What does it mean to repent?
Sure, you’ve heard the word repent before. Maybe you’ve seen someone holding a sign on a corner screaming at those passing by to repent. Or maybe you’ve been in church and the pastor exhorted the congregation to repent. Or maybe you’ve read a few passages in the Bible that talked about repentance. But have you ever stopped to think about what it means to repent?
I think many of us have a misunderstood, or at least incomplete, view of the true meaning of repentance.
I want to give you a few images that will help you better understand repentance. But first, we need to take a look at what the Bible says about repentance.
Repentance In The Bible
The Bible talks A LOT about repentance. Both in the Old Testament and the New Testament. I’m going to do more a brief overview, if you want to study further I will link to some good resources.
- What the Bible says about repentance: Bible Verses About Repentance
- For a more in-depth study of repentance: Biblical Theology of Repentance
In the Old Testament, the idea of repentance appears well over 1,000 times. Although modern translations rarely translate the word “repent” and instead use a word that describes the act of repenting, which we will get to in a minute.
The New Testament continues with the theme of repentance, however, it appears in much less frequency. The primary word for repentance in the New Testament is metanoia and it appears as both a verb and noun a little over 50 times.
I found Jack Wellman’s description of repentance helpful: In the New Testament, the same word used for repent (metanoeo) is essentially the same for repentance (metanoia) where one is a verb and one is a noun. A person is said to need to repent (metanoeo) and then they show repentance (metanoia). There are two words for repentance in the Old Testament Hebrew. One word is “nacham” which means “to be sorry” or “to regret” but the overwhelming majority of the time it is used it means “turn” or “return” (“shuwb”).
Often when we think of the word repent we think of the words we say. In essence, it’s saying I’m sorry. But the Bible takes a different approach. The Bible defines repentance as an action.
Definition of Repentance
The Old Testament and the New Testament are very consistent in the definition of repentance. I’m going to focus more on the New Testament word, metanoia, but if you were to look at the Old Testament definition of repentance it would be similar.
The Biblical definition of repentance carries a primary idea with a secondary motivation. The primary idea implies a directional change. To repent is to change the direction in which our life is moving. We were heading to point A, but we repented and are now heading to point B.
To repent is to turn, or in some cases return, to God. It’s not to add God to our lives, it’s to restructure our lives around God. It’s a 180-degree turn.
That’s the primary idea of repentance in the Bible. But the Bible also carrels this sense of regret, guilt, shame, and helplessness that leads us to repentance.
I want to be careful with this because I don’t think guilt and shame should be carried around. It’s not God’s desire that we should be weighed down by our sin. Rather it’s that guilt and shame should lead us to repentance where God removes the burden. We think of guilt as having a negative in our lives. But when it leads us to repentance, it’s actually a good thing.
The Bible defines repentance as turning from our old life, our sin, and redirecting our life towards Him. What brings us to the point where we do this is the realization that we are sinful and helpless on our own.
Repentance isn’t merely stating a few words of regret and praying a prayer. It’s a restructuring of our lives.
Images of Repentance (what it means to repent)
So far I have given you a more textbook answer. I want to switch gears a bit and give you a few images of what repentance looks like in our lives.
To Repent Is To Do A U-Turn
If you have ever been on a road trip with a friend negligently navigating you have “repented”.
Repenting is like when you are driving somewhere but miss your turn. So you have to make a u-turn to get back on the right path. If you fail to correct your course you will never arrive at your intended destination.
Of course, this is an oversimplification. Sin is a lot more severe than simply missing a turn. But I think the picture is helpful. If we fail to repent, we will never make it back to God. We can’t, we are heading away from him. To repent is to correct our course and head back to him.
Repenting is not just expressing our wrongdoing, it’s correcting the actions that led us to our wrongdoings. Repenting requires us to do a u-turn.
To Repent Is To Plead Guilty
If you were to commit a serious crime you will end up in a courtroom in which the judge will ask you how you want to plead. You have the chance to “repent” at that moment. To repent is to admit that you are guilty. It’s to admit that you made a mistake and that you are at the mercy of the judges ruling.
Repenting is like pleading guilty to God. You are admitting that what you did was wrong. It’s saying that you are helpless to right your wrongs. You are placing your fate in the hands of God who will determine your fate. But in this courtroom we serve a God who took on the punishment himself.
Repenting is to admit your guilt before God. It recognizing the spiritually bankrupt state you are in because of your actions. To repent means to plead guilty.
To Repent Is To Accept The Invitation
You know what often proceeds repentance in Jesus’ stories? A party. A BIG party.
To repent means to accept the invitation to a party. A party we don’t deserve to be in, but one that Jesus invites us into.
This plays out over and over again in Jesus stories. Those who repent, those who plead guilty, admit their faults, and turn toward God are invited into the party.
No other story encapsulates this like the Parable of the Prodigal Son. The son screwed up, really really bad. After suffering the consequences he finally realizes his fault. He makes a u-turn and heads home to plead guilty to his father. He is prepared to accept his fate.
But to his shock, his father doesn’t punish him. Instead, he throws him a party. Why would he do that? Why would he throw his son a party after he caused so much pain and grief after he wasted his father’s money? Because he was excited he came back.
I wrote a post on this story, you can read it here: The Prodigal Son and What It Means (the finest story ever told)
Similarly, when we repent God isn’t waiting to punish us. He’s waiting to celebrate with us. He’s excited when his children return to him.
To repent is to accept the invitation to the party. But don’t get this order mixed up. The invitation comes after we plead guilty and make a u-turn.
What does it mean to repent? It means to change your actions, to change your way of life. Repentance is more about the actions we take and not the words we say. The next time you repent don’t just say the right words, take the right steps.
I’d love to hear from YOU! Share your thoughts below!
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