The What and Why of Repentance (Part 1 of 2)

“Think happy thoughts!”

This (and a little help from pixy-dust) is all that was needed to for the children to fly in their adventures with Peter Pan. Such a task was apparently difficult for adults, but the innocence and joyfulness of a child’s heart could even defy the grown-ups’ laws of physics.

While such tales are relegated to the realm of children’s storybooks, many hurting people fill congregations wondering whether the “true” promises of divine blessing in Scripture are nothing more than flights of fancy. These congregants are not necessarily unbelievers (though, it is true that those who never have encountered God entertain such doubts). Rather, these people can be genuine believers who are blinded to the marvels of God and His Word because of their personal sins. For this group, the simple admonition, “Think godly thoughts!” is not any more realistic than leaving the ground to touch the clouds.

Why does the human mind seem to lack the ability to think in a manner that is pleasing to God? Richard Mayhue concludes from his biblical review of the human mind that man’s thoughts are debased, hardened, blinded, futile, darkened, hostile, deluded, deceived, sensuous, depraved, corrupted, and defiled.[1] Of course, his review does not touch the intellect (humans are capable of wonderful invention and art), but the mind's moral and spiritual compass seems to be askew.

Is the command any easier for Christians, then? It is very possible for believers to , but we will see that it is only possible if they know how to operate according to the Gospel. Calvin writes that sin, “though it ceases to reign, ceases not to dwell in them. Accordingly, though we say that the old man is crucified, and the law of sin is abolished in the children of God (Rom. 6:6), the remains of sin survive, not to have dominion, but to humble them under a consciousness of their infirmity” (emphasis added). [2]

The natural man lacks the ability to think in a manner that pleases God. Mayhue writes, “As a result of this mental mayhem, people are ‘always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth’ (2 Tim 3:7), and some even ‘have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge’ (Rom 10:2).[3] As the human brain is not transplanted upon its conversion, these things can hold true for Christians, as well, if they are not patterning their thought patterns according toward what the Gospel commands. This is a major contributing factor disconnecting the “Spiritual Life” pulpits proclaim and the “real” experiences of those sitting in the pews. This is why Sunday mornings do not always translate into “real” life.

Is Jesus an acceptable kind of fellow?
It is necessary to step backward for a moment and look at the common call our churches extend. What kind of messages have you heard? “Will you accept Jesus into your heart?” “Will you make a decision for Christ today?” Or, probably the worst: “Will you give Jesus a chance?” Did Jesus ever ask people to accept Him into their hearts? Did the apostles ever use language like this? While the intent of such calls is in the right place, and they may even result in genuine conversions, they are poorly worded questions to ask of the lost. MacArthur writes,
The Western church has subtly changed the thrust of the gospel. Instead of exhorting sinners to repent, evangelicalism in our society asks the unsaved to “accept Christ.” That makes sinners sovereign and puts Christ at their disposal. In effect it puts Christ on trial and hands the judge’s robes and gavel to the inquirer—precisely opposite of what should be. Ironically, people who ought to be concerned about whether Christ will accept them are being told by Christians that it is the sinner’s prerogative to “accept Christ.” [4]
Some who ask people to accept Christ have the right idea, though they are not expressing it. They might be thinking, “Oh, you poor soul. Please obey this message. You have no chance without Christ, for even your good works are filthy before God. Flee your self-righteousness and self-assured ways into the arms of the Savior so He will save you” when they concisely yet inconsistently ask, “Won’t you accept the Savior today?” If we are sinners, and we are, then we should tremble at the prospect of one day facing a holy God, no matter how loving He is. He will see every stain, and what's more, He reveal those stains to be the result of rebellious choices. These preachers only need to better communicate what they are thinking in order to improve their message.

For, it is only the lost person who, through the grace of God, understands the message to be “repent and believe(the “substance of the church’s message to a hostile world throughout the Book of Acts”)[5] and then obeys it who is a true convert.

Thus, conversion is not weighing the pros and cons of world religions, choosing Jesus as one might have decided if next year's new car will better fit the needs of the family. Biblical conversion occurs when one falls flat at the foot of the cross and repents of the deeds of his hands by clutching the wood until the blood of Christ covers them. It is a divine act of forgiveness, an accepting, not of Christ, but of the sinner into God's presence.

Though genuine believers need not fear for their salvation every time they sin, they do need to have the attitude that Christ is their only chance of forgiveness and rest in His work at Calvary to take care of even the newest act against Him. This kind of repentant living is the key to unlocking the Gospel within an individual's heart and mind. Christians can sit in pews wondering why the words describing God as “my best thought by day or by night” and “my treasure, thou art” ring hollow, but the Christian who repents sings these words with tears of joy. To consider the importance of repentance upon our lives, let us now define it.

What is repentance?
The Greek term μετάνοια (μετανοέω as the verb) speaks of a noting after, and commonly “denotes ‘change of noús,’ whether in feelings, will, or thought.”[6] This goes beyond the simple thought “to turn.” . The noun and verb forms occur seventy-six times in the New Testament,[7] with the majority of instances occurring within the Gospels and Acts.

They also appear in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament), so let us begin looking there. First Samuel 15:29 says God does not repent like a man, and Jeremiah 4:28 speaks of His refusal to repent. Such instances speak of God’s immutability, His unmoving commitment to what He has said and decided. Whereas God does not move, we, being sinners separated from Him, need reconciliation to Him. A ship drifting out to sea cannot blame the shore for not staying with it: it must lash itself to the unmovable shore and draw itself back in. Christians also, though repentance in the power of the Spirit, should have minds aligning to the immutable Mind of Christ. MacArthur correctly notes, then, that true repentance “is not just a change of mind; it is a change of heart. It is a spiritual turning, a total about-face. Repentance in the context of the new birth means turning from sin to the Savior. It is an inward response, not external activity, but its fruit will be evident in the true believer’s behavior (Luke 3:8).[8]

Moving now into the New Testament, Acts 3:19 and 26:20 both speak of a repenting and turning. This tells us there is a difference between the commands “repent” and “turn”—if repenting is noting mistakes and changing one’s mind, then it makes sense for one to also turn from sin unto God. These verses link the need to turn to the need to repent, then.

Matthew 3:2, 4:17, and Mark 1:15 make repentance the prerequisite for entry into the kingdom. While the kingdom is a yet-future reality, it seems sensible to see this as an immediate need, considering its connection with the Gospel. Revelation 2:16 warns that Christ will make war against those in the church who are unrepentant, 2:22 promises a sickbed and tribulation to them, and 3:19 cautions against reproof and discipline. It seems, then, that suffering, heartache, lack of belonging, fear, and sorrow could all result from unrepentant Christianity, making it vital for flocks to practice repentance.

A Couple of Pictures of Repentance in Scripture
It is not necessary for us to view all the instances of μετάνοια and μετανοέω in Scripture. It is also not necessary to remain with those words to understand their concept. For instance, we could consider a couple of examples form John.

Before that, note that repentance is vital, if, for no other reason, the unrepentant bear many self-imposed sorrows. They say,
Therefore justice is far from us,
and righteousness does not overtake us;
we hope for light, and behold, darkness,
and for brightness, but we walk in gloom.
We grope for the wall like the blind;
we grope like those who have no eyes;
we stumble at noon as in the twilight,
among those in full vigor we are like dead men. (Isaiah 59:9–10)
How wonderful is it that part of John's opening words are, "The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world" (1:9)! Yet, in 3:19–21, to the inquiring Nicodemus, Jesus says,
And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been carried out in God.
MacArthur notes, “In the account of Nicodemus. . . repentance was clearly suggested in Jesus’ command to be 'born again' (John 3:3, 5, 7). Repentance was the point of the Old Testament illustration our Lord gave Nicodemus (vv. 14–15). In John 4, the woman at the well did repent, as we see from her actions in verses 28–29.”[10] Nicodemus needed rebirth, and the woman needed the water of life—neither needed a higher standard for their current lives. MacArthur also highlights this example:
The jailer knew very well the cost of being a Christian (vv. 23–24). He was also obviously prepared to repent. He was about to take his own life when Paul stopped him (vv. 25–27). He had clearly come to the end of himself. Moreover, Paul gave him a more extensive gospel presentation than is recorded for us in Acts 16:31. Verse 32 says “they spoke the word of the Lord to him together with all who were in his house.” Ultimately the jailer did repent. He proved his repentance by his deeds (vv. 33–34). This passage cannot be used to prove that Paul preached the gospel without calling sinners to repentance.[11]
Thus, repentance is an ever-present need, even when the word does not appear. Just as we must repent in order to partake in salvation, we must live lives marked by repentance if we are to experience fruitful living. Next time, we are going to continue to expand upon this, partly by issuing cautions against misusing the word repent.



To be continued...


[1] Richard L Mayhue. “Cultivating a Biblical Mind-set.” Think Biblically: Recovering a Christian Worldview. John Macarthur, ed. (Wheaton: Crossway, 2003), 39.

[2] Jean Calvin.Institutes of the Christian Religion, elec. ed. Trans. Beveridge, Henry. (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997), S. III, iii, 11.

[3] Mayhue, “Cultivating a Biblical Mind-Set.” 39.

[4] John MacArthur Jr, Faith Works: The Gospel According to the Apostles, elec. ed. (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1997, c1993), 74.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Gerhard Kittel; Gerhard Friedrich; Geoffrey William Bromiley. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. (Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans, 1995, c1985), 639.

[7] μετάνοια occurs in Matt 3:8, 11; Mark 1:4; Luke 3:3, 8; 5:32; 15:7; 24:47; Acts 5:31; 11:18; 13:24; 19:4; 20:21; 26:20; Rom 2:4; 2 Cor 7:9, 10; 2 Tim 2:25; Hebrew 6:1, 6; Hebrew 12:17; 2 Pet 3:9. μετανοέω occurs in Matt 3:2; 4:17; 11:20; 11:21; 12:41; Mark 1:15; 6:12; Luke 10:13; 11:32; 13:3, 5; 15:7, 10; 16:30; 17:3, 4; Acts 2:38; 3:19; 8:22; 17:30; 26:20; 2 Cor 12:21; Rev 2:5, 16, 21, 22; 3:3, 19; 9:20, 21; 16:9, 11.

[8] MacArthur, Faith Works, 77.

[9] Ibid., 81. Other Johannine implications of repentance include John 3:19–21, John 10:26–28; John 12:24–26.

[10] Ibid., 85.

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