Repentance III

Repentance, Part 4 – Meaning and Usage II

Old Testament

story-castle-ruins-and-field-with-sheep-stock-photoIn the Old Testament, there are two words which are most often translated repent. The first of these (nacham) is a word that is most often translated “comfort.” When translated “repent,” the word primarily refers to regret for past actions or decisions. Many of these are references to God, who never needs to repent of/from sin since He cannot sin.

1 Sam. 15:29 And also the Strength of Israel will not lie nor repent (ESV: have regret; NIV: change his mind): for he is not a man, that he should repent. (KJV)

(The study of the use of the word repent in relationship to God is another whole study that would merit some space, but since that is not the object of this lesson, I will defer it to another time.)

Ex. 32:14 And the LORD repented (ESV: relented; NIV: change his mind) of the evil which he thought to do unto his people. (KJV)

Certainly the word repent in this verse does not mean that God acknowledged His sin and was sorry for it. The actual meaning of this verse is a discussion for another context, but it should be clear that since God is perfect in holiness and righteousness, He is not required to repent of sin.

Ex. 13:17 And it came to pass, when Pharaoh had let the people go, that God led them not [through] the way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near; for God said, Lest peradventure the people repent (Almost every version other than the KJV: change their minds) when they see war, and they return to Egypt: (KJV)

Obviously, God was not concerned that the people would recognize their sinfulness and express their sorrow for their behavior. He knew that upon the first encounter with an enemy, the people would change their minds about freedom and desire to return to Egypt.

The second word used for repent in the Old Testament, shoob, means to turn or to turn back. It also may refer to a change of heart. The word is used three times in the following text from 1 Kings, but translated three different ways. This is part of a prayer Solomon prayed for the dedication of the newly completed Temple.

1 Kings 8:46 When they (the people of Israel) sin against you – for there is no-one who does not sin – and you become angry with them and give them over to the enemy, who takes them captive to his own land, far away or near; 47 and if they have a change of heart in the land where they are held captive, and repent and plead with you in the land of their conquerors and say, “We have sinned, we have done wrong, we have acted wickedly”; 48 and if they turn back to you with all their heart and soul in the land of their enemies who took them captive, and pray to you towards the land you gave their fathers, towards the city you have chosen and the temple I have built for your Name; 49 then from heaven, your dwelling-place, hear their prayer and their plea, and uphold their cause.” (NIV)

Another example of the multiple use of the word shoob is found in Ezekiel 18:21-32. For sake of brevity, I will reference only one verse that makes the point.

Ezekiel 18:30 Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways, saith the Lord GOD. Repent, and turn [yourselves] from all your transgressions; so iniquity shall not be your ruin. (KJV; Note that the word “yourselves” is in brackets, meaning that it is not found in the oldest manuscripts, but was added by translators.)

Though the sampling is admittedly small and the study brief, we can safely come to the understanding that the meaning of repentance is not that we repent of something, but that we turn from something. We are not instructed in Scripture to repent of our sin in the sense of calling attention to it and confessing it. Instead, we are called to turn from our sin as a result of a changed heart.

New Testament

In the New Testament, the words translated as some form of the word repent are all related to the word metanoia.

The word is a compound word. The first part (meta) addresses location or direction. It “denotes a change of place or condition.”  The second part refers to the mind. It means “to exercise the mind, think, comprehend.” Together, the word metanoia indicates a change in the direction or focal point of the mind.[1]

To carry this a little further, the prefix meta implies “motion (in pursuit of or following) after a person or thing.” When used in a compound word, the prefix implies fellowship, partnership, participation, proximity, motion or direction after, transition, and change.[2]

This is an obviously abbreviated study of the word repent from the New Testament. If you would like to do an in-depth study, you might start with an online article, “New Testament Repentance: Lexical Considerations.”

Based on this brief study, one immediately realizes that there is so much more implied in the word repent than simply expressing sorrow for sin or even turning from it in abhorrence, even though these are critical elements of the process. Repentance is coming to a realization of the error of one’s plans and purposes and experiencing a turn in an opposite direction from the path regularly followed.

However, for there to be a turning from something, there very naturally has to be a turning to something else. In the context of the plan of redemption, that “something else” that we turn to is in actuality Someone else – the person of Jesus Christ.

This is where we have gone wrong in our understanding of repentance.

We have understood somewhat the idea of sorrow for our sins. As we reflect upon our sinful behavior, we may even experience abhorrence and revulsion of the sin. The problem is that, with time, our revulsion weakens and we never truly turn away from those sins.

Even when we attempt to turn away, we are typically unsuccessful because we never complete the process. We may turn away from our sin for a season, but we never turn toward Christ.

Herein lies the fault with much of the teaching of repentance in our churches. We have convinced people of their sinfulness and of their need to repent. The problem is that we have taught repentance as being sorry for our sins as if we had control over the fact that we have a sinful nature.

We have failed to teach that repentance is not only a turning from but a turning to. If there is no turning to, then our turning from is fruitless and impotent. However, if our focus in teaching repentance were on the turning to, there would be power and effectiveness and change in the lives of the people.

Repentance, when it is complete, means that we turn to Christ in fellowship, relationship, worship, and obedience. He becomes the focus of our lives.

In Matt. 4:17, the sermon simply said, “Repent.”

But Mark added, “…repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:15)

Several times the New Testament mentions these two aspects of salvation together. That is because the process of repentance is not ended by turning from sin, but by believing in Christ as Savior.

That is the subject for the next lesson.


[1] Zhodiates, Spiros. Complete Word Study Bible. (1992) p. 969.

[2] Zhodiates, 966.

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