by Leland M. Haines

One of the initial steps in realizing redemption brought by Jesus Christ is repentance. The message of John the Baptist, the forerunner of Jesus Christ, was, "Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Matthew 3:2). Jesus as well began His preaching and teaching with "Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Matthew 4:17; cf. Mark 1:15; Luke 13:3). Later He said, "They that are whole need not a physician; but they that are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance" (Luke 5:32; cf. Matthew 9:13; Mark 2:17). The righteous do not need help. Those who are unrighteous sinners need help. The remedy to their condition is very simple; they need to repent.

Early in His ministry, Jesus sent out the twelve disciples and had them preach "that men should repent" (Mark 6:12). Just before sending them out, Jesus told the twelve that "whosoever shall not receive you, nor hear you, when ye depart thence, shake off the dust under your feet for a testimony against them. Verily I say unto you, It shall be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrha in the day of judgment, than for that city" (v. 11). They carried a serious message, with serious consequences if their call to repent was rejected.

Jesus often spoke of repentance throughout His ministry. He ended His earthly ministry with the commission "that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations" (Luke 24:47; cf. Acts 1:8), showing His continued interest in this message being available to all. This call for repentance was more than a message for the Jewish people; it was a call for all nations that still is going out today.

Repentance was a part of the apostles' preaching and teaching throughout their ministries. Many, after hearing Peter's first sermon in the newly born church at Jerusalem, asked, "What shall we do?" Peter replied, "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost" (Acts 2:37, 38). In his second sermon, Peter urged, "Repent ye therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, when the times of refreshing shall come from the presence of the Lord" (3:19). When the apostles were put in prison because of their message about Jesus, an angel soon released them after telling them to speak "in the temple to the people all the words of this life" (5:20). The Jewish leaders soon found the apostles there and brought them again before the council. Then Peter, after describing Jesus' death, said that "Him hath God exalted with his right hand to be a Prince and a Saviour, for to give repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins" (v. 31). Later, when Simon offered money for the apostle's power of laying on hands, Peter told him, "Repent therefore of this thy wickedness" (8:22).

Israel was not the only people called to repentance. "God also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life" (Acts 11:18). Paul told the men at Athens that God "now commandeth all men every where to repent" (17:30). He spoke of testifying about "repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ" (20:21). And when he told King Agrippa about the Gentiles, Paul said that "they should repent and turn to God, and do works meet for repentance" ( 26:20).

What does it mean to repent? What is repentance all about? The Greek term metanoeo, often translated by the verb repent, according to Thayer means "to change one's mind for the better, heartily to amend with abhorrence of one's past sins,"1 and according to Arndt and Gingrich it means to "change one's mind . . . . feel remorse, repent, be converted."2 A second Greek term, metanoia, is a noun and corresponds to the above verb. It is translated repentance. It means "a change of mind." Another verb translated repented and repent (Greek term metamellomai) means "to change one's mind, turning about or conversion."

The meaning of these terms can be understood from their usage. John the Baptist was the one spoken of by the prophet Isaiah: "The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight" (Matthew 3:3; cf. Mark 1:3; Luke 3:4; John 1:23; Isaiah 40:3). Eastern monarchs customarily sent a party ahead to prepare a road for them as they journeyed through desert country. John was to do the same thing for the coming King. John was to make the path straight by leveling spiritual mountains and filling up spiritual valleys, by calling for the people to repent. Repentance would remove sin's barriers to the King coming into men's hearts.

John told the Pharisees and Sadducees what the call for repentance involved: "O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance. . . . every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire" (Matthew 3:7, 10; cf. Luke 3:7, 8). John demanded true repentance that would bring a complete change of mind from the seeker that would result in "fruit." The "fruit" would be the doing of God's will (Matthew 3:1-10; Mark 1:1-6; Luke 3:1-14). John did not need to define repentance for his hearers; they knew from the Hebrew Scriptures that sinners had to repent of their sins (I Kings 8:46-48; II Chronicles 6:37-39; Isaiah 1:27-28; 55:7; Ezekiel 14:6; 18:21-32; Jonah 3:8-10; et al.).

John's call to repent was the call of the One whom he was preparing men for. When Jesus the Christ came, He proclaimed, "Repent ye, and believe the gospel" (Mark 1:15; cf. Acts 20:21). He called for a change of mind and purpose in the hearers' attitudes toward the gospel (good news); they were to change their minds from unbelief to belief in the gospel He brought.

Jesus spoke, "Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Matthew 4:17; cf. Luke 13:3). Repentance was also required because the kingdom of God, that is, His rule in the hearts of men, was to be established. Jesus would be the King, and seekers had to change their minds about God and sin and follow His will since the kingdom was near. No sinner who remains a sinner will enter God's kingdom because His holiness does not allow the presence of sin.

When the scribes and Pharisees murmured against Jesus for eating and drinking with sinners, He said, "They that are whole need not a physician; but they that are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance" (Luke 5:31, 32; cf. Matthew 9:13; Mark 2:17). The righteous stand in sharp contrast to the sinners. The righteous stand cleansed before God, not because of anything they have earned or merited, but because of Jesus' blood and the grace He brought. Because God is holy, the sinners are the "sick" ones who need help. They need to repent or change their minds and hearts so they too can become righteous through Christ.

Jesus described the importance of repentance when He said there is joy "in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance" (Luke 15:7; cf. v. 10). On one occasion, as He explained the Scriptures concerning His suffering, death, and resurrection to His disciples, He stressed its importance by stating "that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations" (24:47).

Earlier Jesus had spoken about those who "hunger and thirst after righteousness" (Matthew 5:6). They will find their hunger and thirst satisfied in Jesus Christ, and they will know this because they have fruits of righteousness in their lives. We know this change can happen because Jesus taught that His disciples will be "persecuted for righteousness' sake" (v. 10). He stated also that "except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven" (v. 20). They are to "seek . . . first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness" (6:33). Sinners do not possess any righteousness produced by their own efforts but will find it present because of Christ's and the Holy Spirit's work in them.

When the scribes and Pharisees asked for a sign, Jesus told them the only sign they would have is that of the prophet Jonah. Jesus then mentioned that "the men of Nineveh shall rise in judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: because they repented at the preaching of Jonas" (Matthew 12:41; cf. Luke 11:32). An illustration of repentance can be found in the story of Jonah and Nineveh. When Jonah told the men of Nineveh of the coming judgment, he told them to "cry mightily unto God: yea, let them turn every one from his evil way." They did this, and "God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way," and they were not destroyed (Jonah 3:8, 10). The men of Nineveh repented, turning from their evil ways.

In warning about "temptations to sin" (Luke 17:1 RSV), Jesus said, "If thy brother trespass [sin] against thee, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive him" (v. 3). By speaking of repentance after sinning, Jesus shows that repentance involves turning from sin.

Jesus used the Greek term metamelomia in the parable of the two sons. When the father told his first son to go work in the vineyard, the son said, "I will not: but afterward he repented and went" (Matthew 21:29). The son changed his mind and went and worked in the vineyard. Jesus then explained that when John came, "ye [Jews] believed him not: but the publicans and the harlots believed him: and ye, when ye had seen it, repented not afterward, that ye might believe him" (v. 32).

The change brought by repentance is shown in Peter's second sermon. After telling what was done to the Prince of Life and how it fulfilled what was prophesied about His suffering, Peter told those who did those things to "Repent ye therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out" (Acts 3:19). By repenting sinners can experience conversion, and this results in their sins being forgiven and forgotten by God (cf. Hebrews 8:12; 10:17).

Paul spoke of testifying to the Jews and Gentiles about "repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ" (Acts 20:21). Repentance brings a change of mind about God and faith in His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. When he appeared before King Agrippa, Paul said that he preached to the Gentiles "that they should repent and turn to God, and do works meet for repentance" (26:20), showing they had a changed attitude and mind. Here we see too that repenting involves both turning to God and a changed life that brings forth works that bear witness to the reality of that change.

Repentance involves changing one's attitude toward God. The author of Hebrews wrote about "repentance from dead works, and of faith toward God" (Hebrews 6:1). The writer did not go into details because he had just discussed the doctrine of Christ and Christian maturity and did not want to continue on foundational doctrines. Rather, he desired to go on to the subject of perfection. His readers already knew how repentance and faith worked together.

A third Greek term (epistrepho), although not translated repent or repentance, has a similar meaning. Jesus used this term in relation to the people's hearts being hardened, their ears being dull of hearing, and their eyes being closed, "lest at any time they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears, and should understand with their heart, and should be converted, and I should heal them" (Matthew 13:15; cf. Mark 4:12). Zacharias prophesied that John would be great and would be filled with the Holy Spirit, "and many of the children of Israel shall he turn to the Lord their God. . . . to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just" (Luke 1:16, 17). Jesus stated that Peter would deny Him and said, "I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren" (22:32).

The apostles used this term several times: "turned to the Lord" (Acts 9:35); "a great number believed, and turned unto the Lord" (11:21); "preach unto you that ye should turn from these vanities unto the living God" (14:15); "the Gentiles are turned to God" (15:19); "they should repent and turn to God, and do works meet for repentance" (26:20); "how ye turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God" (I Thessalonians 1:9).

Each person faces judgment. Everyone will have to face God and give an account for what he has done. This the Lord has promised (Matthew 25:32-46; John 5:25-29; cf. Acts 10:42; 17:31; Romans 14:10; I Corinthians 4:5; II Corinthians 5:10). People do not need to fear judgment if they prepare for it during their life. God's love and mercy has provided a way to avoid condemnation. Peter said, "The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering [patient] to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance" (II Peter 3:9). Sinners will not escape the judgment of God unless they repent. They should not count on God's kindness, forbearance, and patience to escape the consequences of their sins. They should realize that "the goodness of God leadeth [them] to repentance" (Romans 2:4).

Some other Scriptures that show God's gift of repentance are as follows: "a Saviour, for to give repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins" (Acts 5:31); "God also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life" (11:18); and "God peradventure will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth" (II Timothy 2:25).

Seeing the kindness of God and recognizing one's own sinfulness, should lead the sinner to godly grief and repentance.

Now I rejoice, not that ye were made sorry, but that ye sorrowed to repentance: for ye were made sorry after a godly manner. . . . For godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of: but the sorrow of the world worketh death. For behold this selfsame thing, that ye sorrowed after a godly sort, what carefulness it wrought in you, yea, what clearing of yourselves, yea, what indignation, yea, what fear, yea, what vehement desire, yea, what zeal, yea, what revenge! II Corinthians 7:9-11

No one needs to fear judgment, because God is willing to grant repentance, but failure to repent will lead to judgment and condemnation. Jesus spoke out against Chorazin and Bethsaida, the cities where He did many mighty works, "because they repented not: . . . if the mighty works, which were done in you, had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. . . . It shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon at the day of judgment, than for you. And thou, Capernaum, which are exalted unto heaven, shalt be brought down to hell" (Matthew 11:20-23; cf. Luke 10:13). These cities did not turn from their sins and will be judged accordingly. Jesus spoke that theirs was an evil generation and that "the men of Nineveh shall rise in judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: because they repented at the preaching of Jonas" (Matthew 12:41; cf. Luke 11:32). This same point was emphasized a third time when Jesus spoke about the Galileans that perished at Pilate's hand: "Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish" (Luke 13:3; cf. 13:5).

John in the Book of Revelation told five of the seven churches that they must repent to avoid judgment. The angel told the church at Ephesus, "I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love. Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent" (Revelation 2:4, 5). He told the church in Pergamos that because they held the doctrines of Balaam and the Nicolaitanes, "which things I hate. Repent; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth" (vv. 15, 16). He told the church in Thyatira because they let "Jezebel, which calleth herself a prophetess, to teach and to seduce my servants to commit fornication, and to eat things sacrificed unto idols" (v. 20). She was given time to repent, but since she did not, the Lord said, "I will kill her children" (v. 23). He told the church at Sardis, "Remember therefore how thou hast received and heard, and hold fast, and repent" (3:3). He told the church of the Laodiceans, "I know thy works, that thou art neither cold not hot. . . . thou art lukewarm." (vv. 15, 16). They were counseled what to do, and "as many as I love, I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore, and repent" (v. 19). These Scriptures are clear that people and churches who fall away or become lukewarm must repent to avoid judgment.

Thus it is important that everyone repents. Because of this, Jesus desires "that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations" (Luke 24:47), showing that this condition of redemption should continue to go out to all.

Repentance, therefore, is a change of mind concerning man's sinful condition-that he is lost and bound for hell-and concerning who Jesus is and what He has done. The sinner needs to change his mind about Jesus' true identity-He is the divine Son of God, perfectly righteous and holy-and about Jesus' work of redemption. Jesus' suffering and death alone provide a propitiation for the sins of the world. The sinner needs to change his mind about following God's will and be determined to forsake his sins and follow Jesus. Both requirements were given to all men, from Jerusalem to the Gentiles: "They should repent and turn to God, and do works meet for repentance" (Acts 26:20). When a sinner acknowledges these truths and takes up his cross and follows Jesus Christ, he shows he has repented. This does not mean he has arrived at a state of perfection but that he does not continue sinning (I John 3:9). The Christian will continue to learn and grow, and "striving against sin" (Hebrews 12:4), he will run the race to maturity (v. 1), to win the incorruptible prize (I Corinthians 9:25).

1 Joseph Henry Thayer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1977, p. 405.
2 Arndt and Gingrich, op. cit., p. 512.

from Redemption Realized Through Christ, © copyright 1996 by Leland M. Haines, Northville, MI.


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June 22, 2000