Christendom today faces a massive problem of easy-believism. Many proponents of easy-believism teach that repentance is not essential for salvation. Others on the other hand, define repentance as a change of mind. This leads to a careless Christianity where little importance is placed on holiness and walking in the fear of the Lord.

The necessity of repentance for salvation is clearly proclaimed in the Holy Scriptures. The Westminster Confession of Faith Chapter 15.3 teaches that “none may expect pardon without it (i.e. repentance)”. The need for repentance is also frequently preached throughout the New Testament. Consider the preaching of the following:

  • John the Baptiser.

And saying, Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 3:2)

  • Jesus Christ

From that time Jesus began to preach, and to say, Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 4:17)

I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish. Or those eighteen, upon whom the tower in Siloam fell, and slew them, think ye that they were sinners above all men that dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.” (Luke 13:3-5)

  • The Apostles
    • Peter

Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.” (Acts 2:38)

    • Paul

And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men every where to repent:” (Acts 17:30)

Faith is inextricably linked to repentance (see Acts 19:4). True faith leads to repentance. Homer Kent rightly observes that faith, conversion, and repentance are often used together and when done so, repentance is placed first. However, they are not three separate acts or steps to salvation. Rather they are three aspects of the same act of the soul (empowered and led by the Holy Spirit), whereby the believer responds positively to the offer of Christ in the Gospel.

However, there are those who teach that repentance is just simply “a change of mind”. Much of the debate surrounds two Greek terms that are used with regards to repentance – μετανοεω (metanoeō) and μεταμελομαι (metamelomai).

The first Greek term metanoeō has the general meaning of changing one’s mind or remorse in the common Greek of those days (see BDAG). One use of this term can be found in the parable of the two sons in Matthew 21:28-32. “But what think ye? A certain man had two sons; and he came to the first, and said, Son, go work to day in my vineyard. He answered and said, I will not: but afterward he repented, and went. And he came to the second, and said likewise. And he answered and said, I go, sir: and went not. Whether of them twain did the will of his father? They say unto him, The first. Jesus saith unto them, Verily I say unto you, That the publicans and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you. For John came unto you in the way of righteousness, and ye believed him not: but the publicans and the harlots believed him: and ye, when ye had seen it, repented not afterward, that ye might believe him.” (Matthew 21:28-32)

From the verses above, we see that repentance does involve a change of mind. The first son intended not to work in the vineyard when called upon by his father. However, he had a change of mind and decided to do otherwise.

However, is that all there is to repentance – a change of mind? From the parable above, we see that the repentance of the first son was seen by the fact that he took action and chose to obey his father by working in the vineyard, contrary to his initial words. On the other hand, the second son chose to give the father lip service and did not execute his words. The parable thus teaches us that before the Lord, we must not be N.A.T.O (No Action, Talk Only). True repentance must thus involve more than just a change of mind but also action that is meet for repentance. Those who hold on to the teaching that metanoeō as used in the Scriptures involve simply a change in mind, have fallen into the misguided assumption by basing the meaning on the term on how it was used in the literature of the day without considering the full theology of the Scripture.

The second term, metamelomai, is often taken to mean having regrets or second thoughts about something (BDAG). This sense of regret is seen in its use in Matthew 27:3-4 to describe the regret of Judas in betraying the Lord Jesus. “Then Judas, which had betrayed him, when he saw that he was condemned, repented himself, and brought again the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders, Saying, I have sinned in that I have betrayed the innocent blood. And they said, What is that to us? see thou to that.” (Matthew 27:3-4) Critically, Judas did not seek forgiveness from God but chose to commit suicide by hanging himself on a tree that was along a cliff. He fell headlong down the cliff, bursting asunder in the middle and all his bowels gushed out (Acts 1:18).

Calvin summarises the whole issue well by listing three points concerning true biblical repentance in his Institutes of the Christian Religion:

  • Firstly, when we call repentance “a conversion of life to God,” we require a transformation not only of the external actions but in the soul itself (Eze. 18:31; see also Jer. 4:1, 3, 4)
  • Secondly, true repentance springs forth from a serious fear of God, a fear of divine judgement. This godly sorrow is not only the dread of punishment but abhorrence of sin itself, from a knowledge that it is displeasing to God.
  • Thirdly, true repentance involves mortification of the flesh and vivification of our own nature, which is full of wickedness and perverseness.

Calvin concluded that the “race of repentance runs during our whole life.”

Dear friends, our repentance must not be like that of Judas Iscariot, who simply regretted his actions but never really came to the Lord for his salvation. His follow-up action of suicide revealed that he never really placed his faith in Christ for deliverance from his sins. Rather, we must be like King David who quickly forsook his sin and obeyed the Lord whenever it was revealed to him (see Psalm 51). May the Lord grant all readers understanding of these things.

Yours affectionately,
Pastor Clement Chew