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Thursday, 26 August 2010 14:38

Bible Study: Repentance: What is it?

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by Pastor J. Schoeman

Repentance is a major theme in the Scriptures - especially in the New Testament. In fact, the New Testament begins and ends with a call to repentance. In Matt 3: 2 John the Baptist bursts on the scene exhorting people to repent: “Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” In Rev. 3: 19 Christ says to the church at Laodicea: “As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore, and repent.” Repentance is one of the key doctrines of the New Testament, and therefore it is important that we understand exactly what it is.

What is repentance? What does it men to repent of sin? The Scriptures use three words for repentance - one in the Old Testament and two in the New. The word most commonly used in the Old Testament is the Hebrew word “shub” (pronounced: “shoove”) which is often translated as “to turn” or “to return.”

The ideas of turning and returning are essential to the Scriptural understanding of repentance. To repent does not merely mean to feel bad about something or to regret something; it is more than remorse. To repent means to turn around, to do a complete about face, to go in the opposite direction.

The two words used for repentance in the NT are “metanoia” (pronounced meta-noy-a) and “epistrepho.” Basically, metanoia means to change one’s mind. When one repents of his sin he changes his mind about sin. What he once did without thinking he now realizes is wrong. He has a change of mind. This is not to suggest that repentance is merely an intellectual activity, i.e. you do one thing, then after considering all of the implications and weighing all of the options you change your mind and do something else. That is part of it, but it includes much more. Metanoia involves not only a change of mind but also a change of attitude, heart, and disposition. You not only change your mind about sin; you develop an aversion to it. Thus true repentance involves the mind, the will and the emotions.

The word epistrepho is very similar to the Hebrew word shub. Like shub, epistrepho also contains the idea of turning around, moving in the opposite direction. It differs from metanoia in that metanoia emphasizes the inner change involved in repentance whereas epistrepho stresses the change in one’s outward life which stems from this inner change.

We can best detect the difference between these two words by taking a look at Acts 3:19. Here both words are used in the same verse. Peter had just healed the lame man in the temple. Suddenly a crowd of people came together to witness the miracle for themselves. Peter used the healing to preach the gospel to them. He said (verse 19): “Repent (metanoia) ye therefore, and be converted (epistrepho: turn around, turn to God) that your sins may be blotted out, when the times of refreshing shall come from the presence of the Lord.”

We see, therefore, that although these two words are closely related, there is a difference between them. The one (metanoia) emphasizes the inner aspect of repentance; the other (epistrepho) the outer aspect.

Now perhaps you are wondering: why am I spending so much time on this? Why all this discussion about Hebrew and Greek words and their meaning? The reason is this: because we must understand that repentance involves more than remorse. Sometimes we have a tendency to think that we have truly repented of our sins when we feel sorry for them. That is part of it of course but there must be


more. If we have truly repented of our sins we not only feel sorry for our sins we also TURN from them. The inner change of heart and mind must come to expression in an outer change in behaviour.

Allow me to illustrate what I mean. In Matt 21: 28-32 Jesus tells a parable of a man who had two sons. One day the man asked one of his sons to go and work in his vineyard. At first the son refused, but afterward, Jesus says, he “repented and went.” The word that is used for “repent” here is based on the word metanoia. The idea is this: as the son thought about what he had said to his father he had a change of mind and heart. He regretted very much what he had said to his father. He knew he was in the wrong and so he resolved to do something about it; hence we read “he went.” The point is, he not only felt sorry for what he had done, but his sorrow manifested itself in a change of behaviour. Whereas before he flatly refused to do what his father had asked of him, now he does it. True repentance, therefore, is remorse manifesting itself in a change in behaviour.

Have you truly repented of your sin? If so, then you will be a different person. You will not only hate sin but you will also flee from it, and that must show itself in your everyday life.

Pastor J. Schoeman ministers to the Free Reformed congregation of Monarch, Alberta.

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