What Is Repentance?

Does it merely mean “changed mind,” or does it go deeper?

Its basic meaning is a radical and profound change of course and direction away from sin and self-rule and towards God. You were going in one direction, but now you are going in the opposite direction. The whole person, body (behavior), soul and spirit, must go through this change that only God initiates and can work in you.

Old Testament

The Old Testament was written in Hebrew, and here are three verbs indicating repenting or turning.

1.. One verb is naḥam (pronounced nah-khahm, the ḥ is pronounced like -ch- in Bach) (used 108 times). It has two distinct meanings: “to comfort, console” and “to relent, repent, change one’s mind, be grieved.” These latter definitions can sometimes apply to God’s seeming change of mind. However, this change is never a surprise or unanticipated. Rather, it means that he has conditions attached to his promises or decrees, whether stated or implied. For example, he promises something positive, and people obey, and the promise of blessing to them is fulfilled. That is his attribute of goodness. However, if they do not obey, then his attribute of justice-judgment comes forth, and he sends a prophet to warn them. Therefore, God is not fickle, as humans are. He simply gauges how people behave, and then he acts accordingly.

But let’s return to the topic of repentance.

2.. Another verb is ‘anah (used 79 times), and in some contexts denotes humbling in a positive sense (repentance or contrition). Some context of ‘anah pleases God (Lev. 16:31; 23:27; Ps. 35:51).

3.. The verb shub (pronounced shoob) (used 1075 times) and basically means “to turn, return, repent, go or come back.” It mostly has a physical meaning, like turning back to a point of departure. But theologically it means the act of repentance, for example, turning from idolatry to the living God. “Return to me” (Is. 44:22).

New Testament

1.. The verb metanoia (pronounced meh-tah-noi-ah) (used 34 times), and it is derived from meta– (after) and nous (mind); when the prefix meta is attached to the verb as here, it means a “change of place or condition.” In this case it denotes a radical and profound moral turn of the whole person from sin to God. Repentance goes together with the forgiveness of sins (Luke 3:3; 24:7). Sins are blotted out in repentance (Acts 3:19; 5:31; 11:18; 21:21).

The Hebrew Old Testament was translated into Greek in the third to second century B.C., which is called the Septuagint (abbreviated LXX, for seventy translators and pronounced sep-TOO-ah-gent). When the verb metanoeō (see below) appears, it usually means “change one’s mind” (Prov. 20:25; Jer. 4:28). Further, the Greek verb in the LXX that often means “to turn back or return” to God is epistrephō (pronounced eh-pee-streh-foh). Behind this concept is the covenant, and Israel departing from it or returning to it (Jer. 18:8). The stem streph– means a “turning.”

2.. In the NT, the verb metanoeō (pronounced meh-tah-no-eh-oh) is the one that the writers chose instead of epistrephō, but when they appear together, metanoeō means to turn from sin, while epitstrephō means to turn to God (Acts 3:19; 26:20).

When metanoeō is used, it means a radical turn from sin to a new way of life. “Repent of your wickedness!” says Peter to Simon the sorcerer (Acts 8:22). True repentance brings forth fruit or visible evidence showing repentance (Matt. 3:8 Acts 26:20).

Then one has to believe as one changes course. He has to believe in the gospel (Mark 1:15) or the atoning death resurrection (Acts 2:38). In fact, it his faith in Christ that enables him to repent or change course.

This turning is also called “conversion,” from the Latin noun conversio, literally meaning “turning around,” which is related to the verb converto, “to turn around, to whirl around,” especially “to turn in the opposite direction” or “to turn back” or “to direct towards.”

William Mounce summarizes metanoia and metanoeō: it is “essentially to grasp the gospel message, because it does not allow for someone to obtain salvation simply by intellectually believing that Jesus is the Son of God without repenting of sins and turning to live for him” (p. 581).

So intellectual assent or agreement or changing one’s mind is insufficient. It must be a profound moral and radical change of one’s whole life.

Applied Bible Basics

I.. The Call to Repentance

A.. God calls everyone to repent.

Jer. 18:11 promises disaster in the Old Covenant unless Judah and Jerusalem turn to God.

Ezek. 18:30-32 says that people should turn away from their offenses and get rid of their wickedness and get a new heart. So turning and changing in the heart is part of the message of repentance.

Paul told the Athenians that God commands everyone to repent, because God has set a day to judge the world (Acts 17:30-31).

God is not willing that anyone would perish, but that everyone would come to repentance (2 Pet. 3:9).

B.. Christ calls everyone to repent.

In Mark 1:14-15 Jesus proclaimed that the kingdom of God has come, and now everyone must repent.

In Luke 13:1-5 Pilate had mixed the blood of some men with sacrifices, and in Galilee a tower fell on eighteen men. Are they worse sinner than all the other people? “No! But unless you repent, you will all perish!” That means when everyone dies, they will perish if they did not repent—they are all headed for destruction without repentance, not just those unfortunate people.

C.. John the Baptist called everyone to repent.

Matt. 3:2 teaches us that John was in the wilderness, preaching “Repent, for the kingdom of God has come near!” The kingdom of God demands repentance, or else judgment will fall on the unrepentant.

D.. The apostles called everyone to repent.

In Mark 6:12-13, Jesus gave his twelve apostles authority to proclaim the gospels, heal the sick, and eject demons. They called everyone to repent and did those signs and wonders.

In Acts 2:38, on the day of Pentecost, when the Spirit had come with great power, Peter stood up in the middle of the people and told them to repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of sins. And then they too will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit—everyone.

In Acts 3:19-20, when God worked a miracle through Peter, in the body of the beggar at the gate called Beautiful, he told the gawkers that they should repent and turn to God, so that their sins would be wiped out and times of refreshing would come from God. Incidentally, “wiping out” is another way of saying “atonement.”

In Acts 26:20, Paul is standing trial and giving his testimony to King Agrippa II (and others). Paul said that he preached the gospel to everyone in Jerusalem and Judea and then to the Gentiles. They must repent and turn to God and then demonstrate repentance by their deeds.

E.. The call must go out to everyone.

In Luke 24:45-49, the resurrected Jesus, just before his ascension, said that repentance for the forgiveness of sins must go out to all the nations.

II.. The Elements of Repentance

A.. People must admit they are lost.

In Luke 15:3-10 Jesus tells two quick parables about a shepherd who lost one sheep and went out to look for it, and woman who lost a coin and turned the house upside down until she found it.  Then the angels rejoice in heaven because a sinner who repented—the one lost sheep and the one lost coin.

In Luke 5:31-32, Pharisees and teachers of the law criticized Jesus for eating with despised tax collectors, but Jesus replied that he came to call sinners to repentance, not the righteous. Elsewhere Jesus said that unless our righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees (Matt. 5:20), we won’t enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, Jesus was being ironical when he implied that the Pharisees and teachers of the law were righteous.

B.. People must feel conviction.

As noted, in Acts 2:37-38, when Peter preached to the crowd on the day of Pentecost, the listeners were “cut to the heart.”

In Acts 8:21-23, Peter told Simon the sorcerer that his heart is not right with God, and he was full of bitterness and captive to sin.

C.. People must feel godly sorrow.

2 Cor 7:9-10 teaches that godly sorrow—as opposed to human sorrow—leads to repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret. If you feel regret after you genuinely repented, then this is wrong. You have an overactive conscience. Repentance does not leave behind any leftover regret or guilt (see below in the application section for how to deal with this lingering guilt after heartfelt and godly repentance).

D.. People return to the Father.

In the famous parable about the prodigal son (Luke 15:17-24), the son ran off with his share of his father’s wealth and squandered it. Then he came to himself and returned to his father, who ran out to his son, fell on him with a big hug, and escorted him home. He put a robe on his son and celebrated his return. The point is that the son went in the wrong direction and did an about-face towards God.

E.. People must believe in the good news.

Mark 1:15 is straightforward:  Jesus said, “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news.” The good news says that (1) salvation in Christ has come; (2) faith in Christ as distinct from law keeping is brings salvation; (3) diseases are subjected to him and demons are defeated; (4) the Spirit comes on us with great power. People must repent and believe in Jesus, then all the benefits follow.

F.. People must believe in Jesus Christ.

In Acts 20:20, Paul told the Ephesian elders that that everyone—Jews and Gentiles—must turn to God in repentance and have faith in Jesus Christ. That’s the essential gospel: Repent for the forgiveness of sins and believe in Jesus.

G.. People who have repented must do good works as evidence.

In Matt. 3:8 John the Baptist rebuked the “extra-righteous” Pharisees and Sadducees, calling them a brood of vipers who were liable for the wrath to come. Then he told them to “produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” “Fruit” in this context means “good works” or “evidence” that they have repented.

In Acts 26:20, as noted, Paul is very clear that people must repent and turn to God and demonstrate their repentance by their deeds. This corresponds to Paul’s practice of writing in his epistles the ethical or behavioral side of faith in Christ (the last three chapters of Ephesians is good example).

In Rev. 2:5 Jesus himself tells the “messenger” of the church in Ephesus that the church must repent and do the things they had done at first. Apparently, they were good deeds.

III. The Results of Repentance

A.. People will escape from the wrath to come.

In Matt. 3:8, as noted, John the Baptists indirectly says that people who repent will escape from the wrath to come. This refers to God’s justice-wrath-judgment. Let’s not overlook the fact that one of his attributes is justice, and embedded in it is his wrath, which in the New Covenant is judicial. It is virtually synonymous with his judgment.

B.. People will experience forgiveness.

This is great news, for in 1 Kings 8:46-50, Solomon is praying during the dedication of the temple, and he says that if the people offend the Lord, but they confess their sins and repent and turn from them and turn back to God, even in the land of exile, then God will hear their prayers and restore them and forgive all their former offenses.

As noted, in Acts 2:38, Peter connects repentance with forgiveness of sins. When we repent, God forgives. Simple and profound.

C.. People will experience salvation.

As noted, in 2 Cor. 7:10, godly sorrow leads to repentance, which leads salvation. In the larger context, the man who sinned was forgiven and restored.

D.. People will get a new heart.

In Ezek. 18:30-31, as noted, when people repent and turn away from all their offenses, their sin will not be their downfall. Then they will get a new heart.

E.. People will come to know the truth.

In 2 Tim. 2:23-26, in the context of foolish arguments that produce quarrels, Timothy’s opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God—not Timothy’s necessary and intelligent instruction—will grant them repentance that leads to truth. Then perhaps they can escape from the trap of the devil.

F.. People will experience eternal life.

In Acts 11:18, in the context of Peter proclaiming to the Messianic Jews of Jerusalem that the Gentile centurion Cornelius and his household were saved and filled with the Spirit and spoke in their prayer languages, Peter drove home the point that God granted them repentance that leads to life. In this context the Greek word is zoē (pronounced zoh-ay), which is almost always eternal life, in the NT.


There is an odd teaching going around the church that there is no reference in all of Scripture that says “repent from sins” or “repented of sins” or “repenting of sins.” In reply, however, here are some verses that say it either exactly or nearly exactly. The concept is certainly biblical.

The version is the NIV (emphasis is of course added).

Job 36:10: He makes them listen to correction and commands them to repent of their evil.

Is. 59:20: “The Redeemer will come to Zion, to those in Jacob who repent of their sins,” declares the Lord.

Jer. 8:6: I have listened attentively, but they do not say what is right. None of them repent of their wickedness, saying, “What have I done?” Each pursues their own course like a horse charging into battle.

Jer. 18:8 and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned.

Ezek. 14:6 Therefore say to the people of Israel, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Repent! Turn from your idols and renounce all your detestable practices!

Luke 3:3: He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance FOR the forgiveness of SINS.

Luke 5:32: I have not come to call the righteous, but SINNERS to repentance.”

Luke 15:7: I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one SINNER who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent. (See Luke 15:10)

Luke 24:47: and repentance FOR the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.

Acts 2:38: Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ FOR the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Acts 8:22: Repent of this wickedness and pray to the Lord in the hope that he may forgive you for having such a thought in your heart.

2 Cor. 12:21: I am afraid that when I come again my God will humble me before you, and I will be grieved over many who have sinned earlier and have not repented of the impurity, sexual sin and debauchery in which they have indulged.

Heb. 6:1: Therefore let us move beyond the elementary teachings about Christ and be taken forward to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God,

To conclude, not every verse has “repent from sins” (and so on), but most have just about the exact wording. We need biblical teaching about repentance to repent around the church nowadays.

So how does this post about repentance help me grow in Christ?

Repentance is one of the greatest doctrines in all of Scripture. God offers us a way back to him. What is the old saying? “You can walk a million steps away from God, but it is only one step back.” The point to that saying is that you should just turn around and backtrack from your path of sin and self-rule and allow God to change you. Then you will instantly experience his forgiveness. How great is that? Your guilty conscience is clean.

But if you feel guilt after you genuinely repent, either you have an overactive conscience or the devil is attacking your mind. Either way, the solution is the same. Proclaim this biblical truth: “I am the righteousness of God in Christ” (1 Cor. 1:30; 2 Cor. 5:21). After you repent and receive his forgiveness, you can accurately be said to receive his righteousness. God declares over you that Christ has become your righteousness. Repeat: read those two verses aloud, and proclaim that Christ is your righteousness. Repeat this as often as needed.

Then those lingering regrets and guilt will disappear. And now you can begin again, with him as your Lord and God.


How to Get Past Your Past: Forget the Devil’s Playground

What Does ‘Salvation’ Mean?

What Is the Source of Salvation?

What Is the Work of Salvation?

How Do We Respond to God’s Salvation?

Regeneration: What Is It and How Does It Work?


Works Cited


Works Cited

At that link, look for Mounce and the NIV Study Bible

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