There are three types of repentance.
- God repents by turning from an action toward man, depending upon man’s reaction to Him.
- Unsaved people repent by turning toward Christ, though covered in sin. Then they behold Him in faith in His finished work on the cross. That is how everyone has to repent and believe to be saved.
- Saved people are the only ones with access by the Holy Ghost to the Father. In that state as an adopted child of God, he or she can deal with individual sins with a loving Father, so they can be freed to do good works that God planned for them.
How repentance is done, depends upon who is doing the repenting, and what that person’s condition is at the time.
God repented of good or evil events. This is not the same as “it repented God.” That is not an outer action. Scriptures say that God repented.
And the LORD repented of the evil which he thought to do unto his people. (Exodus 32:14)
This is the principle God gave about Himself repenting of the evil:
"At what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, and to pull down, and to destroy it; If that nation, against whom I have pronounced, turn from their evil, I will repent of the evil that I thought to do unto them. And at what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to build and to plant it; If it do evil in my sight, that it obey not my voice, then I will repent of the good, wherewith I said I would benefit them." (Jeremiah 18:7-10)
So God turns from what He stated He would do, depending upon whether the people respond by turning from their evil to God, or by turning from God to do evil.
Repent means to turn. The fruit of repentance is what they do that visibly shows where they have turned. Repentance is the turning, not the fruit of it.
2. Unsaved man
Unsaved man has no relation to the Father. Jesus, when He forgave the people at that moment mocking Him and supporting His crucifixion, said these words:
“Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34)
Forgiveness comes from the Father for individual sins. An unsaved man has no access to the Father to get forgiveness for individual sins. The only access to God an unsaved person has is through Jesus Christ. That is why Jesus said:
“I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” (John 14:6)
By Jesus is the only way any man, woman or child has access to the Father.
For through him [Christ Jesus] we both have access by one Spirit unto the Father. (Ephesians 2:18)
There is only one thing an unsaved person can do to please God and do works that please Him: he or she must believe God, believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, that He sent to earth, and trust His sacrifice, His shed blood, that He paid to forgive all our sins.
But without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him. (Hebrews 11:6)
Then said they unto him, What shall we do, that we might work the works of God? Jesus answered and said unto them, This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent. (John 6:28-29)
Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; (Romans 3:25)
God commands all men everywhere to repent (Acts 17:30), so repenting is something all men everywhere, including the unsaved, can do. The Lord Jesus gave us the perfect example in the story of the people bitten by serpents in the wilderness.
And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived. (Numbers 21:9)
So a person bitten could writhe in pain because of his sin and die. But God let people look upon a serpent of brass upon a pole. If they turned to look upon it, regardless of how wracked with pain they were, even if they were dying, they would live.
To repent is to turn. When they turned (repented) and beheld the serpent of brass (using whatever faith they had), they would live and not die.
Jesus compared himself to that serpent on a pole. He said:
And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life. (John 3:14-15)
And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me. (John 12:32)
An unsaved person can turn, even when filled with sins, and can “behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). The turning isn’t going over a list of sins, or even knowing what they all are. It is admitting they are sinners and need what Jesus has offered freely: forgiveness, salvation, eternal life and being added to God’s family.
To repent is to turn. Unsaved people can turn from beholding the lusts of the world and looking to anyone else to help them, and turn to look upon Christ, who paid the price for them. Then while beholding Him, turning to the Lord Jesus Christ, they can place their faith in Him and His completed work for them. Repent and believe. That is what the unsaved can do.
There may be (and usually are) many emotions and words that pour out of our mouths that accompany this repentance. But they are not the repentance itself. They are what accompanies repentance. To repent is to turn, not to feel emotions themselves.
3. Saved Believers
The saved believers, added to the family of God by adoption, have access to the Father (Romans 8:15; Ephesians 2:18; Galatians 4:6). Now and only now they have the right to deal with individual sins, as children under a loving heavenly Father.
This is the one time that people are allowed to deal with God with individual sins with the Father in heaven. We can list them off, especially as His Spirit convicts us, and know we have an Advocate with the Father, the Lord Jesus Christ (1 John 2:1).
For saved believers, to repent is to turn. But in that repentance, we can deal with individual sins. So we repent of where we have fallen (Revelation 2:5).
As the Lord Jesus said:
As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore, and repent. (Revelation 3:19)
Jesus gives His adopted brethren the opportunity to repent of individual deeds before the Father, and to do the good deeds God laid out for saved people to do (Ephesians 2:10). But only saved people can do that type of repentance.
So to summarize:
1. God repents in that He turns from either blessing or cursing people, depending upon their turning to follow Him or turning away from Him.
2. Unsaved man repents in that he turns, though filled with sins, because he is convicted by the Holy Ghost, and admits he is a sinner (John 16:8), and turns to behold Christ in faith. That repentance is accompanied by faith in Christ. It’s the only way to get forgiven by God and saved.
3. Saved believers repent in that God allows them access to the Father, where we can deal with individual sins in our lives. That is an ongoing process that will continue through his or her life.