What is repentance? What is the definition of repentance? For disciples of Jesus, these two questions frame the all-important starting point in a relationship with Him.
Repentance is one of the least talked-about topics in Christian circles today, but no less important because of our silence. It’s a critical element in salvation and our eternal destination, so it’s important to understand what repentance is, and what it is not.
In our anything-goes culture, we long for grace and forgiveness but fail to consider the prerequisites of confession and repentance. Jesus’ words seem shocking and sobering to people accustomed to doing whatever they want. “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” (Luke 13:5)
What is the definition of repentance?
The word translated as “repent” is metanoeō and literally means “to perceive afterward” with the implication of change. What the Bible defines as repentance includes a change of mind from a previously held view to one for the better, from our opinion of our sin to agreement with God’s opinion of it. It brings with it the idea that our repentance, or mind change, will be accompanied by a modification in behavior.
Change is inherent in the idea of metanoeō.
We’re as guilty as anyone of what we call “Scarlett O’Hara repentance”. In the movie Gone With the Wind, Rhett Butler says of Scarlett, “You’re like the thief who’s very, very sorry he got caught, but not at all sorry he stole.” 2 Scarlett-repentance makes an interesting storyline and keeps the action moving. It’s a good fiction twist, but it has nothing to do with what the Bible defines as repentance.
What is the definition of repentance, then? When Jesus calls us to repentance, to metanoeō, He calls us to change both our minds and our behavior. This is not an emotional response to conviction, but an active response of mind and body.
What is repentance?
Repentance is an intentional change made in order to agree with God. For example, if we repent of adultery, we agree with God that adultery is a sin and our actions have been sinful. We ask for forgiveness based on our repentance. In our repentance, our mind changes. We no longer view adultery as acceptable behavior.
In addition, our actions change and we no longer commit adultery. We completely remove ourselves from the relationship. The definition of repentance includes mind change, behavior change, and opportunity change. Asking God for forgiveness on our way to or from our adulterous lover’s house is not repentance.
Adultery is an extreme example, but it holds true for every sin, from pride to unforgiveness to a critical, judgmental spirit. Sins of attitude and thought are sometimes harder to change than intentional action sins but, by the grace of God, true repentance is possible.
Sins of thought and attitude
“I can’t help what I think” is a commonly-held opinion, but Scripture disagrees. “Take every thought captive,” Paul wrote. (2 Corinthians 10:5) If we take our thoughts captive, when a sinful thought enters our mind, we immediately reject it and turn our thoughts toward those things that are good and pleasing to God.
For example, when we encounter someone about whom you have ungodly thoughts, we are to train ourselves to speak (aloud or silently) only that which would be pleasing to God. We are not to dwell on the negative. If we can’t think anything positive, we’re to pray for the same grace toward them that we want toward ourselves.
Change is not optional.
We have two choices. Stay the same and perish. Repent and not perish (i.e. have eternal life). We can’t have it both ways. A relationship with Jesus in only possible with genuine repentance. Eternal life in heaven is only possible through Him. We will all choose one option or the other—to repent or not. What will you decide?
“Now on the same occasion, there were some present who reported to Him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. And Jesus said to them, “Do you suppose that these Galileans were greater sinners than all other Galileans because they suffered this fate? I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or do you suppose that those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them were worse culprits than all the men who live in Jerusalem? I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.'” Luke 13:1-5 NASB
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- “G3340 – metanoeō – Strong’s Greek Lexicon (nasb95).” Blue Letter Bible. Accessed 12 Apr, 2022. https://www.blueletterbible.org/lexicon/g3340/nasb95/mgnt/0-1/
- Fleming, Victor, George Cukor, and Sam Wood. 1939. Gone with the Wind. United States: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM).