To repent means to change your mind. Nothing more, nothing less. In the context of the new covenant, repentance means changing your mind about the goodness of God as revealed in Jesus Christ. It’s switching from unbelief to faith and from darkness to light.
The original word for repentance (metanoia, 3341) means a changed mind, while the original word for repent (metanoeo, 3340) is made up of two words; meta, meaning after and noieo meaning to comprehend, understand, or exercise the mind. “After learning something, I understood.”
Repentance and faith are two sides of the same coin and both are a response to God’s love and grace. Repentance is the ability to receive the truth that sets us free. It’s a change of mind that causes us to see as God sees and think as God thinks.
Biblical repentance is turning to God
In the old covenant, repentance implied a turning from sin (see for example; 1 Kings 8:35, 47-48, 2 Chr. 7:14, Eze. 14:6, 18:30, Jer. 36.3). But in the new, repentance involves a turning to God (Acts 20:21). Paul preached that they should “repent and turn to God” (Act 26:20). Turning from versus turning to may seem like splitting hairs, but it’s the difference between life and death. Someone who turns to God automatically turns from sin and dead works, but someone who turns from sin does not automatically turn to God. Consider the religious Pharisees. They turned from sin on a regular basis yet they did not turn to the One whom God sent.
Some define repentance as turning from sin with remorse. But that’s like saying the cost of God’s grace is tears, regret, and feelings of guilt. “If you’re not sorry, you haven’t really repented and therefore you’re not saved.” This is pure emotionalism. The good news is supposed to release great joy, not great sorrow. When you’ve heard that God loves you and has forgiven all your sins and provided everything you need for life and godliness, why would you be sad?
In the new covenant, repentance simply means a change of mind. When Jesus came preaching, “Repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15), he was saying “Change your unbelieving mind and believe the glad tidings of the kingdom which is at hand.” We don’t repent to manipulate God into bringing his kingdom down; we repent because his kingdom is at hand. Similarly, we don’t repent to get forgiven; we repent because we are forgiven. Look to the cross, your sins are there.
Repentance is a response to grace
The word repentance comes with lot of baggage. For some, repentance has to do with penance. It’s punishment (for breaking the rules), remorse (for your sin), and restitution (making things right). It’s true that some scriptures in the Old Testament link repentance with turning from sin (e.g., 2 Chr. 7:14). In the old covenant, God’s blessings were conditional on you humbling, praying, seeking, and turning. But in the new covenant, all of God’s blessings are poured out in accordance with the riches of his grace (Eph. 1:3, 7, 2:7).
Because of the change in covenants, it is a mistake to define repentance as turning from sin. Preach “turn from sin or you’re not saved” and you are preaching pure law. You are prescribing sin-rejection as a means for salvation. Perversely, this false gospel leaves sinners worse off because it empowers the sin that enslaves them while scorning the grace that might otherwise save them (1 Cor. 15:56). False repentance says, “I will deal with my sin,” but true repentance says, “I can’t deal with my sin, I need grace.”
Repentance is a normal part of the Christian life. It’s how we renew our minds and align ourselves with God’s thoughts. But how do we come to a place of repentance? A preacher of dead works will use carrots (“Turn from sin if you want to see God”) and sticks (“If you don’t, you’ll pay the price”), but this sort of repentance will lead you to trust in your own repenting efforts and miss grace.
An old covenant preacher says, “You gotta repent or else,” but a new covenant preacher says, “See the grace of God revealed in Jesus.” Old covenant repentance puts the focus on you and your badness, but new covenant repentance puts the focus on him and his goodness. “God’s kindness leads you to repentance” (Rom. 2:4).
Like faith, repentance is a gift from God (Acts 5:31, 11:18, 2 Tim. 2:25). We get it by hearing the good news of God’s unconditional love and grace. True repentance has nothing to do with punishment, which drives us apart, but love, which draws us together. It is the kindness of God that woos us from the prison of distrust.
Your definition of repentance reveals whether you are living under grace or works. Under the old covenant, sinners repented by bringing a sacrifice of penance and confessing their sins (Num. 5:7). But in the new covenant we bring a sacrifice of praise and confess his name (Heb. 13:15). We don’t do anything to deal with our sins for Jesus has done it all. Our part is to repent and believe the good news.
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