Repentance is a recurrent theme found throughout God's word that is relevant for Christians today. But what exactly does it mean to repent? It’s a common mistake to use repentance and forgiveness as interchangeable terms. However, they differ greatly in meaning and spiritual implication.
As a consistent topic throughout God's word, it becomes apparent that we are called to repent. You can look to both testaments of the Bible to get a better understanding of what repentance means.
Verses about Repentance in the Old Testament
In the Old Testament, there is not one specific word used for repentance or to repent. However, the Hebrew word that best aligns with the idea of repentance is a verb, 'nacham.' It is used nearly 100 times, according to Blue Letter Bible.org, and ranges in meaning: repent, regret, relent, comfort, or to change one's mind. Although there isn’t one word used to represent repentance in Hebrew, what we do find in the Old Testament are plenty of stories and references to repentance.
"If I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or if I command the locust to devour the land, or if I send pestilence among My people, and My people who are called by My name humble themselves and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”
In this account, God was calling the Israelites as a collective group to repent from their wicked ways. We learn that not only is repentance done on an individual level, but is something a whole nation can do as a group as well. Repentance in this instance involves a change of heart, an awareness of sinfulness, and the expectation that the people will return to God as they turn away from their wicked ways.
“Repent at my rebuke! Then I will pour out my thoughts to you, I will make known to you my teachings.”
This Proverb is part of a larger passage about the wisdom of God. Through God’s wisdom, we are shown our sin, and encouraged to let go of our wicked ways. Repentance is how we respond to such godly reproach to abandon sin. Wickedness separates us from God’s wisdom, but when we repent, we are able to learn the ways of God and become wise.
“Let the wicked forsake his ways and the unrighteous man his thoughts; and let him return to the Lord, and He will have compassion on him, and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon.”
This verse is part of a larger invitation for individuals to come to the Lord God for whom all people thirst. Repentance is part of the invitation; turn from unrighteous ways and turn to the Lord and live His ways instead. What comfort is given when we are reminded that God has great compassion for His children. When we come to Him with repentant hearts, He responds to our repentance with a loving embrace, mercy, and forgiveness.
"And the Lord has sent to you all His servants the prophets again and again, but you have not listened nor inclined your ear to hear, saying, 'Turn now everyone from his evil way and from the evil of your deeds, and dwell on the land which the Lord has given to you and your forefathers forever and ever; and do not go after other gods to serve them and to worship them, and do not provoke Me to anger with the work of your hands, and I will do you no harm.'”
Repentance was an ongoing invitation for God’s children. Throughout the Old Testament, we read that the Israelites would turn their backs on God, but the Lord’s love for them was unhindered and unconditional; so, He continued to invite them to repent, to return to Him. That same ongoing invitation to repent is available to us today.
"’Therefore, I will judge you, O house of Israel, each according to his conduct,’ declares the Lord God. ‘Repent and turn away from all your transgressions, so that iniquity may not become a stumbling block to you. Cast away from you all your transgressions which you have committed and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! For why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone who dies,’ declares the Lord God. ‘Therefore, repent and live.’"
This account is similar to other invitations to repentance that we find in the Old Testament, but we are given a deeper understanding. Repentance, turning away from one’s sins and having a renewed heart inclined to the Lord, will lead to life. Repentance, therefore, is truly a matter of life and death. We learn that God wants all His children to repent so that we shall have life through Him.
Verses about Repentance in the New Testament
In the New Testament, ‘metanoia,’ is the Greek word for repent, which means to have a change of heart or mind, and it was used about 25 times throughout the New Testament, explains Blue Letter Bible.org. It was a word used by Jesus when He walked this earth. In the New Testament, we find many instances of the word repent being used, as well as references to the significance of repentance for followers of Christ.
“From that time on Jesus began to preach, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’”
In this passage, Jesus was beginning His ministry and began to declare that the time had come for the kingdom of God and repentance was among Jesus’ first instructions. To follow Jesus, we must repent of our old, sinful ways, no longer living according to our sinful nature, and instead follow Him.
“I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.”
This verse comes right after Jesus told the parable of the lost sheep. What joy to know that when we repent, the angels in heaven are rejoicing. Repentance is a major spiritual step of committing to God and drawing closer to Him as an obedient follower. The Lord rejoices when we choose to live according to His ways. When you repent, the heavenlies are rejoicing because of your act of faithful obedience.
“But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when His righteous judgment will be revealed.”
This passage in Romans warns believers against judging others and encourages Jesus’ followers to do good for the Lord, so that they will receive eternal life. When someone remains unrepentant, they miss out on eternal life and can expect troubles and sorrow, which is a life far from what God wants for His children. To repent is the choice we make when we are ready to let go of old, sinful habits, and do good and loving deeds to further God’s kingdom.
“As the Lord’s servant, you must not quarrel. You must be kind toward all, a good and patient teacher, who is gentle as you correct your opponents, for it may be that God will give them the opportunity to repent and come to know the truth.”
This verse is part of a letter that dealt with rebuking false teachers and pursuing righteousness. We learn that followers of Christ are to deal compassionately with their enemies because God may be working in the situation to lead that person to repentance. Repentance will be the path they take to find new life in Christ. It will be the change of heart and mind they need to be set free from the snares of death. This is an important reminder to each of us that we truly represent Jesus and we are the light of the world.
“The Lord is not slow in keeping His promise, as some understand slowness. Instead He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”
Here, Peter wrote of the days leading to the second coming of Jesus. This verse reminds us of God’s desire that all His beloved children repent and have eternal life. God is patient with each of us, holding off the return of Jesus, so that as many as possible will repent and turn to Him. Truly, we are given every chance to repent and enjoy eternal life.
What Does This Mean for Christians Today?
God invites us to repent. We are given the choice to turn from sinfulness and instead to choose uprightness. God graciously gives each of us the opportunity to to draw near to Him while turning away from our wickedness, so that we may have eternal life. Repentance may not be a one-time occurrence. Just as God invited the Israelites time and time again to repent of their wickedness and to follow His ways, we must also continue to repent when we get caught up in sinfulness.
As followers of Christ, we are to think and act righteously; our hearts are made new because we live for Jesus. With repentance, we will live in freedom, grow in wisdom, experience God’s compassion, healing and kindness, and receive the gift of everlasting life through Jesus Christ.
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Pamela Myers Palmer is a writer, ordained chaplain, and the founder of upheldlife.com, the platform on which she produces weekly devotionals and faith resource articles to inspire keeping faith at the center of life. She is in pastoral ministry and gets to share in the emotional and spiritual lives of many people. She thrives each day on faith, coffee and music. She has been published with herviewfromhome.com and biblestudytools.com. Pamela resides in the Midwest, is married to the perfect man for her, and has two children who add plenty of joy and chaos to her life.