In Exodus 13:17 we are told that God led the Children of Israel in such a direction, as they were leaving Egyptian bondage, so as to avoid the Philistine army. God tells us why in the same verse, “Lest peradventure the people repent when they see war.” The word “repent,” as we see here in Exodus, carries with it a three part meaning. Firstly, the Children of Israel would recognize a problem or danger. Like other problems the Israelites run into later, this recognition would have led to much sorrow. In turn, this sorrow would change their minds about which direction was right to follow, and so they would turn back toward Egypt. Repenting, therefore, must incorporate recognition, sorrow, and a changing of the mind.
Notice why the Israelites would change their mind, a problem. A man doesn’t change his mind about eating his fifth piece of cake unless he knows it was a problem for him last time. For this man, sickness was the problem. For the Israelites, war. What does God say is the problem today? Romans 8:6-7 tell us that to be carnally minded, or living as the human body desires (I Corinthians 3:3, Romans 8:5), is death, because it is enmity with God and goes against His law. James 1:15 equates the carnally minded to sinners. Therefore, sin, leading to death, is the problem, because it goes against the law of God.
If sin is the problem, then who has sinned? Romans 3:23 states, “For all have sinned and fall short of the Glory of God.” Similarly, I John 1:8, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” Therefore, all must recognize they have a problem. All of us must see our sin just as God sees it; being of Satan (I John 3:8).
After recognizing we have gone against the will of the Creator, the one who loves us, and desires that our life be with Him (II Peter 3:9), we should be terribly sorry. In Acts 2:37, the people, after hearing that they were guilty of the body and blood of Jesus the Christ, were cut to the heart. Even Judas showed great sorrow after realizing what he had done (Matthew 27:3). Just preceding Matthew 27, Peter, after denying Christ, went out and wept bitterly (Matthew 26:75). II Corinthians 7:10 tells us that if this sorrow is godly, it will produce repentance. Notice the implications in this verse, 1) not all types of sorrow produce repentance and 2) godly sorrow does not equal repentance.
Paul, in addressing the Thessalonians on the subject of death and the last coming of Christ ( I Thessalonians 4:13-18), told them not to sorrow “as others who have no hope.” (v 13) He did not want them to sorrow for someone as if death on this earth was final. Applying this same principle to being sorrowful concerning our sins, godly sorrow must then be a sorrow that recognizes its sin and how retched it makes the sinner look, but also recognizes that it must be fixed. Imagine someone with a hole in their shoe complaining about the dampness of their socks during rainstorms, but never attempt to fix the hole or buy a new pair. That man may continue to feel sorry, but his sorrow will not fix his problem. Did Judas’ sorrow produce repentance? Or do we see him sorrowing as one who has no hope (Matthew 27:4-5)? Compare that to the sorrow in Nineveh during the time of Jonah. Jonah 3:5 tells us that the people believed God, and were sorrowful for what that had done. Even the king (v 6) left his robe aside and covered himself in sackcloth and sat on ashes. So far, both were sorrowful, but notice then the decree sent out to all the people (Jonah 3:7-9). Everyone was told to “turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands.” Verse 9 further shows us the difference between them and Judas. The city of Nineveh believed God capable, if He so chose (notice they did not assume He would choose), to refrain Himself from striking them. Their sorrow produced repentance, and God did relent from bringing destruction upon them.
At the same time, it was not their sorrow that caused God to relent. In verse 10 we find, “God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way.” In Acts 2:38, Peter tells these men, who were cut to the heart and sorrowful, to turn from their evil way. God is only pleased with us, and will only relent from delivering us to our condemnation, which our sin has earned us, if we are willing to change our mind, to change from our evil way so that we may walk in a new way prepared for us by God.
Repentance, though (like baptism, faith, and confession), is not the end all be all for our salvation (Acts 2:38 bears this out). However, it is absolutely vital. We cannot please God if we are unwilling to change our minds (Romans 12:2).
Luke 13:3 I tell you no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish.