What is Real Repentance: a Biblical Change of Heart

We often focus on the actions of man in the process of determining whether real repentance has taken place.

An abusive leader, whether in the home or workplace, has been confronted and recognizes that he must change his actions in keeping with repentance as Jesus said:

But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance.

Matthew 3:7-8 (ESV)

To “bear fruit” would indicate a couple things.

  • To “bear” in Greek carries the meaning to “perform” or “to make or do.” It is taking action.
  • “Fruit” in Greek means “work, act or deed.”

Considering those words, there seems to be visible actions that are necessary for repentance.

However, repentance is much more than this and our understanding of it will make a significant difference in how we look at our own repentance and that of those who have been called to repentace after crushing others under their authority or power.

I Am Feeble and Crushed

To consider a model of repentence in Scripture we need look no further than David. The king of Israel was a model of wicked behavior – including rape and murder – and he was a model of repentance. David raped, murdered, and failed to bring accountability for others where he had the power to do so.

Yet, it is in his many words that are found in Scripture that we get a picture of a man broken by his sin and repentant.

For my iniquities have gone over my head;
like a heavy burden, they are too heavy for me.
5 My wounds stink and fester
because of my foolishness,
6 I am utterly bowed down and prostrate;
all the day I go about mourning.
7 For my sides are filled with burning,
and there is no soundness in my flesh.
8 I am feeble and crushed;
I groan because of the tumult of my heart.

Psalm 38:4-8 (ESV)

David recognizes his sins. They have “gone over my head,” he says. He is drowning in his sins. He is “foolish.” And he even feels it in his physical body. His “flesh” is “burning.”

This is a man who knows his sin and I would suggest these words give voice to a true repentance.

In verse 8 he says, “I am feeble and crushed; I groan because of the tumult of my heart.”

His sense of shame goes to his very “heart.” And it is in the use of this term that we begin to see true repentance.

From Within

Recently, I was speaking with an advocate who shared with me some incredible wisdom. She was explaining the distinction between the supposed repentance of an abuser, whose wife she was seeking to help, and her own husband who was once abusive. However, her husband had truly repented and has born the fruit of this repentance for years.

She explained that the victim’s husband had been counseled by a church leader and was much less difficult to live with at home in that his anger was not as apparent. She noted that it gave the appearance of repentance.

However, she said he had yet to confess to his wife the wickedness of his heart and his desire to change. The advocate noted that her husband, on the other hand when coming face to face with his sin, confessed to her the evil that was in his heart and the actions flowed from that just as Scripture describes.

“What comes out of a person is what defiles him. 21 For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, 22 coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. 23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

Mark 7:20-23 (ESV)

The Heart of the Matter

It may help to talk about this term, “heart.”

In the west – that is Europe and America – there has been a particularly unhelpful dichotomizing of mind and emotion. “Heart” has referred almost exclusively to our emotions and mind to our cognitive abilities.

However, the biblical use of those terms is not nearly so clean and orderly, nor is neurological science’s findings.

לֵב (lêḇ), which is the usual word translated “heart” in Hebrew, is “used very widely for the feelings, the will and even the intellect; likewise for the centre of anything.” It really is more accurately describing the whole inner man, the center of our being, and definately not just our emotions.1

The term καρδία (kardia – heart), which is found in the Mark 7 passage above, refers to “the thoughts or feelings; also the middle.” Again, note the broadness of the term in referring both to what we understand as cognitive ability and emotions.

So, when Scripture tells you the “heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” it is telling you the whole inner man is deceitful and sick. It may help to remember that the whole man is fallen in sin. Our thinking and emotions, which generally go together, are both broken.

It is why an abuser can think he is always right and feel he is the most important person in the room, even when it makes no sense to anyone else. Everything about his inner man is contrary to reality. Yet, he is quite sure.

So, Mark 7 quoted above makes it evident that from the very center of an abuser’s being, wickedness, deceit, pride, murder and all kinds of evil comes. It is so evil in its intent and expression that their inner being sets them apart from normal people. Mind you, even normal people need the Savior because their wickedness is just as damning. It just is not as destructive to the people they engage.

My advocate friend helps us distinguish between the false repentance of so many abusers and real repentance. Remember that the “cure” rate of abusers is likely around 5% or less. That is a dismal amount of repentance.

But when there is true repentance, a change of heart – the whole inner man including their thinking and feeling and will – is so radical that you know you are safe with them.


1 The “Theological Dictionary of the New Testament” by Kittel notes that it can be translated in English to denote emotion, thinking, or will.

Leave a Reply