One of the most misunderstood and misapplied words in the entire Bible is “repentance.” If you are asking “What is repentance?” this post will answer some of your questions.
What is Repentance?
If you were to ask several people, “What is repentance?” you would get many different answers. Here are three popular views:
1. Repentance = Faith
There are many who believe that repentance is synonymous with faith. In other words, many think that to repent of your sins is the same thing as believing in Jesus for eternal life. Such people sometimes share the Gospel by telling people to repent of their sins, and other times to trust in Jesus.
2. Repentance accompanies faith
Then there are those who believe that repentance and faith are not the same thing, but that a person must repent of their sins before they can believe in Jesus. When sharing the Gospel, they often tell people to repent and believe. Often they say something like, “Turn from your sins and turn to Jesus Christ.” One pastor holding this view writes “No message that eliminates repentance can properly be called the gospel.”
3. Repentance is required for salvation
Noting that John the Baptist often called Jewish people to repent and be baptized for the remission of sins, some evangelists today also call people to repent of their sins, believe in Jesus and be baptized in order to receive eternal life. Some go off the deep end on repentance and tell people that if they don’t repent of all their sins, they will spend eternity in hell. Sometimes, these pastors use phrases like “turn or burn” and may talk a lot of about the wrath of God being poured out upon sinners with fire and brimstone.
So What is Repentance and Why Should we Care?
So what is the Biblical truth about repentance?
According to Scripture, there is one condition only to receive the free gift of everlasting life from God. Everywhere the Bible tells us that faith alone in Christ alone is all that is necessary to receive eternal life.
But at the same time, the Bible talks about repentance scores of times. What is this teaching of repentance? Who should repent? And what does repentance accomplish?
Now, if you think that understanding repentance doesn’t matter, or shouldn’t concern you, let me point out one sobering passage. Look quickly at Hebrews 6. In the last part of Hebrews 5, the author berates his readers for still being spiritual babes. He says that by now, they ought to be spiritually mature, but they aren’t. He says they still need milk, because they can’t handle meat. I think that all of us probably think we’re pretty mature as a Christian. I mean, look at us, we are here for a Sunday evening service. We have daily devotions. We come to church regularly and memorize Scripture. We understand quite a bit about the Bible. We certainly are able to handle the meat doctrines of Scripture.
But in Hebrews 6:1-2, the author lays out six milk doctrines, six elementary doctrines, six kindergarten doctrines of the Christian life. Do you think you’re a pretty mature Christian? These six doctrines will knock you back into preschool. You have not passed kindergarten until you understand these six doctrines. Look what the writer of Hebrews says in 6:1. “Therefore leaving the discussion of the elementary principles of Christ, let us go on to perfection, not laying again the foundation…” and then he lists the six elementary, foundation principles for all Christians to know. And what is right at the top of the list? “Repentance from dead works” (cf. Heb. 9:14).
So don’t ever let anyone tell you that understanding repentance correctly is not important. That’s an infantile mindset. Repentance is one of the first things every Christian should learn about. Repentance is a foundational doctrine. It is very difficult to understand much about the rest of the Bible if you don’t have an understanding of repentance. It is very difficult to digest meat when you can’t digest milk. So we are going to provide you with a crash course on repentance.
We are going to look at what repentance is, what repentance does, and who should repent. As we go, we will look at some key passages which teach us about repentance.
What Repentance Is
The word repentance comes from the Greek word metanoia which is formed from two words, meta and noeo. Meta means “after” or “change” whereas noeo means “to think.” So the one Greek word metanoia means “after thought” or “to change the way one thinks.” It could also be translated as “a change of mind.” But although we can define a word from it’s root like this, we must never attempt to define a word without it’s context. Defining a word simply from it’s root might lead us into the root fallacy. For example, if we were to define the world “butterfly” by it’s roots, “butter” and “fly” we would not come up with a correct definition of a butterfly.
Similarly, althoughthe root of metanoia means “a change of mind,” every single time it is used in the New Testament (all 55 times), it is used in reference to turning away from sin and turning back to obedience of God.
I’m not going to take you to all 55 references to show you this, but let’s just look at a few. Matthew 12:41 is a good example.
Matthew 12:41. The men of Nineveh will rise up in the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and indeed a greater than Jonah is here.
You all remember what happened in Nineveh. They were a wicked a perverse people, and Jonah was sent by God to preach God’s impending judgment upon them. Jonah truly did preach a “turn or burn” message. And they did turn, they repented of their sin at the preaching of Jonah. They stopped doing the evil they had been doing, and repented in sack cloth and ashes and God relented and did not pour out on them the judgment He had threatened. So you see, repentance is a turning away from sin and turning toward obedience.
Acts 8:22 is another example. Simon the Sorcerer becomes a Christian, and when he sees the power of the Holy Spirit through Peter and John, he wants the same power, but Peter tells him to repent of this sin of coveting, and if he does, God may not punish him. So once again, repentance is a turning away from sin, and returning to God.
Revelation 2:5 is another such reference.
Revelation 2:5. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the first works, or else I will come to you quickly and remove your lampstand from its place — unless you repent.
So you see, this church of Ephesus had stopped doing the first works, and started sinning, and now Jesus Christ is calling them to repent and return to their first love and start doing the first works again.
Repentance in the New Testament is more than just changing your mind about God or who Jesus is. In fact, it doesn’t really have anything to do with that at all. Instead, repentance is always used in reference to turning away from sin, and turning toward the obedience of God. And this makes sense when we discover what repentance does.
What Repentance Does
While repentance is everywhere presented as a turning away from sin and turning toward God, it is nowhere presented as a condition for receiving eternal life. Instead, repentance is always a condition for temporal deliverance from death, sickness and enemies and is a condition for ongoing fellowship with God. When people repent of their sin, it withholds God’s judgment upon them that he was otherwise going to pour out. When people repent, it restrains the negative effects of sin in their life that they otherwise would have experienced. And when people repent of their sin, it allows them to be restored into intimate fellowship with God that they otherwise would be lacking. The passages we have already considered show this, but let’s look at several others.
Ezekiel 18. The prophets talk a lot about turning from sin. And always, the result of turning from sin is not receiving eternal life, but in staying off God’s judgment. The prophets say, “Repent, or you may get sick. Repent, or God may send enemies to take you captive. Repent, or your fields and crops may be ruined. Repent, or God may even take your physical life prematurely.” This idea is in the book of Ezekiel quite frequently also. Ezekiel 3 talks about telling people of their sin so that we may save their life. This does not mean their eternal life, but their physical, temporal life here on this earth. The exact same idea is in Ezekiel 18. Look especially at Ezekiel 18:19-32. So many people have used this passage to teach that a person can lose their salvation. Look at verse 24, for example.
Ezekiel 18:24. But when a righteous man turns away from his righteousness and commits iniquity, and does according to all the abominations that the wicked man does, shall he live? All the righteousness which he has done shall not be remembered; because of the unfaithfulness of which he is guilty and the sin which he has committed, because of them he shall die.
Is this saying that a righteous person, if he sins, will lose his eternal life? No, not at all. In context of the entire chapter, God is clearly warning us that sin has deadly consequences. People who consistently walk in sin will often experience premature physical death. And your past doesn’t matter in this. Your past good works cannot keep you from experiencing the effects of sin in your life right now. But at the same time, if you have lived in sin in your past, and your turn from those and begin to obey God, you may escape the physical consequences of sin. This is exactly what God says in verse 30.
Ezekiel 18:30-32. Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways,” says the Lord GOD. “Repent, and turn from all your transgressions, so that iniquity will not be your ruin. Cast away from you all the transgressions which you have committed, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit. For why should you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of one who dies,” says the Lord GOD. “Therefore turn and live!”
Repentance rescues us from the negative and physical consequences of sin. One of the greatest consequences is physical death. A New Testament passage which shows this same thing is Luke 13:3-5.
Luke 13:3-5. People often confuse the term perish here with eternal punishment in hell. But Jesus has just been talking about people who continued in their sin, and so experienced premature physical death. The term perish does not refer to spending eternity in hell, but to dying physically as a result of blatant, rebellion sin. This can happen to somebody whether they are a believer or not. King Herod allowed his pride to become so great that God caused him to die from worms in his stomach (Acts 12:23). Herod was definitely not a Christian. But then there is the case of Ananias and Sapphira whom God struck dead for lying to the Holy Spirit. I do believe we will see Ananias and Sapphira in heaven, but they perished because of a lack of repentance.
Similarly, there are those in 1 Corinthians 11 whom Paul says have died because they took the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner. Blatant sin against God is a serious offense. It does not mean that we lose our salvation, but we might lose our physical life. To preserve our life, repentance may be necessary. One of the greatest benefits to repentance is that it may rescue us and deliver us from an untimely death. But another thing it does is restore us back into an intimate fellowship with God. Turn over to Luke 15 to see this.
Luke 15:4-32. This chapter contains the three parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son. While many people mistakenly believe that these three parables refer to unsaved people becoming Christians, the best understanding of these parables reveal that it is genuine Christians under discussion who have strayed away from God and have been become ensnared in the ways of the world. The sheep is a genuine sheep, and it leaves the shepherd. The coin belongs to the woman, but it is lost in the cracks. The son is a true son, but leaves his father to live in the world. In all three cases, Jesus tells us that repentance restores what was lost back into fellowship with the owner. Similarly, when we turn our backs on God and chase after the things of this world, we are like that lost sheep, or that lost coin, or that lost son. And God desperately wants us to come back into fellowship with Him, and does all that He can, but we must make the decision to repent of our sin, and return to God. If we so choose, God holds a party on our behalf.
Mark 1:4; Luke 3:3. There was a special baptism of repentance for Jews only (cf. Acts 19:1-3). Judaism had become very corrupt. And as God’s chosen people, and the recipients of the Word of God, they were held to a higher standard than were the Gentiles. Their sin was leading them to national, physical judgment and destruction. God had always told them from the very beginning as a nation that if they obeyed him, they would be blessed, but if they disobeyed Him, they would be judged.
Israel had been disobeying him for centuries now, although most of them thought that they were obeying him as never before. They had turned God’s law into a legalistic formula. John the Baptist came on the scene explaining how they had missed the entire point of the law. Jesus also spent much of his time in ministry trying to get the Jews to see how hypocritical they were living. Some Jews responded to the preaching of John and Jesus. In fact, when John was baptizing in the Jordan River, a sort of national revival took place. Mark 1:5 tells us that all of the people from the land of Judea and all of those of Jerusalem went out to him, and all of them were baptized in the Jordan River.
You see, they realized that they were sinning as a nation, and were not living according to the law in their hearts the way God intended. And so they repented of their sin and received the Jewish baptism of repentance. This was an outward symbol of their inner choice to turn away from corrupt Judaism and turn back to Godly living. This baptism and this repentance did not give anybody eternal life, but it did temporarily free them from the physical consequences of sin and it prepared them to receiving Jesus by faith when he came. Repentance from their sin did not give them eternal life, but it did help them escape impending judgment and it helped soften the soil of their hearts for the seeds of faith.
Of course, we know from Jewish history that this repentance did not last long, for very soon after Jesus began his ministry, many of the Jews reverted back to their old ways of living, and ended up rejecting Christ as the Messiah, and this led them deeper and deeper into sin, until in A.D. 70 they did experience the negative consequences of sin, and the nation of Israel was destroyed. The destruction of A.D. 70 could have been avoided if the Israelite people had continued in a spirit and attitude of repentance.
Acts 2:38. This passage is very similar to the ones just looked at, but this event takes place after Christ’s death, burial and resurrection, and I am convinced from the context that these Jews are believers. I believe that when acts 2:37 says that the Jews were pierced to the heart, this is an indication that they had believed in Jesus for eternal life. Jews who did not believe that Jesus was the Messiah would not have been pierced to the heart. Instead, they would have tried to kill Peter for speaking blasphemy.
And so at the end of Acts 2:37, when they ask “What shall we do?” they are saying, “Oh no! We’ve killed the Messiah. What can we do? Is all our hope lost now that we’ve killed the Messiah? Won’t God destroy us for killing the Messiah?”
Peter’s response is a response similar to what John and Jesus told the Jews. “Repent and be baptized.” Peter is not telling them how to receive eternal life, he is telling them how to escape the temporal judgment of God upon them for their sin. He is not telling them how to get a relationship with God. They already have that through faith in Christ. But He is telling them how to get back into fellowship with God.
Luke 3:8. True repentance brings about change in a person’s life. While sorrow may lead to repentance, some are only sorry, but are not repentant (2 Cor. 7:10). When a person repents, there will be the fruit of repentance, which is a change in a person’s life.
So we have seen what repentance is. It is turning away from sin and turning back to obedience to God. We have seen what repentance does. It delivers us from the negative consequences of sin. It prepares the unbelieving heart to receive Jesus by faith. It brings us back into fellowship with God. So with that in mind, who should repent? Who is repentance for?
Who Should Repent
Acts 17:30; 2 Peter 3:9. All men. Even unbelievers. While repentance will not give anyone eternal life, it will aid the unbeliever in hearing the believing the Gospel. You see, sometimes, blatant sin gets in the way of an unbeliever hearing and receiving the Gospel, and they need to repent and turn from that sin before they can hear and believe the Gospel. Similarly, 2 Cor. 7:10 shows us that repentance from sin will often lead a person to faith in Christ. The repentant heart is more receptive to the Gospel message than is a hardened and unrepentant heart.
Matthew 3:2; 4:17. Israel. They had a special baptism of repentance which was not for Gentiles. It symbolized a turning away from corrupt Judaism and returning to the form of worship that God originally intended.
2 Timothy 2:25; Acts 2:38. Believers. Sometimes believers are led into patterns of sin and false teachings. The pastor and spiritual leaders of the church are to deal gently with them, hoping that they repent of their sin, and return to the truth, and return to living right with God. Luke talks a lot about repentance in his Gospel, but always in context of believers turning from their sin as they travel the path of discipleship.
Repentance and the Gospel
Though repentance is part of the Gospel, repentance is not required to receive eternal life.
This can be seen in several ways. First of all, repentance is strikingly absent from Paul. When Paul defines the Gospel in Romans, he mentions repentance only once in Rom. 2:4. And then it is not at all in reference to how to receive eternal life. When Paul talks about how to be justified in Romans 4, 5 and 6, repentance is never mentioned. Only faith alone in Christ alone is mentioned. When Paul defends the Gospel in Galatians, he never mentions repentance even one time. The only condition in Galatians for eternal life is to believe in Jesus Christ for it.
Furthermore, in the only evangelistic book of the Bible – the Gospel of John, neither the word, nor the idea of repentance is ever found. And it is not that John was unaware of the idea of repentance, for aside from Luke, he uses the term repentance more than any other New Testament writer in the other books of the Bible he has written. You see, when John wanted to write about how to receive eternal life, he tells us close to 100 times that it is simply by believing in Jesus Christ for it. But when he wants to write about how to maintain fellowship with God, he tells us that confession of sin and walking in the light, and obedience toward God is necessary (1 John). And when he wants to tell us about wayward Christians and churches turning back to God to avoid temporal judgment, he talks about repentance (Revelation).
But this does not meant that repentance is not important. Repentance is vitally important for all people. For the unsaved, it prepares their heart for faith in Christ. It may also deliver them from the temporal judgment of God so that their life is prolonged that they might come to faith in Christ later. For Israel, national repentance has played a large part in her past, and according to Zechariah 12:10-14, will become a major part in her future during the Tribulation. But most importantly of all, repentance is vitally important for the Christian. When God points out to us a pattern of sin that is in our life, repentance gives us victory over that sin, and restores us to fellowship and harmony with God.
You can see why repentance is such a foundational doctrine. It is vital to have an ongoing and intimate day by day fellowship with God. Are you sensing a wall between you and God? Are you lacking an intimate fellowship with Him? It may be that there is a pattern of sin in your life that you need to turn away from. It may be that like the prodigal son, you are in a far and distant land, and need to turn away from the pig slop you are feeding on and return again to your Father’s banqueting table. It may be that you need to stop walking in darkness and return to a daily walk in the light of God’s love.
Repent of your sin. Turn from it and return to God. This is how you can again experience the intimacy and joy and fellowship with God that you long for.
So what is repentance?
Repentance is turning from sin and back to obedience toward God. As such, anyone and everyone can and should repent. Repentance is for all people! Every single man, woman, and child has areas of disobedience in their life which they can repent of, that is, turn away from and turn back toward God. But such repentance does not grant a person eternal life. Sin does not restrict us from receiving eternal life, and good works do not help us gain or keep eternal life.
What then is the point of repentance? Repentance simply helps us experience life to the full. Repentance is good for life. Follow God’s instructions on finances, health, marriage, relationships, parenting, work, ethics, and other related matters help us maximize our experience of life. For believers, repentance also helps us experience intimacy and fellowship with God in a greater way as well.
So repentance is vitally important for living life with God and with each other the way life was meant to be lived, but repentance is not one of the conditions for receiving eternal life from God. Thankfully, eternal life is free gift of God to anyone and everyone who believes in Jesus for it.