(December 2000 – Volume 6, Issue 12)
As I began a long walk, I realized that a small rock was in my shoe. I could either continue to walk without removing the rock, live with the irritation and possibly rub a blister on my foot, or I could remove the rock. Repentance has become that kind of irritation for much of modern Christianity. Some, such as Zane Hodges, believe that repentance has no connection with salvation whatsoever, “Though genuine repentance may precede salvation… it need not do so. And because it is not essential to the saving transaction as such, it has in no sense a condition for the transaction” (Absolutely Free, p. 146). Others, such as Charles Ryrie, see repentance as necessary but redefine it to mean, “Changing one’s mind about his former conception of God and disbelief in God and Christ” (So Great Salvation p. 98). In other words, when we change our mind about who Christ is, we have repented. Still others see repentance as a potato too hot to handle and better left in the oven. Robert N. Wilkin, writing in the Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society states, “In order to proclaim the gospel clearly, we must be exceedingly careful what we say, if anything, about repentance. The simplest course would be to say nothing about repentance” (Vol. 4, #1, Spring, 1991). Of course, as we will see, the writers of Scriptures were not shy about using and demanding repentance.
Before we explore the meaning and use of repentance in the New Testament we should first examine the favorite passage of those who deny that repentance has a place in the saving transaction. In Acts 16 we have the account of the Philippian jailer who, due to a powerful display of God, asks Paul and Silas, Sirs, what must I do to be saved? Their reply, Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you shall be saved… (vv. 30,31). Since Paul said “believe” and did not mention repentance or turning from sin to God, the conclusion is that repentance is an unnecessary act, indeed it is the addition of works for salvation. Had repentance been necessary Paul would have said so. Case closed!
But not so fast. Agreed, salvation is through faith alone in Christ alone, but there are a number of issues we need to investigate here. This simple answer by Paul, Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you shall be saved, should raise a number of questions: What does he mean by believe? Who is the Lord Jesus? What does he mean by saved? The jailer wanted to be saved, but saved from what?
Salvation means rescue, deliverance. We can assume, with little doubt, that the jailer wanted to be saved from his sin and it‘s consequences. Implicitly, if not explicitly, this is repentance. But more germane to this discussion is what additional information concerning the gospel had been supplied. It is true that Paul did not mention repentance, but it is also true that he did not mention grace, the cross, the resurrection, the substitutionary death of Christ, and many more aspects of the gospel message. Does that mean these subjects are unrelated and unnecessary? Practically speaking I could walk up to any unbeliever and say, “Believe on the Lord Jesus” and they could claim faith in Christ. But without more information they wouldn’t even know who Christ really is or what He has done. They “believe” but they are not saved. Surely in our evangelistic efforts we would not ask someone to believe in Christ without first explaining the full gospel – and neither did Paul. In the very next verse we are told, And they spoke the word of the Lord to him… (v. 32). We don’t know the content of this instruction but we can be confident that before the jailer truly placed faith in Christ he knew the gospel from beginning to end. The point is that it is very difficult, and just plain wrong-minded, to build a doctrine on a passage such as this one in which we do not know exactly what was said.
On the other hand, while we don’t know what details were given the jailer, we do know the contents of some apostolic sermons. At Pentecost Peter’s first sermon concluded with this invitation, Repent, and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38). Peter didn’t misspeak, at his next opportunity he demanded, Repent therefore and return, that your sins may be wiped away… (Acts 3:19). Nor is this just a doctrine from the lips of Peter. Paul proclaims at the Areopagus, God is now declaring to men that all everywhere should repent (Acts 17:30). Later when Paul was defending his apostolic commission to King Agrippa he explains that the Lord had sent him to open their (Gentiles) eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the dominion of Satan to God, in order that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who have been sanctified by faith in Me (Christ) (Acts 26:18). The gospel that Paul preached called for men to turn (epistrepho, see Part I) by faith, from darkness to light and from the dominion of Satan to God. Now, before we start arguing about what this means all we have to do is drop down to verses 19 and 20 and see what Paul thought it meant. I did not prove disobedient to the heavenly vision, 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 (metanoeo) and turn (epistrepho) to God, performing deeds appropriate to repentance. Without question Paul saw his ministry as one of calling men and women to repent and turn to God which resulted in a transformed life.
But What Does Repentance Mean?
Surely none can disagree with the clear words of Scripture. So what’s the problem? The debate lies largely in the area of definition. The most important Greek word for repentance (metanoeo) means to change one’s mind about something. Ryrie, and those following his line of reasoning, teach that repentance is a changing of one’s mind about who Jesus Christ is. Repentance, in Ryrie’s understanding, has nothing to do with sin. To change our minds about Christ is part of saving faith, but to change our minds about sin and its mastery over our lives is works, according to Ryrie. Is this true? Does repentance have no reference to sin? Well, the only way to find out is to study Scripture itself.
By examining the use of the verb “repent” (metanoeo) and the noun “repentance” (metanoia) in their context we should be able to determine how the word was used in New Testament thought. Not every reference we will examine will be in the context of salvation or the gospel, for it is not our intention at this point to couple repentance with saving faith (we will do that later in our paper). At this point we simply want to see how the New Testament writers used the word metanoeo/metanoia. When the original readers of the New Testament encountered the word repent what did they believe it meant?
Metanoeo and Metanoia in the Gospels
In our previous paper on this subject we pointed out the Old Testament concept of repentance (and conversion). It is beyond doubt that when the Old Testament prophets called for repentance they were calling for the people to turn from their sins. The idea of changing their mind about Christ would be completely foreign to the Old Testament writers. This should be kept in mind however as we move into the Gospels. When John the Baptist and Jesus came preaching repentance what would their audience have understood them to mean? Surely the first thing to cross their minds would be to repent of sin and turn to God. Unless John, Jesus or the writers of the Gospels specifically redefined repentance in other terms we would expect repentance to carry the same connotation that it had carried for centuries. But we don’t see any such change.
In the New Testament the meaning for metanoeo/metanoia is not defined by context in numerous passages. In other words, the words themselves are used but their specific meaning is debatable (Matt. 3:2; 3:8,11; 4:17; Mark 1:15; Luke 3:8; 16:30). As an example John the Baptist calls for the people to repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand (Matt. 3:2). Jesus had not yet come on the scene when John uttered these words, so we would expect that the Jewish people would view them the same way they would have viewed similar messages from the Old Testament prophets, i.e. turn from sin and turn to God. But giving the benefit of the doubt we can’t prove that is what John meant.
Conversely in many other cases the context in which metanoeo/metanoia is used the subject is clearly sin and the need to turn from it. (Matt. 9:13; 11:20; 12:41; Mark 1:4; 2:17; Luke 3:3; 5:32; 6:12; 10:13; 11:32; 13:3,5; 15:7,10; 17:3). Some representative passages read: I tell you that in the same way, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents, than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance (Luke 15:7). In the same way, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents (Luke 15:10). If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times a day, and returns to you seven times, saying, “I repent,” forgive him (Luke 17:3,4). At the Great Commission Jesus informs His disciples that repentance for forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in His name to all the nations… (Luke 24:47). In each of these cases it is irrefutable that repent/repentance means changing one’s mind or turning from sin. Not once is repentance defined as a changing of one’s mind about Jesus.
Metanoeo/Metanoia in the Acts
As Jesus leaves the scene and the church age begins we find the apostles, in obedience to the Great Commission, preaching repentance. Of the eleven uses of metanoeo/metanoia in the book of Acts two (5:31; 8:22) are in the context of sin in general. Speaking to Simon the magician, for example, who claimed to be a believer but had committed a great sin Peter says, Repent of this wickedness of yours, and pray the Lord, if possible, the intention of your heart may be forgiven you (Acts 8:22). Simon is to turn from his sin if he is to be forgiven.
In Acts 11:18; 13:24; 19:4 the context is not specific enough to dogmatically determined that repentance means a turning from sin, although this would be the most likely conclusion, in each case.
The other five references are all in the context of salvation. We have seen some of these before but note carefully each context. In Acts 2:38 the Jews are told to repent for the forgiveness of sin. In Acts 3:19 they are to repent that their sins would be wiped away. Acts 17:30 says that God is calling men everywhere to repent. In Acts 20:21 Paul said that he preached to both Jews and Greeks the need for repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. Acts 26:20 is Paul’s mission statement which is to call men to repent and turn to God. In none of these instances is repentance redefined as a changing of one’s mind about who Jesus is. In at least three cases metanoeo/metanoia is definitely in the context of sin and forgiveness of sin. Our conclusions throughout the book of Acts is that nothing has changed – repentance still means what it has always meant – a turning from sin.
Metanoeo/Metanoia in the Revelation
Every mention of metanoeo/metanoia in the Revelation is in the immediate context of sin (2:5,16,21,22; 3:3,19; 9:20,21; 16:19,11). Rev. 2:21 reads, And I gave her time to repent; and she does not want to repent of her immorality. And Rev. 9:21 reads as such, And they did not repent of their murders nor of their sorceries nor of their immorality nor of their thefts. This is instructive since Revelation is the last New Testament book written and we find that the meaning of repentance has remained constant. In every clearly defined passage in the New Testament repentance has always meant a turning from sin. Metanoeo/metanoia is not always used in reference to salvation but it always carries the connotation of turning from sin.
Metanoeo/Metanoia in the Epistles
In the epistles metanoia is found a number of times. Occasionally its meaning is indeterminate (Romans 2:4; II Timothy 2:25; Hebrews 6:1,6). At other times sin is indisputably the context (II Cor. 7:9,10; Hebrews 12:17). The only use of metanoeo in the epistles is II Cor. 12:21, I am afraid that when I come again my God may humiliate me before you, and I may mourn over many of those who have sinned in the past, and not repented of the impurity, immorality and sensuality which they have practiced. Here, once again repentance is used in the context of sin. Never once have we found otherwise. Never once have we found repentance to have any reference to changing our minds about who Christ is. The context, when it can be determined, is always in the sphere of sin; and in no passage is the idea of turning from sin foreign to the context.
With this in mind II Peter 3:9 should be pondered carefully, The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance. If, when the Scriptures call us to repentance it means a turning from sin and a turning to God, as we have demonstrated, then to tell sinners that they do not have to turn from sin (they must only change their mind about Christ in order to be saved) is a false gospel. Salvation is through faith alone. But saving faith means that we have turned from our idols and sin, in which we have trusted and long been enslaved, and turned to Christ by faith, in order to receive forgiveness and freedom from those sins (Romans 6:12-14) and the righteousness of Christ (Romans 4). To be saved surely means we are saved from something and to something. We are saved from sin and to righteousness found in Christ.
However, the opponents of repentance are quick to note that metanoeo/metanoia is seldom used in reference to salvation in the epistles. Therefore, they conclude, it is not part of the gospel. How do we refute this? A number of ways:
1) The book of Acts records the same time period during which many of the epistles were being written. For example when Paul spoke the words recorded in Acts 26:20 saying that his ministry has been one of calling people to repent and turn to God, he had already written 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians and most importantly Romans. While repentance is mentioned only four times in those five epistles he nevertheless proclaims in Acts 26:18-20 that calling men and women to repentance has been his ministry all along.
2) The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology has an excellent comment on this point, “The fact that this group of words does not occur often in the Pauline writings and not at all in the Johannine (apart from Revelation), does not mean that the idea of conversion is not present there but only that in the meantime a more specialized terminology had developed. Both Paul and John convey the idea of conversion by that of faith. Paul speaks of faith as ‘being in Christ’, as the ‘dying and rising of a man with Christ,’ as the ‘new creation’. As ‘putting on the new man’. The Johannine literature represents the new life in Christ as ‘new birth’, as a passing from death to life and from darkness to light, or as the victory of truth over falsehood and of love over hate” (Vol. 1 p. 359).
3) Since Scripture never contradicts Scripture, it is a dangerous precedent to pit one portion of Scripture against another. We must recognize dispensational distinctions but to dismiss a clearly taught biblical doctrine because it is not found in certain pet passages is a serious error. For example, our Lord never once used the word “grace” (and it is only found four times in the four Gospels, and never used in John’s first epistle) yet who would dismiss it from its place of prominence in the gospel message? It is possible to overcompartmentalize the Scriptures. Yes, it is true that the epistles are written primarily to teach church age doctrine – but that does not mean that doctrine cannot be found in other portions of Scripture. Repentance, defined as turning from sin as part of saving faith, is clearly taught in many Scriptures. Who are we to redefine this word, or eliminate it altogether, because it is not found in passages in which some say it must be found.
Actually the burden of proof is on the backs of those who must wrestle with the clear calls found in Scripture for repentance (e.g. Acts 2:38; 3:19; 26:18,20). There are really only three options when the evidence is examined: Peter and Paul knew what they were talking about and were calling on people by faith to turn from their sins and turn to God. Or, these men and others were in error in what they taught (an unthinkable position). Or, repentance means something else, i.e. to change one’s mind about who Jesus is. Which is it?
We believe we have shown conclusive proof that in every case, where its meaning can be determined,metanoeo/metanoia in the New Testament means to turn from sin. On the other hand, there is not one clear use of any word for repentance that means to change one’s mind about Christ. Not once!
Let’s press on and examine the definitions given by Word Study experts:
Wuest’s Word Studies: Repentance in the New Testament “includes not only the act of changing one’s attitude towards an opinion of sin but also that of forsaking it. . . . The act of repentance is based first of all and primarily upon an intellectual apprehension of the character of sin, man’s guilt with respect to it, and man’s duty to turn away from it” (Studies in the Vocabulary, by Kenneth Wuest, p. 28).
Vines: “In the NT the subject chiefly has reference to ‘repentance’ from sin, and this change of mind involves both a turning from sin and a turning to God” (Vines Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, p. 525).
The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology: “Turning [in the OT] means giving a completely new direction to the man as a whole and a return to God. This includes turning away from evil. . . . [In the NT] the predominantly intellectual understanding of metanoia as change of mind plays very little part in the NT. Rather the decision by the whole man to turn around is stressed. It is clear that we are concerned neither with a purely outward turning nor with a merely intellectual change of ideas” (Vol. 1, p. 358).
Kittel: Repentance is a “radical conversion, a transformation of nature, a definitive turning from evil, a resolute turning to God in total obedience” (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, by Gerhard Kittle, pp. 1002-1003).
Some have concluded that to include repentance as part of saving faith is a work-righteousness. That is, it is an act that man must add to faith in order to be saved. Not only have we shown from Scripture that such is not the case we can go further. According to Scripture repentance is a gift from God (see Acts 11:18; II Tim. 2:25). Just as no one would trust in Christ for salvation unless God enabled him to do so, so no one would repent if God did not grant him repentance. Repentance is not a work any more than faith is. The point is that when a person truly turns to Christ he, at the same time, also turns from sin. This is the clear teaching of the Word of God.