Repentance a biblical understanding

Let us set the stage by noting that in so-called Christendom, including evangelical circles, we are surrounded by many unconverted people who say they believe in Jesus Christ. We have met drunks on the streets who say they believe; we’ve come across people who haven’t sought for Christian fellowship for years who say they believe; we’ve spoken with all sorts of lukewarm, world-loving church attendees in various countries who say they believe. In fact, the world is inhabited by millions of unconverted people who think that they believe in Jesus Christ.


The Saviour was, without doubt, alluding to them in His parable of the Good Seed and the Tares, Matt. 13. 24-30; 36-43. The ‘tares’ are, of course, pseudo-Christians characterized by ‘easy-believism’, and perhaps the most striking example of them was Judas, one of the twelve apostles. To all intents and purposes, and as to appearances, he was a saved soul. However, the Lord Jesus was never deceived as to his true state of heart, although amazingly the other apostles were. When Christ said, ‘One of you shall betray me’, the eyes of the eleven were not turned upon Judas. Each said in turn, ‘Lord, is it I?’ not, ‘Lord, is it Judas?’ Given this fact, it is, in a sense, no good just telling people like this to ‘believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved’, Acts 16. 31, because most say that they already do. Unfortunately, what appears as regeneration in their lives may be no more than reformation. Yes, it is quite possible that some may honestly, but deceptively, feel saved, who in reality never knew the saving power of Christ. It is vital, therefore, to point out to people like this that although it is absolutely essential to believe intellectually in Christ, there are other biblical commands related to ‘Christian initiation’ which are equally important, such as repentance and complete trust in Christ as Saviour and Lord. Indeed, with regard to repentance we would affirm that no rational person can ever be saved from the present guilt and future consequences of sin without it.

According to Mark’s Gospel ‘repentance’ was the first word on the lips of John the Baptist, 1. 4. It was also the first word in the mouth of the Lord Jesus in His public preaching, ‘The time is fulfilled and the Kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the gospel’, Mark 1. 15 (NASB). Indeed, in Matthew’s gospel, 4. 17, the Greek present tense indicates the Lord Jesus ‘continuously’ or ‘habitually’ called people to repentance. Moreover, according to Mark’s Gospel, 6. 12, ‘repentance’ was the first word preached by the apostles and the seventy disciples sent out by Christ.

The apostle Paul emphasized this important subject in his evangelistic sermons, Acts 17. 30; 20. 21, and the apostle Peter on the Day of Pentecost, Acts 2. 38, issued a powerful call to repentance before a vast crowd. In his second letter, Peter puts it this way: ‘The Lord is not slow about His promises, as some count slowness, but is patient towards you, not willing that any perish but for all to come to repentance’, 2 Pet. 3. 9.

The Meaning of Repentance

What does the word ‘repentance’ mean? The Greek noun metanoia is made up of two words: meta, (which means ‘after’ and implies ‘change’); and noeo, (which means to ‘perceive’ and comes from the word nous meaning mind). Literally, the noun means ‘a change of mind (after)’ and the verb metanoeo means ‘to perceive afterwards’. So, repentance in English has the idea of ‘changing one’s mind or purpose’. Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of the New Testament, The Message, puts it like this: ‘Now is the time to change your ways’. The Greek scholar A. T. Robertson paraphrases the apostle Peter’s words in Acts 2 as ‘Change your mind and your life; turn right about and do it now. You crucified this Jesus. Now crown him in your heart as Lord and Christ’. The American revivalist preacher of two centuries ago, Charles Finney, defined repentance as ‘changing your mind from what you have believed on any given subject to what God has revealed on that subject’.

In other words, instead of going by one’s own ideas and world-view, it is vital to submit to, and to act upon, God’s revealed will. In today’s secular society this implies at least three things. Firstly, people need to turn away from their false thinking regarding atheism and agnosticism, and to bow the knee before the God ‘who is there and is not silent’.

Secondly, they need to be shown that they are truly and morally guilty of breaking God’s revealed law. As G. H. Lang put it in his autobiography: ‘that an accused might enter the court thinking he had a good case and should be discharged, but if the judge declared him guilty in law he must simply change his opinion about himself and accept the verdict of the judge. Thus does God declare of each man and woman that he is guilty before Him and repentance consists in humbly bowing to that verdict’, An Ordered Life, p.158.

Thirdly, to quote Lang’s words again: ‘A man or woman may think that he or she can produce works suitable for acceptance by God; but God says it is impossible and that the only work He can accept for the good of the sinner is the atoning work which Christ wrought on the cross on behalf of humanity. The sinner must, therefore, change his mind as to how to be saved and obey God by transferring his trust from himself and his works to Christ and His work’, Ibid., p.158. Some people who have heard God’s word have discovered that their thinking has been contrary to it and so they have done an about- face in order to change their thinking and to conform it to God’s revealed truth, Luke 7. 29 (NIV); John 3. 3. They have repented.

Mentions of Repentance

In the KJV the word appears in its various forms forty-six times in the Old Testament and sixty-five times in the New Testament. Of the forty-six times a form of the word ‘repentance’ appears in the Old Testament, only nine times is it man doing the repenting. Thirty-seven times it has reference to God’s repenting or telling us of things about which He did not or will not repent, Jer. 18. 7, 8, etc. Of course, when the Bible says that God ‘repents’ or ‘changes His mind’, it is simply an example of a common figure of speech in the Hebrew Scriptures which we call an anthropomorphism, by which God’s person or action is viewed from a human standpoint. It is language which is an accommodation to our finite understanding. For instance, God certainly foreknew, when He sent Jonah, that Nineveh would repent and that its destruction would be averted. This was God’s purpose in sending him that He might extend mercy towards those people. Jonah’s message of impending judgement was therefore conditional, though it was not clearly revealed to Jonah, nor declared to the Ninevites, Jonah 3. 5, 10.

Misunderstanding about Repentance

Some people say that repentance means ‘to turn from one’s sins’, though in actual fact the expression is not found in the Bible. What the repentance or change of mind is about, of course, must be determined by the context. Certainly, when God ‘repents’ it cannot mean that He has turned from sin, because He has none. Yes, the word is sometimes used in connection with sin when referring to people, but the basic meaning is ‘to change one’s mind’, to ‘reconsider’. This can clearly be seen, for example, in Acts 17. 30, where the apostle Paul urged the Athenians to repent. What they were to repent or ‘change their mind’ about is evident from verse 29. They needed to change their mind about God and see that He is not a graven image made of gold, silver or stone, but that He is a living God and is going to be their judge, v. 31.

Repentance is not the ‘conviction’ of sin. True, godly sorrow may precede repentance, 2 Cor. 7. 10. This seems particularly clear in Acts 2. 37, where the Holy Spirit caused listeners to the apostle Peter’s sermon in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost to be ‘cut to the heart’. They were convicted of their sin but had not yet repented. Yes, people may have their consciences convicted and they may even weep over their sins. They realize their sinfulness before a holy God and may even find a way to express those feelings emotionally but if they don’t change their thinking and the direction of their lives and continue to do whatever God has convicted them of, they certainly have not repented. False repentance is self-centred sorrow over the consequences of sin, like Esau who wept ‘fistfulls’ of tears and was totally ‘gutted’ about his actions, yet we never read in Scripture that he repented.

Repentance is not reformation. It leads to it, of course, because a truly repentant person will turn around and start his life over in demonstrable ways, Acts 26. 20; 19. 19; Luke 3. 8. The fruits of true repentance are observable changes in a person’s life and involve a turning away from bad conduct, Acts 8. 22. However, if God is not involved in the reformation and if it is not based of the work of Christ on the cross and the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit, then true repentance has not occurred and the reformation will fail. Remember that determination to do better, or ‘turning over a new leaf, and self-help programmes do not constitute repentance. Neither is penance repentance as it is an effort in some way to atone for wrong doing.

Motives for Repentance – why repent?

Because God commands people to repent and longs for them to repent is the answer. In other words, repentance is not an option, Acts 17. 30; 2 Pet. 3. 9.

Christ came into the world to call men and women to repentance and everyone will be judged by his or her response to Christ’s call, Luke 5. 32. When He said, ‘Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’, Matt. 3. 2; 4. 17; 10. 7, He meant that in Him the sphere of God’s rule had drawn near and therefore in the light of it, people should reconsider how they have been approaching life. They needed to take up His invitation of entering into the reality of His life and step into the movement and stream of God’s eternal purposes.

Repentance guides people away from destruction, Luke 13. 3, 5. A person may be sincere. He may be morally upright, but if he is not in full agreement with God’s truth, and if he does not rely on Christ alone for salvation and a right relationship with God, then he is a sinner, separated from God and heading for destruction.

Repentance leads to Life, Acts 11. 18.

Repentance makes true faith or trust possible. The words ‘repentance’ and ‘faith’ often appear together in the New Testament. People repent so they can become connected with God spiritually. They repent so that they can trust Christ. He constantly calls people to repent today because He wants them to place their full confidence in Him for salvation, to come to know Him experientially and receive forgiveness and His spiritual life. The simple and sincere question each of us now needs to ask is, ‘Have I done that?’


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