How do you know when someone is repentant? In his helpful little book Church Discipline, Jonathan Leeman offers some guidance:

A few verses before Jesus’ instruction in Matthew 18 about church discipline, he provides us with help for determining whether an individual is characteristically repentant: would the person be willing to cut off a hand or tear out an eye rather than repeat the sin (Matt. 18:8-9)? That is to say, is he or she willing to do whatever it takes to fight against the sin? Repenting people, typically, are zealous about casting off their sin. That’s what God’s Spirit does inside of them. When this happens, one can expect to see a willingness to accept outside counsel. A willingness to inconvenience their schedules. A willingness to confess embarrassing things. A willingness to make financial sacrifices or lose friends or end relationships. (p. 72)

These are good indicators, and I believe we can add a few more.

Here are 12 signs we have a genuinely repentant heart:

1. We name our sin as sin and do not spin it or excuse it, and further, we demonstrate “godly sorrow,” which is to say, a grief chiefly about the sin itself, not just a grief about being caught or having to deal with the consequences of sin.

2. We actually confessed before we were caught or the circumstantial consequences of our sin caught up with us.

3. If found out, we confess immediately or very soon after and “come clean,” rather than having to have the full truth pulled from us. Real repentance is typically accompanied by transparency.

4. We have a willingness and eagerness to make amends. We will do whatever it takes to make things right and to demonstrate we have changed.

5. We are patient with those we’ve hurt or victimized, spending as much time as is required listening to them without jumping to defend ourselves.

6. We are patient with those we’ve hurt or victimized as they process their hurt, and we don’t pressure them or “guilt” them into forgiving us.

7. We are willing to confess our sin even in the face of serious consequences (including undergoing church discipline, having to go to jail, or having a spouse leave us).

8. We may grieve the consequences of our sin but we do not bristle under them or resent them. We understand that sometimes our sin causes great damage to others that is not healed in the short term (or perhaps ever).

9. If our sin involves addiction or a pattern of behavior, we do not neglect to seek help with a counselor, a solid twelve-step program, or even a rehabilitation center.

10. We don’t resent accountability, pastoral rebuke, or church discipline.

11. We seek our comfort in the grace of God in Jesus Christ, not simply in being free of the consequences of our sin.

12. We are humble and teachable.

As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting. For you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no loss through us. For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death. For see what earnestness this godly grief has produced in you, but also what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what longing, what zeal, what punishment! At every point you have proved yourselves innocent in the matter.

– 2 Corinthians 7:9-11

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38 thoughts on “How Do You Know When Someone Is Repentant?: 12 Signs”

  1. Mitchell Hammonds says:

    13. One has cried at least 20cc of tears.
    14. One never commits the same sin twice.
    15. One actually plucks out their own eye or amputates their own hand.

    I’m stunned that anyone would claim to peer into the hearts of men and make such a judgment based on 12 criteria. Paul in Romans 7 struggles with sin. His repenting (primarily) is his agreeing with what God has said about his condition… sinful. Now the Gospel is set up as Good News. You simply created another list of laws to fulfill in order to be counted among the saved.

  2. Jared C. Wilson says:

    Mitchell, your comments are ludicrous. Nobody is establishing a law for salvation. I am suggesting indications of repentance, which are everywhere throughout Scripture.

    If we should have no measurements to help us discern this, what’s the point of the process Jesus lays out in Matthew 18? How would we know whether to proceed from brother-to-brother to brothers-to-brother to church-to-brother if we could not reasonably discern at each stage a person’s repentance?

    Your view is not just unbiblical, it’s nonsensical.

  3. The reason such critriea is needed is that we cannot look into hearts. We know by the fruit.

    The Late John R. W. Stott wrote: “If we can restore to full and intimate fellowship with ourselves a sinning and unrepentant brother, we reveal not the depth of our love, but its shallowness, for we are doing what is not for his highest good. Forgiveness which by-passes the need for repentance issues not from love but from sentimentality (Confess Your Sins, p.35).

    When someone has been significantly hurt and feels hesitant about restoration with her offender, it’s both right and wise to look for changes in the offender before allowing reconciliation to begin. This is especially true when the offense has been repeated.

    Forgiveness requires us to offer a repentant person an opportunity to demonstrate repentance and to regain trust (unless safety is at risk). When a person has repeatedly behaved in a sinfully harmful and irresponsible manner, he must accept the fact that reconciliation will be a slow and difficult process.

    Three main considerations in the timing of a process of reconciliation:

    The attitude of the offender
    The depth of the betrayal
    The pattern of the offense (often repeated offenses)

    When an offended party works toward reconciliation, the first and most important step is to confirm whether the offender is genuinely repentant (Luke 17:3). An unrepentant offender will resent a desire to confirm the genuineness of his confession and repentance. He might even resort to lines of manipulation.

    “I guess you can’t find it in yourself to be forgiving.”
    “You just want to rub it in my face.”
    “I guess I should expect that you want your revenge.”
    “I am not the only one who does wrong things, you know?”
    “Are you some kind of perfect person looking down on me?”
    “Some Christian you are, I thought Christians believed in love and compassion.”

    If interested, I list seven signs of true repentance here: http://thinkpoint.wordpress.com/2007/07/17/seven-signs-of-true-repentance/

    1. Mike Aware says:

      Forgiveness is simply the cancellation of debt. If you can tell someone, “look you owe me nothing. I don’t need you to be in pain, I don’t need the money back, or I don’t need the years you stole from me back..” that’s forgiveness. We are under no biblical mandate to extend more “credit” to a person who has offended or who has abused. If reconciliation happens it will be because God has birthed it in the heart of the offended party. The offended is under no obligation to extend relationship to their offender. And when God births such a thing in a person’s heart it rarely has anything to do with gauging the offender’s “repentance” because it doesn’t matter. The person extending “credit” is actually extending a Grace which is often impossible with man but possible with God. The premise of this article is flawed.

      1. Jared C. Wilson says:

        when God births such a thing in a person’s heart it rarely has anything to do with gauging the offender’s “repentance” because it doesn’t matter.

        Mike, you done much counseling with couples where a wife has been abused?

        Gauging an offender’s repentance, even with a forgiving spouse, matters. BIG TIME.

        1. Mike Aware says:

          Yes, and let me clarify though I should think common sense would prevail here. Noone should allow themselves physical harm even if they think “God said so” because He doesn’t. And my position about debt cancellation much more ensures the safety of the abused than the abuser. I would never put the onus on the wife who has been abused. But any man who displays the characteristics that you mention in your list can easily fake them as well. So in the end, every case is different and you have to have some semblance of relationship, either existing or developed over the course of counseling.

          1. Jared C. Wilson says:

            I am not sure why you think I am saying the signs should be demonstrated out of community or outside relationships. Can you show me where I said relationships weren’t the context? In fact, several of the signs presuppose the context of covenant community. I think you are reading more into what is there.

            I have another piece on church discipline coming out soon at the Gospel-Centered Discipleship site that gives a lot of context to the need for training within a culture of grace. This post presupposes that, or at the least, does not preclude it.

          2. Mike Aware says:

            You know what Jared? You’re right. You never said it was outside of relationship. My apologies to you for jumping the gun. Unfortunately it’s been my experience that most practice and probably will practice the above list absent relationship. I’m just uncomfortable with continuing to promote the idea of “conditional grace.” I know that’s not what you’re saying but that is the way the church at large “practices” grace. I wish we would “advertise” Grace as unconditionally as she really is. Jesus didn’t qualify grace and for this reason it sounded like license to religious people. It still does sound that way to some.

  4. Mitchell Hammonds says:

    You cannot take a list and tell someone whether they are truly repentant or not. Peter and Judas is a prime example. They are both remorseful for what they did. Peter, however, believed Christ bought his forgiveness. I confess weekly… and I’m forgiven weekly. But I can tell you there isn’t always an emotional attachment to what I know to be true: I’m sinful… and I commit sinful acts… knowingly and unknowingly.

    1. Mitchell,

      Please don’t tell this to the wife of an alcoholic or gambler who repeatedly promises he’s sorry only to continue in his sin. She needs to protect herself (and often, the children) from the abuser. Con-artists and manipulators are in abundance and far too much enabling is passed off as forgiveness. Discernment is necessary. And it might be helpful to recognize that even God will not forgive one who is insinsere about his repentance.

      1. Mitchell Hammonds says:

        I sin repeatedly and perpetually Steve. But to clarify my position… I’m not speaking of someone who habitually sins and thinks they’re entitled to do so. If someone is willing to call sin what it is “sin” then they are repentant. If you think Christians never struggle with all types of sin then you are naive to say the least. They may struggle with it their entire life… “oh who will deliver me from this body of sin and death” was Paul’s statement about his own struggle with perpetual sin. If your only consolation to me is “be more sincere about your repentance” then I’ll pass on your advice. There is comfort (as well as an offense) to the fact that we forgive others “70×7″ and God is even more faithful to that end… for Christ’s sake… not our ability to drum up sincerity. Call the sin what it is “sin.” I would expect change as well at some point… but I’m not going to put shackles on the idea that it may be something that an individual struggles with their entire life.
        Let’s say he conquers a specific sin A… now he sees sin B. It’s like trying to hold multiple beach balls under water at the same time. To focus on one ball to struggle against it causes the others to pop through the surface. The other sins are there the whole time… we can only struggle or be sincere so much. This is where I have found the Reformation’s view of sin as a condition rather than simply specific acts of the will. Both are Biblical but the sinful condition is given more emphasis in Scripture.

        1. Mitchell,

          I distinguish between sins that should be covered in love and sins that drive deep wedges between people by the damage inflicted. I am addressing the matter on a relational level. A post I wrote that appeared recently on this site distinguished forgiveness from reconciliation. This is where confirmation of authentic repentance becomes important. Yet (as I wrote in that piece) forgiveness and reconciliation occur together in relation to minor offenses. Those who withhold restoration in such cases are often lacking genuine forgiveness and using manipulation as a means of revenge. But when trust has been deeply or repeatedly betrayed, forgiveness does not necessarily grant the same level of relationship back. Even when God forgives our sins, He does not promise to remove all consequences created by our actions. Yes, being forgiven, restored, and trusted is an amazing experience, but it’s important for those who hurt others to understand that their attitude and actions will affect the process of rebuilding trust. Words alone are not enough to restore trust in such cases.

          When a husband speaks harshly to his wife in a way that is out of character, his acknowledgement of sinning against her should be received with forgiveness and restoration. If he repeatedly speaks this way, he should expect his acknowledgements of wrong to be more difficult to receive. If the pattern continues, his wife could appropriately tell him that she forgives him but will not accept his harshness in the future without consequences.

          When someone has been significantly hurt and feels hesitant about restoration with her offender, it’s both right and wise to look for changes in the offender before allowing reconciliation to begin. This is especially true when the offense has been repeated.

          For the entire article, see: http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/tgc/2012/03/29/how-to-move-from-forgiveness-to-reconciliation/

  5. Jared C. Wilson says:

    Mitchell, suppose your pastor cheated on his wife. Was caught doing so. Do you just say “No harm, no foul” and let him continue as pastor without skipping a beat? If not, how do you determine what should be done?

    Do you fire him right away? If so, why would you do that if you aren’t able to discern a person’s repentance?

    If you don’t fire him right away, how do you determine if he is fit to lead? How do you ensure his wife that he will be held accountable if you can’t discern his repentance in any way?

    If you can’t ever do any discernment of anyone’s repentance, what are all the texts in the Scriptures about church discipline for? Why would Paul tell the church in Corinth to remove people if they weren’t suppose to determine his repentance?

    This list is not an airtight litmus test. It’s a list of “signs,” indicators.

    1. Mitchell Hammonds says:

      The more I think about it the more I’m sorry I even expressed my opinion Jared.
      Repentance is the life of all believers. I simply think it’s a bad idea to attempt a diagnosis (on a blog) of whether someone is truly repentant or not based on a 12 point list.
      The first sentence is “How do you know when someone is repentant?” It sets the tone for the message you are conveying…
      Anyway… I’m sorry for the negative thread here. You may want to delete it. I wouldn’t be offended at all.

      1. Jared C. Wilson says:

        Mitchell, while I don’t think it is legalistic to discern someone’s repentance — two very easily understandable examples might be the case of a person who’s abused their spouse and the case of someone who has stolen money from his company or church — please note that despite the use of “someone’s repentance” in the post, the signs listed are in the first person (plural).

  6. Scott Welch says:

    This is good Jared. Just like the love of God is a fruit, not the root (thanks Spurgeon), this is helpful list of the fruits of repentance. I already see at least 2 or 3 that I need to work on.

  7. Jim Essian says:

    I would just add that joy and worship would also be evident as we “bear fruit in keeping with repentance”. Good thoughts and post.

  8. Mark Elmendorp says:

    I think there are two arguements here. One is dealing with a sinning brother which we are commended to do with a humble spirit knowing we are all sinning in some way. Yes there are signs of repentance 2 Cor 7v10-11
    But the title of the article in itself is hilarious, only God can really see. Acts 2v41 tells us of 3000 people were baptised in response to Peter’s sermon, under the 12 reasons there would have been none…Lets leave it up to God as to our judgement of what others hearts are up to.

    1. Jared C. Wilson says:

      Mark, you’re being simplistic and missing the point of my “hilarious” title and the post. Two questions for you:

      1. If we are to just “leave it up to God” what others’ hearts are up to, why would Paul say in 1 Cor. 5 to remove the sexually immoral brother from the church? Shouldn’t he tell the Corinthians to stop judging that guy’s heart, since they can’t really see it like God can?

      2. When you have offended somebody and they bring their hurt to you with some expectation that you will demonstrate repentance do you just say “I’m sorry” and do/say nothing else, or do you try to demonstrate repentance? If the latter, why, if that person should just leave it to God and not want to see your heart?

      1. Mike Aware says:

        Paul does not expel the immoral brother because he is sinning. He is expelling him because he sinning shamelessly. That is really the only sign of unrepentance. Repentance is simply a changing of the mind. Once you agree with God that you are wrong, he lavishes grace upon you. People, well not so much. Yet I find it interesting that Peter denied Christ, a sin that is certainly worse than any “pastoral” scandal that you can imagine, and yet it wasn’t that long until Jesus recommissioned him to be a minister of the Gospel. The moment you put conditions on grace, it ceases to be biblical grace.

        You all want a simple answer to well what if this person does this or that pastor does that. But the truth is the only way to qualify repentance is through relationship. And that will make every case different. Jesus had to only look at Peter and He knew what Peter needed most was not a litmus test to see if he felt really, really bad about what he had done but rather He needed to be restored to what he was and Christ could care less how it “looked.”

        In other words there’s not a one size fits all philosophy when it comes to repentance. Someone can recognize that they are in a wrong relationship yet not have the character, strength or will to depart from it. Is this person “unrepentant?” They recognize the wrong but they have not the strength to depart from their wrong. You know how they get that strength? Grace. But most of the church doesn’t believe that. They believe they have to give people that have ALREADY repented LAW instead of Grace. Leave the details to God. It may take longer than you’d like it to but in His time not YOURS the fruit begins to bare itself. Just because an apple tree doesn’t bare fruit in due season doesn’t disqualify it from being an Apple tree.

        1. Jared C. Wilson says:

          Mike, Paul expels the shamelessly sinning guy b/c he has determined he is sinning shamelessly. But what if he was saying he’s sorry?

          There is no one size fits all or “simplistic” answer, as you intimate, which is why this is a list of 12 “signs,” not rules or litmus tests, and why I said there are certainly more.

          The process of church discipline does not negate grace; it shows it.

          1. Mike Aware says:

            If the guy says he’s sorry, than he has changed his mind about what he’s doing. In Corinth I’m pretty sure it was culturally okay to do what he was doing. If he, against the popular culture agrees with God that what he’s doing is wrong, than he has repented. But what if his affair is more emotional than physical? Do we expel the couple anyway? Now I’m not saying there aren’t some practical things that should happen for the sake of others. Maybe no public displays of affection or some other criteria. But more than anything, people who are STUCK in sin shouldn’t be cast out. But that is what most of the church does because we’ve conditioned believers to think that “repentance” is refraining from sin. And lists like the above only encourage that kind of thinking. Jared, it’s in community where people find the courage to refrain from that which they know is wrong. Otherwise they will continue in behaviors that give people temporary fulfillment, validation, identity and even love, even if it is self destructive. The thing is what time table do we give these people. How long do you want given to you to get over your sin?

  9. Jared, points 1-3 are such helpful attitudinal checks. Unless and until we agree with God about our sin we will continue down the self deceiving road of blaming circumstances or defending ourselves. Number 5 was the most piercing suggestion though. We would rather say a quick “sorry” and move on thinking the hurt person should get over it. I am parked over that suggestion right now.

  10. Jared C. Wilson says:

    If the guy says he’s sorry, than he has changed his mind about what he’s doing.

    In a previous comment, Mike, you said all my signs in the post could be faked. Over time, however, they are much harder to fake than simply saying “sorry.” That you could say an apology is enough evidence of a repentant heart is strange. An apology is a start.

    And I still think you are reading a lot into the post that isn’t there. I have said nothing about what is necessary to forgive an offender. The post isn’t about forgiveness. I’ve written extensively on repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation elsewhere, but my view is that we forgive those sin against us whether they’re repentant or not, because God has forgiven us “while we were still sinners.”

    But the need for grace-driven forgiveness does not negate the need for sinners to demonstrate real repentance, especially when that sinner is me.

    Jared, it’s in community where people find the courage to refrain from that which they know is wrong.

    Again, I find it very strange that you think this statement is counter to anything written in the post. Where is church discipline carried out? Where is accountability carried out? Where is iron sharpened by iron? Where do we practice all the “one anothers”? In the loving relationships of the covenant church community.

    The thing is what time table do we give these people. How long do you want given to you to get over your sin?

    70×7

    1. Mike Aware says:

      Jared, i’m not familiar with your communication style and apparently you are very detailed when you do. I, too am speaking of an apology as the first step in repentance. When someone is called on their “junk” and they agree that it is wrong what else can we do but accept their claim. If they were an outwardly stubborn person who had a defense for what God calls wrong than I can easily see that this person gives no value to conscience or God’s word. But if a person right away recognizes that what they’re doing is wrong than I’m going to assume the best of a brother and not be suspect. Now again, there are certainly mitigating circumstances that could alter that perspective but I’m not talking extreme examples.

      I guess I don’t understand why it’s strange to take someone’s word who has been caught in sin and rather than to justify it or defend it chooses to own up to and even engage in a conversation about the moral implications of what they’ve done as wrong. No one is under any obligation to let me in on their situation and they could easily walk way from all of it. Certainly a nonbeliever wouldn’t even give me the time of day. Maybe I’m being naive but I feel like the general vibe that is being communicated is to be suspicious of people’s claim of repentance. If repentance is refraining from sin than yes I’d be suspicious of my own claims of repentance and for a long time I was but that’s not what repentance is. Repentance doesn’t solve sin. Grace does. And yes it’s messy. I don’t know to what extent the abused can give grace, but as far as the church is concerned it shouldn’t matter how it “looks.” Where we as the church can express God’s Grace we should. I don’t think we’re necessarily disagreeing.

      If all this sounds “very strange” it’s because my experiences have left the residue of cynicism about the way the church operates in regard to “discipline.”

  11. Heather says:

    Thank you for this reminder! God bless you! I need freedom from guilt and need to leave cigarettes alone and alcohol which is the trigger. I suffer from depression, or rather a chemical imbalance. I want to be free of medication and I have quit cigarettes many times. I am praying for healing and true deliverance. I rebuke all ungodly spirits from myself and my family, our finances, and all Jezebell or the like spirits in Jesus name. Thank you Jesus my Lord please forgive me and cleanse me, my flesh is week. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. Amen

  12. Stephen says:

    The people who have a problem with this fantastic write-up can’t seem to cope with the fact that they haven’t displayed the fruits of a true repentance, the type of which will lead a person to Heaven and not the eternal torments of Hell. To think that repentance is nothing more than a sheer change of mind, and to think that God would let a man into Heaven based on a mental decision, is borderline disrespectful to God. God is a righteous and perfect judge, he’ll look past your pass sins if you truly repent. True repentance is displayed by the 12 points made in this article. Imagine a murderer finding his way into Heaven without feeling TRUE sorrow, TRUE guilt and TRUE remorse for what he did, and completely turning away for that, and all his other sins. It would make God unjust.

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Jared C. Wilson


Jared C. Wilson is the pastor of Middletown Springs Community Church in Middletown Springs, Vermont. You can follow him on Twitter.

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