An Evangelical Free Church in Cary, NC

What is Repentance?

There are two Hebrew root verbs for ‘repent.’ One is “sub” which means to turn or return. The other verb is “nacham“- to be sorry, to regret, and in some cases, to comfort. The Greek root for ‘repentance’ used in the New Testament is “metanoia.” It means “to change one’s way of life as the result of a complete change of thought and attitude with regard to sin and righteousness” (Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains (New York: United Bible Societies, 1996), 509). In simplest terms, repentance is pictured by doing a 180-degree turn and turning back to God.

  • Recognition of wrongdoing- In the relationship between God and man, both parties need to agree about what has taken place which is wrong. Repentance begins with recognizing one has done wrong, not only according to individual standards, or in relation to another person, but a wrong has been committed in relation to God, the True and Holy One. When the Israelites heard God’s law read out loud, they realized they had sinned:
Nehemiah 9:16-17 ESV
  • Earnest sorrow and a desire for cleansing- It is one thing to mentally agree that you have done wrong, but true repentance comes with a “godly sorrow”, a sense of grief combined with a desire to be clean and pure before God. Biblical examples of repentance include fasting, prayer, wearing sackcloth and ashes, tears, and sometimes tearing of clothes. These actions communicate a sense of grief over one’s actions. When the Holy Spirit is truly leading someone to repent, it is not a dead-end street of feeling badly or wallowing in guilt. There is a genuine desire, however weak, on the part of the sinner to be cleansed and forgiven. The words of Psalm 51 show this desire on King David’s part-

Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin! …Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.

Psalm 51:2, 9-10 ESV
  • Renewed Hunger for God- When we are truly repentant and assured of God’s forgiveness, there comes a new hunger to be with God, to be near to Him in our spirit, mind, and attitudes. Repentance is often accompanied by joy, the joy which is only found in God’s love, assurance, and presence. This sense of assurance is communicated by those delivering the message to repent:

Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus,

Acts 3:19-20 ESV

Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit.

Psalm 51:12 ESV
  • A change of action or behavior- God’s forgiveness is not simply a “get out of jail free” card. Those who truly repent and believe will produce the fruit of a changed life. John the Baptist makes clear the need for a change in behavior when he tells those who came to him in the wilderness, “[8] Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. [9] And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. [10] Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. (Matthew 3:8-10 ESV) Repentance may begin with a change of mind and a sense of godly grief, but the demonstration of repentance includes actions. We see this in the account of Zacchaeus:

And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham.

Luke 19:8-9 ESV

As a tax collector, Zacchaeus would have been thought of as a most unlikely candidate for grace, especially from his fellow Jews! Yet here is Jesus, declaring him to be a son of Abraham, a true Jew. The same could be said of the prodigal son in Luke 15. The younger son who had squandered his father’s wealth would have been despised by the community, but the father’s lavish grace showed otherwise. This acceptance is the surprise element of repentance, so to speak. Repentance is not an emotional show, a religious rite, or an act of restitution, but a true change of heart which grips a person into turning away from sin and back to God. Paul asks rhetorically of the Roman church, “not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?”

Repentance is not something brought about only by human wisdom or experience. People can be sorry for the things they have done, but only sorry because they got caught, or because they face certain consequences. This “worldly sorrow is what Paul refers to in 2 Corinthians 7:10, “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.”

True repentance is the Spirit of God genuinely at work. When Paul instructs Timothy to correct his opponents, he includes the hope that God will “grant them repentance”:

correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth,

2 Timothy 2:25 ESV

When Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the door of the church in Wittenberg, the first three statements had to do with repentance, in contrast to the Roman Catholic practice of penance:

1. When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.

2. This word cannot be understood as referring to the sacrament of penance, that is, confession and satisfaction, as administered by the clergy.

3. Yet it does not mean solely inner repentance; such inner repentance is worthless unless it produces various outward mortification of the flesh.

Martin Luther- 95 Theses

But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. (ESV)

Revelation 2:4-5 ESV

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