What is repentance?

This post reproduces an essay written by Dr. Dan Rogers former director of U.S. Church Administration and Development for Grace Communion International. For a previous post on this topic click here.

Some have asked about the meaning of repentance in the framework of Trinitarian theology. If all humanity is included already in Jesus’ love and life—what place is there for repentance? I give a brief answer here.

In English, “to repent” is sometimes understood as meaning, “to turn.” The English term actually is derived from a Latin root that means “to feel regret” or “to be penitent.” However, the New Testament is written in Greek. The Greek word in the New Testament that is translated into English as “repent” is metanoia (μετάνοια). Literally, the prefix meta means “after” or “again,” and the root noia means “think.” So, a literal translation from the Greek would be “after-think” or “think-again.” The idea is that of a “change of mind.”  The New Testament passages where “repent” occurs can often be better understood if one interprets the meaning as “change your mind.”

The logical question would follow: “Change your mind about what?” The clear implication in these biblical passages is that we are called to change our minds about God, about Jesus, and about our relationship with Jesus.

Scripture tells us that God has forgiven humanity in Jesus from the foundation of the world—indeed, Jesus is the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world, and Christ died for sinners while they were still sinners (Revelation 13:8; Romans 5:8). Though already forgiven, we still need repentance (a change of mind). This repentance is itself a gift from God (Romans 2:4). It is not something we do in terms of beginning to do good works. It is not something we do in which we turn from all our sins (who among us has ever accomplished that?). It is not a “requirement” we must fulfill by our good works. Rather repentance is a changing of one’s mind about God. It is a positive response to the love God has already extended to us (Romans 5:8). In Christ, the Light of the world, the Father has freed us from the bondage of sin, which keeps us in darkness.

When freed by the Father, in Christ, through the Spirit, we find our place for repentance. Repentance is a change of mind, by the gift and grace of God, regarding what we think about God. When our minds (“ears” and “eyes”) are opened, we realize that God loves us, that Jesus is indeed our Savior, and that we are forgiven. We come to see God for who he really is, and ourselves for who we really are in him.

Imagine your relationship with someone who has done you great wrong. The person may fear you and avoid you, believing you have every right to hate them and maybe even seek revenge in return for what they have done to you.

However, what if you have forgiven them completely and have nothing but love in your heart toward them? If they do not know this, they likely will still fear you and avoid you until such time as they come to the understanding and belief that you have forgiven them. Their “repentance” and “faith” (changing their mind about how they think you feel about them and believing that you really do love them) means they have accepted the truth, which in turn means the end of their self-imposed barriers to having a positive relationship with you.

Some may ask how Mark 4:11-12 may be understood:
He told them, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that, 'they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!'"
The Jewish religious leaders could have asked Jesus the meaning of his parables as did his disciples. Of course, they were not about to do that, so Jesus quoted the Old Testament poem to highlight the fact that the Jewish leaders persisted in their refusal to come to him to have life. Their self-imposed blindness prevented them from turning and being forgiven. They insisted on not receiving their own Messiah (and his forgiveness) even though he was plainly in front of their eyes and in the hearing of their ears.

Some may also ask about Luke 13:2-3 with regard to repentance:
Jesus answered, "Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”
Jesus’ point in this passage is that everyone is a sinner and needs to turn to him. The magnitude of your sins is not the issue, the issue is that you need to respond to God’s love, turn to God (again, turning to God is turning from selfishness and sin), realizing that he has already forgiven your sins (few, many, great, small) and wants you to love him just as he loves you, despite all you have done (and will continue, sadly, to do).

For other Surprising God posts on the topic of repentance, click here - here - here and here. For a related article at GCI.org, click here.