Then Peter said unto them, Repent….
— Acts 2:38
In a recent survey, people who regularly attend church were asked to articulate what the word “repentance” meant to them. The survey resulted in an intriguing and interesting assortment of answers. The majority of those who participated in the survey stated that they believed the word “repentance” meant one or more of the following:
- To feel sorry about something one did or failed to do.
- To feel remorseful about some act and to ask for forgiveness for it.
- To walk forward in a church service to formally ask Jesus into one’s heart.
*[If you started reading this from your email, begin reading here.]
Although these answers are interesting, none of them is correct! What’s most shocking about this survey is that it was given to people who regularly attend church yet who could not accurately articulate what it means to “repent.”
Before we go any further, let’s include you in the survey. How would you define the meaning of the word “repent”? Try to answer that question before reading on.
The word “repent” is a very important New Testament word. The first time it is chronologically used in the New Testament is in Matthew 3:2, Mark 1:4, and Luke 3:3, where we are told that John the Baptist preached, “…Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2). John’s ministry was literally launched with that one word “repent.” According to the preaching of John the Baptist, the only way to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven was through repentance.
Jesus, too, began His public ministry by beckoning His listeners to repent. In Matthew 4:17, Jesus commenced His preaching ministry when He said, “…Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Like John the Baptist, Jesus knew that the only way to enter the Kingdom of God was through repentance.
Then in Acts 2:38, we read that Peter launched his preaching ministry on the Day of Pentecost with the same requirement of repentance. Just as John the Baptist and Jesus had called on men to repent, so Peter told his audience in Acts 2:38, “Repent.” Peter understood that repentance is the “birth canal” through which people enter the Kingdom of God. In other words, it is the only way to truly be delivered from the kingdom of darkness and to emerge spiritually reborn and filled with the God-kind of life.
Real repentance is very different from remorse. Yet feelings of remorse for a past action was one of the most frequent definitions given by people who participated in the aforementioned church survey.
The Greek word for “remorse” in the New Testament is metamelomai, which is very different from the Greek word for “repent,” the word metanoeo. Metamelomai expresses sorrow, mourning, or grief. It seldom refers to someone moved to change; rather, it gives a picture of a person consumed with remorse, guilt, or regret.
For example, the word metamelomai is used in the gospels to describe the remorse, guilt, and regret that seized the heart and mind of Judas Iscariot after he betrayed Jesus. What Judas experienced was not true repentance, which brings personal change and transformation. Because the Greek word metamelomai is used to describe the emotions that captured him, it tells us that Judas was inundated with distressed, regretful emotions. Such sorrow should not be confused with repentance, for there are many who undergo a flood of regret and sorrow for something they have done, yet they don’t truly repent.
Personal change and transformation — NOT remorse, regret, and sorrow — are the true proof of repentance.
The word “repent” that was used by John the Baptist, Jesus, and Peter, is the Greek word metanoeo. This is very different from the word metamelomai. The word metanoeo — “repent” — means a change of mind, repentance, or conversion. In Old Testament and Classical Greek language, metanoeo first and foremost meant a change of mind. Thus, the use of metanoeo is the call to turn or to change one’s attitudes and ways. As used in the New Testament, it demands a complete, radical, and total change. It is a decision to completely change or to entirely turn around in the way one is thinking, believing, or living. The word “repent” in the New Testament gives the image of a person changing from top to bottom — a total transformation wholly affecting every part of a person’s life.
The Greek word metanoeo is a compound of the words meta and nous. The word meta in this context refers to a turn or a change. The word nous is the word for the mind, intellect, will, frame of thinking, opinion, or general view of life. When the words meta and nous are compounded, as in the word “repent,” it portrays a decision to completely change the way one thinks, lives, or behaves.
Metanoeo reflects a turn, a change, a change of direction, a new course, and a completely altered view of life and behavior. This is not the same as a fleeting sorrow for past actions, but a solid, intellectual decision to take a new direction, to turn about-face, and to revise the pattern of one’s life.
I must point out the importance of the word nous contained in this definition of repentance. The word nous, as previously noted, is the Greek word for the mind. This means that the decision to repent lies in the mind, not in the emotions. Emotions may accompany repentance, but they are not required to repent. Real repentance is a mental choice to leave a life of sin, flesh, and selfishness, and to turn toward God with all of one’s heart and mind in order to follow Jesus.
A prime example of such a turning can be seen in Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonian believers when he commended them for the way in which they had “…turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God” (1 Thessalonians 1:9). The word “turned” in this verse is the Greek word epistrepho, which means to be completely turned around.
Note that Paul said the Thessalonian believers turned from idols “to serve the living and true God.” The word “serve” is important, for it tells us that the turn they made produced a life change with visible fruit that reflected the change. The word “serve” is the word douleuo, the word for a servant, implying that the Thessalonian believers had fully left behind idolatry and had completely dedicated their lives to serving Jesus.
By using this word douleuo, Paul informed us that the Thessalonians didn’t just claim to have repented; they showed it by changing the way they thought and lived and served. Their dramatically different outward behavior was guaranteed proof that real repentance had occurred.
Repentance is not the mere acceptance of a new philosophy or new idea. It is a conversion to truth so deep that it results in a total life change. The idea of an across-the-board transformation is intrinsic to the word “repent.” In fact, if there is no transformation, change of behavior, or change of desire in a person who claims to have repented, it is doubtful that true repentance ever occurred, no matter what the person claims. Real repentance begins with a decision to make an about-face and to change, but its proof can be witnessed as one’s outward conduct complies with that decision.
Repentance is God’s requirement as presented by John the Baptist, Jesus, and Peter, as well as in other places in Scripture too numerous to count. This means that a person cannot come to God and continue to live as he did before he received the Lord.
We sing the old song, “Just as I Am, Without One Plea”1 — and certainly we do come to God “just as we are” to receive God’s gracious gift of salvation. However, God does not expect us to remain the way we are. He expects change, and that is what repentance is all about. With godly repentance, there must be an abandonment of our past and a complete and absolute surrender to the Lordship of Jesus Christ, evidenced by our living according to God’s righteous standard.
1 Charlotte Elliott, “Just As I Am,” The Christian Remembrancer Pocket Book (Poetry, 1835).
As you grow in your walk with God, the Holy Spirit will continue to reveal things in your life that need to change. When He opens your eyes to those things that are displeasing to Him, you must be willing to repent — to make an intelligent, intellectual decision to adjust your thinking and behavior to conform to God’s ways. It’s a conscious choice. Will you remain belligerent in your attitude and thus defy God’s requirement to change — or humbly bow before His holiness and adjust your thinking and behavior to get in agreement with Him and His Word?
More than 2,000 years ago, Jesus began His earthly ministry by preaching, “…Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). He is the same yesterday, today, and forever (see Hebrews 13:8). Today He is still speaking to people’s hearts, telling them to turn from wrong ways that are detrimental to living a life that is holy and pleasing to God. So ask yourself if your ministry to other people reflects that same priority. But first and foremost — what is the Holy Spirit saying to you, and how should you respond today?
MY PRAYER FOR TODAY
Father, I am deeply convicted by Your Spirit about areas of my life that need to change. I admit that I’ve been tolerating things that are unacceptable for a child of God. I have been living far below what You expect of me. I see areas where I have fallen short of Your glory in my thoughts and attitudes, and it has negatively affected my life, my relationships, and my conduct. But starting today, I am choosing to repent. I make up my mind that my life is going to change. I’ve been wrong to think the way I have thought, and I’ve been wrong in the way I’ve behaved. I am no longer ignorant because You have spoken to my heart about these things. Since I am accountable for my attitudes and my actions, I am making the choice to repent and to change –– and it starts today!
I pray this in Jesus’ name!
MY CONFESSION FOR TODAY
I confess that I am unwilling to tolerate sin in any area of my life. I submit myself to the Holy Spirit and allow the Word of God to cause my thoughts and desires to become conformed to the mind of Christ and agreeable to His will. I align my thoughts and imaginations with the Lord so I can stay in step with His Spirit and in sync with His Word. I am obedient to the Lord, and I live a life that brings glory to His name. I do not just talk about making changes in my life — I prove my repentance is genuine by demonstrating the fruit of a transformed heart.
I declare this by faith in Jesus’ name!
QUESTIONS FOR YOU TO CONSIDER
- Can you think of areas in your own life that are not pleasing to God? If you’ve given yourself too much latitude and have allowed yourself to hold on to unacceptable attitudes, habits, grudges, and so forth, make it right with the Lord today by deciding to repent and change.
- As you’ve ministered to people through the years, have you ever seen someone walk the aisle to give his or her heart to Jesus and yet never really change? What adjustments can you make in the way you preach about repentance to make sure people don’t take God’s requirements lightly?
- In what ways did the Holy Spirit help you walk away from who you used to be before you received Christ so you could embrace the new person God created you to be? What habits did you turn away from, and what attitudes and actions did you replace them with in Christ? How can you become more effective in helping others through this same dramatic transformation process?