“Repentance” Word Study


There has been much confusion and damage caused among both believers and the unsaved by the misunderstanding of, and the misuse of the words “repent/repentance.” If we were to ask the average churchgoer today what is required for a person to do in order to go to heaven when they died, probably many would reply “repent of your sins” and perhaps include one or two additional requirements such as believe in Jesus or live a good life, etc. It is likely that very few of these have followed that reasoning through to determine exactly what this means or entails, or even if there are Biblical grounds for their response.

Part of this confusion is due to the modern-day definition of the word in contrast to how the Bible uses it. Most modern definitions for repent/repentance usually are “to be penitent,” “turn from sin,” “be sorry for sin,” or similar.[1] We believe that this confusion is part of Satan’s strategy and pattern to counterfeit God’s truth which can hinder unbelievers from being saved and believers from growing in grace. The devil is a liar and a murderer (John 8:44) and he endorses for us to settle for man’s righteousness instead of God’s perfect righteousness for our eternal life (Isa. 64:6; 2 Cor. 11:13-15).

Much of this misunderstanding was probably initiated by early religious leaders who believed that one must do penance in order to receive eternal life, and therefore translated related passages as such. We quote from Part One of Dr. Bob Wilkin’s doctoral dissertation on repentance:

“Repentance Defined as Contrition, Confession,
and Performing Prescribed Acts of Penance

The apostolic fathers taught that in order to retain salvation from eternal judgment one had to feel sorry for and confess his post‑baptis­mal sins to a priest and then do whatever acts of penance were prescribed by the priest.[2] The Latin Fathers translated, or rather mistranslated, the NT words metanoeo and metanoia to reflect their theological bias. They translated those terms as poenitenitam agite and poenitentia, “to do acts of penance” and “acts of penance,” respectively.[3] Those mis­translations unfortunately became part of the Old Latin and then the Latin Vulgate versions of the Bible. It was not until the Reformation that those translations were given a serious and widespread challenge.”[4]

If the unbeliever hears an unclear or inaccurate gospel message, then it is less likely that he will believe in Jesus and be saved (2 Cor. 4:4; John 3:16). The frequently heard “gospel” message is to “repent of your sin (By that it is meant to turn from sin or at least be sufficiently sorrowful for it) and believe in Jesus to be eternally saved.” Besides the fact that there is not one verse in the Bible that even uses the terms “repent or repentance of sin,” this additional requirement would add man’s imperfect and insufficient works to Jesus’ perfect payment. This would therefore negate its efficacy for the one attempting to achieve this feat as it would require partially trusting in one’s own works. It would also require an unbeliever to attain some level of a mature Christian life before he is born again and has the Holy Spirit to empower him to grow (i.e. requiring spiritual growth before spiritual birth had occurred). There would be no way for that person to know how much sin to turn from nor for how long. What if we tried to do this and later failed? By promoting this message we would be thrusting sincere and seeking people into a devastating and unbiblical quagmire.

If the believer is unclear in his Good News presentation, then he will become less fruitful in his primary purpose of glorifying God by bearing much fruit (John 15:8). In addition, he brings a curse from God upon himself for polluting the grace message (Gal. 1:6-10). The word “accursed” here (vs. 8, 9) has nothing to do with receiving eternal life as Paul included himself in that warning.[5] We are saved by grace through faith (Eph. 2:8, 9), not by being obedient in our Christian life.

We frequently hear the so-called gospel message to unbelievers as “repent of your sins and believe in Jesus” in order to be eternally saved. This message is clearly adding a second requirement to the Bible's one mandate of “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved,...” (Acts 16:31). Since the Bible never mentions the terms “repent of sin” or “repentance of sin,” let alone making it a requirement for receiving eternal life,[6] should not this fact make us quite cautious of using the term in our gospel presentation? We receive eternal life solely by believing in Jesus to save us (John 3:16, et al).

Repentance is an important Biblical doctrine but its mishandling causes great harm to people and to the cause of Christ. It is essential to know what the word means in the Bible so that we can correctly apply the doctrine in obedience to our Savior.

A major purpose of this study is to clarify the meaning of the words “repent” and “repentance” in both the OT and the NT and to discover what God means in the Bible when He uses these terms. We hope to expose not only the wrong use of the word but also to see in Scripture the truth of this important doctrine and how it applies to us. Let us see how it is used in the Bible by reviewing every use of repent/repentance and then drawing some conclusions from the facts that we discover. Some of these facts and observations will differ from some widely-held preconceived notions on this controversial subject. No one is obligated to concur with our conclusions but we suggest that it would be wise to not ignore or discard them without having good Scriptural support. We are open to correction and change but deem God’s Word as the authority over consensus opinion.[7]

[1] E.g. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary  “to feel or show that you are sorry for something bad or wrong that you did and that you want to do what is right;” http://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/ “to be sorry you did or did not do something.”

[2] See Hermas, Mandate, 4. 3. 6; Clement of Rome, First Epistle, 8‑9; and Polycarp, Philippians, 2.

[3] See William Douglas Chamberlain, The Meaning of Repentance (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1943), 27‑28; Edgar R. Smothers, “The New Testament Concept of Metanoia,. Classical Bulletin 10 (1933): 7‑8; Aloys Herman Dirksen, The New Testa­ment Concept of Metanoia (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America, 1932), 66‑67; and John Cecil Anderson, “Repentance in the Greek New Testament” (Th.D. dissertation, Dallas Theological Seminary, 1959), 14ff.

[4] This paragraph, including footnotes is from “Part 1: The Doctrine of Repentance in Church History” by Dr. Bob Wilkin. I would recommend the diligent student to read the whole paper along with many other excellent articles available at the same website. The complete study can be found at the following URLs:

Part 1: The Doctrine of Repentance in Church History


Part 2: The Doctrine of Repentance in the Old Testament”


Part 3: New Testament Repentance: Lexical Considerations


Part 4: New Testament Repentance: Repentance in the Gospels and Acts


Part 5: New Testament Repentance: Repentance in the Epistles and Revelation


Part 6: How to Communicate the Doctrine of Repentance Clearly


Due to subsequent Bible study, Dr. Wilkin later adopted a different view of repentance than indicated in his earlier paper on the subject. (See “Does Your Mind Need Changing? Repentance Reconsidered,” by Robert N. Wilkin, at http://www.faithalone.org/journal/1998i/Wilkin.html). This writer also encountered a similar experience. I had known for years that the Greek word translated “repentance” meant “a change of mind.” I inferred that this meant a change of mind about Jesus, how sin is paid for, and a resultant belief in Him. This interpretation does not conflict with the basic premise of salvation by faith/belief alone in Jesus, but my later study brought me to another conclusion which I believe concurs not only with the Biblically congruent faith-alone in Jesus-alone message for eternal life, but also with the rest of the Word on the subject. I then read a study by Zane Hodges who had already been where I had been and had progressed much further while refining many of the details in the process. Hodges’ honest and thorough study “connected the dots” for me.

I suggest any serious student to honestly read and re-read this booklet. It is “Harmony With God: A Fresh Look at Repentance” by Zane Hodges. It is available for purchase from http://www.faithalone.org/bookstore/books.html or can be read online or downloaded:  

Part 1 http://chafer.nextmeta.com/files/v8n3_1harmony_with_god_part_1.pdf

Part 2 http://chafer.nextmeta.com/files/v8n4_3harmony_with_god_part_2.pdf

Part 3 http://chafer.nextmeta.com/files/v9n1_2harmony_with_god_part_3.pdf

The hard copy contains a very helpful scripture index.

[5] The KJV translates “ἀνάθεμα” (an-ath'-em-ah) in Galatians 1:8, 9, as “let him be accursed.” The New International Version and several others inaccurately translate it as “let him be eternally condemned” or similar (Italics added).  If this was so, then we would have to discard all the verses in the Bible related to eternal security. If eternal life is not eternal, then it is misnamed.

The Greek word “anathema” is used only six times in the NT. It appears that in only one instance could it be referring to an eternal type of judgment. In the others, including this one, it seems that the context demands “anathema” or “accursed” to be temporal in nature.

The NIV, by its own admission uses the concept of “dynamic equivalence” in its translation. In other words, it sometimes is not a very literal translation, but conveys what the translators think is the general meaning of the text. In some cases we believe that this becomes a transliteration and more of an interpretation or commentary than a literal translation. It also appears to me that, in some cases, theological bias has improperly influenced the “translation.” It is also the conviction of this writer that the NIV, along with almost all other modern translations uses a less reliable Greek text than does the KJV and NKJV. This is a separate issue not to be covered in this paper. Bible scholars are divided on this.

[6] The concept of “repentance of sin” is in the Bible and in the NT is usually a command to God’s people such as Israel or the believer of this age to correct some sin pattern in their lives and is related more directly to temporal consequences. For a more in-depth study of this facet of repentance, please keep reading. We will approach this important doctrine more in the NT portion of this study.

[7] We receive occasional email in response to the Bible study articles on our website. They usually fit into one of three categories: 1. Bible questions which we are honored to answer as best as we can. 2. Those who appreciate the message of the website who are a definite encouragement to us. 3. Those who disagree with the message which we proclaim; the majority of which are referring to our stand on repentance. We welcome these also when it is done in the right spirit and with honest intent of sharing Scriptural truths with us. There also have been some in this group who have shown an unloving and unbiblical spirit in their response. Thankfully, we have been able to encourage several of these into some edifying and Biblical dialogue.