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Reflect On Repentance
by Dr. Fred Wittman
Some time ago during a conversation with a young assistant pastor in Australia, the request was made to discuss repentance in a future issue of Hermeneuo, a quarterly publication for pastors, prospective students, and supporters of Australian Bible Seminary. That conversation prompted the sincere question, “What is repentance?” It led to a consideration of ‘easy believism.’ Later in discussion with a fellow-servant of The Lord who ministers among the Aboriginal people, the need for evidence of repentance was accentuated as he lamented what he termed, ‘shallow believism.’ It is apparent that there are legitimate concerns among church leaders over the amount of people that profess faith in Christ, but do not give recognizable evidence of the new life in Christ.
How should the young pastor's sincere question, “What is repentance?” be answered? How does repentance pertain to The God’s plan of salvation? How can one harmonize the sovereignty of God on the one hand with the responsibility of man on the other hand in order to maintain a balanced view of theology in the matter of salvation?
The Meaning of Repentance
The New Testament Scriptures in English use the word ‘repent’ to translate two different Greek words, only one of which refers to salvation. Metamélomai means “to change one’s care for” or “to regret” or “to be remorseful” and carries the connotation of ‘afterwards.’ It is used to describe the willful son who refused to do the will of his father and go into the vineyard to work, but later decided to go (Matt. 21:29). It is also used by Matthew to describe the remorse of Judas Iscariot after he betrayed Jesus Christ for thirty pieces of silver (Mt. 27:3).
The Greek word for repentance which pertains to salvation is metanoéo, which means “to change one’s mind so as to change the direction one is going.” It contains the negative concept of turning away from something, as well as the positive act of turning to something. In the New Testament usage, the Lord Jesus emphasized the need for repentance by cities which rejected Him and His teaching (Matt. 11:21; Luke 10:13,11:32 cf. Jonah 3:5). He stated that they would demonstrate repentance by sitting in sackcloth and ashes. This has led some throughout church history to put an emphasis on a ‘sorrow for sin’ or ‘doing penance’ to be composite in the meaning of ‘repent.’ However, though sorrow for sin may be and usually is a by-product of repentance, it is not contained in the meaning of the word.
Etymology and Historical Use
To get a full understanding of the function of a word, it is necessary to study its etymology; and where possible, to trace its use historically. Etymologically metanoéo comes from noé0, “to perceive, apprehend, understand, gain insight to, be minded to, or to consider,” plus the prefixed preposition metá which can mean “association, succession, transfer, or change” when used in combination. Thus the meaning “to change one’s mind” or “to be minded to change” is derived. Historically, metanoéo had a special use, in addition to the common use when used in the imperative mood.
A Military Term
It was used by the Greek army as a military command, much like the command, “About turn!” is used by the Australian Army today. The United States Army uses, “To the rear, march!” Picture in your mind a Greek army of Spartans marching across a mesa to battle. All of a sudden, the commander sees a steep precipice ahead and recognizes the immediate danger to his troops. He calls out, “Metanoáysate!” Unless each one changes his mind about the direction he is going, and reverses direction, he will plunge to his death over the precipice. The command is to repent, change direction before it is too late. How appropriate is the likeness to God's command to mankind, to illustrate its spiritual meaning!
“All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way . . .” Isa. 53:6). Each one is going down on the broad way that will plunge us into eternal destruction unless direction is reversed (Matt. 7:13,14). “Unless you repent, you shall all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3,5). Each one must change his mind about the direction he is going, about the way he is living, about the way he is treating God. Each one must repent or shall plunge into eternity to perish forever! Now God “. . . commandeth all men (humans) everywhere to repent (Acts 17:30).
God’s Sovereignty and Man’s Responsibility
The gospel Paul preached included the finished work of Christ on Calvary: His enduring the wrath of The God and shedding His blood for us, the resurrection of Christ from the dead, and the ascension of Christ to apply His blood on the Mercy Seat in Heaven. The Lord Jesus Christ procured eternal salvation. The work is done! Paul emphasized the sovereignty of God in providing salvation and drawing men to Christ (John 6:44) and the ministry of the Holy Spirit convicting, revealing truth, illuminating, and regenerating those whom He has chosen (2 Thes. 2:13, Eph. 1:4). He also emphasized two aspects of man's responsibility. These can be seen in his charge to the Ephesian elders on the Isle of Miletus, recorded in Acts 20:17-35,
“. . . I did not shrink back from any one of the expedient things in order to announce to you and to teach you publicly and from house to house, earnestly testifying both to Jews and to Greeks the repentance unto The God and the faith unto The Lord of ours, Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:20,21 A Precise Translation)
God has done it all! Now it remains for man to respond. Paul taught that man's responsibility is to respond to the gospel and that man must respond through repentance and faith. Some will say, “But the Gospel of John does not contain the word repent.” And they are correct. However, when Jesus explained the new birth to Nicodemus, he used an illustration that depicted man's responsibility as well as God’s ability and sovereignty. He referred to the event when Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness. Immediately this master teacher of Israel, Nicodemus remembered the event that was recorded in the Torah (Num. 21:5-9).
When the people of Israel, who had been marvelously redeemed by the blood of a lamb shed in Egypt and applied to the side and upper door posts and later redeemed by power being led through the Red Sea, were traveling from Edom, they became hungry for bread and thirsty for the lack of water, although God had provided manna daily and miraculously provided water when desperately needed, they spoke against Moses and against God. As a result, God sent poisonous fiery serpents that bit the people and they were dying off. Then they came to Moses, confessed their sin and asked him to pray for them. When he prayed, The Lord told Moses to make a serpent of brass and lifted it up on a pole. Then when anyone bitten by a fiery serpent turned and looked up to that brazen serpent, he lived. Since repentance requires turning from Sin and confessing that one is a sinner, both Nicodemus and later John understood that the people repented whenever they turned to look at that serpent of brass on a wooden pole. The Jews understood well the need for repentance, therefore John emphasized the sovereignty of The God in regeneration. Furthermore, the term “believe” which John used is a word that has lost its full significance of meaning. It means “to commit trust.” When one totally commits trust to Jesus Christ, he or she abandons trusting himself and his former life and turns to Jesus Christ for His life and totally, persistently commits trust unto The Lord Jesus Christ, that may well be repentance if indeed that one understands he or she is repenting. Repentance and Faith cannot be separated for salvation.
The Other Side of the Coin
God requires faith (committed trust)! Jesus emphasized the necessity of faith (John 3:16-18,36; 8:24; etc.). Jesus also emphasized repentance (Luke 13:3,5; Matt. 9:13,4:17). God commands repentance (Acts 17:30)! Repentance is the other side of the coin. Repentance pertains to the mind and Scriptural faith pertains to the heart. Repentance and Scriptural faith go hand in hand. Repentance without Scriptural faith will not save! It will reform, but will not redeem. Neither will faith without repentance save! To believe without repenting is to exercise mental faith, to assent. He who exercises mental faith is 18 inches (46 cm) away from salvation. Paul proclaimed, “. . . that if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised Him from the dead, thou shalt be saved” (Rom. 10:9). Faith must be exercised with all the heart. One cannot believe with less than the whole heart. Saving faith is exercised with all the heart, not just the mind. It is totally committing oneself to the Lord Jesus Christ with confidence that he will keep His Word and completely save.
One going one’s own way away from The God, with his or her back turned to The God (Isa. 53:6) and his or her hands behind him asking for The God’s consecrated gift of salvation while expecting God to place the consecrated gift in his hands, is not believing with all his heart. He must turn around in determination not to go back in order to commit trust and receive The God’s consecrated gift of salvation and eternal life (John 1:12, Rom. 6:23). That turning around in determination not to go back but to receive salvation is repentance demonstrated. Repentance and Faith are two sides of the same Scriptural coin. Both are needed to respond to God's offer of salvation. Both go together.
Faith, Not Logic
Attempts have been made by learned and capable scholars to explain how faith and repentance logically relate to salvation. Many have been sidetracked by deep involvement in seeking to determine which comes first in the invisible workings of God in salvation. Faith or repentance. God has not clearly shown in His Word how He works. His ways are past finding out (Rom. 11:33). What He has revealed, He expects to be acknowledged and acted upon explicitly. The deep things of God are not known by the natural human, but are searched out by His Spirit (1 Cor. 2:10,11; John 3:8). Let us rejoice and be obedient to the things The God has revealed to us in His Word.
Although God has not revealed how salvation and eternal life is wrought by His Spirit, He has revealed what is required of the human to obtain, or if you prefer, to receive this great salvation. Mark recorded that the order in which The Lord Jesus Christ proclaimed the requirements to enter the Kingdom of The God was, “Repent and believe The Gospel!” (Mk. 1:14,15). Thus repentance first, then faith according to The Lord Jesus Christ.
Later, Paul clearly stated in his farewell to the Ephesian elders at Miletus in Acts 20:21 that the order in which he persistently proclaimed to people the requirements to receive salvation was: “. . . repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ.” So Paul also used the same order as The Lord Jesus Christ, which is repentance first, then faith. This is the order we are to present to the unregenerate human his responsibility of correct response to the gospel. It may not fit human reasoning and logic, but it may be confidently affirmed by faith in The God’s Holy Word.
Not Works, but Willingness
Repentance is not works, but a determined willingness to yield to God, a determined willingness to receive eternal life and salvation, a determined willingness to make Christ Lord of one's life. The emphasis that Jesus put on the result of repentance (Matt. 1 1:21; Luke 10:13, 11:32 cf. Jonah 3:5) has led some leaders of Christendom to wrongly stress penance as an, indication of repentance. Penance is indeed a form of works: this cannot be denied. Penance is an act of self-abasement or mortification to show sorrow for sin. It is a punishment undergone as a token of penitence for sin. It is unfortunate that the distinction between the Scriptural word ‘repentance’ and the religious word ‘penance’ was not maintained through history. Even the Reformers often did not make proper distinction. The Latin word poenitentiae “was used by Calvin, as by his medieval predecessors, for both repentance and penance” (Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion, Vol. I, Edited by John T. McNeill, ed. note p. 592) Such lack of distinction may lead many readers and scholars to misinterpret his meaning with reference to repentance and faith. This is most unfortunate. Calvin's term “total depravity” is interpreted by extreme Calvinists to mean “total inability.” Yet Calvin himself speaks of our ability as unregenerate humans, that in “depravity and corruption, we recognize that true light of wisdom, . . . we are prompted by our own ills to contemplate the good things of God; and we cannot seriously aspire to Him before we begin to become displeased with ourselves” (Calvin: ibid. pp. 36,37).
Thus Calvin indicates his belief that man can aspire to God when he becomes displeased with himself. Is not that what Scriptural repentance really is? Man becomes aware of his true condition before God. He becomes displeased with himself and turns in aspiration to God in total commitment, placing his unconditional and unending trust in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Reflect on repentance! Repentance is a change of mind which results in a change of direction, a turning to The God from Sin. It is coupled with faith to appropriate salvation and eternal life through the work of The Lord Jesus Christ. A balanced view of theology recognizes on one hand the sovereignty of The God in providing salvation, choosing, drawing to Christ, and saving the human by His grace. On the other hand the responsibility of the human to appropriate that salvation through repentance and faith.
A gospel that does not demand repentance is a gospel of easy believism. It is “another gospel” (Gal. 1:6-8; 2 Cor. 11:4). A gospel that does not call for total commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ is a gospel of “shallow believism.” Let us proclaim a Scriptural gospel of repentance and faith which saves from the gutter most to the uttermost, lest we be accursed!
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This article appeared in Hermeneuo Vol. 5, July 1986. Hermeneuo was a publication of the Australian Bible Seminary, registered by Australia Post, Publication No. NBG7689. Dr. Wittman was the Principal of the Seminary, and also the Editor of Hermeneuo at that time. He is currently retired from Australian Bible Seminary and lives in Wilmington, Delaware, USA; where he writes, lectures, teaches, disciples, and continues serving the fellowship of believers.
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