What is the meaning of the word repentance in the Bible?
The question we are concerned with is “What does it mean to repent?” What is repentance? Some teach that repentance is simply a change of mind and nothing more. However, this is an incomplete definition of repentance. Repentance is actually much more than just a change of mind. The following explains the meaning of the Greek word that is translated as repentance, and then will provide examples from the Bible to show that the meaning is correct.
Meaning of the Greek Word Translated as Repentance
The word “repentance” appears for the first time in the New Testament in Matthew 3:8 when John the Baptist says,
Therefore bear fruit in keeping with repentance . . . Matthew 3:8 (NASB)
The Greek word that is translated as repentance in this verse is metanoia. The most common meaning given to this word is a “change of mind” or “to turn around.” Literally, the word means “a change of mind about something.” More literally it refers “to change one’s perception” (please see reference 3 for a more detailed explanation).
The Theological Lexicon of the New Testament by Celas Spicq explains that the noun metanoia and the verb form metanoeo,
. . . has to do first of all with a change of mind or feelings resulting from this after-knowledge. . .
That is, repentance is a change of mind or a change of feelings as a result of knowledge.[5, 6, 7]
Illustration of Repentance in the Bible
Since our feelings are controlled by our mind, our feelings should respond to new knowledge. For example, the preacher is teaching some passage of Scripture and after God the Holy Spirit helps you understand the biblical truth, you may feel convicted. That conviction is accompanied with strong feelings and often we make a commitment to act differently. In this illustration repentance is not the new knowledge or the responsive feelings, but the change in behavior due to the new knowledge. One could say that we “feel repentance” because the mind affects the emotions that accompany a realization that we need to change our behavior.
An excellent biblical illustration is found in 2 Corinthians 7:8-10.
For though I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it; though I did regret it — for I see that that letter caused you sorrow, though only for a while — I now rejoice, not that you were made sorrowful, but that you were made sorrowful to the point of repentance; for you were made sorrowful according to the will of God, so that you might not suffer loss in anything through us.
For the sorrow that is according to the will of God produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation, but the sorrow of the world produces death. 2 Corinthians 7:8-10 (NASB)
Verse 8 reveals that the apostle Paul had written a letter to the Corinthians and the letter caused them to be sorrowful or to grieve. Then Paul uses the Greek word metanoia in its correct sense. In verse 10, Paul says godly sorrow results in a repentance that produces a result. It results in salvation. Here it is clear that repentance is a reaction to knowledge, resulting in emotion and action.
Both Matthew 3:8 and Acts 26:20 teach that there are two types of repentance. First, there is a false repentance that does not result in anything and, second, there is a real repentance that is obvious to everyone.
Therefore bear fruit in keeping with repentance . . . Matthew 3:8 (NASB)
. . . but kept declaring both to those of Damascus first, and also at Jerusalem and then throughout all the region of Judea, and even to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds appropriate to repentance. Acts 26:20 (NASB)
Acts 26:20 also teaches us that the purpose of the preaching of the gospel is to cause people turn to God. Therefore, what have we discovered about repentance? Repentance responds to new knowledge and that response is a change in behavior. 1 Corinthians 7:8-10 teaches that an emotion occurs in true repentance. We call that emotion sorrow, grief, or contrition.
True biblical repentance responds to knowledge. Emotions of sorrow and grief will occur, but the result is a serious change in behavior. King David is an example of a repentance. We are told in 2 Samuel 12:1-15 that the prophet Nathan confronted King David about his murder of Uriah the Hittite with the sword and taking his wife to be his wife (2 Samuel 12:9). How did King David respond? In Psalm 32:3-5, David confessed his sin through his writing:
When I kept silent about my sin, my body wasted away
Through my groaning all day long.
For day and night Your hand was heavy upon me;
My vitality was drained away as with the fever heat of summer. Selah.
I acknowledged my sin to You,
And my iniquity I did not hide;
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD”;
And You forgave the guilt of my sin. Selah. Psalm 32:3-5 (NASB)
Notice David’s emotion due to the knowledge of his sin. In Psalm 51:2-4 we see David repent.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity
And cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions,
And my sin is ever before me.
Against You, You only, I have sinned
And done what is evil in Your sight,
So that You are justified when You speak
And blameless when You judge. Psalm 51:2-4 (NASB)
True repentance responds to knowledge, is accompanied by a deep emotional response, and results in new behavior. When sin is involved, repentance occurs when a person due to knowledge of their sin responds with sorrow and turns away from their sin.
1. Ceslas Spicq. Theological Lexicon of the New Testament. Hendrickson Publishers, 1994. vol. 2, p. 472.
2. Verein D Verbrugge. New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology. Zondervan. 2000. p. 367.
3. The Greek word metanoia is not a compound word of meta and noia. Meta means “with or among” but noia is not a Greek word. The Greek word for mind is nous. The two compound words comprising metanoia are meta, “after or with,” and noeo, “to perceive with the mind.” Thus metanoia literally means “after perception with the mind.”
4. Ceslas Spicq. Theological Lexicon of the New Testament (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1994), p. 472.
5. Joseph Henry Thayer. The New Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. Christians Copyrights. 1983. p. 406.
6. Louw and Nida. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains. United Bible Societies. 1989. p. 510. Note that Louw and Nida state,
. . . to change one’s way of life as the result of a complete change of thought and attitude with regard to sin and righteousness—”to repent, to change one’s way, repentance.” . . .
Though in English a focal component of repent is the sorrow or contrition that a person experiences because of sin, the emphasis in metanoeo and metanoia seems to be more specifically the total change, both in thought and behavior, with respect to how one should both think and act. Whether the focus is upon attitude or behavior varies somewhat in different contexts. Compare, for example, Lk 3:8, He 6:1, and Ac 26:20.
7. Ceslas Spicq. Theological Lexicon of the New Testament. Hendrickson Publishers, 1994. p. 477.
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