Part 1 – Essential in Salvation
The concept of repentance is so common in our language and so integral a part of our concept of salvation that the meaning of the word has become blurred and even skewed from its original meaning. Before discussing the meaning of repentance, let’s confirm its importance in the process of salvation.
The Foundation of Gospel Doctrine
Heb. 6:1 Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God.
From this verse we realize that repentance, along with faith (believing), is a fundamental concept in the doctrine of Christ. This verse tells us that the foundation of the doctrine of Christ begins with repentance from dead works and faith toward God.
The Focus of Jesus’ Preaching
According to Matthew’s gospel, the very first sermon Jesus preached when He began His public ministry in Capernaum following the death of John the Baptist concerned the issue of repentance.
Matt. 4:17 From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
This is the same sermon that was preached by John the Baptist (Matt. 3.2), and the same message that the disciples would preach when they began their first mission trips (Mk. 6.12).
Just before His ascension, Jesus said to His disciples…
Luke 24:46 Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.
Jesus not only commissioned the church to go make disciples of every people group, but He also told us the message we were to preach.
The First Priority of Effective Evangelism
Peter preached repentance
Following the coming of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, Peter preached the first sermon of record. One of the primary points of his sermon concerned the critical nature of repentance.
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.”
After Peter preached in the home of the Roman centurion, Cornelius, and witnessed the coming of the Holy Spirit on those who were not Jewish in national origin, he shared the good news with the leaders in Jerusalem.
Acts 11:18 When they (the Jewish leadership) heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, “Then to (all the people groups of the world)[i] God has also granted repentance that leads to life.”
Paul preached repentance
When the Apostle Paul stood face to face with the wisest men of the known world on Mars Hill in Athens, Greece, he preached to them of Jesus and the resurrection, and as he neared the end of his sermon, he said…
Acts 17:30 The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.
On at least two occasions, Paul stated that his message never changed as he preached to both Jews and to those who were not Jewish…
Acts 20:21 testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.
To the church at Corinth Paul would write…
2 Cor. 7:10 …godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death.
Having established repentance as a critical and necessary element of the process of redemption, the next question we need to answer is “What does the Bible mean by repentance?”
Part 2 – Errors in Understanding
Before looking at the meaning of repentance, let’s look at what repentance does not mean.
Repentance is not CONFESSION
Most Christians, including preachers and teachers, confuse repentance – turning from sin and toward Christ – with confession – the agreement with God that our thoughts, motives, actions or inactions have violated the law of God.
For a person who is saved, confession of one’s sins will always bring forgiveness (1 John 1.9), but confession of sin alone will not bring salvation to a lost person. In fact, there is no Scripture requiring the confession of sin in relationship to being saved.
The only effective confession for a lost person who would be saved is not a confession of sin but the confession that Christ is Lord (Rom. 10.9).
This may be a bit confusing at first, but I pray that when we get into the true meaning of repentance, this idea will become more understandable.
Repentance is not REMORSE
Perhaps it might be better to say that remorse is not repentance. Remorse is typically an element of repentance and a lack of sorrow for one’s sins would bring suspicion on a person’s sincerity in repentance.
Nevertheless, to define repentance simply in terms of sorrow for one’s actions or failures does not adequately define the word repent as it relates to salvation. Here is an example.
Matt. 27:3 Then Judas, which had betrayed him, when he saw that he (Jesus) was condemned, repented himself, and brought again the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders. (KJV)
Judas was sorry for having betrayed Jesus, but he did not repent, for had he done so, he would certainly have been forgiven. Modern translations help with the understanding of this verse. The NKJV says Judas was “remorseful.” The ESV says he “changed his mind.”
The Amplified Version expands on the meanings of the words even more:
When Judas, His betrayer, saw that (Jesus) was condemned, (Judas was afflicted in mind and troubled for his former folly; and) with remorse (with little more than a selfish dread of the consequences) he brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders.
According to Strong’s Concordance, the word used in this verse for repent means “to take care afterward.” This is what happened to Judas.
After Judas recognized the consequences of his actions, he was sorry for what he had done. Things did not turn out as he had hoped or planned. He even acted on his sorrow in an effort to reverse the effects of his former actions.
But this was not repentance that leads to salvation because Jesus said in…
John 17:12 While I was with them, I kept them in your name, which you have given me. I have guarded them, and not one of them has been lost except the son of destruction, that the Scripture might be fulfilled.
Commenting on Matthew 27:3, Alfred Barnes wrote, “True repentance leads to the Savior; this led away from the Savior to the gallows.”
The repentance of Judas was in reality only remorse – sorrow that led him away from Jesus and to commit suicide. He is the real-life example of what Paul would later write in his letter to the church at Corinth.
2 Cor. 7.10 Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.
Repentance is not RESOLUTION
A resolution is an effort or determination to do better in the future.
All of us can relate to having failed on multiple occasions when we resolved to overcome some personal failure or shortcoming in our own power. Just think of how many New Year’s resolutions have ended in failure.
Someone said, “A New Year’s Resolution is a to-do list for the first week of January.” That is about how effective our efforts are at eliminating sinful behavior by resolution.
Thomas Watson wrote in 1668, “Self-love raises a sickbed repentance. But if he recovers – the love of sin will prevail against it. Trust not to such a passionate resolution; it is raised in a storm – and will die in a calm!”
Repentance is not PENANCE
The word penance refers to an activity performed to try to atone for one’s own sins
A study of the English word “repent,” reveals that it is a compound word made up of “re” (again) and “pent” (from the word penance) – thus it means to do penance again.
The English word does very little in helping us to understand the biblical meaning of the word.
I am sure most of us have had a similar experience following an awareness of sin in our lives. We first feel great remorse and regret – wishing there was some way we could take it back (and probably hoping that our sin is never discovered).
Since we can’t, the next thing we do is think of some way we can make it up to God – maybe by doing a series of good things that will balance out the bad.
One writer referred to such acts of contrition as “currency by which we pay God back for his gift of the forgiveness of our sins.” [ii]
This same writer included the following definition in his blog concerning repentance:
The Roman Catholic sacrament of penance is the process by which the Church absolves a penitent sinner of his sin by requiring him to (1) confess that sin to a priest, (2) demonstrate adequate sorrow over that sin (usually by a prayer) and (3) endure any temporal punishments (such as repeating prayers or performing works of service) levied by the priest in order to make satisfaction for that sin before God.
This is a typical pattern that we have learned through generation after generation of misunderstanding the meaning of repentance.
- We confess our sin to God
- We tell Him how very sorry we are for having failed Him
- We promise never to do it again or that we will be very good in other ways from now on
We repeat that process over and over. Thus we do repentance – or rather re-penance – which is not repentance at all, but confession.
Notice that in each of these cases, the focus is on our sin with very little focus on Christ except as the One who can give absolution. The end result of repentance is not forgiveness, but worship.
However, since for most of us the focus of repentance is our sin, we continue to return to our sin and fail time after time, in spite of our confession, our remorse, our strong resolution, and our repetitive penance.
However, the original meaning of the word repent had nothing to do with sin directly. In fact, if you do a word search of the Bible, you will never find the word repent directly connected to the word sin. And you will find no verse that says that we must repent of our sins to be saved.
While much of this may be surprising and even confusing to many people, I pray that as we continue to study through this series on repentance, you will hopefully come to realize the true meaning of the word.
[i] Here and in multiple places throughout the New Testament, translations use the word Gentile – a word not used by Paul or any other New Testament writer. The word Gentile is an English word assigned by translators to the Greek word ethnos, which means nation or people group. The word is correctly translated as “nations” in Matt. 28:19, although a better translation would be “people groups.” The word Gentile is a pejorative term that is not unlike the “N” word in American language.
[ii] Mike Riccardi, “Repentance versus Penance,” July 13, 2010.