“Repent! Repent!” I’ve heard many street preachers yell. I’ve often wondered what those preachers think a passerby will do upon hearing this word used nowhere else in our English vocabulary. What is the true meaning of repentance? And is it what they seem to think it is?
Repentance in Christianity is of vital importance and yet so often misunderstood. Do you know what it means to repent? I know I misunderstood it for a very long time.
The True Meaning Of Repentance
Like many others, I used to believe repenting meant feeling really bad or shameful. I thought it meant being full of sorrow or even self-loathing. Secular English definitions of repent aren’t far off from this.
Repent – The Definition In Greek
The Greek word for repent is μετάνοια, said metanoia. The closest literal English meaning of the word is to have a change of mind, but might be better said, “to think differently afterwards” or “changing your mind after being with,” according to the HELPS word study and Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance.
To repent means to be convinced of another way, to change your mind or convictions. And in response to be convinced in your mind and heart, to change your actions. Repentance means turning from going your own way to going God’s way.
What Repentance Is Not
The English definitions of the word repent most often follow along the lines of “feeling remorse or regret” or being disgusted by and turning away from your sins. Definitions like this one, which declare that repentance involves our efforts or resolve to do better are inadequate in my opinion. While how you feel might be a part of the experience of repenting, this definition is misleading.
Biblical repentance means responding to God’s love by being transformed in your convictions and actions. It means turning towards God and away from whatever dishonors Him. Biblical repentance is not about your emotions, your sin, your efforts, or your resolve. It’s about your surrender.
If you believe, as I once did, that repentance is about feeling remorse, regret, and shame – that it is about focusing on your sin and your failure, then please join me in repenting of your understanding of repentance!
What sweet freedom from shame. Repentance is not about your feelings and failures, it’s not so much about you. It’s about God, who loves you the most, calling you to follow Him.
The Opposite Of Repent
Sometimes it helps to consider the opposite when understanding a term. The opposite of repent in scripture is to “harden your heart.” It’s also sometimes called being “stiff necked” or stubborn. It’s to double down, to resist change, and to dig your heels in.
To not repent is to not allow yourself to be moved by God’s love. It means disrespecting God’s love, sacrifice, and wisdom – for the sake of having it your own way.
As Psalm 81:11-12, ESV put it, “But my people did not listen to my voice; Israel would not submit to me. So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts, to follow their own counsels.”
How To Repent According To The Bible
The definition of true repentance according to the Bible is a transformation in thinking that leads to a change in action. As Paul put it, “Don’t be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what is the good, well-pleasing, and perfect will of God” (Romans 12:2, WEB).
So you repent by being changed in your mind and convictions. When you take action in accordance with your changed mind, you demonstrate your repentance. The story of Jonah is one of the best examples of repentance in the Bible – not only for Jonah but everyone else in the story as well.
Jonah – A Bible Story About Repentance
If you’re unfamiliar with the story of Jonah in the Bible, I’ll give a brief review. Jonah was called by God to go to the city of Nineveh and warn them that they had angered God because of their wickedness.
This sounded very unappealing to Jonah. So he decided to opt-out and hopped on board a ship going literally the other direction.
God, of course, would not be thwarted. So He sent a violent storm that threatened all on board the ship, except apparently for Jonah, who slept through the storm.
The rest of the men on the ship were so impressed by the storm, they were convinced someone had angered a god.
In their search for who was to blame, they woke up Jonah. It came to light that Jonah was to blame and has angered his God. Jonah confessed and asked to be thrown overboard.
The crew, despite what Jonah had brought upon them, was reluctant to send him to his death. Finally, they acquiesced, with fear and reverence towards Jonah’s God, and threw Jonah into the sea. When the sea calmed they became even more awestruck, made sacrifices, and vowed themselves to Jonah’s God.
The turning point for Jonah
In what is often the most talked-about part of this story, Jonah is then swallowed by a great fish inside which he stays for three days and three nights.
Jonah prays, gets spit out onto land, and is told by God, once again, to go to Nineveh. So Jonah does. He walks through the city shouting that Nineveh will be overturned in 40 days.
The people of Nineveh immediately respond with fear and respect. Even the king gets off of his throne and calls for the whole city to humble themselves, turn from their evil ways, and call out earnestly to God in hopes that He will show them mercy.
And God does. So that’s most of Jonah’s story, but there are many more Bible stories that teach us what repentance is and how to repent.
What Jesus Said About Repentance
The very first thing Jesus preached was, “Repent, because the kingdom of heaven has come near! ” (Matthew 4:17). The verse before (verse 16) helps underscore what he says, quoting the prophecy from Isaiah about Jesus, “The people who live in darkness have seen a great light, and for those living in the shadowland of death, light has dawned.”
Jesus is light, truth, and the new way. Jesus is saying, change your mind and believe something new.
In the sermon on the mount in Matthew 5, Jesus repeats, “You have heard it said…” and “but I tell you a new way.” In light of these verses, I think Jesus in Matthew 4:17 might be saying repent as in, “Check it out! Wrap your mind around this! Get on board!” And believe in “a new way.”
Repentance And Faith
The word for faith in the Bible is the same as belief. It means to accept something as true. When we grasp the meanings of repentance and faith, it makes all the more sense that these two are paired together throughout scripture.
Mark’s account of Jesus’ first words is “The time is fulfilled, and God’s Kingdom is at hand! Repent, and believe in the Good News” (Mark 1:15, WEB). “Repent and believe.” Jesus is saying change your mind and be convinced – accept as truth, this new good way.
Why does the “and believe” matter? Why is faith an important part? Well, because you can repent, change your mind, be convinced that something is wrong, and then go a different wrong way. Or maybe you see the wrong, but don’t believe Jesus is the way to make things right.
What It Means To Truly Repent
What is genuine repentance? Well, if you are truly convinced, if your mind is changed, then your actions will show it. Even the secular world has picked up on this.
“Whatever you believe, with conviction, becomes your reality.”Brian Tracy, Change Your Thinking, Change Your Life
Jonah decided to go one way, God convinced him to literally change direction and go God’s way. The men on the boat believed in many gods. They changed their minds and came to believe in and commit to Jonah’s God. Then, they acted on their new beliefs – tossing Jonah, giving sacrifices, and making vows to God.
As James says, ” You believe that God is one. You do well. The demons also believe, and shudder. But do you want to know, vain man, that faith apart from works is dead?” (James 2:19-20, WEB). James is saying that if you are truly convinced that Jesus is the way, then you will walk in it.
When Repentance Doesn’t “Stick”
You may have heard people mention concerns about truly and fully repenting. Sometimes, people say they’ve repented, but you don’t see any changes.
If you feel you haven’t fully repented, it may be that you are questioning God’s forgiveness. Perhaps you are still focused on the repulsiveness of your past sin, rather than the sweetness of God’s mercy.
It could also be that you haven’t been fully convinced yet. Perhaps in your mind, you are not fully convinced or have no strong feelings about your wrongdoing. Maybe you make excuses, because “it’s not that bad.” If that’s the case, there’s a good chance attempts to change won’t stick.
How to Fully Repent When You Feel Stuck
1. Draw near to God and study His word. He says if you seek Him and His kingdom, He will give you what you need to live in a way that is pleasing to Him.
2. Pray that God will grant you repentance – a true transformational conviction. And ask Him for the faith to believe that His ways are better.
3. Meditate on God’s goodness and mercy, not shame. Shame is sin and self-focused. It will keep you from true conviction.
Conviction Is An Invitation
Nineveh was called to change their hell-bent ways steeped in sin and pride. But when they were called out, they responded to God. They humbled themselves and threw themselves at the mercy of God.
These people underwent changes of moral convictions and beliefs that led to a change of behavior They were transformed in their understanding which led to a change in heart and behavior. They repented.
When God calls us to repentance, He is challenging us to taste and see that He is good (Psalm 34:8). He wants us to trust in His truth and ways and not on our old ways of thinking (Proverbs 3:5). This is why we find repentance so often paired with faith.
Conviction is an invitation to repentance, not shame. It’s a call from going your own way to going God’s way.
By this definition, I find myself in a regular pattern of repentance. Through Bible study, community, and prayer God continues to transform my perspective, change my mind, and convince me that God’s way is better and the way to live.
How To Teach Repentance to Children
When my firstborn was very young, I was told that unless a child cries, they are not truly repentant. This false teacher convinced me that caring for my child spiritually meant making her feel bad.
So when my daughter got into trouble, if she didn’t cry, I would scold and shame her until she cried. Even if she apologized it wasn’t enough.
Fortunately, God transformed my thinking and I believed that she could learn and change her behavior without shame and tears. I stopped trying to make her cry and became a more godly parent.
Following the pattern of the Father
God does not condemn us. He does not ask us for tears and promises to do better or to “fix” things. So how does He lead us to repentance?
Our good Father uses the opposite tactic of what I was using. As Paul says, “do you despise the riches of his goodness, forbearance, and patience, not knowing that the goodness of God leads you to repentance?” (Romans 2:4).
Correcting with mercy, kindness, and gentleness is a powerful motivator towards repentance.
Paul says that even our opponents can be brought to repentance by gentleness and truth. “The Lord’s servant must not quarrel, but be gentle towards all, able to teach, patient, in gentleness correcting those who oppose him: perhaps God may give them repentance leading to a full knowledge of the truth,” (2 Timothy 2:24-25).
Final Thoughts On True Repentance
Hopefully, you see the pattern here. The call to repentance is not a call to shame. It is a call to examine your direction and reorient yourself towards God.
In the end, only the Holy Spirit can bring true conviction and repentance (John 16:8). Only He can reorient a person to God and “produce fruit worthy of repentance” (Matthew 3:8).
Do you feel like you have a clearer understanding of the true meaning of repentance? Has this challenged any of your previous beliefs about what repentance is?
This post has excerpts from the lesson on repentance in Parenting in Christ: Treasures for Parenting from Jesus. If you found this helpful, get a copy of the book. You might also enjoy reading these blog posts on understanding and teaching godliness: