What is Repentance?

What is Repentance? It’s an excellent question, and it is a subject on which there is considerable misunderstanding. Some believe repentance is feeling sorry for what I’ve done wrong. And that is a fine thing, but it’s not the same as repentance. Others think it is about crying loudly and and telling someone all your sins. This might happen but it is not the whole Biblical repentance.


“Repentance,” in the New Testament, translates the Greek word metanoeo, meaning a change of mind. And not simply a superficial change of some opinion we have–such as, “I’ve decided I prefer chocolate ice cream to vanilla ice cream.” Repentance is a genuine change of attitudes and values that affects our lives in a significant way. Paul said he preached to the Gentiles, “that they should repent, turn to God, and do works befitting repentance” (Acts 26:20). It was expected their repentance would fundamentally change the way they lived. When accepting the Lordship of Jesus for the first time will involve repenting from your major sins, being fully immersed in water (baptised) and receiving the Holy Spirit (sometimes called baptism in the Spirit).

Check out what happened in the church at Ephesus. When Paul first knew them, they were a loving congregation (Ephesians 1:15). But somewhere along the line, over a period of about 30 years, that love withered and died. John’s instruction to them later (a message sent from the Lord Jesus Himself) was, “I [Christ] have this against you, that you have left your first love. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent [change your mind about how you’re acting] and do the first works” (Revelations 2:4-5).

Biblical repentance always involves our relationship with the Lord. It involves seeing our sin as an offence against a holy God. In repentance, the person changes his mind about self, sin, and God. When we sin, we are actually rejecting God’s rule over our lives and placing ourselves on the throne. We imply–whether or not we actually say it–that God is wrong, and we are right about how we should act. In repentance we change our minds about that false view of ourselves and our sin, and admit that God is right. And that change of mind affects how we behave.

There are several things that are sometimes mistaken for repentance. Some are an aspect of the process, but they miss the heart of it.

1) Remorse is sorrow for our actions–or sorrow that we got caught doing something! But a person can be remorseful and still not determine to change his course. Cain was sorry for the consequences he suffered for murdering his brother Abel (Genesis 4:13), but that is not repentance. Judas was sorry he had betrayed Christ (Matthew 27:3-5), but that also fell short of true repentance. Sorrow for sin comes before repentance (2 Corinthians 7:8-9), but it is only of value if it leads to repentance.

2) Penitence is not repentance. Penitence goes a bit further than remorse. It is sorrow for sin that is accompanied by a sense of guilt. A person who repents may feel this way, guilty and ashamed for what he (or she) has done, but the two are not the same.

3) Reformation is not repentance. A person can try to make a fresh start and do better without true repentance toward God. New Year’s resolutions are an made to begin a reformation. But they may not involve repentance.

4) Penance is not repentance. Performing an act of penance is an attempt to pay for a wrong done. And sometimes such compensation is necessary. If a person writes graffiti on the wall of someone’s home, he may have to pay to have the markings removed, but this still falls short of true repentance.

A Hebrew word translated repent in the Old Testament is shuwb, meaning to turn. Changing our mind in repentance involves a turning.

Moses told the Israelites, “When you turn [shuwb] to the Lord your God and obey His voice…He will not forsake you nor destroy you” (Deuteronomy 4:30-31). The same word is used three times in Ezekiel 14:6, “Thus says the Lord God: ‘Repent [shuwb], turn away [shuwb] from your idols, and turn away [shuwb] your faces from all your abominations.'” It is for this kind of turning that Paul commends the Thessalonian believers: “You turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God” (1 Thessalonians 1:9).

You can see from this that repentance and faith go together. Jesus’ message to the Jews of His day was, “Repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). Think of it this way. If you turn around 180 degrees and face the opposite direction, you are turning away from something, and turning toward something else. And in biblical repentance, we turn away from our sin and self-rule and turn toward God in faith.

That is not really two steps, but two aspects of one step. It’s like the two sides of a coin. We can discuss each side separately, but there would be no coin without its two sides. In the same way, we can discuss repentance and faith separately, but in practice they go together. If true repentance is involved, the turning from will always mean turning toward as well.

Sinners can repent, and so can saints.

1) Unsaved people repent unto salvation (2 Peter 3:9). This involves particularly a change of mind about the Lord Jesus Christ. Before, if the person thought about Christ at all, he may have considered Him a great religious leader, or a great teacher. But that will not save him. He must come to the place where he sees in Christ the One who took the punishment for his sins on the cross. The One who is his only hope for forgiveness of his sins, and his only hope of heaven. Then he turns to Christ in faith. He turns from sin to the Saviour–the two sides of the coin (Acts 20:21).

2) Actually, the major usage of the word repent in the New Testament concerns not sinners getting saved, but Christians who have sinned and who need to deal with sin in their lives. Sin does not destroy the Christian’s relationship with the Lord. A sinning believer is still a child of God, just as a misbehaving child is still a child of his parents. But sin hinders our fellowship with the Lord, and hinders our service for Him, and robs us of joy and peace. David experienced the latter. And after his terrible sins of adultery and murder, he confessed his sin to God (Psalms 51:3-4), and prayed, “Restore to me the joy of Your salvation” (vs. 12).

One last thought. There is a close relationship between repentance and confession.

The Bible says to Christians who have sinned, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” To confess (homologeo in Greek) means to say the same, or to agree. When we confess our sins to God, we are agreeing with Him. We are saying that we are wrong, and He is right. And if we really believe that, it will result in a change of behaviour. You can see how close this is to the act of repentance.

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