The concept of repentance is key to understanding both the New Testament and what it means to walk with God. It was the message of John the Baptist and Jesus, and it’s also emphasized in the epistles—as well as the book of Revelation. Since repentance is such a prominent theme in Scripture, it’s crucial for us to understand what it is and what it accomplishes.
“Laying down your arms, surrendering, saying you are sorry, realising that you have been on the wrong track and getting ready to start life over again from the ground floor—that is the only way out of our ‘hole.’This process of surrender—this movement full speed astern—is what Christians call repentance. Now repentance is no fun at all.” —C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
Let’s begin with three Greek words that are used in the New Testament to convey the idea of repentance.
• Metamelomai expresses the feeling of regret for sin, but it does not necessarily result in turning to God. For example, when Judas felt remorse for betraying Jesus, he looked back with regret but never turned toward Christ in genuine repentance (Matt. 27:3-5).
• Epistrephó is translated “turn” or “return” and refers to conversion. It involves a complete transformation of one’s existence under the influence of the Holy Spirit. We see it used when Paul was commissioned by Christ to open the Gentiles’ eyes so “they may turn from darkness to light and from the dominion of Satan to God” (Acts 26:18).
• Metanoeó is the New Testament’s primary word for repentance. It expresses a change of mind, emotion, and will regarding sin. This includes taking full responsibility for one’s wrongdoing, being grieved over a former lifestyle, and deliberately turning from sin and to God. The result is true conversion (Acts 2:37-38).
Matthew 3:1-9 and Acts 26:19-20
These passages speak about repentance that leads to salvation. What’s required is a change of mind based on the newly discovered truth about Christ. If there is genuine repentance, it will produce the fruit of transformed actions, attitudes, and lifestyle. The totality of the former life is replaced with one lived for Christ.
“Fear-based repentance makes us hate ourselves. Joy-based repentance makes us hate the sin.” —Timothy Keller
Repentance is simultaneously a summons to change and a gift of God (Acts 5:31; Acts 11:18). Behind the call to repent stands the promise of forgiveness of sin, the gift of the Holy Spirit, and a new relationship with the Father. We actually become new creatures with a new nature (2 Corinthians 5:17). The result is a progressive letting go of old ways and a putting on of Christlike attitudes, thought patterns, and behaviors (Eph. 4:22-24). This is what the Bible calls sanctification.
2 Corinthians 7:9-10 and 2 Corinthians 12:21
Repentance is not only for the purpose of salvation. It’s also necessary in believers’ lives for frequent cleansing from sin and continual restoring of fellowship with God. Godly sorrow is grief that leads us to view our conduct as the Lord does and to hate not only the consequences but the sin itself. Genuine repentance is more than feeling bad or sorry for what we’ve done and desiring to change. If we are not moved to obedience, our repentance is incomplete.
• What has your experience been with repentance? How has God opened your eyes to see your sin from His perspective?
• Do you drift back into a repeatedly confessed sin? If so, what effect might such affection for that sin have on your ability to obey God?