How to Repent (A Hint: Start Early!)

Even after months of reading and study I knew nothing of how to repent as a regular part of life with God. I was surprised by what I learned.

how to repent

It’s confession time: I’ve been working on a book about repentance. But the more I prepared to write this book the more I had to admit I knew little to nothing of repentance. I understood that in order to “become a Christian” I needed to admit that I was a sinner and rely on Jesus’s sacrifice to take away my sins. As I studied about repentance I learned the Old and New Testament concepts of repentance (retrace and rethink). But even after months of reading and study I knew nothing of how to repent as a regular part of life with God.

Then one morning, in my daily reading of scripture, a thunderbolt from heaven leaped from the pages of Matthew’s gospel! I looked at the page again, just to be sure the paper had not been singed by the lightning (It hadn’t been burned, but I was on fire from the spark.) Be careful now before reading these verses; they are capable of changing your life:

Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. (Mathew 16:24-25)

I know. The word repentance doesn’t appear in the text, but believe me: it’s how to repent — especially for those of us who long to learn repentance as a lifestyle of walking with Jesus.

Perhaps you’ve thought of repentance as an after-the-fact maneuver, something you do when you realize you’ve messed up. Indeed, this is true: we should repent whenever we realize our failures. But what if repentance could keep us from sin? What if there was a daily habit could help us continually by keeping us from foolish choices and errors? If you have thought of repentance as a bedtime exercise, there’s good news: repentance can also be morning devotion.

Jesus provides three daily choices; morning-time choices that help us repent of the illusion that our life is our own. Every follower of Jesus must choose the way of Christ again and again. Indulge me in some foolishness:

Each morning Lydia opens her eyes to see the same ceiling, the same room, hearing the same sounds, and immediately her mind runs toward the new day: there are tasks to be done and appointments to be kept. But before her feet swing over the side of the bed and touch the floor there is a struggle to be met—and won: does this day belong to her, or Someone else? Lydia fights the most important battle of the day before any action is ever taken. Every single morning she rethinks her life in light of God’s kingdom. She is reminded of the three choices facing every disciple, every day:

            Deny ourselves.

            Take up our cross.

            Follow Jesus.

Is Lydia really willing to yield her priorities, tasks, and schedule? For her (and us) it’s not a matter of doing different tasks or changing careers—it’s a matter of deciding who is boss again today, of how to repent from the universal tendency to think we are the masters of our fate.

To settle these questions each morning is how to repent, a way of rethinking our life in light of the King and his kingdom. Three choices, made each morning, can grow us into mature disciples, capable of experiencing the with-God kind of life.

Have you ever wondered—in practical terms—what it means to deny yourself? J.B. Phillips renders the first choice “give up all right to himself.” To deny yourself does not mean torture or self-abuse. It does not mean to despise yourself. It means you make the ongoing choice that your life is not your own, that it is in fact God’s, and God is a better manager of your life than you are! To deny yourself means recognizing who holds the “rights” to your life.

Secondly, to take up your cross means to receive again the sacrificial posture modeled by Jesus, who did not consider his life his own, but instead thought of his life in terms of the mission he received from his Father. The cross was a part of that mission. Jesus went to Jerusalem, where he knew death awaited. He picked up the cross and carried it to death’s hill. He laid himself down in accordance with the Father’s wishes and gave his life up willingly. This, too, is our invitation.

God has a cross for each of his children, according to his highest hopes and best plan for each one of us. Our mission—our cross—will not be identical to Jesus’s. Only he was capable of shedding his blood for the sins of all humankind. But our cross will involve the same elements: understanding God’s plan for us, going where God leads, working through our own fears, and embracing the means of sacrifice he has chosen for each of us. “The cross” is no mere metaphor—we are, each of us, called to die to our self, die to our priorities, and place ourselves completely in the hands of the resurrection God.

Finally, we follow. To follow Jesus is to walk in the manner he walked. Have you thought about how Jesus conducted himself each day? Do you believe it’s possible for you conduct yourself in the same radical obedience as Jesus? To display the same grace he showed toward each person he met? To welcome whomever the Father brings into our path throughout the day?

His life was unique, and so is yours! What he said and did was his mission, fully submitted to the Father day by day. Imagine the possibilities of his lifestyle reproduced in you, in your setting, among your family and community, in your culture and country. It’s possible, especially when you embrace these three repentance choices each morning.


This article originally appeared here, and is used by permission.

Ray Hollenbach
Ray Hollenbach helps pastors and churches navigate change. He's the founder of DEEPER Seminars, weekend leadership retreats focused on discipleship in the local church. His devotional book "Deeper Grace" is available at He currently lives in central Kentucky. He's also the author of of "The Impossible Mentor", a deep dive into the foundations of discipleship.