Repentance today is generally misunderstood. Vernacularly, repentance refers to a feeling. Consider for example these popular definitions: Repent – to feel or express sincere regret or remorse about one’s wrongdoing or sin (New Oxford American Dictionary); Repent – to feel or show that you are sorry for something bad or wrong that you did and that you want to do what is right (Webster). These definitions do not capture the true meaning of the Greek word metanoia (μετάνοια) that is translated as repentance in the Bible. Metanoia has been defined as “a profound, usually spiritual transformation; conversion.” The typical definitions of repentance miss the essence of metanoia and describe contrition instead, but the two usually go hand in hand.
The contemporary understanding of repentance does not entirely miss the mark, however, because David emphasizes his contrition when he repents of his adultery with Bathsheba: “My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; / a broken and contrite heart / you, God, will not despise” (Psalm 51:17). So repentance and contrition work together. However, the common definition of repentance lacks the dimension of action central to the Biblical definition.
Repentance does not only involve a feeling; repentance necessitates action. Biblical scholars agree that it does not equate to sorrow. For example, James Strong defines repentance in his Exhaustive Concordance as “a change of mind, a change of the inner man (particularly with reference to acceptance of the will of God).” In addition, A. T. Robertson said, “mere sorrow avails nothing unless it leads to change of mind and life [metanoia].” Central to the notion of repentance then is change.
Therefore, Biblical repentance is a remorseful acknowledgment of sin that leads to a willful change of heart. Repentance means turning to God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength. And when God purifies our hearts after we repent, our actions reflect his grace. Our actions come from our heart: “But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander” (Matthew 15:18-19). Again, it is written “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it” (Proverbs 4:23). But the human heart is deceitful and difficult to understand: “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). However, what is impossible with man is possible with God (Luke 18:27); He can heal our hearts (Psalm 33:15;51:10).
Repentance requires God’s intervention. Paul demonstrates this truth in his second epistle to Timothy: “Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth…” (2 Timothy 2:25). Humans cannot see their sinfulness without God’s help: “But who can discern their own errors? Forgive my hidden faults” (Psalm 19:12). Jesus also preaches about spiritual blindness and how He enlightens us concerning our spiritual reality: “He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free…” (Luke 4:18). Humans frequently ignore their own faults and condemn these same faults in others: The pot calls the kettle black; the donkey calls the pig long ears; essentially, “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:3). Jesus opens our eyes to our own sins and teaches us to patiently and compassionately help others overcome their struggles.
Repentance is an elementary teaching central to the Bible (Hebrews 6:1). The Old Testament prophets preached on repentance (1 Samuel 7:3; Jeremiah 4; Isaiah 30:15). John the Baptist preached on repentance (Matthew 3:2). Jesus began His ministry by preaching on repentance (Matthew 4:17). Jesus sent the twelve apostles to preach on repentance: “So they went out and preached that the people should repent” (Mark 6:12). The apostle Paul preached on repentance (Acts 17:30). So it’s safe to say that God wants us to repent: Indeed, “… God is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).
For those people who have not been baptized (fully immersed in water), your right relationship with God begins with repentance. Baptism naturally results from sincere repentance. Repentance is not a passive ordeal; it leads to prayer, confession of sin, and baptism. Baptism is the correct active response to the gospel. “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). Through baptism we begin our lives as the children of God! If we do not repent, we will not be baptized; and if we are not baptized, we are enemies of God. Therefore, if we do not repent, we are God’s enemies; and before we become children of God, repentance must occur.
For those who have undergone Biblical baptism, repentance heals our relationship with God. Jesus speaks about repentance when He addresses the Christian church in Ephesus. He says to them, “Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place” (Revelation 2:5). When Jesus speaks about repentance, He emphasizes actions because faith without deeds is dead (James 2:17). Praise be to God that the work of God is to believe in Jesus (John 6:29)! Truly His yoke is easy and His burden light (11:30)! He gives us power to live righteous lives (John 15:5; 2 Timothy 1:7)! In the words of Matthew Henry, “Repentance for and from dead works is a foundation-principle, which must not be laid again, though we must renew our repentance daily.” Repentance, therefore, is an ongoing spiritual discipline in the life of a Christian.
As Christians, our primary goal in life should be spiritual intimacy with God. I am not talking about romantic love. I am talking about walking obediently under God like Enoch. The heroes of the Bible who lived intimately with God repented. King Josiah repented when the book of the law was rediscovered. Not only did he repent, but he led all of Judah to repentance (2 Kings 22:11-13). Is our repentance powerful enough to lead others to repentance? King Josiah tore his robes! How humiliating especially for a royal monarch! It’s a good thing that the priests whom king Josiah sent out inquired of the priestess Huldah who was the daughter-in-law of Harhas, keeper of the wardrobe (2 Kings 22:14)! But I doubt this is a coincidence because when we humbly repent, God mends us and clothes us with Christ (Galatians 3:27; Luke 15:22). David, Job, and Paul also repented (Psalm 51; Job 42:6; Acts 9:18; Romans 7:14-25). If we are not repentant, we are not Christian.
Finally, God graciously rewards the repentant: “This is what the Sovereign LORD, the Holy One of Israel, says: ‘In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength’” (Isaiah 30:15); “Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord…” (Acts 3:19). As we head into this gorgeous season of summer, let us not selfishly devote ourselves to outward rejuvenation. But let us draw nearer to the Lord, enjoying His gracious gifts in humility and deep repentance, overflowing with the love of Christ all the while.