When sin caused the gates of paradise to be closed to man, the door of repentance was opened to him. During the Old Testament days God called men to repentance through the message of the prophets (Ezekiel 18:30; Jeremiah 18:1-8). John the baptizer was sent to preach the message of repentance to prepare the way for Christ (Matthew 3:1-2; Mark 1:4). Today God speaks through His Son (Hebrews 1:1) and Christ wants the message of repentance and remission of sins proclaimed to the whole world (Luke 24: 46-47).
In the Old Testament there are different Hebrew words used for our English word “repentance.” The word nacham is sometimes used about God and sometimes about men. This word does not necessarily imply sin, though sin may be involved when it applies to men. The word simply means to lament, to grieve. It involves sympathy, disappointment or hurt. Such is the case in Genesis 6:6: “And it repented the Lord that he had made man on the earth and it grieved him at his heart.” Also it is used in Jonah 3:10: “And God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God repented of the evil, that he had said that he would do unto them; and he did it not.” God did nothing wrong but changed his course of action because the people repented.
Then there is the Hebrew word shawb. This word indicates turning back or changing directions. This word is frequently used in the prophets. This word demands a change in attitude toward sin and toward God. In I Kings 8:47 the KJV uses the word “bethink.” This, however, is the Hebrew word shuwb. Also it is used in Ezekiel 14: 6 “Therefore say unto the house of Israel, thus saith the Lord God; repent, and turn yourselves from idols; and turn away your faces from all your abominations.” That verse literally says “turn and be turned from your idols.” This is clearly a turning away from idols and turning to God. A similar passage is seen in Ezekiel 18:30. The people are told to “turn and be made to turn from all your transgressions.” It was not good enough then or now just to stop doing wrong. Man was required to turn away from sin and then turn to God in order to repent.
In the New Testament the Greek word metamellomai is used to indicate emotional concern or regret. This is the word used of Judas in Matthew 27:3. Judas had emotional concern and regret but he did not truly repent. The Greek metanoeo expresses spiritual change and return to God. This is the word used in Matthew 3:2: “Repent ye; for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” This is also the word Peter used in Acts 2:38: “Repent and be baptized.”
The importance of repentance is seen in the following passages. “ I tell you, nay: but except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3). Heaven is interested in man’s repentance “I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance” (Luke 15:7). Repentance is commanded from God. “And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men every where to repent” (Acts 17:30). “The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (II Peter 3:9).
There seems to be much misunderstanding concerning repentance in the world today. Viewed negatively repentance is not just fear. In Acts 24:25 Felix trembled but there is no indication he repented. Repentance is not just sorrow for sin, II Corinthians 7:10 says that godly sorrow leads to repentance. Judas seemed to be sorry for what he had done but did not repent.
Viewed positively repentance is a change of one’s will produced by godly sorrow and resulting in a reformation of life. There are at least two classic examples of repentance seen in the Word of God. First, consider the people of Nineveh. “The men of Nineveh shall rise in judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: because they repented at the preaching of Jonas; and, behold a greater than Jonas is here” (Matthew 12:41). Jonah’s message was a message of judgment on Nineveh. “And Jonah began to enter into the city a day’s journey, and he cried, and said, yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown” (Jonah 3:4). The people proclaimed a fast and put on sackcloth. Their repentance could be seen by God and man. “And God saw their works that they turned from their evil way” (Jonah 3:10). They turned from their evil and turned to God; this is true repentance.
A second example is seen in the prodigal son of Luke 15:11-32. After leaving his father and wasting his substance with riotous living, verse 17 says “he came to himself.” What was involved in his repentance? First, there was the recognition of where he was. He saw himself in the pig pen. Then, there was genuine sorrow for his sins. He said he would arise and go back to his father. Included in this was his acknowledgment of his sin. In verse 18 he would say “Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee.” His sin involved leaving his father; repentance involved returning to his father. We also see genuine humility in verse 21. “I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son.”
Part of God’s plan of salvation involves repentance (Acts 2:38). Erring Christians need to repent (Acts 8:22). God gives men a choice: repent or perish (II Peter 3:9; Luke 13:3). Repentance involves getting out of sinful practices. This is seen in I Corinthians 6:9-11 where Paul lists several sins the Corinthians were guilty of before they obeyed the gospel. Those sins included fornication, adultery, homosexuality, theft and more. Paul said “and such were some of you: but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified...” (I Corinthians 6:11). They were washed of all sins that they repented of and only those sins. Baptism does not change an unscriptural marriage into a scriptural one any more than baptism changes a practicing homosexual who continues that sin after his baptism into a right relationship with God. Repentance in both cases involves turning from sin and turning to God. Repentance is hard because it involves change and change is painful.
When men sin they need to repent while they have conscience to do so lest they be hardened. “But exhort one another daily, while it is called to day; lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin” (Hebrews 3:13). Repentance involves change on our part. The choice however is clear, repent or perish!