There are many biblical principles that have been defined by our traditions and preferences, some resulting in confusion and division in the body of Christ. I believe that "repentance" is one of these principles that has been reduced to its lowest and least powerful denominator when it is applied only to our behavior.
I remember, as a young believer, the way that my tradition addressed repentance. It went something like this... Father, I think I really messed up this time, and the pastor says I need to confess and repent of my sins. He also said that I need to feel really bad and remorseful or it's probably not real. So-o-o, I'm confessing that I've sinned, and I feel really, really, really bad about it. And I'm really, really sorry about it. So please forgive me and I promise I'll never, ever, ever do it again.
Hmmm. Pretty powerful stuff, huh? Of course I'm exaggerating a bit to get my point across, but I think my point is pretty close to home. In this case, repentance was reduced strictly to a remedy for my poor behavior. The goal of this exercise was for me to recognize my deviant actions (sins,) agree with God (confess) these sins, ask His forgiveness, and therefore be free (at least until next time) from the consequences of my terrible behavior and have unfettered relationship restored with my heavenly Father. Not a bad plan... except that repentance is SO much more than fixing errant behavior.
Let's look at the New Testament definition of repentance. It consists of two Greek words: afterwards + to understand. Let me switch it around and say it like this; "to understand afterwards." The phrase implies that something occurs, and that something results in understanding. At this point, let me suggest that we look at repentance as a change of our belief system rather than a change of behavior. If our belief system (understanding) changes, then we can see how we would "change our mind," and "change direction," which are two of our traditional definitions. Here's an example. In Acts 9, we see Saul of Tarsus (later Paul the apostle) trying to destroy the new movement known as "The Way." His belief system consisted of his zeal for God, his extensive education in Judaism, and a fanatical belief that he was God's man of the hour to suppress and eliminate this disease called Christianity by any means. He is confronted by Jesus, and his belief system is totally changed (read 2/3 of the NT.) He repented because something occured that caused him to understand. He was touched by truth (Jesus) and that truth set him free.
Paul's belief system was totally changed by his encounter with Jesus, just as mine (or yours) has been. It is by the revealing (revelation) of Jesus by the Holy Spirit that anyone can change, and it is powerful, transformational and complete. II Cor. 5 states that we are "a new creation" in Christ... old things have passed away, behold, all things are new. How many times have we heard “pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” or “you just need to work harder to overcome your sin,” or “cowboy up… get tough, you can do it.” When we tire of "trying to perform," and ask God for HIS revelation, then God gives us HIS power of transformation as we believe HIS testimony about HIMSELF and US. We can focus on HIS righteousness rather than OUR sins, and BE TRANSFORMED! Oh, and yes, our behavior will change as well...
Let's DO Life!