What does it mean to repent?

Today I’d like to do a word study with you. I don’t usually do this kind of lesson and I may never do it again, depending on how this works out, but here goes:

What do you hear when someone tells you to repent?  Is it something like: “You are evil and need to turn to good?”  Well, there is some of that in the word “repent” but it is a lot richer and actually more powerful than that.  Let’s see what the Bible says about it, shall we?

Did you know that the Old Testament Hebrew word that is translated “repent” about 40 times is also translated “comfort” about 65 times?  And, believe it or not, when translated “repent” it refers to God’s repenting in most of its usages.  The Hebrew word literally means breathing a sigh.  That can be good or bad, depending.  Let’s look at a few examples:

First look at it’s use as “repent” or “relent” or “be sorry about” and see how it applies to God.

Genesis 6:6-7 – literally says, “It repented God that He had made man on the earth.”  Your Bible may say, “He was sorry” or “He was grieved” but the word here carries the idea that God had a change of mind about it.

Exodus 32:12&14

When God planned calamity against Israel in the wilderness because of their idolatry, the Bible says that when Moses pleaded with God for Israel, and for God’s honor, that God “repented” and did not bring disaster upon them as He had said.

NKJV has the word: “relented” instead of “repented”.

Numbers 23:19 says that God is not a man that He should lie, nor the son of man that He should repent.  This verse supplies a lot of the theology behind repentance as it applies to God.  But it should be noted that this is not absolute.  While God does not repent of evil or lying (because He is neither evil nor a liar) God does actually change courses in applying either justice or mercy.  There are times when God could rightly do either, and He foregoes calamity and gives clemency.

1 Samuel 15:11,29&35 have this word in them.  Look at what it says there.  Vs. 11, Old KJV says: “It repenteth me that I have made Saul king.  Vs. 29, Speaking of God, Samuel says what Numbers 23:19 said:  The Strength of Israel will not lie nor repent: for he is not a man, that he should repent.

Then look at verse 35 where it says of God, “the Lord repented that he had made Saul king over Israel.

Other occurrences:  2 Samuel 24:16, Psalm 106:45, Jeremiah 26:19, Amos 7:3&6, Jonah 3:10.

The same Hebrew word for repent is used in all these verses explaining God’s decision not to do something disastrous that He had intended.

Second: On the other hand, in reference to people this same word often means “comfort”.  Notice these examples:

Genesis 5:29 – Noah is born.  His father, Lamech, said that he will bring “comfort” to us since God cursed the land.

Genesis 24:67 – When Isaac married Rebekah he was comforted over the death of his mother.

Genesis 37:35 – When Jacob thought Joseph was killed and was mourning himself to death, his sons and daughters tried to “comfort” him.

Job 2:11, 16:2, speak of Job’s friends offering “comfort” to Job and his reply, “miserable comforters are you all!”

Isaiah 40:1  What does your Bible say?  Repent or Comfort?  Look at Isaiah 49:13, 51:3, 52:9, 66:13.

One of my favorite verses in the Old Testament on repentance is Isaiah 30:15.  This is what the Sovereign LORD, the Holy One of Israel, says: “In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength, but you would have none of it.

The word here for repentance is found only here in the Bible and it means to return.

When we turn to the New Testament the greek word for repent is “metanoia” and it literally means to “think again”, or meta- after, noia- thought = afterthought.  All my life I’ve heard that repent means to “turn”, and it does have that idea connected to it, but precisely speaking, the turning is driven by new thinking or a new mind or perception.  Turning is one of the the visible reactions of repentance.  So the Bible can say repent and return!  Acts 3:19.

I was working on this yesterday and Kendall and I had a conversation about it.  I’ve studied repentance over the years, but mostly from the New Testament and from books that were written about repentance.  I’m sorry to say, (and I repent) that I had never done a word study on it.

I was surprised to find what I did.  Repentance has to do with letting go of the story of sin that you have walked in and taking up the story of faith and grace and finding comfort and refreshment in God’s love.  It takes faith, or believing the word of God about our condition in sin and the terrible price He paid to redeem us.  That would bring godly sorrow that works repentance.  And therefore it has to do with mentally, letting go of what destroys and embracing what saves. Then actually doing it.  It’s about grace.  The fruit of repentance is a changed direction of life, changed thinking, changed values, changed behaviors.  That’s the turning part.

The very word in the Old Testament, when applied to God, shows us that when God begins to bring just and righteous judgment against sinful behaviors, He can sometimes reflect on it and offer grace and mercy instead.  Sometimes this happens as a result of prayer and pleading on the part of an intercessor such as Moses or Daniel or simply within Himself, so that instead of wrath, grace and comfort comes.  That’s not to say that discipline is withdrawn, but that the disaster of rejection is rescinded.

Repentance!  Listen to repentance in the heart of God!  I read this and was flooded with thankfulness for God’s grace.  I hope you will be too.

Hosea 6:4-11,  11:1-11

The gospel of Jesus Christ is the message of God’s love poured out for all man.  This message has power to bring us to faith and repentance.  That faith is a trust in God and that repentance is a new mind of godly sorrow about our sin and a comforting embrace of His grace and forgiveness.  In Romans 1:5 It is the obedience of faith to which we are called in Jesus Christ.  It results in repentance and the fruit of repentance demonstrated in fleeing from evil and clinging to what is good in Christ.