What is the Biblical Definition of Repentance?

What is the Biblical Definition of Repentance?

A correct understanding of the doctrine of repentance is very important because it is one of the basics of the Christian faith. The author to the Hebrews said:

“So, let us stop going over the basic teachings about Christ again and again. Let us go on instead and become mature in our understanding. Surely, we don’t need to start again with the fundamental importance of repenting from evil deeds and placing our faith in God” (Hebrews 6:1 NLT).

This is why believers need to take time to study this subject.

Biblical Definition of Repentance

We hear so many definitions of the word repentance. But what does the Bible say? What is repentance according to the Bible?

In the New Testament, there are two different Greek verbs translated “repent,” each with a different meaning.

The first is the word metamelomai which means “a regret of past actions.” It has the idea of being sorry or a feeling of remorse for something that was done, but it does not necessarily result in a change of heart and action.

The second verb metanoia means “to change one’s mind as a result of after knowledge,” resulting in a complete change of attitude. It is important to note that when the Bible encourages believers to repent, what is being encouraged is this latter use of the Greek word “repent.”

What is the Biblical Meaning of Repentance

So, whenever we speak of “repentance,” i.e., the act of repenting, we are not speaking of being sorry for what we have done, or merely having a change of mind about our sins. Biblical repentance results in a complete shift of attitude toward God and our sins.

When John the Baptist preached repentance, he was basically telling the people that they needed to change their ways since the kingdom of God was at hand (Matthew 3:1-2). Luke also records Jesus telling the people they had to repent (Luke 13:3).

In Acts 20:21, repentance is defined as turning from sin and turning to God.

The Nature of True Repentance

Repentance is more than sorrow. Feeling sad or sorrowful does not necessarily mean that a person is repentant. Godly sorrow is what leads to repentance.

In his second letter to the church in Corinth (2 Corinthians 7:8-11 NIV), Paul wrote:

“Even if I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it. Though I did regret it, I see that my letter hurt you, but only for a little while, yet now I am happy, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance. For you became sorrowful as God intended and so were not harmed in any way by us.

Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done. At every point, you have proved yourselves to be innocent in this matter.”

Repentance results from godly sorrow, which in turn leads to salvation and an actual change in direction.

True Repentance Brings about Regret.

Sinners who genuinely repent cause them to regret how they have acted in the past. In his letter to the church in Rome, Paul said this:

“What benefit did you reap at that time from the things you are now ashamed of? Those things result in death” (Romans 6:21)!

True Repentance Leads to Action.

To illustrate true repentance, Jesus used the story of one of the two sons who was asked by their father to work in their vineyard. At first, the lad refused but afterward, he changed his mind and went.

“But what do you think? A man had two sons, and he came to the first and said, ‘Son, go, work today in my vineyard.’ He answered and said, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he regretted it and went” (Matthew 21:28-29).

Jesus taught that true repentance is not merely feeling sorry for something that has been done; it has to be followed by actions.

True Repentance Causes Sinners to See Who They Really Are.

When we are genuinely repentant, we will have a new view of who we are. Let us take a look at some examples in the Bible.

Job

While Job was going through his suffering, he protested his innocence and righteousness. However, this changed when he came face-to-face with God:

“My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore, I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42: 5-6).

Isaiah

Isaiah, though he was a prophet of God, realized his true nature because he was confronted with the holiness of God. Isaiah saw himself for who he truly was in the presence of God.

“Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty” (Isaiah 6:5 NIV).

Peter

After Jesus performed the miracle of the Great Catch, Peter saw himself in a different light. He recognized his sinfulness in the presence of Jesus. We read about this in the Gospel of Luke:

When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Luke 5:8).

The Thief on the Cross

The criminal who was next to Jesus on the cross is another example of true repentance. At first, he joined with the other criminal in taunting Jesus. However, he changed his attitude toward Jesus as well as to the other criminal who was crucified when he realized that the one being crucified next to him was the Messiah.

One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong” (Luke 23:39-41).

The thief had a change of heart and asked Jesus if He too could be part of God’s kingdom. In response, Jesus promised him that he would enter paradise with Him (Luke 23:42-43).

Judging by human standards, we may regard ourselves as decent and moral people. But when we compare ourselves to the living God, we will have an entirely different view of who we are.

As the Holy Spirit convicts us of our sins and reveals to us how it looks before a holy God, we begin to realize how terrible sin is. This understanding of sin causes in us a change in behavior – repentance.

True Repentance Does Not Always Manifest Itself in Emotion.

We often equate repentance to some emotion of sorrow or remorse but just because the repentant person shows little or no emotion does not mean he is not sincere. True repentance is not showing emotion for our past deeds, it is changing the way we act in the present.

In other words, the key is the change in behavior, not the emotion that is shown. A person who truly repents has determined that his or her life must change.

True repentance is not showing emotion for our past deeds; it is changing the way we act in the present.

True Repentance vs. False Repentance

What is the Biblical Definition of RepentanceThe difference between true repentance and false repentance (mere sorrow for sin) can be seen in the example of Peter and Judas.

Matthew records that when Peter realized he betrayed Jesus; he was sorry for his sins. But it did not stop there. He went outside and wept bitterly. There was genuine sorrow for his actions.

After a little while, those standing there went up to Peter and said, “Surely you are one of them; your accent gives you away.” Then he began to call down curses, and he swore to them, “I don’t know the man!” Immediately a rooster crowed.

Then Peter remembered the word Jesus had spoken: “Before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.” And he went outside and wept bitterly (Matthew 26:73-75).

Judas, on the other hand, decided to take his own life instead of coming to God in repentance. Matthew explained it in this manner:

“So, Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself” (Matthew 27:5).

Judas only had remorse for what he had done, he did not repent. There is a huge difference between the two.

Results of True and False Repentance

Using the same example as above, we read that after he repented, Peter was restored to fellowship. He received the forgiveness of the Lord and learned that repentance can restore us into a right relationship with the Lord.

Also, Peter was given the honor to preach the very first sermon for the church on the day of Pentecost. And in that sermon, Peter urged the people to do the same thing that he had done – repent.

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 2:38).

When Jesus rose from the dead on that Easter Sunday morning, Peter was found with the other disciples. He did not leave the company of believers, nor did he kill himself. He repented of what he had done and had returned to be with the other believers.

On the other hand, Judas only felt remorse. Instead of repenting and looking to godly people for support, he hanged himself. And according to the Scripture, Judas went to his appointed place of judgment, as explained in the Book of Acts:

“With the payment, he received for his wickedness, Judas bought a field; there he fell headlong, his body burst open and all his intestines spilled out. Everyone in Jerusalem heard about this, so they called that field in their language Akeldama, that is, Field of Blood” (Acts 1:18-19)

These two men provide examples of what we as Christians should do and should not do when we sin. Peter showed us that we should not merely feel sorry for what we have done, but we should repent. We must own up to our sin, and have a determination to change our behavior. The Lord will then restore us to fellowship.

This is what genuine repentance is all about.

Closing Words

Biblical repentance does not merely involve feeling sorry or remorse for sin but also a change of mind and heart that leads to a change in action towards sin. To repent is to recognize that we have sinned and our sins are offensive to God.

We are to turn away from sin, turn to God, ask for forgiveness, and walk with God in obedience to His commands.

God is calling everyone to repentance. The focus of Christ’s mission was to call all sinners to repentance (Luke 5:32) and this call for absolute surrender goes out to all people (Luke 13:5).

Have you accepted the call?


Reference: Winning the Spiritual War by Don Stewart

Recommended Resource: Repentance: The First Word of the Gospel by Richard Owen Roberts

It is a serious problem when society misunderstands or disregards sin and repentance. But when the church neglects these doctrines, the impact is profound. This book unfolds the nature and necessity of biblical repentance, but for the church in particular.

Roberts’ in-depth study heavily references both the Old and New Testaments and includes chapters on the myths, maxims, marks, models, and motives of repentance, as well as the graces and fruits that accompany it. There is also a wise warning about the dangers of delayed repentance.

4 Replies to “What is the Biblical Definition of Repentance?”

  1. Hi Alice,

    My name is Maia, and I just came across this website. I don’t have any sight. However, I can visualize things, especially when it comes to things related to my faith.

    As a Christian, I strive to be the light in the face of darkness and create a positive difference in the face of evil through words of love, encouragement, and wisdom. I also enjoy singing, and I join a professional children’s choir.

    Thank you for your words of wisdom. I think this message is important for all Christians to follow. One thing I would like to suggest is that we need to get out of the habit of telling others (especially children) ‘don’t do it again!’. The truth is, we can’t change by ourselves.

    Repentance is a process. It’s not a goal of perfection. I myself can be a perfectionist when it comes to the notion of ‘committing a sin’ against others or God. For example, when children talk back to their parents or disobey those of authority, they have sinned against their parents AND God, hence the Fifth Commandment.

    When we break a commandment or instruction, we sin. But, the problem is when parents say ‘don’t do it again!’ or ‘I don’t want to see you do this behavior again. The reason I don’t really approve of this statement is that we rely on our own ways to change rather than the source of repentance: Jesus Christ.

    I am not saying that we should excuse sin, but we should be careful when we guide others when they do commit a sin. Christ is the one who died for our sins. The Holy Spirit is like a GPS. When you get lost in the middle of a road, the GPS does not say “Don’t go this direction again!” It gives new directions to get you back on track. Similarly, the Holy Spirit calls us to a path of righteousness and obedience to the truth. We should guide others by grace, with love, with the truth, and with hope.

    Repentance is a 180° turn from the dark path. When we talk about repentance, let’s focus on the process, and not the product. What are you doing NOW to get the result of repentance? You first must change your mind about your sin. You must go from loving it to detesting it, just as God detests it. God is holy, and we should set a high expectation to walk in holiness.

    The mind and the heart are the building blocks of our thoughts, words, and deeds. As Jesus said, the heart is what produces thoughts of righteousness, and evil desires and lusts.

    To sum it up, repentance is a lust for what is right according to God’s standards.

    I encourage all of you to get vaccinated for Covid-19 if you haven’t already. I understand that there are concerns regarding the effectiveness of vaccines, but I just want to uncover this worldwide deception that this is the ‘mark of the beast’ spoken of in Revelations 13. Satan is working to deceive the masses, and we must work to bring light in the shadows of confusion and misinformation.

    Thank you, and may God protect you and your families during this season of testing! 🙂

    1. Hello Maia,

      Thank you so much for leaving such an insightful comment; I truly appreciate it.

      You’re absolutely right! We can’t really change on our own; we need the grace of God to enable us. At the same time, when we get convicted by the Holy Spirit, we need to humble ourselves, acknowledge our faults, and confess.

      Shalom!

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