Seven Steps to Repentance

by Bradford G. Schleifer

The points found in II Corinthians 7:11 are key to overcoming sin.

Typically, when someone is trying to complete a task, a series of steps must be followed. One such case would be following directions to change a tire. At other times, it could be an emotional situation—such as experiencing the death of a loved one or any other kind of loss. Coping with loss requires going through a definable series of mental steps. These steps are similar for most people, and successfully progressing through each step helps them deal with their losses.

As Christians, we also must “suffer a loss” each and every day. We must remove our will from our daily lives and focus on the will of our Creator. Of course, every Christian makes mistakes. We fall short of what God expects in our lives. And since we are not perfect (Rom. 5:12), we must go to God and confess where we have fallen short (I John 1:9)—we must repent.

The act of repentance is to turn around—to change direction. You have to stop a particular action and not go back to it. Sin cuts us off from God. Anytime we sin, we put ourselves on spiritual “death row.” Repentance is the key to being pardoned.

In the world, repentance is looked upon as a feeling—an emotional “rush.” It must not be this way with true Christians. We must be deeply sorrowful for our wrong actions and desire to completely—permanently—change.

But like one experiencing loss, Christians must go through a series of steps in order to achieve complete repentance.

Works of Repentance

A telling verse in the book of Matthew sheds light on repentance. Notice: “Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance” (3:8). In most Bible margins, the word meet is rendered, “answerable to amendment of life.”

The news media has often discussed the idea of constitutional amendments. So, most are familiar with the term “amendment,” which Webster’s New World College Dictionary defines as “the act of changing for the better; improvement.”

This verse means that you must answer whether you have brought forth “fruits” to show that you have amended—improved or changed—your life for the better! As we will see, a feeling of sorrow is not the first step of repentance—but it is the start. Full repentance requires that we amend our lives and not sin again!

In total, there are seven steps to proper repentance. They are described in II Corinthians: “For behold this selfsame thing, that you sorrowed after a godly sort, what carefulness it wrought in you, yes, what clearing of yourselves, yes, what indignation, yes, what fear, yes, what vehement desire, yes, what zeal, yes, what revenge! In all things you have approved yourselves to be clear in this matter” (7:11).

Remember that God refined the Bible seven times and each word means exactly what He wants it to say. For example, this is evidenced in the deep meaning behind the name Christ used to describe the sixth era of the Church, Philadelphia. The same is true for the seven steps of repentance. The apostle Paul was inspired to use very particular words when he described repentance to the Corinthian congregation. Each step builds on the other, and we must successfully move through all seven steps when we sin.

It is also interesting to note that repentance is called a gift from God (II Tim. 2:25; Acts 11:18), yet we must have “works” in order to be granted that gift. As with salvation, there is nothing we can do to earn repentance. But God expects certain conduct if He is going to give us that gift. The ability to change—fully repent—is granted by the power of His Holy Spirit working in us. That is the gift!

Some may remember that when they counseled for baptism, it was explained that many are called, but few are chosen. We are first called, then we make the conscious choice to follow God’s Way. In turn, God chooses us. In a similar manner, we must choose to perform the works of repentance, then God will bless us with the gift of being able to change.

Examining the Greek words used in this passage provides insight into why Christ inspired these particular words, and how we can produce “fruits answerable to amendment of life.” (The definitions throughout the rest of the article come from Strong’s concordance, Thayer’s lexicon, and Vine’s dictionary.)

Step One: Carefulness

It can be said that most sin is caused by lack of carefulness. If we are always watching out for sin in our lives, and always “on guard,” then most sin would never happen. We would carefully avoid certain situations, or immediately put wrong thoughts out of our minds.

So, it is obvious why the first fruit of repentance is carefulness. But the Greek meaning of this word adds an important time element and expands on its significance. The Greek word used is spoude, meaning “with haste,” “earnestness,” “to give all diligence,” “carefulness.”

We can see that men chose the weakest word (“carefulness”) to portray the meaning. When we sin, we must quickly, and with all diligence, guard ourselves from committing the sin again.

And this is a danger!

As Christian soldiers, we must always have our defenses ready. If weak spots form in our defenses, Satan will attempt to exploit them—over and over again. These weaknesses become cracks through which Satan can get in, or conversely, the Holy Spirit, truth and right behavior can leak out. Notice: “Therefore we ought to give the more earnest heed to the things which we have heard, lest at any time we should let them slip” (Heb. 2:1). The margins of most Bibles render “let them slip” as “run out as leaking vessels.” We have to be careful, or God’s Spirit can “leak” out of us (II Cor. 4:7).

If we do not carefully repair our defenses “with haste,” we risk not only allowing the devil to enter an area of our lives, but also allowing the Holy Spirit to “leak” out. This always creates a double weakness, because the Holy Spirit is required to repair our defenses!

Imagine if just this one step were taken by all of God’s people. Many today are not careful with God’s truth, and, as a result, God’s Spirit is leaking out of them. Add to this the fact that those outside of Christ’s Body have no way to “refill” this draining Spirit.

We can see why God says that the first step of repentance is carefulness!

Step Two: Clearing of Yourselves

Often, when we make mistakes, it is against another person. We may have offended someone because of something we said, or there may have been a misunderstanding of a situation. Typically, when you make such a mistake, you apologize for it, and that resolves the situation. We apologize because the mistake was made against another person. Since all sin is against God, when we sin, we must apologize—clear ourselves—to God.

The Greek word used here is apologia, from which comes the word apology. But it also means, “a plea,” “verbal defense,” and “a reasoned statement or argument.” It is interesting to note that it means to apologize in a verbal sense. Just as a defendant appearing before a judge would plead his case, we must come before God in prayer and plea—or apologize—for our sins. We must admit we are wrong, showing Him that we are deeply sorry for what we have done against Him.

Notice King David’s attitude after he sinned: “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me. Against You, You only, have I sinned, and done this evil in Your sight: that You might be justified when You speak, and be clear when You judge” (Psa. 51:2-4). You may wish to read the remainder of this chapter, as David pours out his heart to God in “apologia” for the sins that he committed.

Step Three: Indignation

The Bible shows that hate is something of which a Christian should be careful. It can lead to many wrong thoughts and attitudes. Hate is also a precursor to murder. However, some things we are required to hate—one of which is sin! Of course, sin is defined as breaking any of God’s commandments (I John 3:4). Notice that even in ancient Israel, God required His people to hate sin: “Moreover you shall provide out of all the people able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating covetousness…” (Ex. 18:21). David also declared his hate for sin: “I will set no wicked thing before my eyes: I hate the work of them that turn aside; it shall not cleave to me” (Psa. 101:3).

The word translated “indignation” in II Corinthians 7:11 is aganaktesis, which means “indignation” or “vexation.” We should get “fired up”—be vexed—about sin in our lives. This should motivate us to change and become a fire that fuels us.

Our feelings toward our sins should parallel David’s attitude toward the wicked: “I will early destroy all the wicked of the land; that I may cut off all wicked doers from the city of the Lord” (Psa. 101:8).

When one hates something more than he loves it, he will overcome it. It is that simple! When a smoker hates smoking more than he enjoys it, he will no longer smoke. It is crucial that we hate evil in order to continue to the next step of repentance—fear. Notice: “The fear of the Lord is to hate evil: pride, and arrogance, and the evil way, and the froward mouth, do I hate” (Prov. 8:13). In this verse, “is” could be replaced with an equal sign. To fear God, we must burn with a fire of hatred toward evil.

In doing so, we can successfully repent—otherwise, we are stopped cold!

Step Four: Fear

The verse quoted previously inevitably forces step four. As we grow in our hatred for sin, we will automatically develop fear of God. However, what does this really mean? People fear many things. Some fear spiders, others cower at the sight of mice. Still others fear crowds.

Again, the Greek word used here shows that not all fear is created equal. The word translated “fear” is phobos, from which comes the word “phobia.” It means “fear,” “terror,” “reverential fear,” or “reverence for one’s husband.” As you can see, this word has much more depth than one might at first imagine.

It is particularly interesting to note the last two aspects of its definition: “reverential fear” and “reverence for one’s husband.” Christ, as the Head of the Body and Husband of the Church, must be revered for His role. The same is true of the Father. We must show a deep respect to God for the blessings He pours out on us.

The first part of the definition should remain fresh in our minds as well. Notice: “And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear Him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28). In this verse, the Greek word is slightly different. It means to “be afraid.”

So, while we should respect and revere God, we must also be afraid to commit sin! We need to develop a conscience that actually fears to do what is wrong.

It could also be said that fear is knowledge. How?

Notice: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge: but fools despise wisdom and instruction” (Prov. 1:7). Not only does fear cause us to turn from evil, but it also starts us on the path to growing in knowledge!

Step Five: Vehement Desire

As we continue to apply these steps in our lives, there are additional benefits. We have seen that fear of God and hatred of evil go hand in hand. We have also seen that fear puts one on the road to knowledge and wisdom. To gain more knowledge, we must study God’s Word. As a mirror, the Bible shows us more about ourselves. We will see where we have grown and where we still need to grow.

This act of studying God’s Word stirs up His Spirit within us: “Wherefore I put you in remembrance that you stir up the gift of God…For God has not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind” (II Tim. 1:6-7). God’s Spirit can act as a motivator in us. We must use that Spirit to fulfill the fifth step of repentance—vehement desire.

The Greek word used is epipothesis, which means “long (after, for),” “earnest desire,” and “vehement desire.” We must wholeheartedly desire, essentially with “every fiber of our being,” to fully live God’s Way—turning from sin and applying our fund of growing knowledge in our lives.

Christ, as the God of the Old Testament, defined the degree to which we should desire a full repentance: “Therefore also now, says the Lord, turn you even to Me with all your heart, and with fasting, and with weeping, and with mourning: and rend your heart…and turn unto the Lord your God: for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repents him of the evil” (Joel 2:12-13). This should be our attitude anytime we sin.

The desire we develop to live God’s Way flows directly into the next step.

Step Six: Zeal

Vehement desire described in step five is a mental process. We have to long for change, and live the proper way—completely turning from sin.

Step six is the physical manifestation of that desire. When you act out a passionate desire, it is done with tremendous zeal. The Greek word translated “zeal” is zelos, meaning “excitement of mind,” “fervor of spirit,” “defending anything,” “properly heat,” “fervent mind,” “indignation,” “jealousy” and “zeal.”

This is a step that those in the Philadelphian remnant must understand. In order to separate from the dominant era, Laodicea, one has to become zealous. The process of anointing one’s eyes and returning to Christ’s Body very much parallels the seven steps of repentance. Zeal is physically acting out all the previous steps we have discussed.

It also has another facet that affects the lives of others: “For I know the forwardness of your mind, for which I boast of you to them of Macedonia, that Achaia was ready a year ago; and your zeal has provoked very many” (II Cor. 9:2). This shows that our zeal is an example and can “provoke very many.”

Again, Psalm 51 provides an example: “Then will I teach transgressors Your ways; and sinners shall be converted unto You” (vs. 13). This describes doing the Work of God. We should be on fire to do God’s Work!

Our zeal to grow, change, serve and be part of and support God’s Work will provoke many! So, not only can you successfully repent from sin, but your zeal can also inspire others to do the same.

Step Seven: Revenge

The last step of repentance is also probably the most satisfying. After we have successfully progressed through the first six steps, we have shown God that we have produced fruits for repentance. In doing so, we will feel a sense of accomplishment. However, having revenge against sin is much stronger than the word may at first sound.

The word translated “revenge” is ekdikesis, which means “a revenging,” “vengeance,” “punishment,” “vindication” and “retribution.”

We must be vengeful of sin! We must seek vindication that we have turned from sin. This is much more than just a feeling of accomplishment. It is a much stronger attitude. Whenever sin appears in your life, you must kill it—or it will kill you: “For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it slew me” (Rom. 7:11).

Of course, we cannot murder people or seek vengeance against others. But we have seen that both these attitudes are required when directed against sin.

Finally notice: “And having in a readiness to revenge all disobedience, when your obedience is fulfilled” (II Cor. 10:6). Truly, if we go through all the steps of repentance, we can fulfill our obedience to God, and take vengeance against sin in our lives.

Successful Repentance

As you can now see, each of these steps is required for us to be granted the gift of repentance. But it is also important that each of these steps be done with the correct attitude.

When you come to God with a proper attitude and truly wish to repent—turn from sin—He sees that attitude: “…but to this man will I look, even to him that is poor and of a contrite spirit, and trembles at My word” (Isa. 66:2). God desires for everyone to succeed at overcoming and, in turn, He desires to grant us repentance.

Notice: “But if the wicked will turn from all his sins that he has committed, and keep all My statutes, and do that which is lawful and right, he shall surely live, he shall not die. All his transgressions that he has committed, they shall not be mentioned unto him: in his righteousness that he has done he shall live” (Ezek. 18:21-22).

When you fall short and sin, remember to practice these works—the seven steps of repentance—and you can be certain that you have brought forth “fruits” that show you have amended your life. Your “works” and, therefore, your attitude, will be right before God. He will grant repentance and, like fruit on a tree, you will see these fruits of repentance grow in your life.

If continually applied, not only will you be able to overcome sin, but you will also sit next to Christ in the kingdom of God!

(To learn more, you may wish to read our reprint article “You Can Overcome and Prevent Sin.”)

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