Today we will examine what Jesus meant when He used the word ‘repent’. From the very beginning of his ministry (Matthew 4:17), the word ‘repent’ was common in his teachings and throughout his earthly ministry. He boldly proclaimed before multitudes, “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3).
Preaching on repentance has never been fashionable. Dr. H. A. Ironside, back in 1937, recognized the dangers of easy-believism. He declared, “Shallow preaching that does not grapple with the terrible fact of man’s sinfulness and guilt, calling on ‘all men everywhere to repent,’ results in shallow conversions; and so we have myriads of glib-tongued professors today who give no evidence of regeneration whatsoever…loudly declaring they are justified by faith alone, they fail to remember that faith without works is dead.’”
The Abandonment of Repentance
True repentance is not popular. Many people redefine repentance in order to remove its moral ramifications. The Ryrie Study Bible lists repentance as “a false addition to faith” when made a condition for salvation, except “when repentance is understood as a synonym for faith.” Thomas Constable of Dallas Seminary writes, “Repentance means to change one’s mind, it does not mean to change one’s life.” This kind of repentance has nothing to do with true repentance—a turning from sin and abandoning of self. This is not the kind of repentance Jesus preached when he called his followers to forsake their sin and have faith in him. The message he commands us to proclaim is “repentance for forgiveness of sins” (Luke 24:47).
The Definition of Repentance
The Greek word for repentance is metanoia. Literally, it means “a change of mind”. When metanoia is used in the New Testament, it always speaks of a change of purpose, specifically, a turning from sin (Vine’s Expository Dictionary). Jesus used that word to call for a repudiation of the old life and a turning to God for salvation. This is also the change in purpose that Paul had in mind when he described the repentance of the Thessalonians: “You turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God” (1 Thessalonians 1:9). Repentance is not simply believing, but it is a change of mind resulting in a change of behavior. It is not just being ashamed or sorry over sin, although genuine repentance always involves an element of remorse.
Repentance is also not a human work. Like every other element of redemption, it is a sovereignly bestowed gift of God. The church recognized this in Acts 11:18 when Cornelius was converted; “Well then, God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to eternal life.” In 2 Timothy 2:25, Paul wrote to Timothy about those that oppose the truth— “If perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth.”
Biblical repentance affects us intellectually as we recognize and admits our sin against God. It also affects us emotionally, bringing a sense of sorrow. “The sorrow that is according to the will of God produces repentance” (2 Corinthians 7:10). Finally, repentance affects us volitionally, in our will, as it involves a change of direction and a transformation of the will to abandon stubborn disobedience and live for God.
Repentance is not a one-time act but begins at conversion and continues throughout one’s Christian life as we consistently confess sin (1 John 1:9).
The Fruit of Repentance
When Jesus preached “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” in Matthew 4:17, the Jews understood exactly what he meant because the Old Testament was filled with truth about repentance. True repentance brings forgiveness and healing (2 Chronicles 7:14). True repentance brings God’s compassion and abundant pardon (Isaiah 55:6-7). True repentance bears fruit so that false repentance, which is fruitless, is obvious (Matthew 3:7-8). True repentance changes lives and inspires good works (Acts 26:19-20).
Repentance was at the heart of Peter’s gospel invitation at Pentecost, the first public evangelism of the church era. “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of the Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2:38). No evangelism that omits the message of repentance can properly be called the gospel. Sinners cannot come to Jesus Christ apart from a radical change of heart, mind and will.