Repentance is a change of mind, a sorrowful heart, and a change of will/purpose.
"Repentance is more than a change of mind or feeling sorry for one's sins. It is a radical and deliberate turning or returning to God that results in moral and ethical change and action” (Kenneth Barker, ed. Zondervan NASB Study Bible, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999. p. 1372).
“Repentance involves deliberate turning from sin to righteousness” (Barker, 1419).
"Repentance is a heartfelt sorrow for sin, a renouncing of it, and a sincere commitment to forsake it and walk in obedience to Christ" (Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, p. 713).
Repentance unto life is a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, doth, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavor after, new obedience. - Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q.87
Various Greek words for repentance
The most common and most well known is metanoeō: this literally means “to change one’s mind or purpose, to repent.” From this same root comes the noun metanoia: “after-thought, repentance” (Liddell, 503). This is a reversal of thinking. You see yourself differently: as fallen and corrupt.
The second word that is used is metamelomī: which literally means “to feel repentance, to rue, regret; to change one’s purpose or line of conduct.” This is when emotion kicks in. From this same root comes the noun metamelos: “repentance, regret” (Liddell, 503).
And finally is the word epistrephō: “to turn about, turn round; to return; to run towards; to correct, make to repent; to turn oneself round, turn about; constantly turning” (Liddell, 302). This is a change of the will. This is decidedly turning from sin and the ways of sin to follow the ways of Christ. These three words are the foundation upon which we can define repentance as a change of mind, a heartfelt sorrow for sin, and a turning from sin to the ways of God.
Repentance is a gift from God
How is this not a works based gospel since a person must turn from his/her sin? Well, since both grace and faith are the gift of God (at least in the original Greek in Ephesians 2:8-9), so repentance, which accompanies saving faith, which is a turning to and trusting in/submission to Christ, is the gift of God as well. No person can just up and turn from his or her own sin. First of all, the true gospel, God’s message, must be preached to them, for “faith comes from hearing, and hearing from the word of Christ” ( Romans 10:17). Secondly, the Spirit of God must work in a person’s heart to convict him or her of their sin. A sinner, who is dead, blind, and deaf in his or her own sin has nothing good in their flesh (see Romans 7:18). They are “slaves to sin” Romans 6:6), “dead in [their] trespasses and sins” ( Ephesians 2:1, see 2:5, Colossians 2:13), and are even “darkness” ( Ephesians 5:8). Such a person cannot and will not repent on his/her own power. He/she must be born again—regenerated by the Holy Spirit; for “a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised” ( 1 Corinthians 2:14). So he/she does not do the decisive work, but God does.
So we must not make it appear that people are fundamentally good with some imperfections and struggles; Biblically, they are evil wretches in the sight of God. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” ( Romans 3:23). Nobody is acceptable in God’s sight. In fact, they are all abhorrent in God’s sight (see Psalm 5:5-6). We cannot preach a “feel good” gospel where the only problem is that someone has made a few mistakes but is not fundamentally and totally corrupt. The fallen nature of man is sin. Our will is not free, but in bondage to sin. Fallen man does nothing but sin outside of God’s redeeming grace. Without Christ present in him/her, a person only does evil continually (see Genesis 6:5). How can this be? Don’t people who don’t know Christ do morally good things? I would say in the eyes of man, they most certainly do. Nobody does the most utterly destructive things that they possibly can; not even Saddam Hussein or Adolf Hitler. But don’t people who don’t know Christ build hospitals? Truly that is good. And Gandhi helped all sorts of people. Isn’t that acceptable? That certainly couldn’t have been sin! On the contrary, the Bible clearly says, “Whatever is not from faith is sin” ( Romans 14:23). In other words, they have not done what they have done to the glory of God. They have failed to fulfill the first and greatest commandment every single moment of their life: “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” ( Matthew 22:37). Loving your neighbor as yourself comes only second ( Matthew 22:39).
And if they want to receive the forgiveness of sins, the eternal life, the personal relationship, they must do so on Christ’s grounds. Jesus is not stooping down to people’s level of half-hearted commitment; rather He is commanding them to come to Him. He accepts all who come to Him and pulls them out of the muck they are in; but He is not standing there saying, “Please come to me, I will accept you on your own terms.” He is saying, “If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple…. So then, none of you can be My disciple who does not give up all his own possessions” ( Luke 14:26-27, 33). He is telling them that if they want to follow Him, that is the reward, that is the call, they must come up to His level. But it is not coming up to His level on their own power: it is coming to Him on His power. He does the work. We look, or “turn” to Him and He saves us ( Isaiah 45:22, cf. John 3:14-15)! We do not make ourselves repent—He does.
Importance of understanding repentance
A proper understanding and defining of repentance is absolutely necessary; for as Jesus Himself said, “Do you suppose that these Galileans were greater sinners than all other Galileans because they suffered this fate?” To stretch it to encompass what I am saying here and help this to fit our modern life (when was the last time you saw a Galilean?): Do you think you are any better than the corrupt billionaire or the mob kingpin, or even Adolf Hitler? “I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” If you do not find it convincing, than read what Jesus says next: “Or do you suppose that those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them were worse culprits than all the men who live in Jerusalem?” Jerusalem was pretty much the evangelical church of Jesus’ day. It was thought to be the pinnacle of God’s affection and love. People thought everyone in Jerusalem was holy. God’s Temple was there! But hear what Jesus says: “I tell you, no, but unless you repent you will all likewise perish.” So if Jerusalem, which was full of Pharisees (few people alive today have the outward righteousness of a Pharisee, and probably none do as many good deeds) was condemned by Jesus for being culprits (literally ‘debtors’), who are we to think that we are good in any way in ourselves. The apostle Paul says “I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh…” ( Romans 7:18), and Paul was a Christian at the time!
“Now He commands all men everywhere to repent” ( Acts 17:30) whether Jew, Gentile, American, Asian, African, or even Eskimo. The command is to be taken throughout the whole world. Jesus said, “Repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem” ( Luke 24:47). The message is for men to repent. A gospel that does not call men to repent is not the gospel of Jesus Christ at all. It is not the gospel Paul preached; for a gospel that says a person does not need to repent is a false gospel. And here is the warning Paul gives to preaching a false gospel: “I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel; which is really not another; only there are some who are disturbing you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed [in other words damned]. As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, he is to be accursed” ( Galatians 1:6-9)! This is so serious that Paul repeats himself! And this is not another gospel; there is only one gospel—and anything else is not the good news of God. What we know of the historicity behind Paul’s letter to the Galatians is that it was written to defend the simplicity of the gospel—that a person is saved by grace through faith and not his or her own merits in anyway. Paul was writing against a sect that we today call ‘Judaizers.’ “Judaizers were Jewish Christians who believed, among other things, that a number of the ceremonial practices of the [Old Testament] were still binding on the [New Testament] church. Following Paul’s successful campaign in Galatia, they insisted that Gentile converts to Christianity abide by certain [Old Testament] rites, especially circumcision….By introducing additional requirements for justification (e.g., works of the law) his adversaries had perverted the gospel of grace and, unless prevented, would bring Paul’s converts into the bondage of legalism” (Barker, 1706). This was not a completely different religion but rather a distortion of Christianity! It is not that they are preaching ‘you are saved through Buddhism’: but rather they are mispreaching Jesus Christ! So is a gospel that does not preach repentance for the forgiveness of sins!
- What is repentance and how does it relate to salvation?, by John F. MacArthur Jr.
- Repentance, James Petigru Boyce
- True and False Repentance, by John Calvin
- Sermon #14: "The Repentance of Believers" by John Wesley
- All of Life is Repentance (PDF), by Tim Keller
- Thoughts on Jesus' Demand to Repent, by John Piper
- Does God forgive sins you continue to repeat? (MP3), by Tim Keller
- Repentance (MP3), by David Calhoun - Seminary lecture from class on Calvin's Institutes
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