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What is True Repentance? Confidently Know the Biblical Definition

what is true repentance?

When I first got saved, I often wondered, “What is true repentance?” Have I truly repented? Are my fellow churchgoers really repenting around me, as well?”

It’s May 2004–George W. Bush is in a presidential race with Senator John Kerry. The Iraq War is picking up and getting intense. Shrek 2 and Mean Girls were hit movies, and songs like Yeah! by Usher and This Love by Maroon 5 were popular. I’m sure I had my favorite music playing on my MySpace page.

And one goofy, pimple-faced boy with an afro and sandals–yours truly–was giving his life to God the best way he knew how.

I didn’t know anything about God, but I went to church. They said, “Repent and give your heart to Jesus.” So, after a few services, I just did what I saw everyone else doing. I went to the front of the church, knelt, and began to cry and talk to God.

Now, looking back, I believe that I really did repent. Something changed inside of me, and I never turned back. Here I am, 20 years later, still crazy about Jesus, minus the afro and sandals.

But it’s funny how our American minds have a preconceived idea about the concept of “repentance” and our spirituality. I mean, even as a 17-year-old minor who had never been raised in the church, my perception of repentance was that I had to:

  • Feel sorry for my sins.

  • Ask for forgiveness from God.

  • Change my behavior now and try not to do bad things anymore.

We read scriptures like these, and it kind of scares us:

Matthew 4:17

From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

Acts 3:19

Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out,

Revelation 2:16

Therefore repent. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth.

What is True Repentance? The Biblical, Greek Definition

The Greek word for repentance is metanoia, which means just to “change your mind.” It kind of sounds like “metamorphosis,” right? It's like the way a butterfly goes through its life cycle.

So, when Jesus and others told people to repent, he meant, “Change your mind! You used to think this way about God and your faith; now you must think this way.”

What do we need to change our mind towards? And what are we changing our minds from?

Answer: We change our minds from thinking that we do not have sin, that Jesus and the cross were not the most important figures and do not require our attention, and that we are OK in this world without God.

We change our minds towards the belief that we carry sin and are doomed without God, that Jesus came to die and forgive us of that sin, in which his sacrifice was enough to atone for it, and that we need this savior for literally everything in life.

This is precisely why the Bible says:

Romans 10:9-10

9 because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.

You truly repent when you get saved by honestly believing in Jesus. It’s that simple.

How Many Modern Christians Think of Repentance

When people mention repentance, it puts a damp, grey cloth over the atmosphere. I think of the Christians shouting on the street corners with megaphones, yelling at everyone to “Repent or burn!”

Again, we often associate it with actions of feeling melancholy, begging for forgiveness from the omnipotent Father, and undergoing a change by suiting up and becoming cookie-cutter Christians who, from now on, only have fun by going to Brother Bob’s house for Bible Study and pizza.

I think this idea of repentance discourages people from approaching God. The Bible does teach repentance, but perhaps people don’t want to because they’re not ready to make a change like that in their lives yet.

They don’t want to feel bad or beg for forgiveness for things. They don’t want to become a holy roller.

That’s not what repentance is. Hear me clearly: True repentance could include Godly sorrow and apologies. It will result in some type of sound change in your life. But repentance is more profound and joyful (angels rejoice when you do it), requiring no work to solidify your conversion.

How Did We Get to Our Modern Perception About Repentance?

Church history is fascinating. I could spend hours reading big books about the crazy things people believed about faith and religion centuries ago. I’m sure in hundreds of years, people will laugh at what I believe now.

As you know, the church became “organized” as the years progressed after the apostles. One critical feature of the universal church centered around the idea of metanoia. Translators changed this word to something along the lines of “do penance.”

We can see that repentance quickly changed from “a change that happens inwardly in the mind” to “external works done to obtain forgiveness.”

In the 1500s, William Tyndale began translating the Latin Bible into English. When he did, one of the words he paid close attention to was metanoia. Latin scholars translated it into poenitentiam agite, meaning “to do penance.”

Tyndale knew this was a terrible translation, so when he translated it into English, he translated it as “repent.” To him, the word metanoia carried more of a meaning that said only “to turn.” He knew it involved a heart transformation and had nothing to do with doing deeds to make up for sins.

Tyndale was later captured, strangled, and burned. He was vital in forming the English Bible and arriving at the true definition of repentance. He said this about repentance:

“PENANCE is a word of their own forging, to deceive us withal, as many others are... Of repentance they have made penance, to blind the people, and to make them think that they must take pains, and do some holy deeds, to make satisfaction for their sins...”

Fast-forward to today and much of the modern church still has these little inclinations towards repentance. I Googled the topic concerning the Catholic Church, and the first link reads, “Repentance is the acknowledgment that I am a sinner and the invitation to turn from my sin and follow God.”

I agree with the first part, but I wonder what they mean when they say, “Repentance IS the invitation to turn from my sin.” Many churches teach or imply that “turning from sin” involves ceasing to do bad things in our own strength and doing good works to “get” this repentant state.

People walk away from this definition, thinking, “I also must change my behavior by making serious changes to my life to gain satisfaction for my sins and achieve true repentance.”

The apostles taught that good works were something Christ enables us to do after we’ve repented, not as an actual part of repentance if that makes sense.

It might seem like I’m nit-picking, but biblically, repentance is nothing more than a change of mind. Good works and changes should flow effortlessly from that newly saved state. One should think, “I’ve already fully repented when I began believing in Jesus. Good works will follow if I focus on Christ and who I am in him.”

Repentance Should Also Be a Lifestyle for a Christian

When you got saved, it was because you repented. You saw your need for a savior and shifted your thinking.

But if no one has told you, just know you will still make mistakes. There should be an ongoing repentance. No, that doesn’t mean you must “atone” for those sins, feel guilty or shameful for them, or beg God to forgive you.

Your ongoing repentance could include feeling bad for grieving God, but true repentance will be the shift that takes place in your mind. You were doing and thinking this way that led to sin; now, you’re doing and thinking another way that leads to good works.

This will happen all the time as a Christian. But for a New Covenant Christian, repentance is more about that mind shift, which results in you returning home to a loving Father with grace in His hands.

Also, as you walk out this Christian journey, you’ll have to change your mind towards newer, Godly ideas. New attitudes, new beliefs, new thought processes. This is also repentance.


Now, you confidently know the Biblical definition of repentance! What is it? A change of mind towards God.




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