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Biblical Repentance

(What does it mean?)



          Is repentance necessary for salvation?  This is an easy question to answer, for the scripture clearly teaches that repentance is necessary for salvation.  Acts 3:19 states, "Repent ye therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out."  The problem with this question is that it is the wrong question?  The real question to ask is, what is repentance?  The definition to this word has changed throughout the past two millennium.  In fact, this definition started changing with the early church fathers.  For many of them contradicted what the scripture clearly teaches.

          Early church fathers taught a doctrine of penance for the forgiveness of sins.  That is, "an act of self-abasement, mortification, or devotion performed to show sorrow or repentance for sin" (Merriam Webster).  In fact, when translating the Greek word metanoia into Latin they falsely used the words paenitentia and poenitenitam agite which means to do acts of penance.  This was done to reflect their Theological bias and is not a fair representation of metanoia Metanoia literally means to change ones mind, or to "think differently or afterwards"  (Strong's Lexicon) This mistranslation unfortunately made it into the Latin Vulgate translation, and as a result, spread throughout the church.  Hence, our modern definition of repent is "to turn from sin and dedicate oneself to the amendment of one's life" (Merriam Websters).  If this is the meaning of metanoia then it sure sounds like works salvation.  However, a good exegetical study of the usage of metanoia would draw a different conclusion.

          Of all the verses that use the word repent in the context of turning from sins, none of them are referring to salvation.  An example of this is Acts 8:22 where a new believer named Simon offered to buy the gifts of the Holy Spirit from the Apostle Peter.  Peter's response was "Repent therefore of this thy wickedness, and pray God, if perhaps the thought of thine heart may be forgiven thee."  Here Peter calls a believer to repent of a specific sin.  It is important to note that Simon was already a believer (Acts 8:13).  This repentance was not to gain salvation, for salvation was already had.  The context of this verse is entirely different than the context of salvation.  There seems to be a repentance to salvation; and another repentance of ones sins after salvation.  The difference is important.

          The repentance of ones sins after salvation is a process called sanctification.  Sanctification literally means to be set apart.  In the believers life it is threefold.  First, we are set apart immediately upon conversion.  Second, we are being set apart throughout our lives on earth.  And third, we will be set apart (glorified) when Christ returns.  The repentance of sins refers to this second part of sanctification.  The transformation of the believers life toward the intended will of God here on earth (1 Peter 1:15).  As believers we are to seek this earnestly.

          The question logically follows; what is the definition of repentance that leads to salvation?  In John 3:18 Jesus states, "He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God."  This passage makes it clear that we are condemned because of our unbelief.  We are not condemned because of our belief.  The only thing a believer has to repent of to be saved is their unbelief.  We have to metanoia (change our minds/unbelief) about who the Messiah is and what he did on the cross.  We have to stop thinking what we used to think about the Messiah and start believing that He is God in the flesh who took upon Himself the punishment for our sins.  This is the only prerequisite to saving faith.  When this is done you have salvation.  This is also confirmed in John 3:36, "He that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him."  The sin that needs to be repented of is believing not.  This is not a repentance from sins, but a repentance from a belief about who the Messiah is and what He did.  This does not negate the responsibility of every believer to be sanctified before the Lord more and more as their life moves on.  It just clarifies that the sanctification is not a prerequisite to salvation.

          The Messiah adds more clarity to this whole concept of belief in the Gospel of Mark.  In Mark 1:15, the Messiah said, "repent ye, and believe the gospel."  We know from 1 Cor. 15:1-4 that the gospel refers to the death, burial, and resurrection of the Messiah for the forgiveness of sins, but what does the Messiah mean by repent?  If we understood repentance like the modern definition, this statement would mean, "turn from your sins ye, and believe the gospel."  This is very unfortunate because it sure sounds like you have to earn salvation by turning from your sins.  This can't be true for, "by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast" (Eph. 2:8-9).  Rather, the Messiah is saying, "change your mind" (repent), "and believe the gospel" (death, burial, resurrection 1 Cor. 15:1-4), or in other words, "stop believing whatever you used to believe, and start believing that the Messiah died, was buried, and rose again to pay for your sins."  Salvation is that simple.  We have to "change our mind" (repent) and believe the gospel (death, burial, resurrection for forgiveness).

          There are three parts to our salvation, Justification, Sanctification, and Glorification. 

We first need to repent (change our minds) about who the Messiah is and what He did to pay for our sins (Justification - Rom. 4:25).  Then we need to repent (change our minds) about the sin in our lives (Sanctification - 1 Thess. 4:3).  Finally, when we are done with this life and we receive our new body from heaven we will be free from sin forever (Glorification - Rom. 8:30).  Justification always comes before Sanctification, but Sanctification is the proof of our Justification (James 2:17, 22).  We must first repent and believe that the Messiah died to pay for our sins, then we repent about our sins and work with God to remove sin from our lives (Phil. 2:12-13).  The turning from sins always comes after faith is placed in the Messiah for forgiveness.  For more on these topics please see my articles on Justification, Sanctification, and Glorification.


By Steve Siefken

  Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth

not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.

2 Timothy 2:15 KJV