quote from Matt Erbaugh on a biblical understanding of repentance

The Gift of Repentance

Friend, I know you’re reading this thinking you can’t do it. You already feel like a hot mess, so covered in mom guilt, stuck in lies of failures as a mother, as a wife, and as a person. You feel overwhelmed by everyone and everything you try so hard to care for, and you just don’t think you’re cutting it. Despairing what is from what you wish it would be. 

But let me tell you something, Sister, this is not guilt.

It’s shame.

Guilt is a gift to us. It’s a holy stirring of the Spirit to convict us of our sin, our actual sin (which yes, we do have). But what’s popularly known as ‘mom guilt’ is usually shame - the painful feeling that we’re flawed and therefore not worthy of love and belonging.[7] It’s the difference between “I did something bad” to “I am bad.” 

All the moments we compare ourselves to the mothers around us who appear to have it all together, throwing the perfect Pinterest birthday parties, neatly decorated homes, with images of their three-course, home cooked meals. It’s packing our kids’ lunches thinking it’s not good enough, struggling with a newborn thinking we should have it all together. 

While these may be good intentions, we draw definitive, negative conclusions about ourselves, rather than allowing ourselves grace to be who we are, to live in the season we’re in, to walk in faithful obedience with what the Lord has given us. 

Let’s be honest, the result is anxiety, insecurity and despair.

The wonder and beauty of the gospel is the life, death and resurrection of Christ, who “for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame” (Heb. 12:1). Our identity as followers of Jesus is not found in this world, nor in our successes, it’s now found in him. 

Where we feel insecurity, Christ gives us unrestrained love and acceptance. Where we feel anxious, Christ gives us blessed peace that passes all understanding. Where we feel despair, Christ illuminates our hearts with hope. For we were once “alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him” (Col. 1:21-22). We are called into his family, to become a holy people, equipped to do good works for the benefit of others and the glory of God.

It’s time to sort through the mess of shame, by releasing our perfectionism and insecurities, by receiving his gift of grace and acceptance, and by truly humbling ourselves before God’s Word, allowing it to poke the spaces in our hearts and minds where we’ve allowed sin to linger and experience the grace of the gospel anew.

If you've found yourself walking in circles around an area of sin in your life, take some time to reflect and pray, to meet the Lord on your knees and find grace and mercy.

What do you need to repent of?

Will you receive his strength, forgiveness and grace to step forward in faith?


Interested in more?

The cultural tensions today prompt us to seek comfort, guidance and security in idols of our own. They may not be as obvious as a statue, or as blatant as physically bowing down to them, but maybe that's what keeps them hidden to our eyes.

No, our knees don't bow, but our hearts do.

There's hope for us in Christ. We can tear down our idols through humble repentance, and this study of Josiah is going to show us how.

Grab this bible study on repentance by filling out the form!

cover for repentance bible study download


[1] Robert Letham, Systematic Theology (Wheaton: Crossway, 2019), 934.

[2] Stephen Wellum, “If All My Sins Are Forgiven, Why Must I Continue to Repent?” September 5, 2017, .

[3] Thomas Watson, The Doctrine of Repentance (Carlisle: Banner of Truth, 1989), ch 2.

[4] Ibid, ch 4, sec I.

[5] Westminster Shorter Catechism, (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2008), 98.

[6] Matt Erbaugh, “The Heart of True Repentance,” December 29 2017.

[7] Brene Brown, “Shame vs. Guilt,” January 15, 2013.



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