When we hear "repent" immediately we think of a harsh, negative word that brings us pictures of end-time pseudo-prophets saying, "Repent the end is near!" Yet, Jesus used this word many times. So what exactly is repentance?
If I had understood this early in my Christian experience, things may have been different for me. My definition of repent came from the Old Covenant if/then performance based relationship where they were blessed if they obeyed and cursed if they did not. Therefore, repentance DID mean turn around and quit sinning. The rabbis taught it that way. John the Baptist meant it when he called for a baptism of repentance. Even the Catholic Church in the early years changed the word repent to penance (do something to make up for the wrong that you did).
But there is a problem with that definition in the New Covenant. Actually there are three problems:
John's Gospel is a problem. Did you know that this gospel is the only one that is specifically written to unbelievers. When you read the beginning of Luke for instance, you discover it was written to existing believers as the historical account of Jesus' life, death and resurrection. But John 20:31 says, "These are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name." Do you know how many times the word repent is used in this gospel. Not even once.
Did you know that Romans and Galatians, which are considered the clearest descriptions of the implications of the cross, do not ever use the word repent either (except for one time..."It is the goodness of God that leads men to repentance" in Romans).
A real problem here is that the Old Testament scriptures record that God repents. If repent always means turn from sin, then we are all in a heap of trouble. (Genesis 6:6, KJV, "And it repented the Lord that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart."; see also Jonah 3:10 KJV)
The Greek word for repent simply means change the mind. Since the New Covenant is completely based on what Christ has done, then Jesus' calls to repent are simply calls for people to change their mind about God, about themselves, and about Jesus' cross and resurrection. It is a call to change your mind and believe in the truth of the gospel.
Jesus said that when the Holy Spirit comes "he will convict the world of sin, righteousness and judgment, of sin because they do not believe in me..." (John 16:8-10) What are people called to repent of then? Unbelief. Repent, change your mind and believe the good news!
Here is a simple example that should help: Joe has a sin habit that is harming him physically and creating problems in his relationships. Religion teaches that the way to help Joe is to tell him to stop (their version of repent) and ask God to help him to live right. Thousands have tried that to no avail because it misses the essence of the gospel. Every religion teaches that.
The New Covenant would say to Joe, "its time to look at this differently (repent=change your mind). You are righteous before God, even in your failures because Jesus' right standing is yours. You have been given a new nature...God himself dwells in you in unlimited power! You don't have a bad you and a good you inside you. Your spirit has been united to God's forever. Whatever is true of Jesus is now true of you. You are not a failure, you are a son of God. You are holy because the Holy Spirit is within you. Your guilt is gone forever and God loves you unconditionally even in your failures. In fact, God sees you as a treasure hidden in a field that he went and gave everything...his own life...to redeem you. He placed a value on your life essentially saying, 'you are worth the blood of Jesus!'"
In other words it is the gospel content, the message of a certain kind of relationship and an indwelling life that one is to believe and that is where deliverance comes from! Repent, change your mind, and believe the gospel!
Image from http://pixgood.com/praying-squirrel.html