What is repentance?

When it comes to the word repentance, there seems to be a lot of confusion over what the word means. Unfortunately, not many people today have heard of the word repentance. If they have, it is usually heard while listening to a sermon in church. Even then, most references to the word repentance do not take into consideration its historic meaning and origin, which leads to it being defined improperly. Finally, unless someone has been trained in etymology or researched the word’s the historic meaning and origins (etymology), they are left at a disadvantage in knowing how repentance relates to salvation and growing in their faith.

There appears to be two camps of interpretation concerning what repentance means. Likewise, each camp demonstrates their perception of repentance through their teachings of Scripture and often by the very religious practices they observe. It is the purpose of this article to describe the meaning of repentance and how it affects not only our eternity, but our daily walk with God.

Looking at the etymology of the word repentance in Greek, metanoia, we see “meta” which is superior or super. Like metadata: data that is superior or descriptive of the subdata. We also see “noia” which is a derivative of the root “gnosis”, meaning knowledge. Together the word paints the picture of “knowledge from above” or “superior knowledge.” In practical terms it would describe a state of mind where our thoughts are in line with God’s truth.

Looking at repentance in English, which is the Latin equivalent, we have re-pent-ance. “re”-: to do again. “pent”-: to confine; IE. Penitentiary (not to be confused with penance). -“ance”: a condition or time of. Together it paints a similar picture of our thoughts being “recaptured” or “reconfined” to God’s way of thinking.

For the record, I have a problem with the criticism of some using the terms “free grace” or “cheap grace” against those who deny man has any choice in the matter of salvation. If grace is not free, then it is not grace. Likewise, it was not cheap because it cost God His only begotten Son. I say this because the words them self are not theologically incorrect, but I do believe the theology attributed to these words is theologically incorrect.

Some will argue that repentance is simply just a “change of mind.” Others will argue that it is more than a change of mind; it involves a change in direction as well as a change in mind. If repentance is required for salvation and it is anything more than a change in mind, then works are involved. If repentance is not accompanied by works, then how can one say they have repented? Obviously, Ephesians 2:8-9, Titus 3:5, and Romans 4 rule out works for salvation so how can repentance be required for salvation if repentance requires works?

The key is Hebrews 11:1 and 1 Corinthians 12:3. In Hebrews 11:1 we see the definition of faith: the substance of things hoped for; the evidence of things not seen. This lines up exactly with the teachings of Paul in Romans (Salvation) and the teachings of James (Works). If faith is required for salvation and faith is the fruit of the Spirit according to Galatians 5, how can someone have faith as a fruit of the Spirit if they are not indwelled with the Spirit until AFTER salvation according to Ephesians 1:13-14, 4:30 and 2 Corinthians 1:21-22? This answer is also found in Hebrews 11:1 and 1 Corinthians 12:3.

In Hebrews 11:1, there are two parts to faith. “The substance of things hoped for” is saving faith as seen in Ephesians 2:8- “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God:” This is the faith that forms when we hear the truth of the Word of God according to Romans 10:17-“So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” This is what links faith to repentance. It is that moment in the deepest part of your being that you hear (see, read, etc.) the truth of the Word of God about salvation and believe it. It is that moment that you realize: “God, I believe you are right, and I am wrong.”

The faith you have at that moment is the “substance of things hoped for.” The “things hoped for” is salvation through Jesus Christ (Romans 8:24-29). It is at that moment of salvation that God puts His Spirit into our hearts which seals us until the day of redemption (Ephesians 1:13-14; Ephesians 4:30). The day of redemption is the day we stand before the Lord in a state of perfection (Romans 8:22-24).

Secondly, once we are saved and the Spirit is in our hearts, then we have the ability by the power of the Holy Spirit (Philippians 4:13) to “Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance:” as stated by John the Baptist in Matthew 3:8. This is confirmed in 1 Corinthians 12:3-“Wherefore I give you to understand, that no man speaking by the Spirit of God calleth Jesus accursed: and that no man can say that Jesus is the Lord, but by the Holy Ghost.”

This is telling us that no one can make Jesus the Lord of their life unless they use the power of the Holy Spirit. When Jesus is the Lord of your life, it means you allow Him to take control of your life.

When this happens, then your thoughts, desires, and behaviors become like Christ’s because you have the mind of Christ (1 Peter 4:1-2; Philippians 2:1-7). This is the works spoken of in James 2:18 and the fruit of the Spirit as seen in Galatians 5: 22-23-“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, {23} Meekness, temperance: against such there is no law.”

The process according to Hebrews 11:1 is as follows:

A. “The substance of things hoped for” (Salvation-Repentance)

1. We hear the truth of the Word of God about salvation through Jesus Christ.

2. We repent, or believe that God is right and we are wrong about salvation through Jesus Christ.

3. God saves us through our faith.

4. God puts His Spirit in our hearts and seals us until the day of redemption.

B. “The evidence of things not seen” (Works-Fruits worthy of repentance)

1. The Spirit God put in our hearts gives us the mind of Christ.

2. By faith, we trust the leading of the Spirit and the truth of God’s Word to guide our lives.

3. By faith, we obey the leading of the Spirit and the truth of God’s Word to guide our lives.

4. God produces the fruit of the Spirit and good works through our faith.

5. When we see the fruit of the Spirit in our lives that God produced, it produces more faith.

It is important to realize that these two sides of faith are different. “Saving faith” is used by God to save us. “Fruit of the Spirit faith” is given to us by God to produce good works. If repentance, as some state, is changing your mind and turning from your sin (works) then that creates a problem. The problem is created because repentance is required for salvation (Mark 1:15, Luke 12:3, Acts 26:20, 2 Corinthians 7:10). If repentance must include works, then that means works are required for salvation. We know according to Romans 4:1-5, Ephesians 2:8-9 and Titus 3:5 that works have no merit for salvation!

Therefore, repentance is simply a change of our mind that God is right and we are wrong. Once repentance has taken place and God gives us His Spirit, we have the power to turn from our sins and bring forth fruits worthy of repentance.

This plays out in how we present the clear Gospel message too. We cannot tell someone that if they want to be saved, they have to make Jesus the Lord of their life. This is because they can’t make Him the Lord of their life until after salvation through the Holy Spirit according to 1 Corinthians 12:3 as we saw previously. Likewise, we cannot “let Jesus come into our heart” because God does not put His Spirit into our hearts until after we have trusted Him as Savior according to Ephesians 1:13-14 and 2 Corinthians 1:21-22:

(Ephesians 1:13-14)  “In whom [Jesus] ye also trusted, after that ye heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation: in whom [Jesus] also after that ye believed, ye were sealed with that holy Spirit of promise, {14} Which is the earnest of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, unto the praise of his glory.”

(2 Corinthians 1:21-22)  “Now he which stablisheth us with you in Christ, and hath anointed us, is God; {22} Who hath also sealed us, and given the earnest of the Spirit in our hearts.”

To be saved from perishing in Hell, we have to trust the truth of the gospel. We have to trust that the shed blood alone of Jesus Christ paid for our sins, not anything we do. We have to trust that Jesus died for our sins and rose from the dead. To teach repentance anything more than what it is does nothing more than deceive people about the truth of salvation. Let’s not confuse repentance with the fruits worthy of repentance.

By now, I hope that repentance is clear and more importantly, that God’s plan for salvation is clear. If you have questions concerning what salvation is about, click on the Got Jesus? page. 

May God bless you with His Wisdom,

Dr. Michael L. Williams

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