The word “Repent” has a claim to being one of those words that changed the world. It was on seeing the difference between the Latin Penitentia and the Greek Metanoia that Martin Luther came to faith. The Latin had come to mean “Do penance” but the Greek meant “Change your mind.”
That is to say, in the New Testament,”repentance” was not a religious duty, nor even an emotion, but a decision.
It’s an important point. Many associate it with tears and grief, but it’s possible to weep and wail and feel grief-stricken, and yet not truly repent, in the Biblical sense. And it’s possible to perform a religious duty of penance without repenting at all!
Repenting means to firmly change your mind, and to do a U turn, to turn back or to return. It’s an inner change of mind resulting in an outer turning around.
The story of the Prodigal Son (in Luke 15) provides the classic picture: the wretch had wasted everything and suddenly come to a decision: “I will arise and go to my father.” The inner change of mind had produced an outer change of direction.
Of course, everyone is in that basic condition: lost without God, and the essential act of coming to your senses and deciding to turn to God is what the Bible means by repentance.
Now this is very different from remorse. In the King James Version of Matthew 27, it describes the scene when Judas “repented” of having betrayed 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,
4 Saying, I have sinned in that I have betrayed the innocent blood. And they said, What is that to us? see thou to that.”
But the word translated “repent” here is not metanoia but metamelein. It means remorse or anguish. That is to say, Judas experienced real anguish and remorse but he did not repent. He didn’t change his direction or change his mind. On the contrary, in Matthew 27:5, it says he hung himself. He experienced remorse but he didn’t change his course of action. This is the reflection of Acts 1:25: “Judas by transgression fell, that he might go to his own place….”
He experienced bitter emotion but not true repentance: he didn’t change his mind or his course. The truth was that he had gone too far. He had passed the “place of repentance.”
It’s a rather terrifying thought that a person might do so, that the door might slam shut behind you…
The same could be said of Esau, in rejecting his birthright for “a mess of pottage.” In Hebrews 12:17: “For you know how that afterward, when he would have inherited the blessing, he was rejected: for he found no place of repentance, though he sought it carefully with tears.”
In the margin of the 1611 KJV comes an alternative translation: “He found no way to change his mind.”
Esau wept bitter tears but found no “place of repentance.” By a trivial and impetuous act, he decided the whole course of his life, and “despised” the blessings and promises of God associated with his birthright.
Many do that, you know. For a brief flutter of carnal indulgence they despise the blessings and promises of God, only to find later just how much they’ve lost, and find no way to change their mind.
The New Testament offers but one way out: “Repent and believe….” That’s the order. Repentance first, and then faith.
It’s how the New Testament begins: “John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” (Mark 1:3,4)
It’s how Jesus is introduced: “‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!’ (Mark 1:15).
Notice that: the first thing Jesus taught was not to believe but to repent. Repent first, then Believe.
It’s at the end of the Gospel too. In Luke 24: “Repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations.”
It’s in the first sermon preached in the book of Acts (2:38): “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Repentance first, and then baptism and the remission of sins.
It’s how Paul described his ministry (in Acts 20): “I kept back nothing that was helpful, but proclaimed it to you, and taught you publicly and from house to house, testifying to Jews, and also to Greeks, repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ.”
It’s the order of the foundational doctrines in Hebrews 6: “The foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, … the doctrine of baptisms, of laying on of hands, of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment.”
The point is this: repentance must precede faith. Without it, faith is an empty profession. Many would preach: “Only believe,” but that is not what the Bible teaches. Paul tells us that God “commands all men everywhere to repent.” (Acts 17:30)
We turn from “dead works.” “Dead works” means all the acts and activities that are not based on repentance and faith; even religious ones -even Christian ones- if they are not based on repentance and faith.
But there’s one vital thing with which to conclude: God commands us to repent but He also enables it, initiates it and empowers it. Human beings don’t achieve much left to their own devices! And Jesus said “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him.” (John 6:44)
Which is where Luther began his journey some five hundred years or so back. As he said, (in words echoed many times by Billy Graham and countless others): The supreme moment in human life is when you choose to respond to that drawing power of God.
What an adventure awaits.