STUDY 5: REPENTANCE
© Rosemary Bardsley 2005, 2014
If we asked a child ‘what does it mean to repent?’ chances are the response would be ‘saying sorry’; chances are that we would get a similar response from many adults. At best the answer would add something like ‘and promising (or trying) not to do it again’, or ‘turning over a new leaf’. Although such actions are commendable they fall far short of the total biblical concept of repentance.
A. THE OLD TESTAMENT CONCEPT OF REPENTANCE
The Old Testament concept of repentance is powerful and enlightening. The Hebrew word naham [nacham] is translated ‘repent’ about 40 times and ‘comfort’ about 65 times. [See Vine’s Expository Dictionary for a fuller comment.] What is common in these two concepts? It is this: repenting is what one does oneself – one changes one’s heart and mind. Comforting is what one does to another: by encouragement one brings them to a different outlook in the midst of their suffering or sorrow, one leads them to a change of heart and mind.
This change of heart and mind involves both thought and feeling. They cannot be separated. In the study that follows we will leave aside the ‘comfort’ aspect of naham and concentrate on the concept of ‘repentance’. It is interesting that the large majority of uses of naham as ‘repent’ refer to God repenting, not man.
A.1 God is said to repent
Each of the verses in the Task below is translated as God ‘repenting’ in the King James version. Modern translations do not always use the word ‘repent’.
Task #1: Research
Read these verses in their context. What do they say about God that means that God ‘repented’ - that he had a change of heart and mind? What was the situation in which God changed his attitude and his intention – in which he ‘repented’?
Exodus 32:12, 14 [for comment on the first ‘turn’ see A.3 below]
Some important points about God ‘repenting’:
 This repentance or change of heart and mind on God’s part is often in relation to judgment that he has already indicated would fall on his people, and often conditional on a prior repentance or change of mind on the part of his people [See Exodus 32:12; Jonah 3:10; Jeremiah 15:6; Joel 2:12,13]
 Although at one level it is a change on the part of God, at another level it is not a change, but is rather consistent with [a] his underlying eternal purposes and covenant purposes and [b] his fundamental mercy and compassion. In some instances, e.g. Genesis 6:6, where God changes his mind/heart about having created man, or 1 Samuel 15:11,25, where God changes his mind/heart about Saul as king, again this change is consistent with his fundamental justice and holiness, and does not therefore indicate a change at this deeper level.
 Other Scriptures state the immutability/changelessness of God, affirming that he will not and does not repent. For example: Numbers 23:19; 1Samuel 15:29; Psalm 110:4; Jeremiah 4:28; Ezekiel 24:14.
 Some teachers say that when the Biblical writers speak of God repenting they are using an anthropomorphism – that is, they are speaking of God in human terms as if he had human characteristics. Irrespective of whether or not it is an anthropomorphism, the concept of God ‘repenting’ – when it is a change from judgment to mercy – demonstrates that grace was a reality in the Old Testament era. Grace has meaning only in the context of deserved judgment. If God does not repent then neither the Israelites then nor we now would survive. Thus even the fact that God repents is a salvation concept.
A.2 People are called to repent
In a very small number of verses this same word naham [nacham] is used of people repenting or being commanded to repent – to undergo a change of heart and mind.
Task #2: What are people being asked to do, or doing, in these verses?
Look at the context before you give your answer.
A.3 People [that is, the nation of Israel as a whole] are commanded to turn or to return
There is another word that is used far more frequently – the word sub [shubh] which means to return – with the idea of returning to the original starting point or point of departure. This word is variously translated by the English ‘repent’, ‘turn’ or ‘return’. Thus when God commands people to turn or repent he is commanding them to return to him and to a right relationship with himself. It is not referring to what happens in one’s heart or mind but to one’s position in relation to where one is and where one ought to be. It is the ordinary word for physically going back or returning to the place one came from. Spiritually applied, people who are following idols have to return to God, people who are into sin have to return to righteousness. [This word is sometimes used of God – see Exodus 32:12 in A.1 above; also, for example, in a number of Psalms, where God is called upon to ‘return’, and Jonah 3:9.]
Task #3: Research
Check out the verses below in which the Hebrew word sub [shubh] is used. Answer these questions for each verse:
 What English word is used to communicate the concept of returning to the spiritual place where one ought to be?
 Read the verses before and after to find out what is the situation/state from which people are commanded to turn away, and to what are they commanded to return?
 What motivation is given for returning to the Lord?
Deuteronomy 30:2, 8,10 [3 times]
1Kings 8:47-48 [sub occurs three times]
2Chronicles 6:24,38 [2 times]
2Chron 30:6,9 [2 times of repenting; once of God; once of physical return]
Jeremiah 3:12,14,22 [3 times]
Jeremiah 4:1 [2 times]
Ezekiel 14:6 [2 times]
Ezekiel 18:23, 30 [3 times]
Hosea 14:1-2 [2 times]
Joel 2;12,13 [2 times]
Malachi 3:7 [2–man; 1-God]
Task #4: Discuss what you discovered in the previous task. Answer the following questions:
 Describe the spiritual conditions common to the people who were commanded to repent or turn.
 What state of heart and mind made it impossible for them to repent?
 What motivations did God give to move the people to repentance and to assure them that repentance was the best and only valid choice?
 What action of God was needed for them to be able to repent?
 What were the people commanded to turn from and to return to?
 Are these commands/calls to repent/return/turn given to individuals or to the nation?
It is obvious that the call to repent or return/turn to the Lord was not made into a vacuum, nor was it made to a people who simply needed to clean up their act a little bit. It was made to those who had refused to acknowledge God as God. The visible expression of this rejection of God was the substitution of false gods in his place and the resultant abandonment of his moral commands. There was in some cases a superficial, physically visible acknowledgement of God, and the maintenance of a form of the ritual worship he had decreed, but God knew that this was fake. Neither heart nor mind nor will was in it. Heart, mind and will were, rather, totally rebellious against God.
Jeremiah describes this idolatrous rebellion against God with powerful images:
‘Each pursues his own course like a horse charging into battle’ (Jeremiah 8:6)
‘They have forsaken me, the spring of living water,
and have dug their own cisterns,
broken cisterns that cannot hold water.’ (Jeremiah 2:13b)
‘Long ago you broke off your yoke
and tore off your bonds;
you said, ‘I will not serve you!’
Indeed, on every high hill
and under every spreading tree
you lay down as a prostitute.’ (Jeremiah 2:20)
The rebellion against God and his authority which characterised the first sin (Genesis 3) continues to characterise the human race. The call to repent is a call, a command, to personally reverse that original rebellion. The call to repent is a call to return to God, to come back under his authority, to acknowledge that he alone, not the idols, not myself, has sole right to be Lord of my life. It is only when this total about-turn repentance has taken place that the promise of forgiveness and acceptance is given:
‘Seek the Lord while he may be found;
call upon him while he is near.
Let the wicked forsake his way
and the evil man his thoughts.
Let him turn to the Lord,
and he will have mercy on him,
and to our God, for he will freely pardon.’ (Isaiah 55:6,7)
This is not some airy-fairy, abstract ‘seeking’ and ‘turning to’ the Lord, but practical, down to earth, grass roots seeking of the Lord, and turning to the Lord, instead of whatever has usurped his place. In this command to repent we are commanded to stop turning our backs on God. When we thus repent, we are promised his mercy and pardon. The blessing of salvation is granted only to those who repent [Hosea 14].
This repentance is far from simply feeling ‘guilty’ or saying ‘sorry’ for some individual sin or sins that we have committed; it involves a total re-orientation of life under the authority of God, a paradigm shift of massive proportions.
For further personal study of the concept of repentance in the Old Testament do a study on the concept of ‘seeking’ the Lord, looking at who is told to seek the Lord, why they are told to seek the Lord, and what their mindset and lifestyle is at the point of time that they are commanded to seek the Lord.
B. THE NEW TESTAMENT CONCEPT OF REPENTANCE
In the New Testament the idea of change is inextricably involved in repentance. Two Greek words are used: metanoeo and metamelomai.
Note that in the New Testament it is usually individuals who are commanded to repent [a notable exception occurs in Revelation 2 & 3 where the churches are commanded to repent], whereas in the Old Testament repentance is, with a few exceptions, related to the nation of Israel. Irrespective of this, the concept of individual repentance and the extreme and urgent necessity for individual repentance can be taught from both Old and New Testaments with equal validity, along with the necessity of corporate repentance on the part of God’s people.
B.1 Repentance as a change of mind - metanoeo
The prefix, meta, indicates change. Noeo means I think or perceive, and has the same root as nous - mind. Repentance, then, is an act in which I change my mind, in which I undergo a complete turn-around in the way I think about and perceive reality, particularly in the way in which I perceive and think about God, myself, and my sin. As in the Old Testament, repentance is the reversal of the original Genesis 3 rebellion and our on-going rebellion against God and God’s authority; and here in the New Testament, as in the Old, repentance involves a massive paradigm shift, indeed the ultimate paradigm shift.
B.1.1 We are commanded to repent because Jesus Christ is the King
Both John the Baptist and Jesus said: ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.’ [Matthew 3:2; 4:17]. How has the kingdom of heaven drawn near? It has drawn near because Jesus Christ, the eternal divine King, has come to us. When we stand confronted by Jesus Christ we stand in the presence of the eternal King, to whom all authority has been given [Matthew 28:18] and before whom every knee must bow [Philippians 2:9-11]. The one appropriate response in the presence of the King is submission. The only alternative is continuing rebellion against his authority. Either we change our minds about him and submit to his Lordship, or we continue in our stubborn-minded rejection of his right to rule us. There is no middle ground.
Matthew 11:20-24, 12:39-42 and Luke 10:8-16 highlight this ultimate greatness of Jesus Christ. Here Jesus points out the terrible fate of those who have refused to repent on hearing his teaching. So great is he, so significant, that there can be no forgiveness of sin for those who refuse to respond either to his word, or to the truth spoken about him. Such a refusal to repent on hearing the message of the Christ is actually rejection of God the Father [Luke 10:16], beyond which there is no possibility of repentance and no possibility of salvation. To refuse to repent in the presence of the Christ is the ultimate and final refusal.
In Acts 2:22-38 the focus of Peter’s message is the true identity of Jesus Christ. Confronted by the fact that the man they crucified is indeed the Lord, with the right to make all the claims for which they had crucified him, the Jews cry out ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’ Peter replied: ‘Repent ...’. Change your mind. Admit that he is the one he claimed to be. Throw out your own perceptions of what God is, of who God is, and acknowledge that here, in this man, Jesus of Nazareth, is your God [Isaiah 40:9]. That is what Thomas did [John 20:28]. That is what Saul did [Acts 9:1-31]. Saul’s conversion is a clear example of the New Testament concept of repentance. Here we see a man do a complete about-face. Here we see a man, confronted by the Lord Jesus Christ, undergo a complete change of mind about who Jesus is, and a subsequent complete reorientation of his whole life on the basis of this new understanding that Jesus Christ is the Old Testament Lord.
[Note: the inseparable relationship and association between repentance and faith will be discussed at greater length in the next study.]
B.1.2 Repentance is an essential pre-requisite for salvation
There is no back door into the kingdom of heaven. Because Jesus Christ is the only way [John 14:6], and the only way in [John 10:7], we cannot side step this act of repentance. We can only gain salvation by acknowledging him as our God. We cannot sneak into heaven behind his back, with an unchanged god-concept. We can only gain salvation by admitting that our own god-concepts are wrong; that we are wrong when we think that we can be boss of our own lives; that we are wrong when we think it’s okay to live how we please. Forgiveness of sin is only promised to those who thus repent. Apart from this radical repentance there is only judgment.
Task #5: About those to refuse to repent
According to these verses, what is our present state and final fate if we refuse to repent?
B.1.3 True repentance is evidenced by a radical re-orientation of one’s life under the authority and direction of the Lord
Although repentance is essentially a change of mind, such a change of mind will of necessity be accompanied by observable changes in behaviour. If there is no observable change of behaviour then the validity of any verbal profession of repentance is seriously questioned, even denied, by the Bible.
Task #6: The practical expression of repentance.
What did these people say about the necessary impact of repentance?
John the Baptist:
[Note that the verses from Revelation are addressed to churches not individuals].
2 Cor 7:8-12
2 Cor 12:21
John the Baptist made this clear. Jesus, assuming the solidity of repentance and faith, repeatedly stressed the practical implications. He gave no credibility to a profession of faith which did not produce a changed life. He disowns ‘sheep’ who do not listen to his voice and follow him. He identifies as genuine only that love for him which also obeys his commands. He never sees submission to his authority as optional, but as an essential expression of genuine repentance and faith. Paul consistently taught his churches that the gospel of salvation in Christ has ramifications for life.
Repentance happens in the mind, in the thinking, but if it is real in the mind and on the lips it will also be observed in the hands and the feet, it will be evident in action, and never only expressed in thoughts and in words. This outworking of repentance is part of what Paul meant when he said ‘continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you both to will and to act according to his good purpose’ [Philippians 2:12-13]. Repentance is thus both initial and inceptive, at the point of conversion, and on-going - continuing throughout the life of the believer as we bring our lives more and more into conformity with the mind of Christ.
B.1.4 Repentance is a gift from God.
Although it is obvious that repentance is the necessary human response to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, we must not assume that it is within the ability of our own hearts, minds and wills to do it. The Bible teaches that our hearts are deceitful and beyond cure [Jeremiah 17:9], that our minds are blinded [2Corinthians 4:4], and that our wills are powerless [John 15:5; Romans 5:6]. For this reason the New Testament teaches that repentance, like every other aspect of salvation, is a gift of God.
Task #7: Describe the role of God in repentance in these verses
B.2 Repentance as a change in what we care about - metamelomai
Like the previous and usual word for repentance studied above, this word has the prefix for change – meta. In this word it is followed by the verb melo – I care for afterward. In the passive voice metamelomai is used to signify regret. It is used in only four passages in the New Testament. These occasions are as follows:
 The parable of the two sons [Matthew 21:28-32]: Here Jesus speaks of a son who, after having refused to work in his father’s vineyard, later ‘changed his mind’ – metamelomai - that is he regretted what he had previously said and afterwards went and did what his father wanted. The other son, of whom no repentance is indicated, said that he would do the work, but didn’t. Jesus applied this parable to the unbelieving Jews who did not repent – metamelomai – at the preaching of John the Baptist, even though they saw the prostitutes and tax-collectors repenting.
 Judas [Matthew 27:3]: Judas, seeing Jesus condemned, ‘was seized with remorse’ [metamelomai], and returned the thirty pieces of silver to the priests. Whatever this feeling of remorse was it did not lead him to repentance [change of mind about] and faith in Christ, rather it led him to suicide [verse 5]. It was a self-centred remorse, not a Christ-focused repentance.
 Paul [2Corinthians 7:8]: Paul states that he does not regret – [metamelomai] having written so harshly to the Corinthians previously, though he had regretted it [metamelomai] for a while.
 God [Hebrews 7:21]: God will not ‘change his mind’ [metamelomai] about his oath that Jesus Christ is a priest forever. He will not reverse this oath afterwards.
Of all of these only the first has any immediate reference to the genuine human repentance which God commands.
C. REPENTANCE AND CONVERSION
There is another Greek word that is associated with the idea of repentance. Epistrepho – to turn towards – which is commonly used to speak of being converted or of converting people. The following verses are relevant to this study on repentance.
In these verses there is reference to the hardness of heart that is the result of constant rejection of the word of God, resulting in an impossibility of conversion - Matthew 13:15; John 12:40; Acts 28:27.
John the Baptist will be used to turn many people back to the Lord - Luke 1:16,17.
A reference to Peter’s turning back to the Lord after his denial of him - Luke 22:32.
‘Repent and turn to God’ – used as a synonym for ‘repent’ - Acts 3:19.
Reference to people turning to the Lord – being converted - Acts 9:35; 11:21; 15:19; 26:20; 2Cor 3:16.
Paul tells the people to turn from idols - Acts 14:15.
Paul was instructed to turn people from darkness to the light, from Satan to God - Acts 26:18.
The Thessalonians turned to God from idols -1Thess 1:9.
Reference to human agent in turning people from their sin - James 5:19,20.
You have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls - 1Peter 2:25.
D. SOME INSIGHTS INTO REPENTANCE
 Hoekema points out that repentance is the objective of the gospel. He refers to Luke 24:46-47, Acts 17:30-31 and 26:17-18, Romans 2:4 and 2Peter 3:9 to demonstrate his point. [ibid, p122]
 Hoekema discusses three aspects of repentance –
an intellectual aspect,
an emotional aspect, and
a volitional aspect. [ibid, p127-128]
 About on-going repentance:
‘The fact that repentance is a lifelong activity has some important implications. … it suggests that we must distinguish between an initial repentance at the beginning of the Christian life and a repentance which continues throughout that life. There is indeed a turning from sin to God that begins a person’s Christian pilgrimage, but there is also one that characterized the entire journey. We should not therefore simply think of repentance as a single step in the process of salvation … but at least in one sense, we must think of repentance as an aspect of the entire process. The Christian life in its totality is a life of repentance.’ [ibid, p131]
Leon Morris comments on the urgency of repentance:
‘[Luke] reports Paul’s message to the Athenians, that God ‘commandeth men that they should everywhere repent’ [Acts 17:30]. This command is urgent. It brooks no delay. God has in past days overlooked ‘the times of ignorance’, but the situation is changed with the coming of the Gospel. Repentance may no longer be deferred. … Luke is explicit that repentance is a universal as well as an immediate requirement … ‘
And on the practical expression of repentance in Acts 26:20:
‘… the repentance [Paul] sought was not one merely in name or in words, but one that was expressed in deeds. Man must produce ‘works worthy of repentance’.
He comments also on the close connection between repentance and conversion:
‘This is all of a piece with the teaching in his [Luke’s] Gospel that the whole set of a man’s life must be changed. Conversion is a turning, a turning away from the old with its emphasis on the here and now and on the things which profit the individual … it is a turning to things eternal, to the service of hat God who made all men to be His own. It means that the life ceases to be self-centred and becomes God-centred.’
[p110-111 The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross]
Task #8: Repentance in contemporary Christianity
Discuss the presence or absence of initial and on-going repentance in contemporary Christianity.