What is Repentance?

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Anyone with even a small amount of Bible knowledge realises that God is looking for us to ‘repent’. However we might wonder what ‘repentance’ actually is.

What does one do when one ‘repents’? Rather than simply defining the word, a Biblical example will help to demonstrate the meaning of repentance and more importantly how God responds when someone repents.

King in Trouble

2 Samuel Chapters 11 and 12 record a very sad period in the life of a king of Israel. The man was King David. Whilst his army was away at battle he committed adultery with the wife of one of his army generals. Then, when he learnt that she was pregnant, David arranged for her husband to be murdered. Summarising the two chapters which speak of this event we see the following:


2 Samuel Event
11:1-4 David commits adultery with a woman called Bathsheba
11:5 Bathsheba told David she was pregnant – with his child
11:6-13 David tries to get Bathsheba’s husband Uriah to sleep with his
wife so that the child would appear to be his
11:14-25 David arranged to have Uriah murdered
11:26-27 David married Bathsheba
12:1-4 About 9 months later God sends the prophet Nathan to confront
David about what he had done in committing adultery and mur-
dering Uriah. He did this by telling David a story – much like the
parables we find in the New Testament
12:5-6 David correctly identifies what should be done to the man who
has done what the prophet Nathan talks about
12:7-12 The prophet Nathan then explains to David that he was the
person in the wrong in the story that he had just told David. He
then went on to tell David that he would be punished for what
he had done
12:13 David repents – he actually said ‘I have sinned’

Repentance Defined
So we see that repentance means acknowledging that we are sinners. The example given is to teach us that in general terms we are sinners. It does not mean that we should confess to being adulterers or murderers, unless of course we are! The encouraging thing to notice is that when David repented, God forgave him. The Scripture explains it like this:

David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.” And Nathan said to David, “The Lord also has put away your sin; you shall not die. (2 Samuel 12:13).

But the matter didn’t end there for David wrote a number of Psalms about this whole incident, Psalm 32 being one of them. In the Psalm he speaks of the turmoil in his mind before he confessed his sin. He said:

“When I kept silent, my bones grew old through my groaning all the day long” (Psalm 32:3).

He was in such distress that David decided to repent before Nathan came to see him. For the Psalm continues:

I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,” and You forgave the iniquity of my sin (Psalm 32:5).

The outcome of that repentance is seen in the words of Nathan: “The Lord also has put away your sin; you shall not die”. That gracious act of forgiveness is what David was referring to when he said: “You forgave the iniquity of my sin”.

What about Us?

What we have been looking at is not simply a Bible story. The New Testament says David’s experience can be ours. For in Romans chapter 4 the apostle Paul quotes Psalm 32:1-2 to describe the wonderful position of those who have been forgiven by God. Paul takes the personal experience of David “the man” (in Psalm 32:1) and shows it has a general application to all who would repent saying “those” (in Romans 4:7).

David also describes the blessedness of the man to whom God imputes righteousness apart from works: “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven,and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man to whom the Lord shall not impute sin” (Romans 4:6–8).

We noticed that God waited almost a year before sending Nathan to speak with David. Why did He wait so long? After all if God had intervened immediately Uriah would not have been murdered by David. In the way that He waited for David to repent we see how God works. The New Testament explains it like this:

The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9).

So the question we need to ask ourselves is how far are we along the road to repentance? How much longer will God have to wait for us?

Scripture has this wonderful promise for all of us:

If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9).

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