Is Repentance Merely a Change of Mind?

Anyone who knows even a little about biblical theology and basic hermeneutics knows that when it comes to word studies, etymology alone may not be very helpful. Simply looking at how a word breaks down in Hebrew or Greek is not all that we must know about a word and how it is used in Scripture.

We need more than just a simple breakdown of a word into its component parts in the original language to establish its full meaning and usage in Scripture. As Anthony Thiselton says about semantics and New Testament interpretation:

The English word “nice” is said to be derived from the Latin nescius, ignorant. Is “ignorant” the “basic” meaning of “nice”? When Englishmen say “Good-bye” do they “properly” mean “God be with you”? “Hussy” is etymologically a doublet of “housewife”, but can it be said on this basis that if I were to call someone a hussy I “properly” meant only “housewife”? As James Barr rightly asserts, “The main point is that the etymology of a word is not a statement about its meaning but about its history.” Hundreds of words diverge from or even (like “nice”) oppose their etymology.

repentanceSo care must be taken here. And I want to look at just one biblical word which is often treated in just this way, resulting in real damage to the fullness of the biblical data. It is often pointed out that the Greek word for repentance means a change of mind.

Often it is grace teachers and hyper-grace teachers who especially run with this line of thought. Often it is to rebut Catholic notions of penance and the like, where it is thought that contrition and emotional pain may be the bulk of what repentance means.

For example, Catholics may use Matthew 4:17 as translated by the Vulgate: “Do penance, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”. Catholics will tend to emphasize contrition, penitence, remorse, feeling sorry, doing penance, etc., whereas Protestants tend to want to emphasize repentance as metanoia, a change of mind. There is a fair amount of truth in all of this.

(Of course it is not my intention here to get into a Catholic-Protestant debate on this particular issue. And the 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church spends nearly 20 pages on this topic, so it is far more complex and nuanced than what I have just said above. But I only mention it here to give some background as to why certain Protestants may run with this minimalist definition of repentance.)

But there is much more to repentance than a mere change of mind. So let me look at this term and its biblical usage in more detail. First, it should be pointed out that other Greek words are used here about conversion, including epistrepho (turn, turn around, turn back). But let me focus on metanoeo.

The Greek word metanoia (noun), metanoeo (verb), is broken down into two parts: meta, change, alter, and nous, mind. Thus very simply put, repentance can mean having a change of mind. And that is certainly part of the biblical truth about repentance. But it is more than that as well.

Simply looking at how the term is used in the NT makes this clear. One of the key passages here is found in Matthew 3 when John the Baptist declares his mission and message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (v. 2). He makes it clear what is required in vv. 7-8: “But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance’.”

Bearing fruit here means that the changed mind includes a changed will, and genuine change has occurred, and is noticeable. As D. A. Carson comments:

Though the verb metanoeo is often explained etymologically as “to change one’s mind,” or popularly as “to be sorry for something,” neither rendering is adequate. . . . What is meant is not a merely intellectual change of mind or mere grief, still less doing penance, but a radical transformation of the entire person, a fundamental turnaround involving mind and action and including overtones of grief, which results in “fruit in keeping with repentance.”

In his article on “conversion, penitence, repentance, proselyte” in The New International Dictionary of New Testament of Theology, Jurgen Goetzmann says this about the metanoia word group: “The predominantly intellectual understanding of metanoeo as a 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.”

He goes on to remind us of this truth:

There are many passages in which the term metanoeo does not appear, but in which the thought of repentance is clearly present. This helps us to see to what extent Jesus’ message was determined by the call to repent in the light of God’s sovereign rule, which he himself had brought in. Examples are: “Unless you turn (straphete) and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:3); “so therefore, whoever of you does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple” (Lk. 14:33). It is the spiritually poor, the little ones and the helpless, and those that need our help who receive the promise of the kingdom of God (Mt. 5:3; 18:10, 14).

In his very recent and very thorough full-length treatment of the subject of a biblical theology of repentance (‘Return to Me’, IVP, 2015), Mark Boda makes similar points. He lists the various Greek terms used, and says this:

It is difficult at times to identify the precise distinction between these various terms. The two key verbs metanoeo and epistrepho appear alongside each other in Acts 3:19, and the same two verbs appear with the common noun metanoia in Acts 26:20. While it is clear that metamelomai refers to an internal shift, there is a long tradition of defining metanoeo and metanoia in terms of a change of mind. However, although metanoeo can refer to a change in inner disposition (e.g., Acts 8:22: ‘repent of this wickedness of yours . . . the intention of your heart’), it is regularly connected to a change in external activity.

He then lists some of these:

2 Corinthians 12:21 I am afraid that when I come again my God will humble me before you, and I will be grieved over many who have sinned earlier and have not repented of the impurity, sexual sin and debauchery in which they have indulged.

Revelation 2:5 Repent and do the things you did at first.

Revelation 2:21-22 I have given her time to repent of her immorality, but she is unwilling. So I will cast her on a bed of suffering, and I will make those who commit adultery with her suffer intensely, unless they repent of her ways.

Revelation 9:20-21 The rest of mankind who were not killed by these plagues still did not repent of the work of their hands; they did not stop worshiping demons, and idols of gold, silver, bronze, stone and wood – idols that cannot see or hear or walk. Nor did they repent of their murders, their magic arts, their sexual immorality or their thefts.

Revelation 16:11 they refused to repent of what they had done.

He then looks at two passages (Zechariah 1:1-6 and Acts 26:16-20) and says this: “Repentance in these two passages is presented as a (re)turn to God and away from that which is contrary to God. Repentance also involves a shift in behaviour. Therefore, repentance in this study refers foremost to a turn or return to faithful relationship with God from a former state of estrangement: ‘Return to Me’ (Zech. 1:3).”

In a later chapter on repentance in the NT he says: “The key to understanding the theme of repentance in the New testament, as we saw with the Old Testament, is not in the meaning of particular words, but rather the broader meaning of the passages that communicate this theological concept through a variety of words, images and stories related to repentance.”

And as he says a bit later:

This understanding should shape the way we present the gospel. As Richard Owen Roberts writes, ‘To assume that sinners can turn to the Righteous One without turning from their own unrighteousness is the height of theological nonsense.’ Whether we use the word ‘repent’ or ‘believe’ or ‘follow’, or any other words, in inviting people to relationship with the triune God (and there is diversity in the early church proclamations), the key is to define these words in the holistic way we find in the biblical witness.

And finally:

Repentance is not just the gateway into relationship with the triune God; it is the pathway for that continuing relationship, as Luther wrote: ‘the entire life of believers should be one of repentance.’…
Repentance is thus a way of life, and it is the way to experience the abundance of life the Father intended, for which the Son suffered and into which the Spirit leads. Repentance subsequent to initial conversion retains its focus on relationship, that is, the focus is on our relationship with God, which provides the motivation and perspective for turning from that which would hinder that relationship. The priority is placed on the positive return to relationship with God through the Spirit of grace, even as we grieve over our failure, confess our sins and abandon our sinful attitudes, speech or actions. This should be a natural part of our relationship with God.

[1625 words]

12 Replies to “Is Repentance Merely a Change of Mind?”

  1. Thanks for that Bill. I’ve been using the word ‘repentance’ a lot lately with reference to a turning away from rebellion against God and a turning towards Him in humility, contrition and obedience. I forget at times that in these times we, sadly, need to define our terms clearly so there is no hint of misinterpretation! The social engineers keep changing the meaning of words, and so we need to keep one step ahead of them.

  2. As Paul Washer says,”It’s not about,’did you once repent?’, but, ‘are you still repenting daily?'”
    The beatitudes describe true Christians – continuing to be poor in spirit, continuing to mourn their failures, continuing to hunger after righteousness, etc, because they realize their continuingly falling short of the glory of God. “Be ye holy, for I am holy” is a born-again believer’s constant aim – not to gain salvation, but because they have been saved. Thank God for Jude 24, “Now to Him who is able to keep you from stumbling, and to make you stand in the presence of His glory blameless with great joy …” and Psalm 37:24, “Though he fall, he shall not be utterly cast down: for the LORD upholdeth him with his hand.”

  3. One might also consider the relevant Hebrew Old Testament vocabulary in a full discussion of repentance. Returning to God and rending of one’s heart – not merely one’s garments are both entailed.

    Attitude and action are expected to be inextricably linked in Scripture. I have learnt, at times through bitter experience, that wrong habits and behaviour patterns must not only be unlearned – they must be crucified. That behavioural autopilot known as “the flesh” is indeed a “body of death” whose members are viciously earthbound.

  4. Repentance is a gift of God through the word of Christ. It is not required of us to know when we received the gift but that we have. If we have, the gift will keep us in the faith for it was given for that purpose to the glory of God. Therefore the gospel is preached in the power of the Spirit that the people of God be gathered and built up to the day of the revelation of His glory. “A new heart will I give…” mind, affections and will comprise “heart” it is the sovereign gift of God – this the awakeners of the 18th century revival lived and out of that proclaimed Christ. Millions received the gift and we are their heirs. May God do it again in our generation.

  5. Surely related to repentance is the Fear of the Lord.

    Proverbs 1:7 and elsewhere reminds us that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge – knowing where we stand before a Thrice Holy God as Isaiah did, as Paul did on the road to Damascus, and even John the beloved disciple did on Patmos.

    We rightly hear a lot about the Love of God from pulpits but very little about the fear of the Lord.

    Yet each one of us will stand on that Day before Him – surely the real motive for repentance in every sense here and now.

  6. Meta is more accurately defined as beyond. Eg the metacarpals are the bones in the feet beyond the carpal bones and the metaphysical is that which is beyond the physical. A metaphor is an example from beyond the forum and when a cancer is said to be in metastasis it means it is beyond being stationary or is literally on the move. Metanoeo is therefore, more literally, to consider the things that are beyond. This is why we repent of the works of the flesh.

  7. Oops I just remembered carpal bones are in the wrist not the feet. The tarsals are in the feet.

  8. Hi Bill,
    Thanks for the in depth study on the group of Greek words translated as repentance. I too studied this a few years ago.
    I grew up in the Baptist church and was under the impression that repentance meant grovelling and feeling sorry about your sins and then feel forgiven and then launch into religious doings which eventually led to me burning out. Not once, not twice but three times! I am a slow learner. After my intensive study on the meaning of metanoia, I came to the conclusion that it simply meant a realisation(change of mind) that no matter what we do we are never good enough to get into relationship with The Father, but thankfully Jesus is, and we are included in this relationship. Jesus has brought us in. The realisation of this fact is so freeing, as Jesus himself said, and stops any chance of being manipulated by modern day Pharisees into do more try harder religion. We are free to live in the grace and motivation of the Holy Spirit in love and thankfulness. As sin hurts us and those around us, the Spirit guides us into Christ likeness, behaviour that builds and fosters relationships-in love.
    Blessings,
    Lou d’Alpuget

  9. I also would add that 2 Cor 7 is a very worthy passage in this discussion. It was through this passage that I came to a deeper understanding of repentance.

  10. Repentance is a change of mind. It’s a once only thing for genuine believers, as Heb 6:1-6 shows
    “Therefore, leaving the discussion of the elementary principles of Christ, let us go on to perfection, not laying again the foundation of REPENTANCE FROM DEAD WORKS and of faith toward God…….
    ……For IT IS IMPOSSIBLE for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, IF THEY FALL AWAY, TO RENEW THEM AGAIN TO REPENTANCE, since they crucify again for themselves the Son of God, and put Him to an open shame.”

    Once we truly repent of our dead works of self righteousness, which is unbelief and thus sin (John 16:9), then we must never fall away turning back to unbelief/dead works of self-righteousness.

  11. Thanks Harold. But you have simply ignored – or not even bothered to read – all that I said in the article above. The English word ‘repentance’ is far more than its mere etymological components. And sorry, but taking one passage out of all of Scripture – and a hotly debated passage at that – and using it as a proof-text to refute all the rest of Scripture on this issue is not how the biblical Christian should proceed here.

    I do not buy the position of the hyper-grace folks – wherever they may be found. And it seems odd that I have to keep pointing out the basic Bible 101 distinction between justification and sanctification. See here eg:

    https://billmuehlenberg.com/2015/02/16/antinomianism-and-the-hyper-grace-error/
    https://billmuehlenberg.com/2013/02/10/saviour-but-not-lord/
    https://billmuehlenberg.com/2015/02/01/standing-and-state/

    Of course the initial act of salvation is a one-off affair based on grace through faith. But that is just the start. A life without progressive sanctification is proof of a life without justification. And guess what: longing for holiness is NOT dead works of self-righteousness; sorrow for sin in the believer’s life is NOT dead works of self-righteousness; seeking to be more Christlike and less full of self is NOT dead works of self-righteousness; seeking after holiness in every area of life is NOT dead works of self-righteousness; repenting of known sin is NOT dead works of self-righteousness; etc.

    Sorry, I do not buy the hyper-grace error and neither have all the great Christian leaders of the past. I will side with these champions of the faith any day of the week when it comes to a holy life marked by godly and Spirit-led repentance:

    “Evangelical repentance is that which carries the believing soul through all his failures, infirmities, and sins. He is not able to live one day without the constant exercise of it. It is as necessary unto the continuance of spiritual life as faith is. It is that continual, habitual, self-abasement which arises from a sense of the majesty and holiness of God, and the consciousness of our miserable failures.” John Owen

    “The Christian who has stopped repenting has stopped growing.” A.W. Pink

    “Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ … willed that the whole life of believers should be repentance.” Martin Luther

    “Some people do not like to hear much of repentance; but I think it is so necessary that if I should die in the pulpit, I would desire to die preaching repentance, and if out of the pulpit I would desire to die practicing it.” Matthew Henry

    “Repentance is as much a mark of a Christian, as faith is. A very little sin, as the world calls it, is a very great sin to a true Christian.” C.H. Spurgeon

    “It is impossible to follow Christ without repentance. How could it be otherwise? Jesus is the holy, sinless Son of God. He has never taken one step in any sinful direction. He has never had a single sinful thought. Anyone who is following him, therefore, must by definition turn his back to sin and set his face toward righteousness. Christians do sin, but when they do, they must confess their sin and turn from it, being restored to fellowship again. Anyone who thinks he or she can follow Christ without renouncing sin is at best badly confused. At the worst, this person is not a true Christian” James Montgomery Boice

    “True repentance is not a transient act, as if a sigh or a pang of sorrow for sin amounted to it. No, these may indeed be acts of true repentance, while they issue from a heart sincerely penitent: but repentance itself, instead of being a passing act, is an abiding principle, a lasting disposition of soul, a gracious principle lying deep in the heart, disposing a man at all times to mourn for and turn from sin (Zech. 12:10). The waters of godly sorrow for sin in the renewed heart will continue to spring up there while sin is there…” John Colquhoun

    “The visible neglect of repentance in the professors of this age has brought a reproach upon the doctrine of faith, and caused it to be evil spoken of. That faith that does not sanctify will never justify, and without repentance there can be no sanctification. Not that we make repentance any meritorious cause or pardon, or that it is to be rested in as any satisfaction for sin. Only we affirm that justifying faith always works repentance. . . . We should repent as often as there is a new matter for repentance.” Thomas Cole

    “The evidence … the raw-bone, biblical evidence that there was one time in your life that you repented unto salvation, is that you continue repenting until today and continue growing in repentance.” Paul Washer

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