Because Jesus never sinned, He had no need to repent. However, He said that without repentance, there is no forgiveness of sin. The two are inseparable, but like the chicken and the egg it is difficult to say which comes first.
According to Scripture, Jesus died for us while we were still sinners. He also freely justifies the ungodly apart from anything we can do. Salvation is by grace through faith, a gift from God, not by our works, including repentance. However, if repentance is not evident, then salvation is not genuine. They go together.
In a short post like this, the mystery of the Gospel can only be stated, not explained. I’m not too certain I can even state it clearly, but I do know one thing: if my repentance is not real, then my sin is still in me and will pop up again and again. Confession and repentance must happen for sin to be forgiven and cleansed.
Paul had chastened the Christians at Corinth because they sinned. They were sorry for their sin, but there is a worldly sorrow that can happen when sin is found out and exposed. It is a “sorry I got caught” and is not repentance. Repentance is more like an about-face. Instead of being sorry because the sin isn’t working, isn’t doing anything for me, isn’t as pleasant as I’d hoped, repentance is about sorrow that turns me away from that sin and toward God. It is about hating the sin so much that I’ve no regret leaving it behind.
“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)
Repentance is about wanting to change, to make things right. Repentance hates the sin and fears its power. Repentance longs to be righteous and is even zealous for godliness. It goes so far as even wanting punishment rather than vindication, but also wanting to be pure and innocent rather than defiled by that sin.
In other words, repentance means a change of character. The person who was once easily drawn into sin now hates the very thing once loved and is eager to prove it. This is not because sin hurts, or sin isn’t fun anymore, or sin has made enemies, and so on, but because sin is against God and now also against the very heart of the repenting person.
So what comes first; a change of heart or forgiveness? I repented when I found out God forgave me. I also have repented so God would forgive me. For this, I’m sort of leaning toward this being what race people call a dead heat or photo-finish. Repentance and forgiveness are so close together that who knows for sure which comes first?