What is Repentance? Acts 17.16-31

August 10, 2013

by Dan Nelson, pastor
FBC Camarillo, Calif.

Repentance was a keynote in the preaching of both John the Baptist and Jesus. Their first message was: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 3:2, Matt. 4:17).[1]

The first word was also the last word. It is not the Great Commission.  For Jesus’ word to Ephesus and Laodicea was for those churches to repent. The last word has become the lost word.[2]

Repentance should also be a continual message. The new preacher preached on repentance every sermon. The influential church members asked him, “When will you preach on another subject other than repentance? His response was, “When you repent!”[3] When will we repent of un-forgiveness, selfishness, bad attitudes, comments that hurt people, worldliness, half-hearted commitment, burying our candle under a bushel, and first and foremost, rejecting God’s provision for our sins in Christ.

Repentance is a note that is strangely silent from the modern pulpit. Harry Ironside said, “Repentance is one of the missing links in preaching in the modern times.”[4]

We don’t hear it, but we like to refer to the apostle Paul as an example and he preached repentance.

In fact, the message he preached to the most sophisticated people in the world was on repentance. He called them to repent. He had slipped down to Athens after being in Thessalonica, having been run out of town.

Paul had a chance to tone down his message to the most educated people in the world at that time. Despite beginning with an approach appealing to their comprehension of who God is, Paul ends with repentance. Paul’s message demonstrates what repentance really is.

Repentance involves turning. It involves turning from your sin to God. Billy Graham said, “Repentance is a signpost in your heart that God uses to get you to stop, look and listen.”[5] To turn away from something means to forsake and not come back to a life you had without Christ. Paul, in this passage, tells what his audience needed to turn from and forsake.

(1) REPENTANCE IS Turning from Ignorance to the true god. vv. 16-30a

It was hundreds of years after Athens’ golden age that Paul visited the city and preached the sermon recorded in Acts 17, but the city was still a strikingly beautiful city as well as the intellectual capital of the ancient world.

Paul was stirred up at the sight of so many idols in one of the most advanced cultures in the world. Many famous philosophers and great ideals in government have even to this day come from Athens. Yet, what Paul saw when he toured the great Athens were idols everywhere. He was stirred up because here were the Epicurean thinkers as well as free-livers who wanted to hear him as one more new ideal to put in their inbox as being a multicultural religious city.

They were tolerant of anything. It was good that they wanted to hear Paul. It was bad that they were so open-minded that their heads were flat. So they bring him to the place called Mars Hill for a free exchange of ideas.

Consider whom Paul is talking with when he talks about worshipping God ignorantly to the most intellectual men of his generation. These were the people who gave us most of our concepts of democracy, law, legal, and civic ideas. Yet, he says you ignorantly worship God because you don’t know who He is.

Maybe they think Paul would commend them for being so open-minded, but instead they are shocked when he plows right into their ignorance and superstition. He tells them they are too superstitious as opposed to being certain about one thing. The evidence was the shrine they had built to the “unknown” god, in case they had left out someone. Paul now countered by saying: “You are worshipping Him in ignorance.” This could be said for much of the world religions today. But as far as who this God is, Paul says,  “ I want to tell you who He is.”

In Washington, D.C., resides the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It is a tribute to all the unidentified soldiers killed in war. It is a symbol so that we should never forget those who gave the last full measure of devotion. This is a very important memorial.

Many view God in the same way as they do the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier — as someone we know is there but we don’t really know who He is. Such recognition is mere acknowledgment. Many would like to keep God at arm’s length. Yet, they want to acknowledge Him from a distance without any personal interaction with Him. It is only in times of trouble that they then say, “God, remember me?” You can’t avoid God!

This shrine in Athens was a bad thing and was evidence of the Athenians’ ignorance and superstition. So Paul uses this and turns it into a good thing. This is exactly what we must do for those who ignorantly worship God, “We declare unto you Jesus Christ.” Paul says, “You don’t know anything about Him, but you’ve made a shrine to Him in case you missed Him. When you know Him, you can get rid of all these other shrines.” So Paul stands and declares who Jesus is.

Then, Paul gets to the heart of their ignorance. He created everything and the creator God cannot be captured in an image. He is not someone you worship by saying He is in something man has created despite the temples you made for Him. He gives you breath and life to even make false gods. Genesis 2:7 says, “He breathed into man the breath of life and man became a living soul.”

The inevitable question then is who is the real God? God declares that men should turn to Him and renounce and repent of the sin of ignorant worship as well as immorality and debauchery associated with it along with ungodliness.

Why should we turn to the true and living God? It is because He made the world and will judge everyone in it by the Son of God (John 5:22). No false God will be on the throne, but only He who conquered and confirmed through His bodily resurrection. He is Savior and Lord (Acts 2:23-24). God has revealed Himself to you. He is the unknown you do not know. He is Jesus who has been crucified, buried and rose again, living forevermore.

Repentance also means to conclude that something is wrong when you previously had no thought it was wrong and then to decide to reject the wrong and take steps to avoid it in the future and do the opposite—what is right.

Repentance is not necessarily emotional. It is primarily intellectual and volitional, leading to a change of mind which produces changed attitudes and demonstrated by changed actions.

Today, we don’t worship shrines being ignorant of the truth of God, but there other things that show our ignorance of God.

For instance: It is ignorant to be occupied with this life where we live only a little while completely ignoring where we will live forever. It is ignorant to think your children will turn out better by not going to church than going to church and being involved in something positive, like Vacation Bible School or Sunday school. It is ignorant to think you will be happy long-range in this life while ignoring it’s teachings instead of incorporating them into your life. It is ignorant to say, “God if you leave me alone, then I will leave you alone.” So don’t be ignorant, come to God and He will give you wisdom so you can turn away from ignorance.

(2)  Repentance is Turning from Willful Disobedience to God v. 30b

Paul says you have been ignorant of who God is in the past but now He has revealed Himself in the person of Christ. To ignore Him and make Him one more god among many that has no intrinsic difference than any other god is willful disobedience.

I’ve been trying to figure out if it is ignorance or willful disobedience that causes people to have a bumper sticker that says ” Co-Exist” with a picture of the Star of David, The Muslim Crescent and a Cross.

There are substitutes people use for repentance today that seem to be clever but are willful disobedience against God and His word. These are:

Misinterpretation: The thought that we just have to say we need to have a little  faith for God to accept us where we are and help us. Jesus does meet you where you are. But you have to also come to Him. You don’t say, “I’ll stay in the pig-pen and let Jesus minister to me there.” No, it was when the prodigal came to the father that the father ran to him.

Blame: We always seem to blame someone else for our sin. We have pitchfork religion. We take what we hear in a message and pitch it over our shoulder to someone else. A rancher in a small secluded church used to say to the preacher after his sermons, “Preacher; you really gave it to them today.” One day, there was a hailstorm and the preacher just preached to the rancher, for he was the only one there. He wanted to see if he responded in his typical way as he said good-bye. The rancher said, “If they would have been here today, you would have really gave it them today.”[6]

Denial: We say, “I’m not that bad a person” or “I’ve been in the church all of my life.” We look on religion as unimportant and have a take-it-or-leave-it attitude. People say, “If you want to believe that you can, but don’t bother me.” But they don’t see how crucial it is to be right with God. All their unbelief and lack of interest will melt when they meet God in judgment.

When we think of sinners, it is easy to point to the murderers, rapists, thieves, drug dealers, child molesters, drunkards, and addicts. Yet we put ourselves in a different category of sinners. The Apostle Paul equalizes everyone as sinners though when he says in Romans 3:10-12,

10As it is written: “There is no one righteous, not even one; 11 there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. 12 All have turned away; they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one. “

Dismissal: We just don’t want to think about religion and God. The Athenians thought if we put up a shrine to Him if we get in trouble, maybe he will show favor on us. But for now, God is out-of-sight and out-of-mind. You can attempt your relationship with Him that way, but you are woefully wrong that you will be able to escape the judgment. You will have to answer to Him for your lack of relationship with Him. You will be found guilty because you ignored the only covering for your sin: The imputed righteousness of Christ (Phil 3:9).

Face what is what is holding you back from God and His forgiveness: It is willful disobedience. You think your life will be better off without God than with Him, and for this you are ignorant and disobedient.

Enough with the imposters and substitutes to repentance: what, then, is repentance?

First, we must reject what people have thought is involved in repentance. We must go beyond the substitutes.

It is not Penance: paying for your sins. This is similar to lying on a bed of nails to punish yourself. Indulgences will not forgive and release someone from Hell. Neither did kissing the steps of a church in Rome said to be the made up of the stones Jesus walked on to His crucifixion do anything for Luther to save His soul or forfeit a certain number of years in purgatory.[7]

It is not Remorse: This emotion is having regret over your sin without doing anything about it (James 4:17). Judas may be an example of this type of remorse for sin. Many a person stains their bed with tears in their life. The bank robber can have remorse and still rob a bank. Even a murderer can have remorse and still kill.

It is not Self-condemnation: Some like the pity of others so they are content to wallow in the mud of their sin. The Bible says we are already condemned because of our sin (John 3:18). We need to come to Jesus to remove that condemnation. Don’t say you can’t change. God doesn’t want you to hate yourself, just your sin.

Repentance involves:

Conviction: God uses the Holy Spirit, like a woodpecker on a tree, to bring conviction to your heart (John 16:8). Billy Graham once said, “The trouble with most preaching today is that it aims at the wrong place. It is aimed at the head instead of the heart.”[8]

Contrition: That is being sorry for your sin (II Cor. 7:10). We become aware of the holiness of God and the sinfulness of our heart.

Changing: We cannot go on the way we are living without God and His forgiveness. Repentance is a change of mind that results in a change of direction. You mind says, “I will come to Christ.” You emotions say, “I will love Him.” Your will says, “I will follow Him.”  It is getting out of the pigpen and not going back to it anymore. Our sin becomes so repugnant to us we totally forsake it. We come to the object of repentance: God. The hymn: The Way of the Cross expresses this thought when it says, “Then I bid farewell to the way of the world to walk in its way nevermore.”[9]

(3)Turning from Judgment to His saving grace v. 31

They laughed at the resurrection, but some believed. Paul brought them back to what true religion is all about? He brought them to the true God. The biblical gospel begins and ends with God, whereas the contemporary gospel begins and ends with man. Thus, much of the contemporary message has moved away from the New Testament God-centered pattern and is tailored to appeal to our self-centered generation.

When Paul preached to the Gentiles in Lystra, he said, “We preach unto you that you should turn from these vanities unto the living God, who made heaven… earth… sea and all things that are in them” (Acts 14:15).

There were no exceptions to facing God’s judgment against sin worthy of eternal punishment except for not repenting. We must not avoid repentance. We must be thankful for it and see it as God’s great plan to escape His wrath against sin.

Jesus rejected people’s questions about His perceived fairness by reminding them, “Except Ye Repent You will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3,5).   We are in greater danger than being killed by a ruthless act or an accidental catastrophe. To die without repentance and face God in an unrepentant condition is your greatest danger. Find somebody else who needs to repent, justify your condition, when  but God’s call is loud and clear. He wants us to own our sin! We are in a desperate condition without repentance. We must face our sin and turn from it.

Repentance is going beyond the victim mentality we see and hear so much today. It seems like just about everyone today is a victim. No one wants to be responsible for their own actions.

So many can say they are victims of circumstance, of bad genes, of being raised in a bad environment, of discrimination, of racism, of slavery, of poverty.

The person who is repentant doesn’t try to escape responsibility. He or she admits they fell short of the glory of God.

Two pictures tell us what repentance really is. One is what Mike McKinley describes in his book: Am I Really a Christian? He talks of being a big Reggie White fan when he was an Eagle, then he signed with the Green Bay Packers. As much as he liked Reggie White, he could not bring himself to root for the Packers because they were opposite of his home team and the one he played for: the Philadelphia Eagles. His love, thought, and time was spent with the Eagles, but if he had followed White alone he would now have a different team and his love, thought, and time would be spent on that team.[10] So when you come to Christ in repentance you trade teams. You give the devil back his uniform and you put on the armor of Christ. Whose team are you on today?

The final picture was of my brother Donald, who sucked a bottle way beyond the time  he should. He wouldn’t give it up. So my parents devised a plan. Donald hated the smell of Vicks VapoRub salve because my mother rubbed his chest with it when he was stuffy. So Daddy put a baby bottle cap and nipple on a jar of Vicks VapoRub. When Donald finally saw the new bottle, he recognized it as the Vicks salve and threw it down, determined not to suck his bottle anymore if it was going to taste like Vicks salve. He repented of his bottle sucking.

Repentance is turning to God from your sin and forsaking it forevermore. Have you repented today?

[1] All Scriptural quotations or citations are taken from the King James Version of the Bible unless otherwise indicated.

[2]A quote by Vance Havner in several sermons he preached.

[3] An often repeated story attributed to several famous preachers

[4] An often given quote when he served as Pastor of the Moody Memorial Church in Chicago.

[5] Quote from a printed sermon by Billy Graham through the Hour of Decision.

[6] Leon Hill, O’ For the Life of a Preacher: Baxter Lane: Amarillo, TX , 1975, 60.

[7] Bainton, Roland Here I Stand Abingdon: Nashville,, 1950, 74 .

[8] Graham, Printed sermon on Repentance

[9] Jessie Pounds, Text, Charles Gabriel music, The Hymnal, Word: Waco, TX, 1986.

[10] Mike McKinley, Am I Really a Christian? Crossway: Wheaton, IL, 2011.

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Dan Nelson

This is the first of a seven sermon I am doing in my church. The first on the nature or repentance will be followed by The Intent of Repentance, A Picture of Repentance, The Results of Repentance, Why Repentance is Important, Why God Honors Repentance, When do we need to Repent.

Pam Knight

Great post and much needed sermons. I’m so afraid that in todays Church culture the Pastors don’t believe God wants them to preach on repentance. And the people in the pew don’t “feel” like they need to repent. And the results of this kind of culture is probably what brought about that old famous saying…”when I looked for the church, I found it in the world, and when I looked for the world, I found it in the church” I hope we get to read about the other sermons.
In Christ
Pam Knight

dr. james willingham

God knows we really need some heart felt repentance, but what is repentance? It is a change of mind based upon reflection, upon think through the matter of our life with the Lord, seeing it as He sees it, and coming to the conclusion that it is sinful, that we need to repent or turn from our sins, the end result of the reflection, of thinking through with God on the issue. Such was the understanding of repentance back in the time of the Great Awakenings. Metanous, a change of mind in the Greek, meta for change, and nous for mind.

dr. james willingham

typo, ‘upon thinking through” in the first line.above.


Repentance is one of those things that “the natural does not receive because it is foolishness to him…” Repentance is part of the “wisdom that none of the princes of this world knew: for had they known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.”

As Pastor Nelson notes, the world preaches a victimology in which a person is not responsible for his actions. Is this not from the pride and selfishness of the depraved heart that says that others should change to accommodate me but there is no reason that I should change to accommodate others? It is the rancher in Pastor Nelson’s sermon who always concluded that it was others who needed to change but never himself.

On hearing Peter report on Cornelius, we read that, “When they heard these things,…they glorified God, saying, Then hath God also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life.”

Repentance is a concept foreign to this world. So we pray that God would grant repentance to the lost – our family, our friends, our neighbors – that they also might find the life that only God can give.

    Norm Miller

    And let us not forget the command to repent, which presupposes a response.


Never a nice, neat, easy topic. Repentance is from the Greek, meteneo. In its basics is ‘a change of mind.’ Who doesn’t change their mind during every day. In scripture it is relation to the consequences of acting outside God’s economy in the world. Consequences that will eventually lead to death (‘the wages of sin…’). When any person wakes up to those consequences and wants to avoid them, the ‘change of mind’ takes place in relation to the source of the consequences. A thief will stop stealing, a liar will stop lying, a know it all will stop knowing it all, etc. This can be true for unbelievers and true for believers. Faith and Faith alone brings salvation, not repentance (according to John 3:16 anyhow). It is God working in a person to bring that person to faith in Christ. It is the consequences of sin that brings a person to repentance. My two cents.


May we have an outbreak of godly sorrow that worketh repentance to salvation in Southern Baptist ranks.

dr. james willingham

Let us not forget that Jesus was raised up for to give repentance and remission of sins, meaning, surely, that repentance, a change of mind based upon reflection is a power given by God.

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