The opening message of John the Baptist, who served as a herald for Jesus, was, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." This call to repentance was an urgent appeal to sinners. No one who refuses to repent can ever enter the kingdom of God. Repentance is a prerequisite, a necessary condition for salvation.
In Scripture, repentance means "to undergo a change of one's mind." This change of mind is not a mere switching of minor opinions, but of the entire direction of one's life. It involves a radical turning from sin and to Christ.
Repentance is not the cause of new birth or regeneration; it is the result or fruit of regeneration. Though repentance begins with regeneration, it is an attitude and action that must be repeated throughout the Christian life. As we continue to sin, we are called upon to repent as we are convicted of our sin by the Holy Spirit.
Theologians make a distinction between two kinds of repentance. The first is called attrition. Attrition is a false or spurious kind of repentance. It involves remorse caused by a fear of punishment or a loss of blessing. Every parent has witnessed attrition in a child when he is caught with his hand in the cookie jar. The child, fearing the paddle, cries, "I'm sorry, please don't spank me!" These pleas coupled with crocodile tears are usually not signs of genuine remorse for wrongdoing. This was the kind of repentance Esau exhibited (Genesis 27:30-46). He was sorry not because he had sinned, but because he had lost his birthright. Attrition, then, is repentance motivated by an attempt to get a ticket out of hell or to otherwise avoid punishment.
Contrition, on the other hand, is true and godly repentance. It is genuine. It includes a deep remorse for having offended God. The contrite person openly and fully confesses his sin with no attempt to excuse it or justify it. This acknowledgment of sin is coupled with a willingness to make restitution whenever possible and a resolve to turn away from sin. This is the spirit of repentance that David exhibited in Psalm 51. "Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me . . . The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and a contrite heart—these, O God, You will not despise" (Psalm 51:10, 17).
When repentance is offered to God in a spirit of true contrition, He promises to forgive us and to restore us to fellowship with Him: "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9).