Jesus says ‘But unless you repent, you too will all perish. (Luke 13:3). Thus repentance is clearly something you need to be saved. But what does it mean to ‘repent’? Firstly, to repent assumes an intellectual understanding that you have sinned and this is wrong. Noone can truly repent unless they have recognised that they are a sinner. For example, when Peter confronts the Jews for their involvement in the crucifixion of Jesus they were ‘cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?”’ (Acts 2:37) The Jews recognised their sinfulness and wanted to know what they were to do next. After this intellectual recognition Peter says: ‘Repent and be baptized’ (Acts 2:38). Repentance assumes an acknowledgement of sin.
Secondly, repentance is more than simply admitting you are a sinner, true repentance involves an emotional response to your sinfulness. Paul speaks of this: ‘Godly sorrow brings repentance’ (2 Corinthians 7:10). If you are truly repentant you are sorry for what you have done and grieved by your sin. Many non-Christians are happy to admit they’ve made mistakes, but are not sorry for what they have done. A true Christian is sorry.
Thirdly, repentance is more than just an intellectual and emotional response, but involves actively turning from your sins to Christ. Paul says everyone ‘must turn to God in repentance ’ (Acts 20:21). It is not enough to acknowledge your sin and be upset about it, if you are truly repentant for your sins then you should have a desire to never sin again. You should turn and make every effort to live obediently before God.
Esau is held up in Hebrews as a good example of someone who did not have true repentance but showed some signs of repentance: ‘See that no one…is godless like Esau, who…sold his inheritance rights…Afterward…when he wanted to inherit this blessing, he was rejected. He could bring about no change of mind, though he sought the blessing with tears’ (Hebrews 12:16-17). Esau recognised his sin and was upset about the consequences of it, even moved to tears. But we read of him making no effort to turn from sin to serve God. Esau is like a child that is sorry that they are going to be spanked for disobedience but would happily disobey again if they could get away without the spanking. If you wish to be truly repentant, you must intellectually recognise your sin, emotionally grieve over your sin and actively turn from your sin to serve God. Have you truly repented of your sins? If not, you cannot be saved.