The following is a paper I wrote last semester at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Congregationalist pastor Charles Walker tells two stories of repentance in his children’s book, Repentance and Faith. In the first story, Walker tells of a young man named James. James was a severe boy, who was prone to extreme moods and impulsivity. One day his impulses took over, and he stole a melon from his neighbor’s field. He ate the melon over the next few days. When he had finished, he wanted another. Late one night, James resolved again to go to the field to steal another melon. The farmer noticed something was amiss, someone had been in his field, and he determined to stay up late for the next few nights to see if he could catch the melon thief in the act. On this particular night he heard the sound of someone in the field and saw young James with two melons, one under each arm. James fled the scene and dropped one melon; he hid the remainder in his father’s barn and hurried to bed. The next day the neighbor came to confront young James and his father. The neighbor levied the charge of thievery against the young boy whose father adamantly protested the accusations. After a brief debate and a short search, the melon was found, along with the rinds of the previous one. James’ father, disappointed with the son, disciplined the lad. Young James responded with a sincere apology. When asked why he was sorry, the young boy told his father he was sorry because now he was being punished. What James lacked was true repentance; being sorry he had been caught and fearing the punishment, rather than grieving over the sinful act.
In the second story, Walker tells of another little boy who also was tempted to steal. Young Samuel saw the delicious fruit from his grandfather’s peach tree, and knowing he had been asked not to touch the fruit, climbed the tree to shake some free. In the process, a branch was broken. Devastated, Samuel ran inside and hid until later that day when the broken limb was found. A mischievous boy named Thomas, from down the way, was the assumed culprit, and because of his reputation his father wasted no time in delivering a severe punishment. As Samuel watched from his window, Thomas being spanked, he knew those strikes should be his. The next morning Samuel approached his grandfather and confessed. With tears streaming down his cheeks he pled for forgiveness, these pleas’ were met graciously by the old man. After confessing his wrong to his grandfather Samuel knew he had to confess to Thomas; so before school he ran to Thomas’ house and asked his peer for forgiveness for his sin against him. Thomas granted forgiveness, and Samuel came away from the ordeal with an understanding of repentance, as his heart was truly grieved over what his actions caused.
What Pastor Walker highlighted in the story about Samuel is precisely what will be the focal point of this paper. That is, repentance is not simply acknowledging sin, and asking forgiveness, rather repentance is a grieving over one’s sin. As the body of this paper will illustrate, the author believes true salvation takes place in the life of a sinner when grieving takes place over one’s sin. This thesis will be supported by examining repentance in both the Old Testament as well as in the New Testament, and application will be pulled from Scripture for the reader’s clarity. The second portion of this paper will take a more personal tone as the author discusses issues of repentance from a ministerial, as well as from a personal standpoint.
Before examining specific examples of repentance from Scripture, it is first important to define key terms. When discussed in the Old Testament, the Hebrew word used for repentance is shub or shuv (shoob), literally this word implies an about face; departing from sin and turning, full face, to God. While the Old Testament speaks about turning away from sin, the New Testament speaks about a changing of one’s mind, metanoia. Tertullian argues in the second book of Against Marcion (chapter 24), “Now in the Greek the word for repentance is formed, not from the confession of sin, but from a change of mind.” It is possible however; in some cases Jesus may have implied the Old Testament definition while speaking in the New Testament.
Grudem has defined repentance as a, “…heartfelt sorrow for sin, a renouncing of it, and a sincere commitment to forsake it and walk in obedience to Christ.” This is a good definition of repentance as it adequately addresses both the Old Testament usage as well as the New Testament usage. Additionally, Grudem maintains that faith and repentance occur together. This idea is met with some resistance, however. Having laid an adequate foundation in the defining of the terms let the reader look at repentance in the Old Testament.
Repentance in the Old Testament
As it occurs in the Old Testament, repentance is seen both corporately and individually. The same aspects of repentance that are observed in the Old Testament will also be seen in the New Testament, however in a slightly different way. In the Old Testament there can be seen corporate calls to repentance among God’s chosen people, the Jews. The prophet Ezekiel is told by the Lord to tell the “house of Israel” to “repent and turn away from [their] idols.” The text continues by instructing the house of Israel to, “Turn away [their] faces from all [their] abominations.” This verse presents the reader with two important points; the first is in relation with the definition of shub. As previously stated the Hebrew word shub has the intention of a turning away from sin, or in the case of Ezekiel, abominations. Even though it is not explicitly stated, this passage illustrates the need to re-orient one’s self with God. That is, if one is to turn from sin, where else has he to turn except God? Secondly, concerning this verse, shub requires total commitment. Ezekiel uses the word all to describe how many abominations are to be turned away from. This word all in the Hebrew is kol (kole), and it literally means the whole of, all, or any (every). What Ezekiel is saying is that true repentance is a complete renouncing of sin, and a total turn to God.
The prophet Joel, in warning the house of Israel of God’s just punishment for unfaithfulness, tells the nation to return to God with all (kol) their heart. In addition to repentance being a total turn from sin it likewise has to be a total turn to God. This complete turn from sin, and total turn to God is marked by genuine emotion or distress over one’s sin. Joel says repentance is met with fasting, weeping and mourning. In other words, repentance is not simply asking forgiveness, saying “I’m sorry.” No, it is a plea for forgiveness that is marked by heart felt grieving over one’s sin. Watson will argue Hosea 14:8 brings this point to its logical conclusion by saying repentance is marked by a commitment never to return to the sin that has been forsaken.
The Old Testament also produces instances of individual repentance. Consider 2 Samuel 11-12, King David commits the sin of adultery with Bathsheba and in the fallout has Bathsheba’s husband Uriah murdered. The punishment for this sin was the death of the bastard child that was conceived out of the act. The prophet Nathan rebukes the king for his sin, and the result is David’s heartfelt act of repentance that is recorded in Psalm 51. In verses 16 and 17 David writes, “For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” The reader will note David understands true repentance is indicative of a genuine heart change.
Repentance in the New Testament
Once the reader understands repentance in the Old Testament, the importance of repentance in the New Testament can be fully appreciated; John the Baptist furthers the message of the Old Testament prophets saying in Matthew 3:11, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I…” Jesus furthers this statement in Matthew 4:17 when he begins his ministry by preaching, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Matthew informs the reader that this message of repentance is the thrust of Jesus’ ministry when he says, “…from that time.” Jesus says in Luke 9:23, if anyone wants to follow him they must, “…deny himself.” Additionally, Chamberlain will rightly argue, when Jesus calls his disciples to be fishers of men in Matthew 4, he is calling them to repent and turn to him. This view makes sense considering repentance is required for salvation, and Christ’s disciples would necessarily have to repent in order to truly follow him. These are specific examples of individual repentance. It is true that the context of some individual repentance may take place in a corporate setting; it does not negate the requirement for the individual to repent for salvation. Case in point, Acts 2 recounts Peter’s sermon during Pentecost. He ends the sermon by calling his hearers to repentance. This act of repentance is an individual act, yet it is being told in a corporate setting. What this shows is the individual aspect of repentance, yet it is leading to the New Testament form of corporate repentance, that is the repentance of the Church.
As in the Old Testament, the New Testament places a strong emphasis on the status of the heart in repentance. Paul, writing to the church at Rome, discusses the issue of circumcision in Romans 3. He ends the chapter by saying, “But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.” While repentance is not directly mentioned in the section of Scripture it can rightly be assumed. While the doers of the law were bound by sacrifices for remission of sin, an act that God often times spurned because this form of repentance was out of obligation to the form set up by God’s law.
In the New Testament, corporate repentance is not seen as the repentance of a nation, rather it is seen as the repentance of Christ’s Church. Revelation 3:19 is a good example of this corporate repentance. John, inspired by the Holy Spirit of God is told to write a letter to the church at Laodicea. In this letter the church is urged to repent for their lack of commitment. John writes, “I know your works…So because you are lukewarm, I will spit you out of my mouth…Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent.” As the bride of Christ there are times when his church will need to repent for straying from the truth of God’s word. What the reader will see in Revelation is the church at Laodicea had failed to be diligent in its work. They had slacked in their commitment to uphold the righteousness of God. As a result they are told because they are loved they will be disciplined, and this discipline ought to be followed by repentance.
It is important for the reader to understand repentance as a ministry of the Holy Spirit of God. Paul writes in Galatians 3:5 concerning the miracles the Holy Spirit performs, as supplied by God the Father. The greatest of these miracles is that of conversion. It is the Holy Spirit who convicts, and without conviction of sins the sinner has nothing to repent of. Furthermore, to receive salvation requires the sinner to be borne again; this second birth is that of the Spirit. The reader will understand, conversion is ultimately a miracle of the Holy Spirit, and as the thrust of this paper suggests, the moment of conversion (true salvation) is not possible without genuine repentance. Therefore, repentance can be rightly understood as a ministry of the Holy Spirit.
Up until this point in this paper I have maintained a less personal tone. At this point I will transition, and tell the reader how I teach, preach and apply repentance in my personal life as well as the ministry God has entrusted to me.
Because I am convinced by Scripture that repentance is necessary for salvation, I always emphasize repentance as I share Christ with individuals. Jesus makes clear the need for repentance in Luke 13. He also is very clear on who needs to repent in Luke 5:32. He says unless you are sick you do not need a doctor, likewise unless you are righteous you must repent. Because Romans is clear that none are righteous, it would be logical that everyone is in need of repentance for salvation.
Unfortunately, repentance can easily be mistaken for forgiveness. In fact Ironside says repentance is often the missing “note” in otherwise orthodox circles. I fear he is correct. It is often times believed that repentance can be too severe of an act, and can intimidate and embarrass individuals. I believe this comes from a misguided view of repentance. Chamberlain is correct when he says the protestant church equates repentance for an “emotional crisis of sorrow over sin and fear of punishment.” Certainly this can be seen in the ‘hellfire and brimstone’ preaching of many evangelists over the last 250 years. I think this can detract from the hope true repentance should rightfully bring. Anyone who gets caught for doing wrong is instantly sorry they got caught; this is why being sorry for your sin is not enough. ‘Sorry’ does not rightly address the sin at hand. Rather than sorrow over being caught, or the penalty of being caught, repentance gives the sinner hope that sin has been completely forgiven and will not be held against them because the sinner has been covered by the blood of Jesus.
In this same vein of thought, repentance also prepares the sinner for service in the kingdom. Looking back at the commissioning of Simon (Peter) and Andrew, one can clearly see the call to repent, “…follow Me,” alongside the call to serve, “…and I will make you fishers of men.” It is key to explain service as being indicative to repentance. When repentance is painted in this light, hope appropriately takes the place of fear. In this way Matthew Lundberg is correct when he uses repentance as catalyst for missions.
In addition to pointing to the hope repentance produces, I like to remind those I come in contact with (as well as myself regularly) that repentance is not a one-time event. You do not repent of your sins once and for all; this could lead to a very hedonistic lifestyle. Rather, repentance is along the same path as sanctification. That is, repentance is essential during one’s entire life because one will sin his entire life. In this way, both repentance and sanctification are an ongoing process. Chamberlain calls repentance a “pilgrimage from the mind of the flesh, to the mind of Christ.” So as I teach and preach the gospel, I always remind those who hear me that repentance is necessary until you enter glory.
There is yet another issue that I run into as I teach repentance and that issue surrounds the philosophical mindset of today, post-modernity. In a time that refutes absolute truth, how can repentance be applicable? That is to say, if I am witnessing to an individual who professes atheism, and I explain to that person their need to repent; they are likely to respond in such a way as, “Why must I repent? The Bible may be true to you, but it is not true to me.” Or better yet, “What if I do not think that lust is a sin? Why must I repent of something I do not consider to be immoral?” These are serious concerns. In cases where an individual refutes moral laws as dictated in Scripture I begin a different discussion entirely. At that point it becomes an issue of apologetics and ceases to be a desire for a sinner to repent. Although this desire never ceases, it does cease to be the focal point.
Lastly, repentance is evidence of the fruits of the Spirit being manifested in the life of the believer. It is very difficult to place in order, these applications, as the most important, but I think it would be safe to say evidence of the fruit of the Spirit may be the most important aspect of true repentance. That is because they are evidence of a true change of mind (metanoia), and a heartfelt turn to God (shub).
In short, for me as I teach, preach and apply repentance to my own personal life, I emphasize the importance of repentance as being necessary for salvation. I also point to the hope true repentance gives, as well as the service to the Kingdom it insists. I remind my hearers that repentance goes alongside sanctification as a lifelong process; I acknowledge the difficulties of addressing the need for repentance in a culture that does not accept sin as an affront to God’s holiness, because God may or may not be real to any specific person. Lastly, I emphasize the evidence of true repentance as being seen by the outpouring of the fruits of the Spirit, as seen in Galatians chapter 5.
This paper has looked at repentance in the Old Testament, both corporately and individually, and seen that heartfelt repentance is called for my God. This paper has also looked at repentance in the New Testament, both corporately and individually, as essential to salvation, and evidenced by a change in life that begins to bear the fruits of the Spirit. This paper has addressed this writer’s approach to discussing repentance with both believers and those unsaved, in an attempt to show the necessity of repentance as a requirement for salvation. In closing, repentance is necessary for new birth, new birth is necessary to be pure in heart and only the pure in heart will see God. Therefore, “Repentance is not only desirable, but it is imperative and all important. Apart from it no sinner will ever be saved.”
Walker, Charles. Repentance and Faith Explained to the Understanding of the Young. Birmingham Alabama, USA: Solid Ground Christian Books (Originally: American Tract Society), 2006. These two stories are abridged, as they consume a chapter each in the book they came from (chapters 2-3).
Chamberlain, William Douglas. The Meaning of Repentance. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1943. In chapter one, Chamberlain will present the reader with the idea of being re-aligned, or re-oriented with God.
Ibid., 19-20 Chamberlain offers the possibility that when Jesus said “follow me and I will make you fishers of men (Matt 4, and Mark 1)” he meant shuv, or turn to Me and I will make you fishers of men. I believe Chamberlain is correct in this assessment of the text. Chamberlain spends a good deal of time discussing issues of textual criticism surrounding the translation of the terms repent, and repentance. Since this is not the point of this paper I will not enter into this discussion, but I will make the reader aware of the translational argument concerning these terms.
Grudem, Wayne. Bible Doctrine: Essential Teachings of the Christian Faith. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1999. 309.
Ibid., 309 – 313.
Ironside, H.A. Except Ye Repent. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan (Originally American Tract Society, 1937), 1963. 18. Ironside seems to allude to repentance being an “awakening” prior to faith, “To own frankly that I am lost and guilty is the prelude to life and peace.” When Ironside uses the word ‘prelude’ this assumes repentance produces faith.
Watson, Thomas. The Doctrine of Repentance. Edinburgh, UK: Puritan Paper Backs, Banner of Truth Trust (Originally published in 1668), 2009. 13. Watson agrees with Ironside, repentance produces faith, and faith saves. While these two authors disagree with Grudem, Chamberlain would agree, but he will use slightly different terms. On page 46 of The Meaning of Repentance, Chamberlain says repentance occurs at the same time as regeneration. It is understood that regeneration (new life) can only come through faith. So while the terms are different, the meaning is the same.
Ezekiel 14:6 Note, all Scripture references, unless otherwise noted, are from the ESV translation of the Bible.
Watson, The Doctrine of Repentance makes the point that repentance is not a compartmentalization of sin. This is an area of agreement between Watson and Ironside (Except ye Repent), who on page 15 will argue the same point.
Ibid., 55 Watson says true repentance is like forsaking “native soil.”
For the sake of space, this paper will highlight the 2 Samuel 11 account of King David’s sin with Bathsheba.
Watson, The Doctrine of Repentance, pg. 52. Here Watson says dying to sin is the life of repentance. This can be deduced in the act of denying one’s self daily.
Chamberlain, The Meaning of Repentance, pg. 19-20.
This view also explains Judas as the Son of Perdition, since he had not truly repented of his sins he was the one used to further God’s sacrificial plan.
Acts 2:38, Acts 3:19 contain not only the New Testament idea of changing one’s mind, but it also includes a reference to the Old Testament definition of turning away from sin. Acts has multiple examples of repentance, and they are all centered on the proclamation of the Gospel, and an evangelistic push to bring sinners to salvation.
Micah 6:6-7, as well as Psalm 51. These speak to the heart of the Jewish legalists who thought by keeping the letter of the law, without acknowledging their complete inability to fully keep it, they would inherit the Kingdom of God. This in no way can be substantiated by Scripture. Repentance is a necessary and humbling act for salvation.
Revelation 3:15, 19 (abridged)
See the first half of this paper for Scriptural support for this statement. Also see Luke 13:1-5
Ironsode, Except ye Repent, pg. 7
Chamberlain, The Meaning of Repentance, pg. 19
Chamberlain uses Kierkegaard as an example of someone who was constantly dwelling on past sin. He says Kierkegaard presented a sort of “morbidly morose piety, pg. 26.” In fact, this attitude often detracted others from coming to a saving knowledge of Christ.
Lundberg, Matthew D. “Repentance as a Paradigm for Christian Repentance” Journal of Ecumenical Studies 45, no. 2 (2010): 201-217.
Chamberlain, The Meaning of Repentance, pg. 47
Whibley, Mel. “A Postmodern Paradox: Collective Repentance in an Age Without Sin.” Colloquium 38, no. 1 (2006): 74-85. Whibley does a good job of addressing the issues of what he refers to as “moral evils” in an environment that refutes sin.
Ironside also mentions the issue of post modernity, or secular humanism, on page 183 of Except Ye Repent.
Ironside, Except ye Repent, pg. 190