A Better Understanding Of Repentance

Several months ago I began a study on the subject of repentance and I’ve come to the conclusion that I’ve been understanding it, and teaching it, all wrong.

You see, I don’t doubt the importance or necessity of repentance.

We were created to serve God…..Ecclesiastes 12:13 The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.

And when we stray from God he demands that we turn back to him…..Psalms 7:11-13  God is a righteous judge, and a God who feels indignation every day.  If a man does not repent,  God will whet his sword; he has bent and readied his bow; he has prepared for him his deadly weapons, making his arrows fiery shafts.  

But my I believe my problem has been a misunderstanding of what repentance actually is.

There are four words that are most often interpreted “repent” or “repentance” in the Bible….

  • Strong’s H7725—שׁוּב—shûb  To turn back, to return
  • Strong’s H5162—נָחַם—nacham  To sigh or breathe strongly….to be sorry 
  • Strong’s G3340—μετανοέω-metanoeō  To think differently, to change one’s mind  (Interpreted in the NT as “repent”)
  • Strong’s G3341—μετάνοια-metanoia  Reversal of one’s decision                                (Interpreted in the NT as “repentance”)

And what I discovered is that when repentance is talked about in the Bible either through the definition of the actual word used or its context, it’s always indicating a change of HEART or THOUGHT or INTENT.

For example….

SHÛB / 1 Kings 8:46-50  If they sin against you—for there is no one who does not sin—and you are angry with them and give them to an enemy, so that they are carried away captive to the land of the enemy, far off or near, yet if they turn their heart in the land to which they have been carried captive, and repent and plead with you in the land of their captors, saying, ‘We have sinned and have acted perversely and wickedly,’ if they repent with all their mind and with all their heart in the land of their enemies, who carried them captive, and pray to you toward their land, which you gave to their fathers, the city that you have chosen, and the house that I have built for your name, then hear in heaven your dwelling place their prayer and their plea, and maintain their cause…

Solomon is beseeching God to hear the prayers of the Israelites when they repented of their “perverse and wicked actions”.  But Solomon said that the repentance of the Jews would be in their mind and heart.  Indeed, living in captivity in a foreign land it’s unlikely that they would be able to act on their repentance and begin following all of the feasts and rituals that God had commanded of them.  The repentance would take place before their actions changed.

nacham / Job 42:5,6  I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.

While sitting in dust and ashes nothing that Job was DOING changed.  But his attitude changed.  His heart changed.  His intent changed.  The repentance took place before his actions changed.

metanoeō / metanoia / Luke 15:7  Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents (metanoeō) than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance (metanoia).

  • Is Luke15 teaching us that the 99 righteous people were sinless and perfect?  Of course not.  The 99 weren’t perfect, but they had decided that they wanted to serve the Shepherd and follow him.
  • Is Luke15 teaching us that the angels will only rejoice when the 1 sinner completely quits sinning?  Of course not, or else they’d never have an opportunity to rejoice.
  • Or is interpreting repentance as a change of heart more appropriate in the context of this passage?


So what did I have wrong?  I’ve believed (and taught) that repentance is when someone turns away from sin.  If you stop sinning, you’ve repented.

So why is that misunderstanding of repentance so dangerous to our faith?

If we believe that we have to completely stop committing a sin before we are forgiven for it, will we believe that we have ever truly been forgiven?  Will we even bother asking for forgiveness?   For example….Let’s say I struggle with the sin of using foul language.  I get angry one morning at work and use foul language, then ask God to forgive me.  But on the way home someone cuts me off in traffic and I curse again.  If I believe that repentance means completely turning away from a particular sin (foul language), and I committed that sin for a second time in the same day…..then I must not have repented earlier that morning…..And if I didn’t repent then God must not have forgiven me…..and now I’ve got the sin from this morning piled up with the sin from this afternoon, and I know that those two sins will likely be piled with another sin later in the week.  And a misunderstanding of what repentance actually is has led me to a hopeless feeling.

If our children believe that they must completely stop sinning before they can be baptized (Acts 2:38-Repent and then be baptized), will they ever bother being baptized?

If we believe that we should have completely stopped sinning before baptism, will we live a life of doubt that our sins were truly washed away?

If I have that misunderstanding of repentance, it will only lead to a feeling of despair.

And I’d say that there’s no emotion more dangerous for a Christian to endure than a feeling of despair.  Because in desperation like that we’ll either completely give up or keep charging ahead, relying more and more every day on our own works rather than the work that Jesus did on the cross for us.

But what about putting a stop to our sin?  What about changing our actions?

Matthew 3:8  Bear fruit in keeping with repentance.  When true repentance has occurred, there will be evidence of that in our lives.

Matthew 15:18,19  But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander.  Our hearts dictate our actions.  When we repent (turn our hearts and minds and intentions back to God) then our actions will change as well.

Acts 26:19,20  Therefore, O King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision, but declared first to those in Damascus, then in Jerusalem and throughout all the region of Judea, and also to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds in keeping with their repentance.  Paul indicates that repentance occurs….and THEN our deeds change.

I’m not giving up on the notion that we should work to remove sin from our lives.  I’m giving up the notion that I can’t be forgiven until I’m perfect.

The point is not to abandon change in our lives.  The point is to abandon despair in our lives.


This lesson is part of a series on Challenges To Our Faith.  You can find the entire series here if you’re interested.


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