What Does Repent Mean? (3 powerful ways to understand the repent definition)

What does repent mean? The definition of repent is often missed and instead we just picture an angry preacher yelling at us. 

We tend to think that the meaning of repent is to feel bad for our sins. It’s a guilt laden word that should make us not want to sin any more. 

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 repentance meaning. 

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. 

In the Old Testament, the idea of repentance appears well over 1,000 times. Although modern translations don’t often translate the word “repent” and instead use a word that describes the act of repenting. Hebrew words carry this idea of “turn,” “return,” “turn away,” and “seek,” and are commonly used to describe the repent meaning for readers. 

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 the greek word metanoia and it appears as both a verb and noun a little over 50 times. 

Repentance in the Bible often contains three elements: 

  1. A call to repent (Acts 3:19)
  2. A turning from sin (2 Chronicles 7:14)
  3. A restoration (Hosea 6:1) 

I found Jack Wellman’s description on what it means to repent in the Bible 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. It’s just a change of mind. In essence, it’s saying I’m sorry. But the Bible takes a different approach. Repentance in the Bible is less of a feeling and more of an action. 

So, what does repent mean in the Bible? It means to take action. 

Let me briefly offer a repent definition. 

Repent Defintion

The Old Testament and the New Testament are very consistent when it comes to the repent definition. 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. 

Repent means 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 fundamental change in our life. 

That’s the primary idea of repentance in the Bible. But the Bible also carries this sense of regret, guilt, shame, and helplessness that leads us to repentance. It’s a godly sorrow that we feel over our sin. 

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. 

Repent Definition: To turn away from your old life (sin) and turn toward what God says is best. 

When we recognize that we are sinful and helpless on our own that should bring us to a place of repentance. A place where we not just feel bad for our sin. But actually turn away from it. 

True repentance isn’t merely stating a few words of regret and praying a prayer. It’s a restructuring of our lives to live a new way. It means to restructure our life from what it used to be about to what God says is best.

What does repent mean? It’s a change of action, it means turning away from our old life toward our new life in Christ.

What Does It Mean To Repent? 

So far we have looked at a more textbook answer. But I think it would be helpful to switch gears to what it means to repent practically in our lives. 

When we look at the question (what does repent mean?) just from an academic perspective we often fail to miss how to live it out. So to end I want to offer you three pictures about the repent meaning and how it applies to your life. 

1. To Repent Is To Do A U-Turn

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. 

If you have ever been on a road trip with a friend negligently navigating you have “repented.”  Probably a few times. 

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 be able to step into the life he intends for us to live. Love, joy, and peace will elude us because we are heading in the wrong direction. 

To repent is to correct our course and head back to him and the life he promised us. Without this correction of direction we will never reach our desired destination. 

What does it mean to repent? 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. 

2. 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, to show sincere regret. It’s to admit that you made a mistake and that you are at the mercy of the judge’s ruling. 

Repenting is like pleading guilty to God. You are admitting that you are at fault. That you made a mistake. That you have sin in your life. And in doing so, you are placing your fate in the hands of God. 

But this is a fundamentally different courtroom than the ones you see on tv. This is a courtroom that doesn’t give you what you deserve, but instead what you need. 

When we repent to God, our judge, he takes on the punishment himself. Instead of giving us what we deserve, life apart from him, he gives us what we need. Grace. 

Now, that doesn’t mean there’s not consequences in this life. If you stole from your employer, you will likely be fired. But the eternal consequences are paid for. You do not have to live life apart from God. Your sin doesn’t have to keep you from your creator. 

What does repent mean? Repenting is to admit your guilt before God. It is recognizing the spiritually bankrupt state you are in because of your actions. To repent means to plead guilty. 

3. To Repent Is To Accept The Invitation

We tend to think of repentance as a solemn act. And there’s certainly some truth to that. However, after repentance comes restoration. A cause for CELEBRATION. After all, it is supposed to be good news.

Jesus often ends his stories about repentance with 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 not simply forgiven, they are celebrated. 

We tend to picture God disappointed in us. Shaking his head. Just waiting to tell us off. And yeah, he might forgive us. But really doesn’t want to. 

But that’s not the picture of repentance in the Bible. When someone repents heaven rejoices. A party ensues. God is overjoyed that one of his children came back to him. 

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. 

What does repent mean? To repent is to accept the invitation to the party.

Return to God so that you can experience freedom, love, joy, and peace. There’s a party waiting for you. 

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. 

Jeffery Curtis Poor
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