When people today hear the word repent, some think of angry protestors with “Turn or Burn” signs, hurling insults at passersby. But in the Bible, repentance is less about turning away and more about turning toward the life-giving and the good. It is motivated less by fear and more by joy, and connects intimately with what it means to surrender our life to Jesus—to bend our knee and bow before Him as King.
Repentance can literally be read as “coming to your senses.” It derives from the Greek word metanoia, which is created by combining metá (a “change” or “relocation”) and a form of the word nous (“mind, intellect, perception”). It is literally a “relocation of the mind”—a change of perception that sparks a change in direction, an epiphany about what’s truly valuable, that reorients one’s trajectory in life. Yes, it involves turning away from the bad, but it’s driven by something much more contagious: falling in love with the good.
Enter the Kingdom
Jesus came preaching, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 4:17). He didn’t say “Repent in order to get the kingdom here”; He said, “Repent because the kingdom’s already here.” Repentance allows you to realign your life around what’s truly real and reorient what you’re living for, in light of God’s radiant glory. Repentance means reevaluating what you perceive to be truly valuable in view of God’s in-breaking victory over all the earth, and turning from the kingdom of self toward the kingdom of God.
We don’t build this kingdom; we enter it. We’re less like construction workers hired to erect God’s new skyscraper, raising its walls from earth to heaven, and more like bedazzled tourists: We enter the wonder, mystery, and joy of life according to His will and ways. But unlike tourists, we don’t return to where we’ve been—we stay forever. When we surrender our lives to Jesus, God begins to build His kingdom in us and through us into His world.
Confession involves owning your past while repentance involves changing your course for the future.
In Acts 2, Peter stands before the crowds and gives what could be considered the church’s first sermon. He declares, “God has made Him both Lord and Christ—this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36). The gospel does not start with, “You need to make Jesus Lord,” but rather, “God has made Jesus Lord.” God isn’t looking for your vote; He’s looking for your submission. Jesus isn’t running for office, saying whatever you want to hear to secure a vote. Rather, He is already elevated, sitting in the seat of power, installed as King over all the earth.
This is the good news, the glorious reality we’re invited to turn our lives toward. Peter goes on to tell the crowds, “Repent, and each of you be baptized” (Acts 2:38). Repentance is how we get in on this new reality. We die to the old ways we’ve been living and are raised into the living reign of Jesus.
This highlights a difference between confession and repentance. While it can be easy to see them as the same thing, there is a distinction. Confession looks back; repentance looks forward. Confession involves owning your past while repentance involves changing your course for the future. Confession is a rear-view mirror to get honest with what’s behind you; repentance charts a new GPS course for where you’re headed. We need both: to get real with where we’ve been and let God’s reality adjust where we’re going.
Our need for repentance reveals an important truth: We’re not the good guys. As C. S. Lewis put it, “Fallen man is not simply an imperfect creature who needs improvement: he is a rebel who must lay down his arms.” We have lived in service of other rulers—believed the lies of devils, bent our knee to idols, exchanged the living God for shiny stuff and shallow alliances, and ultimately exalted and enthroned ourselves. What have you made more ultimate in your life than God?
Repentance is essentially switching allegiance, but this can be hard. The prophet Jeremiah speaks of rebellious Jerusalem in league with the ways of the world, refusing to do justice or seek truth: “They have made their faces harder than rock; they have refused to repent” (Jer. 5:3). But if we’re willing to switch sides, God freely offers amnesty, holding out a way that leads to flourishing. In Ezekiel, God declares that He takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, and therefore calls the people to “repent and live” (Ezek. 18:32). In Isaiah, He offers it with outstretched hand: “In repentance and rest you will be saved” (Isa. 30:15). God is essentially saying, “Come to your senses! Wake up to My ways that lead to vitality and abundance; return to Me and find rest.”
And God is waiting with open arms to receive us. At Solomon’s dedication of the temple, God makes an extravagant promise—that if His people “humble themselves and pray and seek [His] face and turn from their wicked ways, then [He] will hear from heaven, will forgive their sin and will heal their land” (2 Chron. 7:14). Our Creator waits with healing in His wings for us to turn from darkness toward His light.
A New Foundation
No one is too far gone for God’s grace. King David experienced this firsthand. After committing murder and adultery, he cried out to God in confession, “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin” (Psalm 51:2). He owned his junk.
David, however, not only looked back to acknowledge his past, but forward toward a different future: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10).
Like David, we need a “clean heart.” Turning toward God is not simply a tune-up to the way we’ve been running; it is receiving God’s new motor under our hood. It is not an addition to our existing foundation; it’s demolition to make way for a whole new building. It is not simply agreeing to do our duty; it’s discovering God’s ways are more appealing and desirable.
God gladly accepts us as we are—but will not let us stay as we are. As John the Baptist commanded his listeners, “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matt. 3:8). If you let God replant your roots, you can’t help but eventually bear fruit. Jesus wants you to come to your senses and replant your roots in Him. He is a King who freely offers amnesty, a Savior whose arms are open wide, inviting us to turn from lesser things and enter the reality of His glorious, life-giving kingdom.
Illustrations by Adam Cruft