The first word Jesus preached to us in His public ministry was “Repent” (Matt. 4:17). Repentance literally means a profound change of mind that produces a change of direction.
In other words, repentance is not just that I think differently about something, but that my mind does a 180-degree turn so I gladly move in the opposite path. Paul says that “godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret” (2 Corinthians 7:10 ESV). In other words, I am so convinced of an issue of sinfulness that I gladly turn; I see it as God sees it and deal with it as God does.
The Repentant Prayer
As a believer, how do I know if I have come to real repentance? And as a spiritual leader, how do I shepherd others to that point? How do I know when they have completed their repentance?
Psalm 51 is one of the most well-known and powerful texts on repentance. It is full-orbed in its illustration of genuine repentance, which is always marked by the following:
The Upward Look
David is praying TO Someone because he believes that One can do something about the awfulness of his sin. He bases everything on the preface of God’s “steadfast [immovable, unchangeable] love” and His “abundant mercy.” If it were not for the unchanging characteristics of God, no one could be forgiven.
The repentant come to God because they believe He will forgive. The words purge, clean, and wash indicate that David believes only God can do the cleansing necessary.
The further confession, “Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow,” indicates that God was working in David’s heart, not only to convict him of his sin but to convince him of God’s willingness and ability to forgive. Only God can forgive, and to Him we must turn.
The Inward Admission
Repentance can be easily detected by where the finger of blame is pointing. In the first 5 verses, there are 14 personal pronouns used. David is not pitching blame on anyone; he is taking full responsibility for his sin. He even goes back to his birth, admitting that he is a sinner by nature as well as by choice.
Lying is a trademark of the unrepentant. We cover our sin, exaggerating our circumstances and magnifying others’ involvement.
Here, David says, “You delight in truth in the inward being … in the secret heart.” He is saying, “God, what You want is gut-level honesty and transparency, and that’s how I’m coming to You.” We’re not done with repentance till we’re done with deception.
The Outward Ministry
The repentant are happy. They hear “joy and gladness” again deep in their innermost part (their bones which had been broken). The “joy of [God’s] salvation” is restored.
One of the main reasons many Christians are not joyful is that they are not regularly repentant and are not experiencing regular “salvation” from sin. A repentant man—recognizing his sin daily and God’s cleansing daily—is constantly aware of and grateful for God, and joyful in the fullness and completeness of God’s salvation.
Repentance brings praise, and praise brings ministry to others. The reason David lists for his repentance and God’s cleansing is so that God would open his lips to declare His praise. He follows this with the next logical conclusion: “Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.”
Repentance always leads to praise, and praise to testimony, and testimony to others’ salvation. Notice the progression: inward joy, upward praise, outward witness—a total transformation of direction.
How often should I repent? Only as often as I sin. Which means that we are called to be lifelong repenters!