When the word “repentance” is mentioned, often somebody is quick to chime in and say that the Greek word for repentance really means to “change your mind.” Well, yes it does— in part.
But we need to ask, change your mind about what, exactly?
The answer to that question is quite important. This may seem like hair-splitting, but getting theologically accurate really has some important implications. In fact, it may mean the difference of an eternal Heaven or Hell for someone. If we get repentance wrong, then we get the gospel wrong, possibly leading people to Hell or producing weak converts who may eventually fall away.
It seems that when some (not all) people who remind us that repentance means “change your mind,” they are inferring that it therefore doesn’t involve turning from sin evidenced by a change of actions. They may be implying that all that’s needed for salvation is for you to merely change your mind— that you change your thinking from not believing Christ died for your sins to believing that He did, and then, bam, you’re saved.
Now, some people say this out of a sincere belief of what is scriptural. But for others, my concern is they are defending a lifestyle of continuing in sin, misleading themselves and others that they do not need to turn away from sin (and produce the evidence thereof— as John the Baptist said to “produce fruit in keeping with repentance” [Matthew 3:8, NIV]).
Let me be clear, I believe what scripture teaches— that we are saved through faith, and not by works (Ephesians 2:8-9). We cannot earn our way to Heaven by our good works. However, my concern is that many have strayed from the original intent of the words “faith” and “repentance” in the Bible.
What Does Repentance Really Mean?
So what does repentance mean in the original New Testament Greek? The Greek word used for repent/repentance in most verses is “metanoeo.” According to Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, it means: “to perceive afterwards” …signifies “to change one’s mind or purpose,” always, in the NT, involving a change for the better, an amendment, and always …of “repentance” from sin.
So yes, repentance means to “change your mind.” When we read about repentance in context of the verses, we find that this change of mind has to do with changing your mind about your sin and how you relate to God, which absolutely results in a change of actions. That change of action can be described as no longer willfully pursing a sinful lifestyle, and instead deciding to follow Christ. Acts 6:30 makes this clear: “I preached that they should repent and turn to God and demonstrate their repentance by their deeds” (NIV, emphasis added).
Also, John the Baptist clearly demonstrates that true repentance must bring about good fruit, and judgement remains if one does not turn from a lifestyle of sin:
7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, 9 and do not think to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones. 10 And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. (Matthew 3:7-10, NKJV)
Many believe that salvation or repentance means you just agree that Jesus died for you, and trust in Him alone to save you as a result. But that’s only part of the truth— and presenting only part of the truth is a subtle, dangerous error that has crept into many churches and we must become very aware of it. It could potentially mislead people into a false assurance of Heaven.
You receive salvation when you not only believe that He died for you and that He’s the only way to be saved, but also that He’s LORD and is worthy to be obeyed. And when you believe He is worthy to be your Lord, you repent, you change your mind about your sin and the direction of your life, which will be evidenced through your change of actions. From the context of the verses above and the ones listed at the end of this article, it is safe to conclude that the word “repentance” was understood by the early church to include a change of action.
So when we hear people say repent means to “turn from sin” that is absolutely correct, because sin is what we are “changing our minds” about.
We are changing our minds from thinking that our sin is okay, that it’s no big deal, or that God will just simply overlook it— to thinking that our sin is offensive to God, that He is good and worthy to be obeyed, and that our sins will send us to Hell unless we turn from them. Repentance isn’t just turning away from something (sin), but turning to something— turning our hearts toward God: “…testifying to Jews, and also to Greeks, repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:21). We are to become disciples of Christ. Are we to change our actions because we are trying to earn His love or salvation? No, our change of action overflows from our faith that He’s Lord and that He gave His life to save us.
James 2:17 says, “Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (NKJV). If you have true faith in the fullness of who He is, both Lord and Savior, that is the kind of faith that saves. The kind of faith that misleads and does not save is the faith that says “I trust in Him to save me of my sins, but I don’t trust Him to be my Lord, so I will continue to live however I want. But I’ll still go to Heaven because He’s my Savior.” You see, that cannot be true faith, because you are not trusting in and relying on everything that Jesus is. You’re saying, “I trust Him as my Savior, but not as my Lord.”
If you reject Him as Lord, you reject all of Him, because you do not have faith in the essence of who He is. Trusting Him as Lord means you are committing to follow Him and let Him rule your decisions. Faith and repentance are so intrinsically interconnected that they are virtually the same thing— two sides of the same coin. Like Abraham, if you have real faith, it will be acted upon (James 2:20-24).
It’s important to note this change does not come through our own striving or self-effort. Once a person surrenders to Christ in faith and repentance, the Bible promises that we are “born again” (John 3:1-20), we are a “new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17), and are given a “new heart” (Ezekiel 11:19-20, Hebrews 8:10-12). The Holy Spirit comes to live within us and empowers us to live for Him. A study on the Greek for “repent” on studylight.org says: “The verb ‘to repent’ also carries with it the understanding that the person who is making the decision for change cannot change himself, but rather perceives the need to surrender his life to Christ for the change.”
It should also be noted that you can actually change your actions without truly repenting, a least on the surface. Meaning, if you try to quit sinning and do good deeds because you’re trying to earn your way to Heaven, you haven’t actually repented or “changed your mind.” Because repenting also involves changing your mind about the way of salvation from your own way (trying to earn it through good works) to God’s way (faith, which = believing that His sacrifice on the cross was sufficient and trusting Him as Lord and Savior as a result).
Is Repentance a Work?
One thing people may ask is, “If you say we have to turn from sin, isn’t that a work, and therefore aren’t you teaching salvation by works?” Nope! Turning from your life of sin and to a life of living for Jesus is a requirement for salvation not because it’s a work but because it’s a natural result of true faith. If you truly have faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior, then obviously that means you agree your sin is wrong and that it should discontinue, and that only He can cleanse and free you of your sins.
Am I saying that it’s faith + works that saves you? No, I’m not. But there is a fine line here. It’s not faith + works that saves you, but it’s true faith evidenced by works that saves you. There’s a difference between those two things. In the first one, you’re trying to tack on works to your faith, because really you’re still trusting in your own supposed goodness to save you instead of trusting that Christ’s sacrifice alone is sufficient to take away your sins. It’s like saying, “The sacrifice of Jesus on the cross wasn’t enough to save me, so that I have to add good works to it.” In the second one— faith evidenced by works— you believe that Jesus alone can save you of your sins, that His sacrifice on the cross is enough to take the punishment of your sins, that your sin is wrong and He is worthy to be obeyed. Your actions follow suit because you always act upon what you have genuine faith in.
Repentance is a Lifetime Process
Does repentance mean we immediately become perfect and will never sin again? No, but it means we no longer pursue a lifestyle of sin, and instead pursue a lifestyle of holiness and close friendship with God. If a person is to become born again, they need to repent of the known sin in their lives. They may not realize everything that’s sin in their lives at the time, but they are agreeing to surrender their lives to Christ and let Him be their Lord. As they grow in getting to know their new Lord, more things will come into the light that need repented of.
We are transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2), through the washing of the water of His word (Ephesians 5:26). This continual renewing of our minds resulting from the word of God is equivalent to the “changing of the mind” of repentance. Hence, repentance is not a one time occasion when we first get saved, but it is a lifestyle, if we are to continue to abide in Jesus and the eternal life that is in Him (John 15:1-8). A lifestyle of repentance is a lifestyle of faith, faith that continues to trust and believe in His word and does not shrink back into the ways of the world (Hebrews 10:38).
General William Booth (1829-1912), the founder of the Salvation Army warned:
“The chief danger of the 20th century will be…forgiveness without repentance, salvation without regeneration, politics without God, and Heaven without Hell.”
The whole theme of the Bible surrounds the fact that sin has separated us from relationship with God which can only be mended through Christ’s sacrifice. It should be obvious that after Christ went through such great extremes to save us, that He’s not okay with us continuing in a life of deliberate, willful sin. Believers may stumble at times but they are not to remain in an unrepentant attitude, they are to continue to grow in relationship with God and become more like Him.
There’s a sick Laodicean spirit infiltrating the church and gospel preaching across America and other countries. There are people, calling themselves believers, who will diligently argue against all sound scriptural reasoning that turning away from sin is a requirement for salvation. That’s a serious problem. This distortion of the gospel is leading people to Hell and causing many in the church to be lukewarm, and in danger of being vomited out of the Lord’s mouth (Revelations 3:16). Let us be among those who remain faithful to the uncontaminated gospel message of holiness.
Verses on Repentance
Proverbs 28:13 NKJV
He who covers his sins will not prosper, But whoever confesses and forsakes them will have mercy.
Isaiah 55:7 NKJV
Let the wicked forsake his way, And the unrighteous man his thoughts; Let him return to the Lord, And He will have mercy on him; And to our God, For He will abundantly pardon.
Matthew 3:7-10 NKJV
7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, 9 and do not think to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones. 10 And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
-True repentance means producing good fruit, i.e. a change in our actions that reflect the love and character of God, and no longer living in sin. The fruit of the Spirit is listed in Galatians 5:22-26.
Matthew 7:21-23 NKJV
21 “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of Heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in Heaven. 22 Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ 23 And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’”
-Who was it that He commanded to depart from Him? Those who practiced lawlessness, those who remained in a lifestyle of sin, even though they called Jesus Lord and performed good works. For example, if someone tithes every week, teaches children’s ministry, has faith to prophecy and pray for the sick, but at the same time continues to have sex outside of marriage, this person is in danger of Hell (see I Corinthians 6:9-11, Galatians 5:19-26).
Matthew 9:13 NKJV
“For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.”
Mark 1:15 NKJV
“Repent, and believe in the gospel.”
Luke 13:5 NKJV
“I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish.”
Luke 24:46-47 NKJV
46 Then He said to them, “Thus it is written, and thus it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day, 47 and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.
-If you are not including repentance in your gospel message, you are disobeying Jesus, and you’re not actually sharing the gospel.
Acts 3:19 NKJV
“Repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord.”
-If you want your sins blotted out, you need to repent. Why would God blot out your sins if you are unwilling to turn from them?
Acts 3:26 NIV
“When God raised up his servant, he sent him first to you to bless you by turning each of you from your wicked ways.”
Acts 5:31 NKJV
Him God has exalted to His right hand to be Prince and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.
Acts 11:18 NKJV
“Then God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance to life.”
Acts 20:21 NIV
“I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus.”
Acts 26:20 NIV
…I preached that they should repent and turn to God and demonstrate their repentance by their deeds.
2 Corinthians 7:10 NKJV
For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death.
Revelation 2:20-22 NIV
20 Nevertheless, I have this against you: You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet. By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols. 21 I have given her time to repent of her immorality, but she is unwilling. 22 So I will cast her on a bed of suffering, and I will make those who commit adultery with her suffer intensely, unless they repent of her ways.
Revelation 9:20-21 NKJV
20 But the rest of mankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands, that they should not worship demons, and idols of gold, silver, brass, stone, and wood, which can neither see nor hear nor walk. 21 And they did not repent of their murders or their sorceries or their sexual immorality or their thefts.
These verses in Revelation don’t see repentance as a mere “change of mind” but very clearly it’s a turning from sinful ways.
Recommended Links on Repentance:
Teaching on Repentance by Ray Comfort
Teaching on Repentance by Mark Cahill
Verses on Repentance | Gospel Toolkit