Repentance [N] [T] [E]

The most common term in the Old Testament for repentance is sub; the verbal forms appear well over 1, 050 times, although translated "repent" only 13 times, and the substantive "repentance" occurs only once in the New International Version. More commonly the translation is "turn" or "return." A related term is naham [j"n], which is translated three times as "repent" in the New International Version. In the New Testament, the most common verb is metanoeo [metanoevw] (33 times) and the noun metanoia [metavnoia] (20 times). A synonym metamelomai [metamevllomai] is once translated "repent" ( Matt 21:32 ).

Two requisites of repentance included in sub are "to turn from evil, and to turn to the good." Most critical theologically is the idea of returning to God, or turning away from evil. If one turns away from God, apostasy is indicated. Three times Ezekiel included God's call to the people of Israel: "Repent! Turn from your idols and renounce all your detestable practices!" ( 14:6 ); "Repent! Turn away from all your offenses" ( 18:30 ); "Turn! Turn from your evil ways" ( 33:11 ). Such a call was characteristic of the prophets (see, e.g., Isa 45:22 ; 55:7 ; Joel 2:12-13 ). The Septuagint underlines this idea by usually translating sub by epi (apo-)strepho [ajpostrevfw] (to turn about, or to turn away from). To be abandoned are both evil intentions and evil deeds, and both motive and conduct are to be radically changed. A striking example is found in Isaiah 1:16-17: "Take your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing wrong, learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow."

One may detect two sides to this turning/converting. There is the free sovereign act of God's mercy, and a conscious decision to turn to God (a turning that goes beyond sorrow and contrition).

Confession of sins is both commanded and frequently illustrated (e.g., in the penitential prayers, as Pss. 25 and 51). When one is guilty of various sins, "he must confess in what way he has sinned" in order to receive atonement and forgiveness ( Lev 5:5 ; 26:40-42 ). Thus, confession belongs to repentance, and is needed for divine forgiveness (cf. 1 John 1:9 ). A great prophecy/ promise is given in the Book of Isaiah: "The Redeemer will come to Zion, to those in Jacob who repent of their sins" ( 59:20 ).

The two chief forms of repentance in the Old Testament were cultic and ritual (e.g., expressed in public ceremonies, fasting, various displays of sorrow, liturgies, or days of repentance), and the prophetic concept (e.g., people are to "return to the Lord"). The latter stresses a change in relation to God.

To repent and to convert involved obedience to God's revealed will, placing trust in him, turning away from all evil and ungodliness. Each person was to "turn from his wicked evil way" ( Jer 26:3 ; 36:3 ). Amos gave God's lament, that despite all he had done for or to the people, "yet you have not returned to me" (4:4, 8-11). Hosea anticipated the day when Israel "will return and seek the Lord their God and David their king" ( 3:5 ). Thus he pled with them to return to the Lord their God and to say, "Forgive all our sins and receive us graciously" ( 14:2b ).

Included also in the Old Testament is the idea of "regretting" something. The Septuagint used metamelomai [metamevllomai] of the indecision of the people coming out of Egypt, that "they might change their minds and return to Egypt" ( Exod 13:17 ). Lady Wisdom warned against immorality by saying, "At the end of your life you will groan" ( Prov 5:11 ).

The use of the Hebrew word naham [j"n] often refers to God "repenting, " along with human beings doing the same. The basic sense is "being sorry, or grieved" for something that has been done. Frequently God "relents" or "changes his dealings" with humans. God was "grieved" at human evil in the earth, resulting in the flood ( Gen 6:6-7 ); the Lord "relented" and turned away his threat of disaster ( Exod 32:14 ); he was "grieved" at having made Saul king, and deposed him ( 1 Samuel 15:11 1 Samuel 15:26 ). These descriptions may be regarded as anthropopathic, in which God exhibited emotional responses known to be present in humans also. Not infrequently God relented and withheld predicted judgment on Israel. An especially vivid illustration of this reversal is found in Hosea 11:8-9: "How can I give you up, Ephraim? My heart is changed within me I will not carry out my fierce anger." God's true love for Israel would triumph, and he would keep covenant with his people.

In the New Testament, the key term for repentance is metanoia [metavnoia]. It has two usual senses: a "change of mind" and "regret/remorse."

In the Synoptic Gospels metanoia [metavnoia] indicated "turning away from sin" ( Mark 1:4 ), made imperative by the nearness of judgment (see Matt 3:10, ; "already" ), despite having Abraham as ancestor. John the Baptist called for a break with the old and a turning to God.

According to Matthew 3, John was not specific about "the fruits of repentance, " except in his call for baptism with water. But the Lukan narrative includes the question of people, "What should we do then?" To the crowds, the tax collectors, and the soldiers, John spelled out specific ways in which the validity of their repentance should be demonstrated ( Luke 3:10-14 ). Thus, metanoia [metavnoia] was to be concretized by the baptism of repentance ( Mark 1:4 ; Luke 3:3 ), and was to be evidenced by the changed attitudes and deeds of the respondents.

In both Mark ( 1:15 ) and Matthew ( 4:17 ) Jesus began his public proclamation with the call "Repent." Mark connects it with believing the good news; Matthew, with the nearness of the kingdom of heaven. While Luke does not include this initial call, he notes several strong calls for repentance in Jesus' teachings (see esp. 10:13 ; 11:32 ; Luke 13:3 Luke 13:5 ; 17:3-4 ). The Book of Acts often connects metanoia [metavnoia] with remission of sins (see 2:38 ; 3:19 ; 5:31 ; 8:22 ; Acts 26:18 Acts 26:20 ). There are strong reminiscences here of John's proclamations, but one striking difference is in the audiences. While John addressed Jewish hearers only, those in Acts were comprised of Jews, Samaritans, and Gentiles. The first four incidents feature Peter as speaker; the last text refers to Paul's statement about his mission. In addition, Paul is said to have preached to both Jews and Gentiles/Greeks to "turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus" ( 20:21 ). These two elements are also found in the Markan account, where Jesus called people to "repent and believe [in the good news about himself]" ( Mark 1:15 ). Further, metanoia [metavnoia] is joined with epistrepho [ejpistrevfw] in Acts 3:19 (Peter) and 26:20 (Paul). Thus, repentance leads to conversion, and "deeds consistent with repentance" are to follow.

In Paul's letters the verb metanoeo [metanoevw] occurs once only ( 2 Cor 12:21 ) and the noun metanoia [metanoevw] four times ( Rom 2:4 ; 2 Corinthians 7:9 2 Corinthians 7:10 ; 2 Tim 2:25 ). The negative word "unrepentant" appears in Romans 2:5. Many conclude that for Paul the more comprehensive term "faith" (pistis [pivsti"]) and "to believe" (pisteuo [pisteuvw]) include the idea of repentance. As noted, Luke joined them in his report of Paul's preaching in Ephesus ( Acts 20:21 ).

A knotty problem arises in Hebrews 6:4-6 in the text, "It is impossible for those to be brought back to repentance, because " For persons described as "fallen away" is repentance repeatable in any sense? Much depends on the context and syntax of the text, and the reader is referred to commentaries for detailed discussion. Probably the statement of the text is a pastoral rather than a dogmatic theological assertion, but nonetheless the warning is to be taken seriously. The final epistolary occurrence is 2 Peter 3:9, describing the Lord's patience in waiting for all who will repent.

Finally, metanoia [metanoevw] is frequent in Revelation, often as part of formulaic exhortations ( Revelation 2:5 Revelation 2:16 Revelation 2:21-22 ; Revelation 3:3 Revelation 3:19 ). Believers are called to repent of various malpractices, and to exercise their former faithfulness. Those outside the church, despite various warnings, did not repent of their deeds ( 9:20-21 ; Revelation 16:9 Revelation 16:11 ).

The other Greek word for repenting (metamelomai [metamevllomai]) occurs six times in the New Testament, but is translated "repent" in the New International Version only once ( Matt 21:32 ). There the temple authorities are confronted by Jesus with their failure to repent at the preaching of John. In Greek usage, this term referred to changing one's mind or one's feelings; according to Aristotle it showed inner inconsistency.

The sense of "regret" is common to New Testament uses. A son "changed his mind" about doing his father's bidding ( Matt 21:29 ). Judas Iscariot was "seized with remorse" after betraying Jesus ( Matt 27:3 ). Paul did not "regret" the sorrow caused by his severe letter to Corinth ( 2 Cor 7:8 ); instead, the pain brought "repentance" (metanoia [metavnoia]) that leads to salvation, and leaves no "regret" (vv. 9-10).

Walter M. Dunnett

Bibliography. J. Behm, TDNT, 4:975-1006; V. P. Hamilton, TWOT, 2:2340; H. Merklein, EDNT, 2:415-19; O. Michel, TDNT, 4:626-28; G. F. Moore, Judaism, 1:507ff.; M. R. Wilson, TWOT, 2:571.

Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Edited by Walter A. Elwell
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
Baker Book House Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan USA.
All rights reserved. Used by permission.

For usage information, please read the Baker Book House Copyright Statement.

[N] indicates this entry was also found in Nave's Topical Bible
[T] indicates this entry was also found in Torrey's Topical Textbook
[E] indicates this entry was also found in Easton's Bible Dictionary

Bibliography Information

Elwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Repentance'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology". . 1997.
Repentance [N] [T] [B]

There are three Greek words used in the New Testament to denote repentance.

  • The verb metamelomai is used of a change of mind, such as to produce regret or even remorse on account of sin, but not necessarily a change of heart. This word is used with reference to the repentance of Judas ( Matthew 27:3 ).

  • Metanoeo, meaning to change one's mind and purpose, as the result of after knowledge. This verb, with (3) the cognate noun metanoia , is used of true repentance, a change of mind and purpose and life, to which remission of sin is promised.

    Evangelical repentance consists of (1) a true sense of one's own guilt and sinfulness; (2) an apprehension of God's mercy in Christ; (3) an actual hatred of sin ( Psalms 119:128 ; Job 42:5 Job 42:6 ; 2 co 7:10 ) and turning from it to God; and (4) a persistent endeavour after a holy life in a walking with God in the way of his commandments.

    The true penitent is conscious of guilt ( Psalms 51:4 Psalms 51:9 ), of pollution ( Psalms 51:5 Psalms 51:7 Psalms 51:10 ), and of helplessness ( 51:11 ; Psalms 109:21 Psalms 109:22 ). Thus he apprehends himself to be just what God has always seen him to be and declares him to be. But repentance comprehends not only such a sense of sin, but also an apprehension of mercy, without which there can be no true repentance ( Psalms 51:1 ; 130:4 ).

    These dictionary topics are from
    M.G. Easton M.A., D.D., Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Third Edition,
    published by Thomas Nelson, 1897. Public Domain, copy freely.

    [N] indicates this entry was also found in Nave's Topical Bible
    [T] indicates this entry was also found in Torrey's Topical Textbook
    [B] indicates this entry was also found in Baker's Evangelical Dictionary

    Bibliography Information

    Easton, Matthew George. "Entry for Repentance". "Easton's Bible Dictionary". .



    1. To Repent--"to Pant," "to Sigh"

    2. To Repent--"to Turn" or "Return"


    1. Repent--"to Care," "Be Concerned"

    2. Repent--"to Change the Mind"

    3. Repent--"to Turn Over," "to Turn Upon," "to Turn Unto"


    1. The Intellectual Element

    2. The Emotional Element

    3. The Volitional Element


    To get an accurate idea of the precise New Testament meaning of this highly important word it is necessary to consider its approximate synonyms in the original Hebrew and Greek The psychological elements of repentance should be considered in the light of the general teaching of Scripture.

    I. Old Testament Terms.

    1. To Repent--"to Pant," "to Sigh":

    The Hebrew word naham, is an onomatopoetic term which implies difficulty in breathing, hence, "to pant," "to sigh," "to groan." Naturally it came to signify "to lament" or "to grieve," and when the emotion was produced by the desire of good for others, it merged into compassion and sympathy, and when incited by a consideration of one's own character and deeds it means "to rue," "to repent." To adapt language to our understanding, God is represented as repenting when delayed penalties are at last to be inflicted, or when threatened evils have been averted by genuine reformation (Genesis 6:6; Jonah 3:10). This word is translated "repent" about 40 times in the Old Testament, and in nearly all cases it refers to God. The principal idea is not personal relation to sin, either in its experience of grief or in turning from an evil course. Yet the results of sin are manifest in its use. God's heart is grieved at man's iniquity, and in love He bestows His grace, or in justice He terminates His mercy. It indicates the aroused emotions of God which prompt Him to a different course of dealing with the people. Similarly when used with reference to man, only in this case the consciousness of personal transgression is evident. This distinction in the application of the word is intended by such declarations as God "is not a man, that he should repent" (1 Samuel 15:29; Job 42:6; Jeremiah 8:6).

    2. To Repent--"to Turn" or "Return":

    The term shubh, is most generally employed to express the Scriptural idea of genuine repentance. It is used extensively by the prophets, and makes prominent the idea of a radical change in one's attitude toward sin and God. It implies a conscious, moral separation, and a personal decision to forsake sin and to enter into fellowship with God. It is employed extensively with reference to man's turning away from sin to righteousness (Deuteronomy 4:30; Nehemiah 1:9; Psalms 7:12; Jeremiah 3:14). It quite often refers to God in His relation to man (Exodus 32:12; Joshua 7:26). It is employed to indicate the thorough spiritual change which God alone can effect (Psalms 85:4). When the term is translated by "return" it has reference either to man, to God, or to God and man (1 Samuel 7:3; Psalms 90:13 (both terms, nacham and shubh; Isaiah 21:12; 55:7). Both terms are also sometimes employed when the twofold idea of grief and altered relation is expressed, and are translated by "repent" and "return" (Ezekiel 14:6; Hosea 12:6; Jonah 3:8).

    II. New Testament Terms.

    1. Repent--"to Care," "Be Concerned":

    The term metamelomai, literally signifies to have a feeling or care, concern or regret; like nacham, it expresses the emotional aspect of repentance. The feeling indicated by the word may issue in genuine repentance, or it may degenerate into mere remorse (Matthew 21:29,32; 27:3). Judas repented only in the sense of regret, remorse, and not in the sense of the abandonment of sin. The word is used with reference to Paul's feeling concerning a certain course of conduct, and with reference to God in His attitude toward His purposes of grace (2 Corinthians 7:8 the King James Version; Hebrews 7:21).

    2. Repent--"to Change the Mind":

    The word metanoeo, expresses the true New Testament idea of the spiritual change implied in a sinner's return to God. The term signifies "to have another mind," to change the opinion or purpose with regard to sin. It is equivalent to the Old Testament word "turn." Thus, it is employed by John the Baptist, Jesus, and the apostles (Matthew 3:2; Mark 1:15; Acts 2:38). The idea expressed by the word is intimately associated with different aspects of spiritual transformation and of Christian life, with the process in which the agency of man is prominent, as faith (Acts 20:21), and as conversion (Acts 3:19); also with those experiences and blessings of which God alone is the author, as remission and forgiveness of sin (Luke 24:47; Acts 5:31). It is sometimes conjoined with baptism, which as an overt public act proclaims a changed relation to sin and God (Mark 1:4; Luke 3:3; Acts 13:24; 19:4). As a vital experience, repentance is to manifest its reality by producing good fruits appropriate to the new spiritual life (Matthew 3:8).

    3. Repent--"to Turn Over," "to Turn Upon," "to Turn Unto":

    The word epistrepho, is used to bring out more clearly the distinct change wrought in repentance. It is employed quite frequently in Ac to express the positive side of a change involved in New Testament repentance, or to indicate the return to God of which the turning from sin is the negative aspect. The two conceptions are inseparable and complementary. The word is used to express the spiritual transition from sin to God (Acts 9:35; 1 Thessalonians 1:9); to strengthen the idea of faith (Acts 11:21); and to complete and emphasize the change required by New Testament repentance (Acts 26:20).

    There is great difficulty in expressing the true idea of a change of thought with reference to sin when we translate the New Testament "repentance" into other languages. The Latin version renders it "exercise penitence" (poenitentiam agere). But "penitence" etymologically signifies pain, grief, distress, rather than a change of thought and purpose. Thus Latin Christianity has been corrupted by the pernicious error of presenting grief over sin rather than abandonment of sin as the primary idea of New Testament repentance. It was easy to make the transition from penitence to penance, consequently the Romanists represent Jesus and the apostles as urging people to do penance (poenitentiam agite). The English word "repent" is derived from the Latin repoenitere, and inherits the fault of the Latin, making grief the principal idea and keeping it in the background, if not altogether out of sight, the fundamental New Testament conception of a change of mind with reference to sin. But the exhortations of the ancient prophets, of Jesus, and of the apostles show that the change of mind is the dominant idea of the words employed, while the accompanying grief and consequent reformation enter into one's experience from the very nature of the case.

    III. The Psychological Elements.

    1. The Intellectual Element:

    Repentance is that change of a sinner's mind which leads him to turn from his evil ways and live. The change wrought in repentance is so deep and radical as to affect the whole spiritual nature and to involve the entire personality. The intellect must function, the emotions must be aroused, and the will must act. Psychology shows repentance to be profound, personal and all-pervasive. The intellectual element is manifest from the nature of man as an intelligent being, and from the demands of God who desires only rational service. Man must apprehend sin as unutterably heinous, the divine law as perfect and inexorable, and himself as coming short or falling below the requirements of a holy God (Job 42:5,6; Psalms 51:3; Romans 3:20).

    2. The Emotional Element:

    There may be a knowledge of sin without turning from it as an awful thing which dishonors God and ruins man. The change of view may lead only to a dread of punishment and not to the hatred and abandonment of sin (Exodus 9:27; Numbers 22:34; Joshua 7:20; 1 Samuel 15:24; Matthew 27:4). An emotional element is necessarily involved in repentance. While feeling is not the equivalent of repentance, it nevertheless may be a powerful impulse to a genuine turning from sin. A penitent cannot from the nature of the case be stolid and indifferent. The emotional attitude must be altered if New Testament repentance be experienced. There is a type of grief that issues in repentance and another which plunges into remorse. There is a godly sorrow and also a sorrow of the world. The former brings life; the latter, death (Matthew 27:3; Luke 18:23; 2 Corinthians 7:9,10). There must be a consciousness of sin in its effect on man and in its relation to God before there can be a hearty turning away from unrighteousness. The feeling naturally accompanying repentance implies a conviction of personal sin and sinfulness and an earnest appeal to God to forgive according to His mercy (Psalms 51:1,2,10-14).

    3. The Volitional Element:

    The most prominent element in the psychology of repentance is the voluntary, or volitional. This aspect of the penitent's experience is expressed in the Old Testament by "turn", or "return," and in the New Testament by "repent" or "turn." The words employed in the Hebrew and Greek place chief emphasis on the will, the change of mind, or of purpose, because a complete and sincere turning to God involves both the apprehension of the nature of sin and the consciousness of personal guilt (Jeremiah 25:5; Mark 1:15; Acts 2:38; 2 Corinthians 7:9,10). The demand for repentance implies free will and individual responsibility. That men are called upon to repent there can be no doubt, and that God is represented as taking the initiative in repentance is equally clear. The solution of the problem belongs to the spiritual sphere. The psychical phenomena have their origin in the mysterious relations of the human and the divine personalities. There can be no external substitute for the internal change. Sackcloth for the body and remorse for the soul are not to be confused with a determined abandonment of sin and return to God. Not material sacrifice, but a spiritual change, is the inexorable demand of God in both dispensations (Psalms 51:17; Isaiah 1:11; Jeremiah 6:20; Hosea 6:6).

    Repentance is only a condition of salvation and not its meritorious ground. The motives for repentance are chiefly found in the goodness of God, in divine love, in the pleading desire to have sinners saved, in the inevitable consequences of sin, in the universal demands of the gospel, and in the hope of spiritual life and membership in the kingdom of heaven (Ezekiel 33:11; Mark 1:15; Luke 13:1-5; John 3:16; Acts 17:30; Romans 2:4; 1 Timothy 2:4). The first four beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-6) form a heavenly ladder by which penitent souls pass from the dominion of Satan into the Kingdom of God. A consciousness of spiritual poverty dethroning pride, a sense of personal unworthiness producing grief, a willingness to surrender to God in genuine humility, and a strong spiritual desire developing into hunger and thirst, enter into the experience of one who wholly abandons sin and heartily turns to Him who grants repentance unto life.


    Various theological works and commentaries Note especially Strong, Systematic Theology, III, 832-36; Broadus on Matthew 3:2, American Comm.; article "Busse" (Penance). Hauck-Herzog, Realencyklopadie fur protestantische Theologie und Kirche.

    Byron H. Dement

    Copyright Statement
    These files are public domain.

    Bibliography Information
    Orr, James, M.A., D.D. General Editor. "Entry for 'REPENTANCE'". "International Standard Bible Encyclopedia". 1915.