The term repentance in Hebrew means “to turn or return and is applied to turning from sin to God” (The New Bible Dictionary). In the New Testament, the term repent has the meaning of “a change of mind.” Repentance involves grief for sin and a willingness to set one’s priorities aright in faithfulness to the gospel message.
Jesus Himself linked repentance with conversion (Matthew 4:17; Luke 13:3; 17:3). A person can’t willfully continue in conscious sin and assume that God will automatically forgive him should he die before he can change his ways.
Genuine repentance always involves genuine fear (See the ATQ article, Is Fear Ever an Appropriate Motivation for Conversion?) and genuine sorrow. However, salvation is entirely a gift of God’s grace. It isn’t our sorrow or the extent of our sorrow that saves us. We can’t earn salvation by means of our sorrow or anything else we do.
“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:8-10).
“So then it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy” (Romans 9:16 ).
“Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5).
Repentance is necessary for conversion. But if we think our sorrow over sin must reach a certain “depth” before we can be saved, we are making our salvation dependent on something we do.
Genuine sorrow is always present with sincere repentance. However, just as repentance and godly sorrow for past sins don’t “earn” God’s forgiveness and grace, repentance and sorrow don’t end after we become Christians. They will continue throughout the rest of our life as the supernatural process of sanctification makes us increasingly aware of our personal corruption and sin (2 Corinthians 3:18; Ephesians 5:25-27; 1 Thessalonians 5:23; Titus 2:14; Hebrews 13:20-21). With spiritual growth comes sensitivity to the sins we committed in the past. Our sorrow for those mistakes—and our desire to avoid repeating them—is an essential part of our becoming new creatures in Christ. We will experience deep sorrow as part of the process, although deepest sorrow never occurs at the beginning. In fact, it is impossible for us to sorrow as deeply for our sins when we begin our relationship with Jesus Christ as we will when He enters deeply into our lives and consciousness.
The sweet comfort that God provides to us in times of godly sorrow is also deeply affirming to our faith in Him.