I wrote recently about what true repentance is but I did not attempt to cover all the steps of repentance.
In this post, I am going to try and break down all the steps of true repentance and explore what the Bible has to say about each one.
It is not enough to simply say sorry to God and think that the sin is dealt with. The offence (to God) of the sin may be forgotten. However, to be free from sin’s dominion, it’s nature and it’s trespass must be addressed too.
Sin is tri-part – hamartia (flaws and weakness), trespass (transgression), and offence (or guilt). This is addressed in Romans 5:20.
Grace covers our hamartia so that we are not an offence to God for our trespasses against Him. Love from our brothers and sisters in Christ fulfils a similar role (1 Peter 4:8).
None of this abnegates our responsibilities that stem from the trespass and offences that our hamartia has led us into. In other words, we still have to take personal responsibility. We still have a need to make a fundamental change in our thinking and our actions. This is what metanoia (repentance) literally means.
The 12 steps of repentance
You may recognise these steps of repentance as being somewhat based on the 12 steps of addiction recovery. I used the 12 steps as a template because they codify very well the stages of setting right what we have done wrong.
We admit our powerlessness over our weaknesses and failings (hamartia) recognising that without help we remain slaves to sin.
It may be tempting to say “I am no longer a slave to sin”. After all, that is the ultimate purpose of the atonement. However, Romans 6:16-20 tells us that we are slaves to whatever form of actions – sin or righteousness – we choose.
To put it in more human terms, admitting you have a problem is the first step to recovery.
In Ecclesiastes 7:20 and other passages, we read that we are all sinful. Therefore, none of us can claim to be without sin. To do so would simply be self-deception (1 John 1:8).
If we say we do not bear the guilt of sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us.
2. Recognise our need for God
We place our faith in the understanding that God, being greater than ourselves, could restore us to righteousness.
Righteousness – a term that can be misused – means simply being flawlessly in the right. In other words, a settlement of guilt (offence) and a correction of trespass such that there is no outstanding debt.
3. Turn to God
Having recognised our need for God, we turn our will and our lives over to His care.
In Isaiah 45:22-25 God says turn to Him and be saved for there is no other.
Micah 7:7 says this:
But I will keep watching for the LORD; I will wait for the God who delivers me. My God will hear my lament.
Psalm 130 says this:
From the deep water I cry out to you, O Lord.
O Lord, listen to me!
Pay attention to my plea for mercy!
If you, O Lord, were to keep track of sins,
O Lord, who could stand before you?
But you are willing to forgive,
so that you might be honoured
I rely on the Lord,
I rely on him with my whole being;
I wait for his assuring word.
I yearn for the Lord,
more than watchmen do for the morning,
yes, more than watchmen do for the morning.
O Israel, hope in the Lord,
for the Lord exhibits loyal love,
and is more than willing to deliver.
He will deliver Israel
from all the consequences of their sins.
4. Examine ourselves
We make a full and honest examination of ourselves and our lives.
1 Corinthians 11:28-29, 2 Corinthians 13:5, and Galatians 6:4 all talk of examining oneself and one’s works. In other words, we must take moral stock of our actions so that we can recognise what we have done wrong.
Most 12 step programs phase it like this:
Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
5. Confess our sins
We admit to God, to ourselves, and to brothers and sisters the exact nature of our wrongs.
I mentioned this passage before but it continues into the next verse. 1 John 1:8-9 says this:
If we say we do not bear the guilt of sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. But if we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous, forgiving us our sins and cleansing us from all unrighteousness.
This is where most people stop. Halfway through the fifth of twelve steps. If we want freedom from the power of sin, we must continue.
James 5:16 says:
So confess your sins to one another and pray for one another so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great effectiveness.
Where is says “sins” here, the word is hamartias – flaws, failings, and guilt.
In Mark 1:5 and Matthew 3:6 we can read of people coming to John to confess their sins and be baptised. This practice continues. In Acts 19:18 we read that people confessed their sins to receive forgiveness.
Only when we are able to admit our flaws and failings to others, can we hope to be set free from them.
6. Be ready to change
Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
Metanoia requires change. Therefore we have to become willing to change. Saying sorry is not enough – that is just words. Words without actions mean very little if anything at all.
You can say every sinner’s prayer ever written but unless you are willing to change, it is only so much hot air.
Just as faith without works is dead faith, so words without actions are dead words (James 2:14-26). If you only say the right things but do not back them up with willing action, what have you achieved? This is a form of Godliness but without the power. 2 Timothy 3:1-7 describes such people in detail as dangerous. We should have absolutely nothing to do with them.
Without a willingness to change, the Bible says that we remain loaded down with sins, swayed by all kinds of evil desires. Slaves to sin, in every way. Don’t be that person.
7. Ask to be changed
Humbly asked God to remove our shortcomings.
We acknowledged in steps one and two that we needed God. By step five we had confessed our failings and guilt to Him and to others. Now that we are ready to be changed we can enjoy the other part of 1 John 1:8-9, “cleansing us from all unrighteousness”.
In John 16:24 we read of Jesus saying that we should ask the father for what we need. In James 4:2, the writer talks of the strife within the community because people want but do not have. James says you have not because you did not ask God. In Luke 11:9, we find Jesus in the middle of teaching about asking God for what we need.
If you want to be changed, ask God for that change.
8. Recognise what must be put right
We make a list of all persons harmed by our failings, being willing to make amends to them all.
Too often we present a version of repentance that includes only settling our account with God as if we do not live in a community with other people. As we saw in step six, unless your words are backed up by actions demonstrating your change, your apology to God is hollow. God will not be fooled by it.
This is the step whereby you prepare to demonstrate to God, to yourself, and to those you have confessed your sins to, that you are serious about changing.
You have not repented until you have made every reasonable attempt to make right what you put wrong.
9. Put those things right
We make direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
In Matthew 5:21-26, Jesus teaches that anger is as bad as murder. He tells us to settle all matters with others before we come to make offerings to God.
So then, if you bring your gift to the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother and then come and present your gift.
If you have faith in your prayer from step seven, where are your actions? Remember, faith without actions is not faith (James 2:26).
10. Allow change to be ongoing
We continue to take personal inventory. When we are wrong, we promptly admit it.
Change is not something that happens instantly. At least, not very often. Patience is required too (James 1:4-8).
Remember we said back in step four about examining ourselves. 2 Corinthians 13:5, says we must examine all our works. Step ten is step four but ongoing through the rest of our life.
Metanoia (repentance) is not something you do and then forget. It is a firm commitment to being different. A change in attitude and action.
11. Don’t stop changing
Through prayer and meditation, we seek to improve our conscious contact with God, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
Philippians 2:12-13 speaks of working out our salvation over time. This passage reminds us that it is God that works in you at his own pleasure. Hebrews 13:20-21 tells us that it is the peace of God that equips us for every good work.
Hebrews 12:1-2 says:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, we must get rid of every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and run with endurance the race set out for us, keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. For the joy set out for him he endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.
By ongoing assessment of our lives, our words, and our actions, we can see if we are truly changing into God’s likeness (2 Corinthians 3:18).
And we all, with unveiled faces reflecting the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another, which is from the Lord, who is the Spirit.
God, having started a good work in you will bring it to fulfilment. Philippians 1:6 says:
For I am sure of this very thing, that the one who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.
Growth is a process. You planted a seed, now tend to it so that you can see a harvest.
12. Help others with the benefit of what you have learned
Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps of repentance, we support others to do the same as we practice these principles in all areas of our life.
Repentance is a lifestyle. One we should be happy to share with others.
When Jesus first sent out his disciples to preach (Matthew 10:8), he told them this, “Freely you have received; freely give.” Having learned how to repent and, having put it into practice, be willing to support others going through the same process.
Galatians 6:1-10 talks about doing this.
Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.
I would strongly suggest that you be in no hurry to set yourself up as either an expert nor the central support for new Christians. However, sooner or later you will find yourself connecting with someone who has gone through what you have gone through. If they are open to your support, be willing to offer it. This leads us into a whole other topic – discernment – which is best addressed at a later time.
Conclusions on the steps of repentance
Repentance is not and never has been “simply saying sorry to God”. Christ did not come to absolve us of our debts to each other.
Owe no one anything, except to love one another, for the one who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. (Romans 13:8)
These steps of repentance are not intended as any sort of hard and fast set of rules. I have simply laid them out this way as a guide to putting into practice what the Bible means when it says to repent of your sins.
We have explored the three parts of sin – personal flaws (hamartia), the wrongdoings (trespass), and the debts (offence). We have also looked at how each can be addressed with God’s help.
Let me know if this has been helpful to you.