One of the hardest requirements for the Christian is repentance. Biblical repentance requires both a change of heart and a change of action. One cannot imagine one without the other. For example, the man who decides to follow Jesus yet persists in his wicked ways has not had a true change of heart. The converse is also true. A man who begins cleaning up his life, seeking righteousness and goodness, and lives according to the principles of the faith, has changed his ways and also his heart.
In Acts 2:38, Peter declared that his hearers must both “repent and be baptized.” It is clear from their question in verse 37, “what must we do?” that they had changed their thinking. Moments before they were guilty of the blood of Jesus Himself. Now they were changing. Their heart changed and now their lives must follow.
English Bibles use “repent,” or some form of the word, over 50 times in the New Testament. John the Baptist was first when he demanded the people repent and prepare for the coming of Jesus (Matthew 3:2, 8, 11; Mark 1:4, 15; Luke 3:3, 8). Consider Matthew 3:8 and Luke 3:8 where John commanded not only a change of thinking but a change of action too:
“Bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:8)
“Bear fruits in keeping with repentance…” (Luke 3:8).
Jesus commanded repentance too. “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3, repeated verbatim in 13:5). His great apostle Paul, explaining his history to Herod Agrippa said that he (Paul) taught men “to repent and turn to God, performing deeds in keeping with their repentance” (Acts 26:20). When writing the letter to the church in Ephesus, Jesus linked repentance with action. “Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent” (Revelation 2:5).
Consider the man who is driving from Washington D.C. to New York City. An hour outside of the district he realizes that he is actually traveling south toward Atlanta. He knows and acknowledges his error but continues to drive south. His change of heart is, at the very least, suspect and probably nonexistent!
Repentance requires a change of heart, and that change is inextricably linked to a change in conduct or behavior. There is no other conclusion.
Herein lies the challenge. True repentance is hard; it is very hard! It is so hard that no man can adequately affect such a change in his spiritual life without divine help. Do not misunderstand. Man must seek to change. He must make an effort. Apart from the grace of God, we cannot be saved. We cannot raise our fists and demand salvation. God does not owe us salvation. But, out of his own nature, God has extended his hand to help those who repent and strive for righteousness. Jesus said, “Strive to enter through the narrow door, For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able” (Luke 13:34).
While comparing our struggle for eternal rest to the temporal rest offered Israel, the writer of Hebrews warns: “Let us, therefore, strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience” (Hebrews 4:11). God truly helps those who seek him. Just as Noah still had to build the ark and Cornelius still had to seek Peter and be baptized, so we strive in this life.
The question is answered. Repentance requires both a change in thinking and life. One does not exist without the other.