Two Errors Regarding Repentance

There are two common errors regarding repentance, both of which I believe are quite dangerous.

  1. That it is a purely intellectual activity. Sometimes people with a little knowledge of Greek misunderstand how language works and pull apart the Greek word for repentance: metanoia and claim it means a change of mind. Well of course that is part of it, but only part. The danger of this teaching is that it puts a lot of emphasis on the feelings
  2. The second error is to make repentance a work that has to be done before coming to Christ.

I believe that a combination of these two ideas delayed my own salvation for years since I found myself unable to work up a strong feeling of guilt for sin, and thought that I could not come to Christ until I had these feelings of repentance.

In order to understand what metanoia means, we should first examine the use of the equivalent Hebrew word in the Old Testament.

A. Repentance in the Old Testament

The Hebrew word shûb (pronounced shoove) occurs 1058 times in the Old Testament. It simply means to turn, either literally changing direction (returning) or as a metaphor for a radical change in lifestyle and behaviour. It is not used of a mere change of intention, unconnected with behaviour.

Another point to note is that whenever you turn, you turn from one thing and turn to another.

The constant refrain of the prophets is calling Israel to repent from their idolatry and return to their God. Here is an example from Jeremiah 4:

  1. “If you return, O Israel, declares the LORD, to me you should return. If you remove your detestable things from my presence, and do not waver,
  2. and if you swear, ‘As the LORD lives,’ in truth, in justice, and in righteousness, then nations shall bless themselves in him, and in him shall they glory.”

In Jeremiah 35, repenting is equated to amending their deeds:

  1. I have sent to you all my servants the prophets, sending them persistently, saying, ‘Turn now every one of you from his evil way, and amend your deeds, and do not go after other gods to serve them, and then you shall dwell in the land that I gave to you and your fathers.’ But you did not incline your ear or listen to me.

Ezekiel continues this very concrete concept of repentance in chapter 14:

  1. “Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord GOD: Repent and turn away from your idols, and turn away your faces from all your abominations.

The Ninevites in Jonah 3 repented by actually ceasing from the evil behaviour (which was what God was looking for):

  1. Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.”
  2. When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it.

For more examples, see Jer 3:13,14; 18:11,12; Zech 1:3,4 and many other places.

B. Repentance in the New Testament

The first mention of repentance in the New Testament is in the preaching of John the Baptist. John is sometimes called “the last of the Old Testament Prophets” and his preaching of repentance is in line with theirs. It is translated by the Greek word metanoia, which must be interpreted in line with Biblical usage. (There is a popular fallacy that you tear Greek words apart and obtain a definition from the bits, but this is as much nonsense as is would be in English with words such as “butterfly”. Words are always defined by their usage and context.)

It turns out that John the Baptist has the same concept of turning from and to. The from is from unrighteous behaviour, and the to is to the “Lamb of God”

An example of the practical and concrete nature of John’s repentance is found in Luke 3:

  1. Bear fruits in keeping with repentance....
  1. And the crowds asked him, “What then shall we do?”
  2. And he answered them, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.”
  3. Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?”
  4. And he said to them, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.”
  5. Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.”

John’s teaching on repentance formed the foundation for the preaching of Jesus, e.g. Matt 4:

  1. From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

Jesus didn’t redefine “repentance” from John’s meaning (that would have made a nonsense of John’s role in preparing the way)

The Apostolic gospel had a strong emphasis on repentance, and we can see from Acts 26 that Paul used an identical expression to refer to the need for deeds that were the visible expression of repentance.

  1. “Therefore, O King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision,
  2. but declared first to those in Damascus, then in Jerusalem and throughout all the region of Judea, and also to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds in keeping with their repentance.

In 2 Corinthians 12 Paul talks about sin and repentance. In v.20 they are still sinning and in v.21 they “have not repented”. Paul uses the terms interchangeably. It would make no sense at all if in v.21 he meant that they had mentally resolved not to sin but were still regularly practicing it.

  1. For I fear that perhaps when I come I may find you not as I wish, and that you may find me not as you wish—that perhaps there may be quarreling, jealousy, anger, hostility, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder.
  2. I fear that when I come again my God may humble me before you, and I may have to mourn over many of those who sinned earlier and have not repented of the impurity, sexual immorality, and sensuality that they have practiced.

Finally, there is no doubt that in Revelation 2:5, repentance implies actually replacing one set of behaviours with another:

  1. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lamp-stand from its place, unless you repent.

C. So is Repentance a Work?

The error in the “Lordship Controversy” was that salvation was defined as “taking Christ as your Saviour” which hopefully would be followed by “taking him as your Lord”, i.e. bringing your life into line with Christ’s demands. The argument was that any kind of requirement placed on the sinner other than faith would violate the grace of the Gospel and turn it into works.

Yet this can actually be a danger and many of the Puritans fell into this trap. The error is known as “Preparationism”, the teaching that you cannot come to Christ exactly as you are, but a work of preparation needs to be done in you, making your heart repentant. The danger of this position is that it ends up denying free grace.

The Marrow Controversy

This issue blossomed into a full scale controversy in the Puritan Church of Scotland, and it became known as the Marrow Controversy (see this link for description). Thomas Boston and eleven other faithful men stood firm on the position that “It is not sound and orthodox to teach that we must forsake sin in order to our coming to Christ”, because it is only once we have come to Christ we have the power to deal with sin.

These twelve men were expelled from the church for holding determinedly to grace. As John Newton later said, “If you tarry ’til you’re better, you will never come at all.”

Faith linked to Action

So what is repentance if we can’t do it? The answer, of course, is that it is a miracle. But it is not a miracle in which we are passive. Most of the supernatural healings of the New Testament involved the person who was sick attempting to do what was impossible in response to a command. This was the response of faith.

A good example would be the man with the withered hand who stretched it out to Jesus. Was the healing before or after he stretched it? It could not have been after, but equally could not have preceded faith. They were actually simultaneous—as he began to exercise faith by beginning the attempt to move the arm, so miraculously he was enabled to do so.

This helps us to understand how salvation works. We call on someone “dead in trespasses and sins” to repent, and the gift of faith and repentance come simultaneous with their response, giving them both the desire and the power to turn from their old lifestyle and follow Christ.

Spiritual healing works the same way as the physical. Jesus called Zacchaeus to faith, he responded immediately in repentance, “If I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold”, and Jesus’ reply was “Today salvation has come to this house” (Luke 19:8,9).

Nobody can ever claim that they can’t repent because they lack the power, because God will always supply it. He says “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and make your hearts pure, you two-minded.” (James 4:8)

So the answer is no, repentance is not a meritorious work in any sense. It is simply a turning away from our old direction as we turn to Christ. It is the other side of the coin of faith, inseparable from it. Nevertheless, just as it is true with faith, so it is equally true that repentance without works is dead.