What is repentance?

The advent of the internet has meant that ‘Christian’ teachers can quickly influence millions of God’s saints, many of whom seem to accept unquestioningly whatever is offered. Satan is a master in packaging error with truth, and it is imperative that everything is tested by what God has said in the Bible. One popular preacher teaches that repentance has nothing to do with berating oneself about sin but merely concerns exchanging negative thoughts for positive thoughts. To camouflage this falsehood, much emphasis is laid on what is true, namely that the Greek word for repentance (metanoia) simply means a change of mind or to have another mind. But is that all that can be said about repentance? Of course not, because account must be taken of how Scripture uses the word—much depends on the nature of the change of mind and what it relates to.

   Another teacher takes up Matt. 21: 28-30 to illustrate what metanoia means: “But what think ye? A man had two children, and coming to the first he said, Child, go to-day, work in [my] vineyard. And he answering said, I will not; but afterwards repenting himself he went. And coming to the second he said likewise; and he answering said, I [go], sir, and went not”. What this teacher completely ignores is the fact that the word used in v29 for repenting is metamelomai not metanoia! Both words refer to a change (meta), but metanoia refers to the mind, while metamelomai relates to care or concern and really has the sense of regret. Those in receipt of this ‘teaching’ are, of course, mainly oblivious to the error. Why? Because what is taught is usually just accepted, without any thought of taking the time to search the Scriptures. Of course, while accepting that metanoia is not in the passage, some might continue to argue that Matt. 21: 29 does illustrate the meaning of the word, because the first child did change his mind. This ignores the point made earlier, namely that the usage of a word needs to be taken into account as well as its root meaning. Even if it were conceded that Matt. 21: 29 did illustrate the root meaning of the word metanoia that does not mean that it pictures what the Bible means by the doctrine of repentance! Indeed, when we examine the Bible, we find that metanoia is not just a change of mindit has other features that cannot just be ignored.

   Before we look at these other characteristics, however, the change of mind represented by metanoia needs to be defined. The assertion that it refers to the exchange of negative thoughts for positive thoughts is a contradiction of what the Scriptures teach. When the Lord said that if Tyre and Sidon had seen His works of power they would have “repented in sackcloth and ashes” (Matt. 11: 21) it is very evident that this is far removed from anything that could be described as positive thinking. The men of Nineveh “repented at the preaching of Jonas” (Matt. 12: 41), such that even the king “laid his robe from him, and covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes” (Jonah 3: 6). Here were those who took on a profoundly negative view of their way of life as it had been up to that point. In another context, Paul speaks of those who had “not repented as to the uncleanness and fornication and licentiousness which they have practised” (2 Cor. 12: 21). This is hardly exchanging negative thoughts for positive but rather the need for a sober judgment of a previous pattern of behaviour. Elsewhere he speaks of “things of which ye are now ashamed” (Rom. 6: 21).

   Now the change of mind in the Ninevites did not exist in isolation because “God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way” (Jonah 3: 10, my emphasis). This completely disproves the notion that repentance is simply a question of a mental assent to the truth. Hence John the Baptist demanded “fruits worthy of repentance” (Luke 3: 8), and those fruits included the repudiation of previous unrighteous or uncaring conduct (see vs. 10-14). Again, Paul not only preached that men “should repent and turn to God” but that they should prove their reality by “doing works worthy of repentance” (Acts 26: 20). The change of mind is inseparable from the change of behaviour, and if the works worthy of repentance are absent then there has been no repentance. Works and fruit, however, are not to be confused with outbursts of emotion. In 2 Cor. 7: 10, Paul writes that “grief according to God works repentance to salvation, never to be regretted” but what interests the apostle is the change in behaviour seen in v11 not the tears that may or may not accompany grief. Tears are not essential to repentance, but a turning away from sin most definitely is.

   In conclusion, repentance is both a change of mind and a change of behaviour. That change of mind involves taking on a negative view of the past, while the change of behaviour involves new works that match the change of mind. Repentance may be accompanied by emotion, but emotion is not a critical sign of its reality—what is critical, are definite “fruits worthy of repentance” (Luke 3: 8). Without them, the repentance is a sham.