Doctrinal Statements (2): Repentance

There are many misconceptions about the Biblical perspective of repentance. Sometimes repentance is simply presented as remorse. Others think that it is reparation for sins, while some sincerely believe that penance can deal with their sins. We hope to look at some of these misconceptions in this article.

The word “repentance” occurs in both Old and New Testaments. In the Old Testament two main verbs cover the subject, nacham(Strong’s Hebrew #5162), which means “to pant, sigh, or grieve” (Exo 13:17), and shuwb (#7725), meaning “to retreat or turn back” (1Kings 8:47). The first word usually refers to repenting on the part of God, although there are occasions when it is used of men who have not repented (Jer 8:6). In the New Testament, again two main words are used, metanoia (Strong’s Greek #3341), meaning “to change the mind” (Matt 3:8) and metanoeo (#3340), “to perceive afterwards” (Matt 3:2).

What is repentance?

In view of these examples the meaning of repentance is “to think afterwards or reconsider.” True repentance constitutes an inward change which is then manifested in a changed life (1Thes 1:9). It is a change of attitude which leads to a change in action. Repentance is not simply remorse for sin, although this may be included in the word. Many have been sorry for, or have regretted, their sins but have never truly repented of them (Matt 27:3). It is also possible for someone to change his mind in regard to a wrong position but then turn to something which is equally wrong. The Biblical principle of repentance is seen in 2 Timothy 2:25, “If God peradventure will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth.”

Repentance is presented in a number of different ways in Scripture. There is the repentance of sinners (Mark 2:17), national repentance (Judg 10:15-16), and the repentance of cities (Luke 11:32). In the book of Revelation chapters 2 and 3, five of the seven churches are called upon to repent (Rev 2:5). This also applies to individual believers who have sinned (2Cor 12:21).

We also read of God repenting (Exo 32:14; 1Sam 15:11, 35). In these contexts this indicates a change from a course of action which the Lord said He would follow.

Should we preach repentance?

John the Baptist opened his ministry preaching repentance (Matt 3:1-2). When the Lord Jesus came into Galilee preaching, His message was “repent and believe the gospel”(Mark 1:14-15). At the end of Luke’s gospel, the Lord’s disciples were commissioned to preach among all the nations. The subject of their proclamation was “repentance and remission of sins,” to be announced in the name of Christ (Luke 24:47). We find that both Peter and Paul preached the same message (Acts 2:38, Acts 17:30). At the end of Peter’s life he was still convinced of the relevance of this message, “The Lord is not slack concerning His promise as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance”(2Peter 3:9). Paul, in his address to the elders of the Ephesian church, the last church mentioned in the book of Acts, very clearly outlines what he preached, “testifying both to the Jews and also to the Greeks, repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:21). In the book that deals with the doctrine of the gospel, Paul again mentions repentance, “or despisest thou the riches of His goodness and longsuffering; not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance” (Rom 2:4). This demonstrates that repentance had a central role in apostolic teaching and practice. The commission of the risen Christ mentioned in Luke 24:47 has never been rescinded. This means that its content should be clearly emphasized in our preaching.

Repentance and salvation

The question has been asked, “Is repentance required for salvation?” We have noted that in the Scriptures repentance is frequently linked with faith (Mark 1:15, Acts 2:38, 20:21). Repentance and faith are two aspects of the same experience. One denotes an agreement with God and turning from sin, the other a turning to God. This is what the Thessalonians experienced, “How that ye turned to God from idols (repentance) to serve the living and true God (faith) and to wait for His Son from heaven”(1Thes 1:9). There are occasions in Scripture where faith is mentioned alone, an example of this being Acts 16:31. When the jailer asked “What must I do to be saved?” the reply was given “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved.” Why was repentance not mentioned? It was quite evident to Paul and Silas that the jailer had recognized his sinfulness and was under conviction of his sin. This is the reason why they announced the Lord Jesus as the object of faith.

Regret and penance are not repentance

We should note that regret is not repentance. Regret is a sorrowful attitude with regard to sin. Many times it is the result of being confronted after being caught and exposed. Some people think that if they manifest enough sorrow they will be accepted by God. This is foreign to the Biblical viewpoint of salvation. Salvation is by faith alone in Christ alone (Rom 5:1).

The word “repentance” was replaced in the Douay-Rheimstranslation of the Scriptures by the word “penance.” The root meaning of penance is the Latin poena, which means “punishment.” Thus, through contrition and castigation, it is alleged that confession can be made to a priest and absolution can be granted. This is not only unbiblical but is anti-biblical in scope and practice.

In summary, repentance is a change of attitude which leads to a change of action (Acts 26:18). Anyone who has repented of their sins looks back to a definite moment, when their sins were forgiven. This is an experience which can never be forgotten (Rom 10:9). The beautiful words of James G. Deck illustrate this.

When first, o’erwhelmed with sin and shame,
To Jesus’ Cross I trembling came,
Burdened with guilt, and full of fear,
Yet drawn by love to venture near,
Pardon I found, and peace with God,
In Jesus’ rich, atoning blood.