"I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance." ~ Luke 5:32
The Definition of Repentance
Before going further, it’s important that we clearly understand what repentance really means. In the Old Testament, two Hebrew words help us understand repentance. The first is the word nacham, which means to turn around or to change your mind. The second is the word sub. It is used over 600 times in the Old Testament and is translated by such words as “turn,” “return,” “seek,” or “restore.” You often see it in phrases like “to turn to the Lord with all your heart.”
When you come to the New Testament, you need to know the Greek word metanoia, which literally means “to change the mind.” Repentance fundamentally means to change your mind about something. It has to do with the way you think about something. You’ve been thinking one way, but now you think the opposite way. That’s repentance — the changing of the mind.
Let’s suppose a man wants to learn how to parachute. So he goes to a parachute school, and they show him how to rig up his gear, pull the rip cord, and land safely. Finally, the day comes when they take him up in an airplane. He’s scared to death, but he’s afraid to back out. The moment comes when he is to jump. He goes to the airplane's door and sees the ground 7,000 feet below. His legs grow weak, he’s about to throw up, and somebody behind him tries to push him out of the airplane. At the last second, he says, “No. I’m not going to do it.” “Go ahead, you can do it,” his instructor shouts. “I’ve changed my mind,” he replies. “I’m not going to jump.” And he doesn’t. That man has repented. He’s decisively changed his mind. That story illustrates how repentance works.
Repentance is a change in how I think that leads to a change in how I live. When you really change your mind about something, it will change how you think about it, talk about it, feel about it, and act about it. I’m suggesting that true repentance is more than just a mental game. Repentance is a decisive change in direction. It’s a change of mind that leads to a change of thinking that leads to a change of attitude that leads to a change of feeling that leads to a change of values that leads to a change in how you live.
What Does It Mean to Repent?
I meet so many people today who are scared of that word. In fact, they’re so scared of it that they avoid using it altogether! Yet, very few understand what that little word means.
You may be surprised to learn the word repent in the Greek New Testament simply means to turn around. It was a military term describing a soldier marching in one direction and doing an about-face, 180-degree turn. And when it’s used spiritually, it means to change your heart, mind, and habits.
So, repenting perfectly describes what happens when you come to Christ. You no longer reject Christ, but now you believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of the living God. You do a spiritual about-face, which in turn changes everything.
And not only do you change your mind about Christ, but you change your mind about sin and discover what it means to honor God. You realize that it’s no longer about performance. It’s about a heart attitude that confesses Christ and seeks to honor Him in every aspect of life!
So should you be afraid of the word repent? No! Instead, embrace the idea of doing a spiritual about-face, turning to Christ and away from sin in your life!
Repentance Before Salvation
"Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out" ~ Acts 3:19
When Peter preached the truth about Jesus Christ in Acts chapter two, he left thousands of listeners wondering what they should do next.
The apostle’s response in verse 38 is simple. He says, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.” As a result, 3,000 people were added to their numbers that day.
Is this the message of most churches today? Does it seem strange that Peter said “repent” instead of “believe”? Actually, Scripture often uses these concepts together. Repentance and faith are two sides of the same coin. Both are essential for salvation, and each is dependent upon the other.
But, regarding salvation, you can’t separate faith and repentance. To be saved, you must place faith in Christ for the forgiveness of sins. That decision requires a change of mind, or repentance, about your way of life. Both happen at the same time.
Yet, many people mistakenly believe they must repent before making a faith decision for Jesus. Repentance doesn’t mean we must completely change our ways and “clean ourselves up” so we can then receive Christ as Lord. There should be no delay or separation between repentance and faith.
If you’re holding off on a decision for Christ until you think you’re “ready” or “worthy,” then you’re waiting in vain. Jesus is ready to receive you right now. Only as a child of God will you find the power - His power - to become the person He created you to be true.
What Does Jesus Have to Do with Repentance?
"The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance." ~ 2 Peter 3:9
The conventional wisdom about what happens when you die is that you will stand before God, and if you did enough good works that outweighed your sinful acts, then you get into heaven because heaven is for good people. And good people go to heaven.
Then the other belief is that if you have done enough bad things that outweigh your good works, you will go to hell because hell is for bad people. Heaven is for good people who get in by good works, while hell is for bad people who do bad things.
But that is not what the Bible teaches. The Bible teaches that hell is prepared for the devil and his angels (see Matthew 25:41); it isn’t prepared for bad people at all.
Heaven is the dwelling place of God, and the way you get into heaven is based on what you did with Jesus. God will know if you believe in Jesus Christ.
Even if you have lived a wicked life and sinned throughout it, you would go to heaven if you were to call out to the Lord Jesus Christ in genuine repentance on your deathbed. But if you lived a good life, have been a relatively moral person, and have done good deeds, but have never put your faith in Jesus Christ, then you would not go to heaven. And by the way, your good work never would outweigh your evil acts. So be thankful that is not what you will be judged for.
The assurance that we will go to heaven is not as our culture often sees it, but this is as the Bible teaches it. It is the Son question—not the sin question.
Bible Verses on Repentance
Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out ~ Acts 3:19
The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. ~ 2 Peter 3:9
From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” ~ Matthew 4:17
No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. ~ Luke 13:3
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. ~ 1 John 1:9
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. ~ Acts 2:38
The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent ~ Acts 17:30
"What Does it Mean to ‘Repent’?” from PowerPoint Ministries (used by permission).
Repent! The Forgotten Doctrine of Salvation by Ray Pritchard
“The Son Question” by Greg Laurie, from Harvest Ministries (used by permission).
Repentance before Salvation? by Charles Stanley
Photo Credit: © Getty Images/Gordon Images