Repentance is a turning from sin, and is best seen as co-terminus with faith, which is a turning to God in trust.
Repentance is a turning from sin, and—along with faith—is a constitutive part of Christian conversion. Repentance is a key component of our initial turning from sin to Christ, but is also a necessary part of the ongoing Christian life. Although sorrow for sin is biblically associated with repentance, and it is understandable that repentance is at times accompanied by a deep and heartfelt emotion, repentance is not necessarily tied to a certain type or kind of emotion. Repentance is best seen as including both intellectual and affective components.
Repentance is a key theme in the Bible, and we generally associate it with the reality of conversion (conversion is often spoken of as constituted by both repentance and faith). The verb “repent” or “repented” occurs thirteen times in the Old Testament. The word “repentance” appears twenty times in the New Testament. The verb “repent” appears twenty-seven times in the New Testament.
In the Old Testament there are two words (both verbs) we should note, shuv and naham. Shuv can be translated “to turn,” “to turn back,” “to turn around.” It does at times denote the kind of complete heart change we will come to see in the New Testament. For example, in 1 Kings 8:46-53 shuv is used to denote turning one’s heart and confessing perverseness and wickedness (see also 2Chron. 6:37; Psa. 7:12; Isa. 1:27; Jer. 5:3; Ezek. 14:6; 18:30). Naham has a number of meanings: “to sigh, to be sorry, to pity, to console, or (reflexively) to rue; to avenge, to comfort, to repent.” It is the verb used when God “relents” or “repents” of his decision to make man on the earth (Gen. 6:6), and also the verb used when God is said not to repent (Num. 23:19) or to have regret (1Sam. 15:29).
In the New Testament The noun “repentance” comes from the Greek word “metanoia,” and the verb “to repent” comes from the Greek verb “metanoeō,” both of which connote a change of mind. It is best to see in repentance a complete and utter turning of the person away from sin. Faith, on the other hand, would a corresponding turning to Christ, acknowledging his Lordship. Traditionally, Christians have rightly spoken of repentance and faith together as constituting conversion. It is interesting to note that this idea of a complete and utter turning of a person from one way of thinking and willing and way of life to another appears to be lacking in pre-Christian and non-Christian Greek culture.
Repentance, Faith, Conversion
It is important to grasp that one cannot have repentance or faith without the other. We might say that they are two sides of same coin. In conversion one turns from sin (repentance) and to Christ (faith). They are co-terminus. The one is not found without the other. Charles Hodge could write, “The discussion of the question, Whether faith precedes repentance, or repentance faith, can have no place if the meaning of the words be agreed upon” (Systematic Theology, volume iii, 41 ). We might note that John Calvin saw repentance as a consequence of faith. For Calvin repentance and forgiveness of sins are conferred upon the believer by Christ, and both repentance and forgiveness “are attained by us through faith” (Institutes III.III.1).
Turning from What?
Biblically, in repentance what is one actually turning from? We see in Scripture that repentance is turning away from sin. This sin can be spoken of in general terms, such as “transgressions” (Ezek. 18:30), “wickedness” (Acts 8:22), or of one’s “works” or “deeds” (Rev. 2:21-22). At times repentance is from idolatry or demon worship (Ezek. 14:6; Rev. 9:20), or from sexual immorality (Rev. 2:21; 9:20). Interestingly, in the book of Revelation the contrast between repentance and non-repentance is alarmingly stark. Those who fail to repent actually curse the name of God. These persons should have repented and given God glory (Rev. 16:9). This passage brings to mind the stark antithesis initiated in the garden of Eden in Genesis 3:15, where God decreed that there would be enmity between the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman.
Although it is proper to speak of repentance as being a turning from something (i.e., from sin, self, and Satan), and faith as a turning to something (i.e., to Christ himself), we should note texts like Acts 20:21, where Paul can say that he has testified “both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.” Note here that repentance is something done toward God, and Paul immediately speaks of faith as in our Lord Jesus Christ. This kind of passage pushes us to see (1) the close and inextricable link between repentance and faith, but also to see (2) that repentance itself is something which can be done toward God—almost assuredly because in repentance one is also turning from sin. In Acts 26:18 a different Greek word is used, epistrephō, “to turn.” In recounting his conversion and calling, Paul can say that at the heart of his apostolic mission is to be used of God in order “to open their [the Gentiles] eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God.” So here the “turning” is from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God. Two verses later (Acts 26:20) Paul links the two verbs “repent” (metanoeō) and “turn” (epistrephō), stating to King Agrippa that in his ministry he worked such that the Gentiles might “repent and turn go God….”
Repentance, Sorrow, and Emotions
Should repentance require or always be associated with remorse, grief, or a certain emotional state? It is a good question. Since repentance (turning from sin) is rightly linked to faith (turning to Christ), it is certainly understandable if repentance often entails or is associated with emotion, a certain kind of existential state, etc. Indeed, in conversion (repentance and faith) one is turning from sin and turning to the living God! So, it is understandable if in many persons’ experience of repentance there is often the real and proper experience of great emotion. We might think of the classic conversion stories of Augustine, Martin Luther, and John Wesley. Each of these giants of the faith seems to have experienced a significant existential crisis, rife with emotion and even drama (and the book of Romans was key to each of these three). At the same time, we should not require or expect such emotion as a constitutive component of genuine repentance. Repentance can, and arguably must, include some kind of remorse for one’s sin. But one should be careful in this regard, lest one suppose that a certain level or kind of remorse, or a certain level or kind of emotional experience must be reached before one can be said to have experienced genuine repentance. Nonetheless, repentance in the New Testament is associated with “godly grief” (2Cor. 7:9-10).
Repentance Once and Done?
Is repentance solely or mainly a momentary reality? That is, is there one moment where one repents, and all is done? Is repentance, we might ask, a “one and done” kind of reality? There is more diversity and difference in the history of the Christian church on this than might be suspected (see David Wells’ Turning to God, chapter 4). The Bible certainly does often portray conversion (including repentance and faith) as a kind of radical and momentary and somewhat sudden reality, as in the conversion of the Ethiopian Eunuch (Acts 8:26-40). Just as we believe in order to be saved but then continue believing throughout the Christian life, so also our initial repentance marks the beginning of a life of repentance as we seek to live unto God.
So it is right to emphasize the once-for-all nature of repentance and faith (hence, the once-for-all nature of conversion). Yet we see throughout Scripture that we are yet commanded to “be transformed by the renewal of your mind…” (Rom. 12:2). Again, our initial repentance marks the beginning of a life of transformation that will culminate only in final glorification.
What Leads to Repentance?
What actually leads to repentance? Again, it is important to see the inextricable link between faith and repentance. But when the Bible is speaking first and foremost of repentance, we see that (1) God’s kindness leads to repentance (Rom. 2:4). We also see that (2) godly grief leads to repentance. We of course would want to ask what leads to godly grief? The answer would surely be the message of the gospel—including the reality of judgment against sin, the call for repentance itself, and the promise of forgiveness for those who believe.
Baptism and Repentance
There are a number of passages which link repentance and baptism. At the most basic level baptism and repentance are both linked to forgiveness of and cleansing from sins, and thus are understandably linked to each other.
- Acts 2:38: “And Peter said to them, ‘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.’”
- Matthew 3:11: “I baptize you with water for ”
- Mark 1:4: “John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”
- Luke 3:3: “And he went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”
Acts 2:38 highlights a close relationship between repentance and baptism: baptism follows upon and in some sense expresses repentance. Baptism “for” the forgiveness of sins may mean “on the basis of” the forgiveness of sins. The other three passages (Matthew 3:11; Mark 1:4; Luke 3:3) may be treated generally together. Matthew 3:11 speaks of a baptism for repentance, while Mark 1:4 and Luke 3:3 speak of a baptism of repentance. The baptism of Matthew 3:11 may be “for” repentance in the sense of “on the basis of” repentance. The baptism of repentance in Mark 1:4 and Luke 3:3 may be something like “baptism which signifies or portrays repentance.”
Repentance and Bearing Fruit
In a number of places in the New Testament it is clear that repentance should lead to the bearing of fruit. In Matthew 3:8 John the Baptist commanded, “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (cf. Luke 3:8). Paul testifies in Acts 26:20 that the hearers of his apostolic message should “repent and turn to God, performing deeds in keeping with their repentance.” And in Revelation 2:5, a part of the message to the church at Ephesus is, “repent, and do the works you did at first.” All of these passages teach the same essential truth: true repentance is organically and necessarily connected to transformation of behavior and life.
Repentance, Divine Sovereignty, and Human Responsibility
Finally, we note that biblical teaching on repentance reminds us of a classic issue in Christian theology: the nature and reality of both divine sovereignty and human responsibility. In Acts 5:31 we read that it is the risen Lord Jesus himself who gives repentance: “God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.” Similarly, in Acts 11:18 we read, “When they heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.” Repentance is something God “gives” or “grants.” At the same time repentance is something man does. Indeed, the imperative “repent” is command given multiple times in the Bible, and many additional times it is the hearers of God’ word who are expected to repent. And this repentance is a necessary component of conversion (see Matt. 3:2; 4:17; 11:20; Mark 1:15; 6:12; Luke 13:3; 13:5; 16:30; 17:4; Acts 2:38; 3:19; 8:22; 17:30; 26:20; Heb. 12:17; Rev. 2:5; 2:16; 2:21; 3:3; 3:19; 9:20; 16:9; 16:11).
Systematic Theologies: Older Works
It is always helpful to have at least one or two helpful systematic theologies on hand to peruse and study. Starting with some older works, readers might look at:
- Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Volume Four, Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation, translated by John Vriend and edited by John Bolt (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 132-40.
- John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, edited by John T. McNeill and translated by Ford Lewis Battles, Volumes XX and XXI, Library of Christian Classics (Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster Press, 1960), III.III.1-III.III.25.
- Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Volume Three, Soteriology (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995). Unfortunately, Hodge gives little attention to repentance per se, focusing mainly on faith.
Systematic Theologies: More Recent Works:
- Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, Third Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013).
- Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 713-17.
- Robert Letham, Systematic Theology (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2019), 670-77.
- David F. Wells, Turning to God: Reclaiming Christian Conversion as Unique, Necessary, and Supernatural (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 2012). Especially pages 39-41.
- John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1955), 106-116.
- R. Kearsley, “Repentance,” in New Dictionary of Theology, edited by Sinclair B. Ferguson, David F. Wright, and J.I. Packer (Downers Grove, IL/Leicester, England: InterVarsity Press, 1988). Although older, I still recommend this volume and its companion volumes: New Bible Dictionary and New Bible Commentary. I have turned to them for many years.
- J. Goetzmann, “Conversion, Penitence, Repentance, Proselyte,” in New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, ed. Colin Brown (Carlisle, UK: The Paternoster Press, 1986), 353-62.
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