“Without faith, repentance is merely regret. It may convey genuine sorrow for sin but knows no remedy for it.”
The call to repent appears in both Testaments. Jesus said that He had come to call sinners to repentance (Luke 5:32). The Greek word for repentance literally means a change of mind. So, repentance begins with an awareness of sin. Jesus captured this in the parable of the prodigal son with the prodigal’s declaration, “I will...go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you” (Luke 15:18). In this story, Jesus describes the beginning of repentance as a kind of reality check. Just as the prodigal “came to his senses,” repentance enables us to see ourselves in relation to God (Luke 15:17). We see our sin and accept that it has alienated us from Him. Those who repent recognize that they do not deserve to be God’s children (Luke 15:19).
Repentance also involves a turning toward God. Although the prodigal knew that he no longer had the right to be treated as a son, he returned to his father and asked for mercy. His father, who had been watching for his return, saw the prodigal “while he was still a long way off” (Luke 15:20). He was filled with compassion and ran to his son, threw his arms around him, and kissed him. When we repent, we return to the Father by going through Jesus Christ who is the answer to our sin problem (Acts 20:21).
God looks for people to worship Him “in the Spirit and truth” but He also seeks out the sinner (John 4:23; Luke 19:10). There is more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent (Luke 15:7). God is watching for the sinner’s slightest movement in His direction.
Repentance is foundational to the Christian life and part of a larger impulse toward God that the Bible calls faith. Without faith, repentance is merely regret. It may convey genuine sorrow for sin but knows no remedy for it. Faith without repentance is unfocused. It may show a kind of trust in Jesus, but without knowing what it is trusting Him to do or why. The repentance that springs from faith is convinced that Jesus welcomes sinners and can save them (Luke 15:2).
To learn more, read The Grace of Repentance by Sinclair Ferguson (Crossway).