Church columnist: Building a biblical vocabulary — Repentance
This week’s word is a great illustration of why it is so important to define biblical words biblically.
It seems like the most common understanding of repentance is that is simply means to stop doing something. But repentance doesn’t just mean that you “got caught” so you say you’re sorry and stop doing whatever it was you got caught at.
According to the Louw & Nida Greek Lexicon, the word translated “repent” in passages like Acts 2:38, Acts 3:19; Acts 8:22; et al., means “to change one’s way of life as the result of a complete change of thought and attitude with regard to sin and righteousness.”
So it is not simply to stop doing something wrong but to change the way you think about that immoral activity so that you don’t want to do it any more. Repentance happens in the heart, not on the hands.
Maybe that explains why so many people that claim to have repented of something end up getting caught at the same activity again. That is, they haven’t really had a change of heart toward that activity so they aren’t really convicted about stopping that activity.
A story I heard about a group and a particular activity they were engaged in will help illustrate what repentance is and is not. This well-known organization was confronted by supporters about an activity they were engaging in. The head of the organization responded to the complaints against such an activity by saying that if it bothered the supporters then they would stop engaging in this activity. And they did stop doing it.
However, they never repented of it. That is, they never admitted – or confessed – that what they were doing was wrong and that they shouldn’t have been doing it. They just said, “if it bothers you, we’ll quit.” They didn’t have a change of mind toward that activity that led to a change in conduct. Rather they were just appeasing supporters to keep their support coming in.
Another very public example several years ago occurred when a top political figure was caught engaging in gross immorality — if you’re thinking of more than one this could apply to then take your pick. This top politician went on TV and tearfully apologized to the American people for the conduct in which they had been caught. Then, after his tearful public apology, fought tooth and nail to avoid the consequences of his actions.
By his diligent efforts to avoid the consequences of his actions he showed that he didn’t truly repent of those actions. If he truly believed that his actions were wrong because he had a change of heart that resulted in a change of conduct, then he would not have tried to avoid the consequences. He would have admitted that he did wrong and willingly accepted whatever the just consequences were.
The “men of Nineveh” serve as a good example of what true repentance is. Jesus said that the “men of Nineveh will rise up in the judgment with (the generation He was preaching to) and condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah” (Matthew 12:41). Jesus is referring to God’s sending the prophet Jonah to preach to Nineveh (Jonah 1:2; 3:1, 2).
His message to them was that if they did not repent of the immoral lifestyle characterized by that city, God would destroy them (Jonah 3:4). How did Nineveh respond to such preaching against immorality?
They didn’t just say, “well, if it makes God mad we’ll stop.” No, they were mournful over their transgressions. They had a change of heart toward their conduct and changed their actions because of that change of heart (cf. Jonah 3:5-10).
When Jesus said that they repented “at” the preaching of Jonah, the word “at” is also very important. It more literally means that they repented “into” the preaching of Jonah.
Their repentance wasn’t simply “because of” what Jonah preached. Their repentance was “into” what Jonah preached, i.e., they had a change of heart that resulted in a change of conduct according to what Jonah preached. That is what true repentance looks like!
When we hear the word of God (Romans 10:17), and believe what it teaches about Christ and His kingdom (Acts 8:12), then we will be moved to change our conduct based on that belief (Acts 3:19). That change of conduct will be “into” what Jesus taught.
We will want to confess that we believe Jesus to be the Son of God (Acts 8:35-37), and be baptized into Christ for the washing away of our sins (Acts 2:38; 22:16). When we have had that kind of change of heart then we can truly live in “newness of life” (Romans 6:3, 4).