Many of us have probably heard the word “repent” used in a religious sense in church. The preacher may have used it to make us feel guilty about something we did to try to get us to change our behavior. When we want to see real change in our lives, focusing solely on our actions does no good. The truth is that real repentance isn’t simply changing our behavior, but changing our hearts and minds.
It’s unfortunate that most churches don’t even preach about repentance anymore. Many people, preachers included, can’t get past the “hellfire and damnation” mindset that scares everyone away. We can’t possibly repent through our own efforts; this requires the help of the Holy Spirit who gently prompts and leads us by revealing areas where we can change our thinking. “…God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repent (to change your mind and inner man to accept God’s will)” (Romans 2:4, AMPC). What we believe in our hearts ultimately controls what we do, and when we change our beliefs, our actions will also change.
It’s virtually impossible to continue doing something and be successful in it if we don’t believe in what we’re doing. We may have heard others say “My heart’s not in it” when they’re simply going through the motions. Repentance begins with a change of heart, which is where spiritual fruit begins to grow. “Bring forth fruit that is consistent with repentance [let your lives prove your change of heart]” (Matthew 3:8, AMPC). When we consistently believe something, the physical manifestations of that belief eventually become visible by a changed life.
The Pharisees were prime examples of people who went through the motions and did all the right things in public, but had unrepentant, unbelieving hearts. They put on a great show and were masters at pretending, but Jesus immediately recognized them for the hypocrites they were. The Pharisees didn’t see their own faults and shortcomings, and saw no need for repentance. Everything they said and did came from what was in their hearts. “O generation of vipers, how can ye, being evil, speak good things? for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh. A good man out of the good treasure of the heart bringeth forth good things: and an evil man out of the evil treasure bringeth forth evil things” (Matthew 12:34, 35).
Just like many modern day churches, the Pharisees were deceived. They actually thought they were doing the right thing. No one could tell them differently because they didn’t see things that are plainly obvious to people with the Holy Spirit living inside them. “Thou blind Pharisee, cleanse first that which is within the cup and platter, that the outside of them may be clean also” (Matthew 23:26). Trusting God to help us change allows Him to begin cleaning us up from the inside, where it really matters.
We can try to change our behavior all day long through self-effort and get nowhere; we only get results when we trust God to change us. “A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 36:26). Our decision to allow the Holy Spirit to give us hearts that seek after God brings about true repentance. This may be a mystery to the world, but it’s crystal clear to us.