This articleΒ shows the basics of repentance, especially from the viewpoint of Romans 6, Colossians 3, and Lord's Day 33 of the Heidelberg Catechism.

Source: Una Sancta, 2003. 4 pages.

Repentance Is Imperative

Our chief Prophet and Teacher was very categorical to the Jews who brought Him the latest news. Pilate had killed some Galileans as they were bringing their sacrifices? Said Jesus: "unless you repent you will all likewise perish." Jesus repeated the point with His reference to some old news about the collapse of the tower in Siloam that took 18 lives; "unless you repent you will all likewise perish." "Perish": Jesus' reference is ultimately to the judgment of God in hell. To this chief Prophet and Teacher it's one or the other: repent or perish. No one wants to go through the agony of hell, and the only way to escape it is to repent. That's Jesus' pointed instruction in Luke 13.

It wasn't just the crowds around Jesus in Luke 13 who had to repent. Jesus' point is true for all men; all must repent, or else they perish. It's true for you and me too. That in turn makes it essential that we understand well what repentance is.


Both the Hebrew and Greek languages use the term 'repent' in a variety of ways. Always, though, the common element in their use of the term is the notion of changing direction. That is: one is headed in a given direction, and for whatever reason does a 180 degree turn, goes back in the direction from which he came. That picture helps us to understand what is meant by repentance in the context of sin. Ever since our fall in Paradise we have been traveling in a direction away from God. To repent is to change this direction, is to turn around and travel back to God. That picture is true also in relation to falling into specific sin; to repent is to turn around and do again the will of the Lord.

Apart from this overriding characterization of repentance as changing direction, the Bible presents us with a number of other pictures to teach us what repentance really is. I want to pay particular attention to two of them, with reference first to Romans 6 and then to Colossians 3.

Romans 6β†β†°β€’πŸ”—

The apostle's argument in the previous chapters had been that sinners are made righteous before God on account of Christ's sacrifice on the cross. His work, made ours through faith, ensures that we have peace with God, the forgiveness of our sins (see 5:1).

That glorious gospel raises the question of 6:1: "Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?" Freely we receive grace; shall we then do more sin so that we may receive more grace? The answer of the apostle is clear: "Certainly not! How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it?" "Died to sin," says Paul. In this chapter Sin is presented as a king, a boss who tells you what to do (see vs. 12, "sin reigns"). But when you die, you no longer can do what a king tells you to do; he can give you a thousand commands but you are free of his instructions, you are dead with respect to that king. That is Paul's point in vs. 2: we "died to sin" and therefore that king called 'Sin' can no longer tell us what to do. Hence his conclusion: don't listen to that king called Sin anymore, don't live in sin any longer!

The inevitable question, of course, is this: when did we die to sin? And how? Paul answers that in vss. 3ff. "Do you not know," he writes, "that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life." Notice how Paul speaks here about Good Friday and Easter Sunday. He speaks about Christ's death, Christ's burial and His resurrection, and says that in some way we died with Christ, we were buried with Christ, and we were raised with Christ. We think of Good Friday, of Christ being nailed to the cross, and our thoughts are limited to Christ alone being crucified, Christ alone being buried. Not so, says Paul. Vs. 5: "we have been united together in the likeness of His death." Vs. 6: "our old man was crucified with Him." Vs. 8: "we died with Christ." Christ, says Paul, was not the only one who was crucified on Good Friday; in a way that I can't understand, we were crucified with Him. Christ was not the only one who died on Good Friday; in a way that I can't understand, we died with Him. And when Christ was taken down from the cross and buried in that tomb in the garden, we were somehow buried with Him. So too Easter Sunday; when Christ arose from the dead, we arose with Him.

That reality has a consequence. What's the reason why we should no longer live in sin? This: when Christ died on Good Friday, we died to sin - and therefore may no longer listen to that king called Sin, may no longer live in sin. When Christ arose on Easter Sunday, we arose with Him - and therefore are made able to walk in newness of life. Since that's the marvelous work of God, an obligation follows. Vs. 12: "therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body, that you should obey it in its lusts." In other words: "be what you are!"

It's on this material that our Catechism builds its instruction about true repentance. Question & Answer 88: "What is the true repentance or conversion of man?" The answer is this: "It is the dying of the old nature and the coming to life of the new." The first proof text listed is Romans 6. What is repentance? This: God unites us with Christ so that we died to sin and were raised to new life. The old nature, the old man, our sinful self, is crucified with Christ, put to death with Him, and as we're raised with Christ in His resurrection we receive from the Lord a new nature, a new man, a sanctified self. That old nature, that sinful self, traveled away from God; the new nature, the sanctified self, travels to God. That 180-degree turn, that repentance, is God's mighty work in us. And its results are obvious; this U-turn results in a radically different set of attitudes and therefore in a radically different manner of living.

To draw out this new manner of living, I ask your attention for Colossians 3 and its description of repentance.

Colossians 3β†β†°β€’πŸ”—

The passage begins with Easter Sunday, and Christ's resurrection from the dead. "You," says Paul, "were raised with Christ." That reality has consequences. Since you are a new man, have a new nature received from Christ, OK, then "seek those things which are above, where Christ is," in heaven. The old nature is earthly, seeks the things of the earth, including earth-centered attitudes and actions. No, says Paul in vs. 3 (with reference to Good Friday): "you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God." So don't be earth-focused, but instead be heaven-focused. Hence the obligation of vs. 5: "therefore put to death your members which are on the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry."

Having said that, the apostle picks up a new set of imagery to describe what repentance is. In vs. 8 he speaks about 'putting off', and in vs. 12 he speaks about 'putting on'. Putting off, putting on: it's the language of clothing. You take off the one coat, and put on another. Which coat do you take off? Says Paul: you put off a set of evil attitudes and actions. Like what? Vs. 8: "anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy language out of your mouth. Do not lie to one another..." Those kinds of attitudes and actions belong to the sinful self and characterize the old nature that was crucified with Christ. Since God has united you with Christ so that you were crucified with Him, died with Him, were buried with Him, were raised with Him, the obligation follows that we be the new creatures God in Christ has raised us to be. And that's to say: there's no place for these old attitudes and actions anymore! You died with Christ, were raised with Him; "therefore put to death your members which are on the earth," take off that old coat of sin. In its place put on that new coat, the one that characterizes what new life with the resurrected Christ is all about. Vs. 12: "put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering." Attitudes like that lead to godly actions towards the other. Vs. 13: "bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do." Christ showed you mercy when you were unworthy, Christ extended kindness when you were His enemy: put that same attitude into practice in your conduct towards those who hurt you. "But above all these things," Paul continues in vs. 14, "put on love" - as Christ loved you and gave Himself up for you...


This passage from Colossians lays the emphasis on our responsibility. The Romans passage drew out that repentance is God's work in us; we certainly can't unite ourselves with Christ and die with Him, let alone raise ourselves from the dead. But Colossians 3 develops the other side of the coin. Exactly because repentance is God's work in us do we have a distinct responsibility to work along with God. Since God has had us crucified with Christ and raised us to new life, we have the specific responsibility to act as new persons. That responsibility is driven home with the imagery of putting off and putting on. Others don't undress or dress us; we do that ourselves. By using the imagery of clothing, Paul drives home the individual responsibility we all have in relation to repentance.

It's a point that I need to press home. Our Lord Jesus Christ insisted that one either repents or perishes; it's one or the other. The Lord our God unites His people-by-covenant to His Son Jesus Christ so that we die with Him and are raised with Him. Recall the Form for Baptism: "when we are baptized into the Name of the Son, God the Son promises us that He washes us in His blood from all our sins and unites us with Him in His death and resurrection." That's baptism: we die with Christ on Good Friday and arise with Him on Easter Sunday; the wonderful truth of Romans 6 is promised to us all. But that does not mean that we have satisfied the demand of Christ: repent or perish! For we have a responsibility, says Colossians 3, and that is that we put off the old nature that was crucified with Christ and we put on the new nature we receive when we arose with Christ.

To be specific:

  • Where I retain anger in my heart (be it against people for what they've done to me or against God for what He's let happen in my life), I am not in a state of repentance.

  • Where I retain rage in my heart, where I let myself fly off the handle at a drop, I am not in a state of repentance.

  • Where I retain malice, hatred of persons in my heart, I am not in a state of repentance.

  • Where I give myself to some filthy language, I am not in a state of repentance.

  • Where lies fall easily off my lips, I am not in a state of repentance (vs. 8f).

I may say the same in relation to the list in vs. 5.

  • Where I enjoy a bit of fornication (be it with a secret partner or with a late night movie or with an internet chat line), I am not in a state of repentance.

  • Where I let my passions go, where I satisfy my evil desires, where I want more and more, I am not in a state of repentance.

And that means in turn that I shall perish - unless I repent!

Flip side: where I have put off the old nature and put on the new, my conduct shall be characterized by the attitudes of vs. 12. Not anger, wrath, hatred, etc, but attitudes of mercy, kindness, humility, meekness, patience shall characterize my actions. More: I shall bear patiently with another's weaknesses and idiosyncrasies, I shall readily forgive as Christ forgave me, I shall let the peace of God rule my heart, I shall be busy with the Word of God, shall speak it and sing it and pray it day by day. Such conduct and attitudes are evidence of repentance, and therefore freedom from the sentence of damnation.


So, dear readers, older and younger: look at your own attitudes in your family circle, and the actions that follow. Is your attitude to your parents one of humility and meekness, or of knowing it better? Is your attitude to your spouse one of mercy and kindness, or not? Is your attitude to your neighbor one of forbearing and forgiving - as Christ forgave you though you were so unworthy - or is it one of intolerance, impatience, judgmental? You see: repentance cannot be hidden; those who died with Christ and were raised with Him live by the principles of the new nature, make a point of putting off earthly attitudes and putting on heavenly ones. Your attitudes to spouse, family, neighbours are earthly? I must tell you: then you are not repentant! Yet Jesus says that one must repent, else he perishes!


As it is, the Lord God has not yet called us to appear before His judgment seat; He still gives us time to repent - and that's His patience. More, in His care for us He has us hear the preaching Sunday by Sunday so that we might be confronted with His ultimatum: repent or perish. Indeed, He even puts this article in your hands. So the onus, my reader, is completely upon you; it is for each of us to take to heart what the Lord says about repentance and so see to it that we put off whatever is earthly, and put on what is of heaven. And no, that's not something we're to do once only; it's something we're to do day by day - today again.

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