“Repentance” Word Study

“Repentance” in the New Testament:

Forms of the word “repent” or “repentance” are used in the New Testament 66 times in 60 verses. Please see the text and complete verse list in Appendix B (Page 21). The majority of the time it is translated from the Greek words μετάνοια (met-an'-oy-ah), noun, and μετανοέω (met-an-o-eh'-o), verb. It simply means “a change of mind.”[1] The object of the change of mind must be determined by the context. A person can repent or change his mind about sin, about going to the store today, or about anything. The result of the change of mind also is not in the meaning of the word. That must also be determined by the context. Sorrow or a changed life after repentance may or may not occur but it is not in the meaning of the word itself.[2] In contrast to the OT, the words used in the Greek NT for repent/repentance are consistently translated as such. Eight of the occurrences in the New Testament “repent” are translated from a form of the Greek word “μεταμέλλομαι (met-am-el'-lom-ahee)” and it can have a meaning of “caring afterwards, or “regret.”[3] (Appendix B - Page 21).

We have mentioned that repentance in the NT frequently has to do with changing the mind about a sinful pattern, judging, and correcting it (i.e. repenting of various sins).[4] There are at least 3 specific groups of people who are recipients of this exhortation; national Israel, unbelievers in general, and believers of this age.

Example of Repentance and National Israel:

Mark 1:14, 15. “Now after that John was put in prison, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, And saying, The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, (μετανοέω - met-an-o-eh'-o) and believe the gospel.”[5]

Though some use this verse in an attempt to show a person how to be eternally saved, this context is obviously an exhortation to Israel and is speaking of the gospel of the kingdom of God; i.e. the promised millennial reign of Messiah on the earth. We cannot accurately assume that whenever we see the word “gospel” that it always is referring to that which one must believe or do in order to receive eternal life.

In some instances the gospel is the good news about believing in Jesus for everlasting life and in some other places it is different such as some other kind of good news about Jesus (e.g. Luke 2:9, 10, where the angels brought “good tidings” to the shepherds about Jesus’ birth). Please read the article “The Gospel Is More Than 'Faith Alone In Christ Alone” by Jeremy Myers, found at  http://www.faithalone.org/journal/2006ii/03%20Myers%20-%20Gospel.pdf. A number of other Biblical uses of “gospel” are documented there.

The King was rejected and the earthly kingdom has now been postponed. This is not the same message to us about believing in Jesus for eternal life. If we were to force this statement to be an eternal salvation message for us today; not only would it be out of context, but it would be the only verse telling us to repent and believe in order to be eternally saved (i.e. two conditions instead of one). Surprisingly to some, it would also be the only verse that tells us to believe the “gospel” in order to receive eternal life. We are repeatedly told to believe in Jesus for eternal life (John 3:16; 6:47; Acts 16:31, et al). There are over 150 Bible references which state that the one requirement for receiving everlasting life is by faith/belief alone. (For list, see footnote #36 of the study found at http://www.freegraceresources.org/galindex.html). There is no exhortation here to believe in Jesus nor any reference to receiving eternal life/justification.

It appears that Matt. 12, (the attributing of Messiah’s work to Satan) was the turning point for the immediate reception of the earthly kingdom for the Jews. Since the kingdom was now to be postponed, Jesus then began to prepare His disciples for the coming “church” age. He initiated His pattern of teaching in parables;[6] the first one (the sower and the four soils) showing them what responses to expect when they were to sow the Word during this time.  

A couple of facts that are unique to this verse are: This is the only NT verse that tells someone to “repent” and “believe” the gospel or even to “repent” and “believe” anything.[7] Another important fact to note is that after looking up all 132 occurrences of both the noun form and verb form of "gospel" (εὐαγγέλιον - yoo-ang-ghel’-ee-on / εὐαγγελίζω - yoo-ang-ghel-id’-zo), I was able to find only one instance where someone was told to believe the gospel: That is Mark 1:15; the verse under discussion. The issue in being eternally saved is not necessarily believing the gospel, as that content differs in various contexts, but the issue is believing in Jesus to save us (John 3:16; 6:47; Acts 16:31, et al).

The Jews were also told to do works “meet for repentance” (Matt. 3:8). This was later also for the Gentiles (Acts 26:20). They were apparently being told to bring forth fruit “fit for, suitable for, or worthy of repentance.”

There is much more to research on the topic of Israel and repentance during the age of the Law but for an attempt at brevity and due to the lesser relevance of this to us today, we will proceed to the second-mentioned recipients of the repentance exhortations.

Examples of Repentance and Unbelievers in General:

In Rev. 9:20, 21 and 16:9, 11, we find examples of God's temporal judgment upon the unbeliever for not forsaking mentioned patterns of sin. This again is not in the context of believing in Jesus and receiving eternal life. This also is referring to what will occur during the Great Tribulation period. We believe that a general maxim is that anyone, saved or unsaved, who turns from some of their sins will benefit from that action; it just will not merit them eternal life.

2 Pet. 3:9  “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.”

Though some assume that this is referring to repentance for eternal life, the context does not support that interpretation. The context is in reference to “the last days” (v.3) prior to the “day of the Lord. (v. 10). This verse shares a similarity to Jonah’s message to Ninevah in that it is a warning concerning ongoing sin causing physical death. “Perish” here is the same Greek word as in verse 6, (ἀπόλλυμι - ap-ol'-loo-mee) which is clearly speaking of people physically dying. The Greek word seldom has to do with eternal condemnation.[8]

Repentance is also commanded to a crowd of unknown spiritual status in order for them to avoid God’s temporal judgment. For example, a pair of often misused verses is Luke 13:3, 5; “I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.”[9] These verses are often quoted in an attempt to support the false assertion that a person needs to “turn from sin” in order to be eternally saved (with the assumption that “perish” means to be eternally lost or hell-bound). The word “likewise” should tell us something about the meaning of the exhortation. Both verses refer in the context to those who experienced sudden and calamitous physical deaths. Verse four implies that this exhortation is addressed to them because of their ungodly attitude about their own sin. They were “thinking” wrongly and needed a change of mind (repentance) and by implication, a change in their actions. This result of prophecy was most likely fulfilled during the siege of Jerusalem by Titus in 70 AD (cf. verses 34, 35). According to Josephus, around 1,100,000 Jews died during this Roman siege. Please note also, that the one requirement for eternal justification given over 150 times in the NT; belief in Jesus, is not mentioned once in this passage. It is not a passage telling us how to be eternally saved.

Some would add to this category Luke 15:7, 10, which speaks that “...joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth.” If taken in context it is apparently speaking about straying believers repenting. It has nothing to do with an unsaved person becoming justified in God’s sight just as the “prodigal” son later in the same chapter who remained a son, though a disobedient and straying one, until he repented and judged his sin. (Please see 3-part study referred to at the end of footnote 4).

Examples of Repentance and Believers of this Age:

Even though the terms “repent/repentance of sin” are not to be found in the Word, the concept of repentance of sin is found, but never as a requirement for receiving eternal life. This teaching is of great relevance to us as believers today. Please see much more on this important doctrine in the 3-part study mentioned in footnote 4. Those mentioned in the following verses were already eternally saved but needed repentance due to some particular sins:

In Acts, chapter 8, we see the account of Philip preaching Christ to the Samaritans (v. 5). Many believed along with Simon the Sorcerer (11-13). Peter and John later arrived from Jerusalem and “...prayed for them, that they might receive the Holy Ghost:”

When Simon saw the miraculous signs that they performed, he offered to pay money for the ability to display the same powers (13-19). Peter rebukes him for that sin and in verse 22 commands him to “…Repent therefore of this thy wickedness.” Peter’s further rebuke was to pray for forgiveness; a fellowship issue, not a justification issue. Simon was already a believer (vs. 8-11), but a disobedient one who needed correction.

In 2 Corinthians 7:8-10, Paul rejoices that some of the Corinthian believers “sorrowed to repentance” concerning the carnal lifestyle that they were embracing (Perhaps partially referring to the unholy alliances that some were forming as mentioned in the previous chapter). For more on this passage please see Appendix C (Page 25).

In 2 Cor. 12:21, Paul here speaks of his imminent arrival in Corinth and laments his anticipated finding of, “...many which have sinned already, and have not repented of the uncleanness and fornication and lasciviousness which they have committed.”

In Rev. 2 and 3, John exhorts believers in 5 of the 7 churches mentioned to repent of some specific areas in which they were lacking.[10] Two of the churches were commended and did not need the exhortation to repent.

[1] Μετανοέω” (met-an-o-eh'-o) comes from two Greek words: “μετά” (met-ah') with the accusative means “after” and “νοιέω” (noy-eh'-o) to “think” or “perceive.” from “νοῦς” (nooce) “the mind,” “intellect.” It can literally mean an “after-thought.”

[2] For example, the Corinthian believers were told in 2 Cor. 7:10,  “For godly sorrow worketh repentance...” (μετάνοια - met-an'-oy-ah). Notice that it says that godly sorrow works repentance, not that godly sorrow is repentance, nor that godly sorrow is necessary for repentance. It also does not reverse the order and say that repentance works godly sorrow. This context is in reference to the believer’s sanctification, not the unbeliever’s eternal salvation. For more explanation on this passage and its context please see Appendix C (Page 25).

Another motivator for repentance is presented to the believers at Rome in Rom. 2:4, “...the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance.”

[3] Bauer, Arndt, and Gingrich's Greek-English Lexicon of the NT, defines “metamellomai” as “(feel) regret,” “repent, and in some places can it can also mean simply “change one's mind.”

The following verses translate “metamellomai” as repent. The most common Greek word translated as “repent” is a form of “metanoia.”

Matt. 21:29  He answered and said, I will not: but afterward he repented, and went.

Matt. 21:32  For John came unto you in the way of righteousness, and ye believed him not: but the publicans and the harlots believed him: and ye, when ye had seen it, repented not afterward, that ye might believe him.

Matt. 27:3  Then Judas, which had betrayed him, when he saw that he was condemned, repented himself, and brought again the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders,

2 Cor. 7:8  For  though  I made you  sorry with a letter, I do not repent, though I did repent: for I perceive that the same epistle hath made you sorry, though it were but for a season.

Heb. 7:21  (For those priests were made without an oath; but this with an oath by him that said unto him, The Lord sware and will not repent, Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchisedec:)

In addition, the following verses using metamellomai, (metamellomai), with a negative prefix

Rom. 11:29  For the gifts and calling of God are without repentance. (ametamelomai)

2 Cor. 7:10  For godly worketh repentance (metanoia) to salvation not to be repented of: (ametamelomai) but the sorrow of the world worketh death.

[4] One example that does not fit with the frequently found implication that the NT exhortation to repent effectively means to change the mind and turn from sin is found in Heb. 12:17, “For ye know how that afterward, when he [Esau] would have inherited the blessing, he was rejected: for he found no place of repentance (metanoia), though he sought it carefully with tears.” What was it that Esau could not find? It was not a turning from sinful behavior. It was not penance. What he could not find was a way to change his father's mind. The matter was settled. No matter how much he pleaded, he couldn't change Isaac's mind.

[5] Some of the newer translations do not mention “the kingdom” in verse 14. This is due to a textual variation and that most of the modern translations are now using the Critical Text as their basis for translating the NT.

τὸ εὐαγγέλιον τῆς βασιλείας τοῦ Θεοῦ - “The gospel of the kingdom of the God.” This reading is found in one of the three major western (i.e. Egyptian) manuscripts (Codex Alexandrinus) used to compile the Westcott & Hort Critical text (1881) and also in the vast majority of Byzantine manuscripts including fragments (hundreds). This is the manuscript family from which the Textus Receptus was derived. This includes KJV, NKJV and several others.

τὸ εὐαγγέλιον τοῦ Θεοῦ “The gospel of the God.” This reading is found in two of the three major western manuscripts (Codices Sinaiaticus and Vaticanus) used to compile the Westcott & Hort Critical text along with several fragments.

Scholars are divided concerning which is the most reliable text; This writer is of the persuasion that in most cases of variance that the Byzantine or Majority Text family is more reliable. (These variations are mostly minor and do not affect doctrine) There are a number of reasons for this but just one of them is the fact that part of the criteria for developing the Critical Text was to almost always adopt the shorter of available renderings. This resulted in a text of about 4,000 Greek words less than the Majority Text, which is almost numerically equivalent to removing Galatians, Jude, and 2 John. It is called the Majority Text due to the fact that there are presently over 6,000 significant portions known to exist.

[6] Some might be surprised as to why Jesus then began to speak in parables; See Matt. 13:10-13; basically so that the disciples would understand and the willful unbelievers would not. Perhaps this was a gracious act toward them so that those who chose not to believe Him would not have even greater accountability.

[7] There are only three verses in the NT which have cognates of “believe” and “repent” in the same verse: Matt. 21:32; Mark 1:15; Acts 19;5. None of the 3 tell us to do the two to receive eternal life

[8] Please see the study at http://www.freegraceresources.org/likewiseperish.html where this Greek word is discussed and documented. “Perish” (ἀπόλλυμι - ap-ol'-loo-mee) is used for eternal judgment only about 10% of the time that it is found.

[9] Please see footnote 26 above which also is a study on Luke 13:3, 5.

[10] Revelation 2:5(2 x); 2:16; 2:21(x2); 2:22; 3:3; 3:19.