I. OLD TESTAMENT TERMS
1. To Repent--"to Pant," "to Sigh"
2. To Repent--"to Turn" or "Return"
II. NEW TESTAMENT TERMS
1. Repent--"to Care," "Be Concerned"
2. Repent--"to Change the Mind"
3. Repent--"to Turn Over," "to Turn Upon," "to Turn Unto"
III. THE PSYCHOLOGICAL ELEMENTS
1. The Intellectual Element
2. The Emotional Element
3. The Volitional Element
To get an accurate idea of the precise New Testament meaning of this highly important word it is necessary to consider its approximate synonyms in the original Hebrew and Greek The psychological elements of repentance should be considered in the light of the general teaching of Scripture.
I. Old Testament Terms.
1. To Repent--"to Pant," "to Sigh":
The Hebrew word naham, is an onomatopoetic term which implies difficulty in breathing, hence, "to pant," "to sigh," "to groan." Naturally it came to signify "to lament" or "to grieve," and when the emotion was produced by the desire of good for others, it merged into compassion and sympathy, and when incited by a consideration of one's own character and deeds it means "to rue," "to repent." To adapt language to our understanding, God is represented as repenting when delayed penalties are at last to be inflicted, or when threatened evils have been averted by genuine reformation (Gen 6:6; Jon 3:10). This word is translated "repent" about 40 times in the Old Testament, and in nearly all cases it refers to God. The principal idea is not personal relation to sin, either in its experience of grief or in turning from an evil course. Yet the results of sin are manifest in its use. God's heart is grieved at man's iniquity, and in love He bestows His grace, or in justice He terminates His mercy. It indicates the aroused emotions of God which prompt Him to a different course of dealing with the people. Similarly when used with reference to man, only in this case the consciousness of personal transgression is evident. This distinction in the application of the word is intended by such declarations as God "is not a man, that he should repent" (1 Sam 15:29; Job 42:6; Jer 8:6).
2. To Repent--"to Turn" or "Return":
The term shubh, is most generally employed to express the Scriptural idea of genuine repentance. It is used extensively by the prophets, and makes prominent the idea of a radical change in one's attitude toward sin and God. It implies a conscious, moral separation, and a personal decision to forsake sin and to enter into fellowship with God. It is employed extensively with reference to man's turning away from sin to righteousness (Dt 4:30; Neh 1:9; Ps 7:12; Jer 3:14). It quite often refers to God in His relation to man (Ex 32:12; Josh 7:26). It is employed to indicate the thorough spiritual change which God alone can effect (Ps 85:4). When the term is translated by "return" it has reference either to man, to God, or to God and man (1 Sam 7:3; Ps 90:13 (both terms, nacham and shubh; Isa 21:12; 55:7). Both terms are also sometimes employed when the twofold idea of grief and altered relation is expressed, and are translated by "repent" and "return" (Ezek 14:6; Hos 12:6; Jon 3:8).
II. New Testament Terms.
1. Repent--"to Care," "Be Concerned":
The term metamelomai, literally signifies to have a feeling or care, concern or regret; like nacham, it expresses the emotional aspect of repentance. The feeling indicated by the word may issue in genuine repentance, or it may degenerate into mere remorse (Mt 21:29,32; 27:3). Judas repented only in the sense of regret, remorse, and not in the sense of the abandonment of sin. The word is used with reference to Paul's feeling concerning a certain course of conduct, and with reference to God in His attitude toward His purposes of grace (2 Cor 7:8 the King James Version; Heb 7:21).
2. Repent--"to Change the Mind":
The word metanoeo, expresses the true New Testament idea of the spiritual change implied in a sinner's return to God. The term signifies "to have another mind," to change the opinion or purpose with regard to sin. It is equivalent to the Old Testament word "turn." Thus, it is employed by John the Baptist, Jesus, and the apostles (Mt 3:2; Mk 1:15; Acts 2:38). The idea expressed by the word is intimately associated with different aspects of spiritual transformation and of Christian life, with the process in which the agency of man is prominent, as faith (Acts 20:21), and as conversion (Acts 3:19); also with those experiences and blessings of which God alone is the author, as remission and forgiveness of sin (Lk 24:47; Acts 5:31). It is sometimes conjoined with baptism, which as an overt public act proclaims a changed relation to sin and God (Mk 1:4; Lk 3:3; Acts 13:24; 19:4). As a vital experience, repentance is to manifest its reality by producing good fruits appropriate to the new spiritual life (Mt 3:8).
3. Repent--"to Turn Over," "to Turn Upon," "to Turn Unto":
The word epistrepho, is used to bring out more clearly the distinct change wrought in repentance. It is employed quite frequently in Acts to express the positive side of a change involved in New Testament repentance, or to indicate the return to God of which the turning from sin is the negative aspect. The two conceptions are inseparable and complementary. The word is used to express the spiritual transition from sin to God (Acts 9:35; 1 Thess 1:9); to strengthen the idea of faith (Acts 11:21); and to complete and emphasize the change required by New Testament repentance (Acts 26:20).
There is great difficulty in expressing the true idea of a change of thought with reference to sin when we translate the New Testament "repentance" into other languages. The Latin version renders it "exercise penitence" (poenitentiam agere). But "penitence" etymologically signifies pain, grief, distress, rather than a change of thought and purpose. Thus Latin Christianity has been corrupted by the pernicious error of presenting grief over sin rather than abandonment of sin as the primary idea of New Testament repentance. It was easy to make the transition from penitence to penance, consequently the Romanists represent Jesus and the apostles as urging people to do penance (poenitentiam agite). The English word "repent" is derived from the Latin repoenitere, and inherits the fault of the Latin, making grief the principal idea and keeping it in the background, if not altogether out of sight, the fundamental New Testament conception of a change of mind with reference to sin. But the exhortations of the ancient prophets, of Jesus, and of the apostles show that the change of mind is the dominant idea of the words employed, while the accompanying grief and consequent reformation enter into one's experience from the very nature of the case.
III. The Psychological Elements.
1. The Intellectual Element:
Repentance is that change of a sinner's mind which leads him to turn from his evil ways and live. The change wrought in repentance is so deep and radical as to affect the whole spiritual nature and to involve the entire personality. The intellect must function, the emotions must be aroused, and the will must act. Psychology shows repentance to be profound, personal and all-pervasive. The intellectual element is manifest from the nature of man as an intelligent being, and from the demands of God who desires only rational service. Man must apprehend sin as unutterably heinous, the divine law as perfect and inexorable, and himself as coming short or falling below the requirements of a holy God (Job 42:5,6; Ps 51:3; Rom 3:20).
2. The Emotional Element:
There may be a knowledge of sin without turning from it as an awful thing which dishonors God and ruins man. The change of view may lead only to a dread of punishment and not to the hatred and abandonment of sin (Ex 9:27; Nu 22:34; Josh 7:20; 1 Sam 15:24; Mt 27:4). An emotional element is necessarily involved in repentance. While feeling is not the equivalent of repentance, it nevertheless may be a powerful impulse to a genuine turning from sin. A penitent cannot from the nature of the case be stolid and indifferent. The emotional attitude must be altered if New Testament repentance be experienced. There is a type of grief that issues in repentance and another which plunges into remorse. There is a godly sorrow and also a sorrow of the world. The former brings life; the latter, death (Mt 27:3; Lk 18:23; 2 Cor 7:9,10). There must be a consciousness of sin in its effect on man and in its relation to God before there can be a hearty turning away from unrighteousness. The feeling naturally accompanying repentance implies a conviction of personal sin and sinfulness and an earnest appeal to God to forgive according to His mercy (Ps 51:1,2,10-14).
3. The Volitional Element:
The most prominent element in the psychology of repentance is the voluntary, or volitional. This aspect of the penitent's experience is expressed in the Old Testament by "turn", or "return," and in the New Testament by "repent" or "turn." The words employed in the Hebrew and Greek place chief emphasis on the will, the change of mind, or of purpose, because a complete and sincere turning to God involves both the apprehension of the nature of sin and the consciousness of personal guilt (Jer 25:5; Mk 1:15; Acts 2:38; 2 Cor 7:9,10). The demand for repentance implies free will and individual responsibility. That men are called upon to repent there can be no doubt, and that God is represented as taking the initiative in repentance is equally clear. The solution of the problem belongs to the spiritual sphere. The psychical phenomena have their origin in the mysterious relations of the human and the divine personalities. There can be no external substitute for the internal change. Sackcloth for the body and remorse for the soul are not to be confused with a determined abandonment of sin and return to God. Not material sacrifice, but a spiritual change, is the inexorable demand of God in both dispensations (Ps 51:17; Isa 1:11; Jer 6:20; Hos 6:6).
Repentance is only a condition of salvation and not its meritorious ground. The motives for repentance are chiefly found in the goodness of God, in divine love, in the pleading desire to have sinners saved, in the inevitable consequences of sin, in the universal demands of the gospel, and in the hope of spiritual life and membership in the kingdom of heaven (Ezek 33:11; Mk 1:15; Lk 13:1-5; Jn 3:16; Acts 17:30; Rom 2:4; 1 Tim 2:4). The first four beatitudes (Mt 5:3-6) form a heavenly ladder by which penitent souls pass from the dominion of Satan into the Kingdom of God. A consciousness of spiritual poverty dethroning pride, a sense of personal unworthiness producing grief, a willingness to surrender to God in genuine humility, and a strong spiritual desire developing into hunger and thirst, enter into the experience of one who wholly abandons sin and heartily turns to Him who grants repentance unto life.
Various theological works and commentaries Note especially Strong, Systematic Theology, III, 832-36; Broadus on Mt 3:2, American Comm.; article "Busse" (Penance). Hauck-Herzog, Realencyklopadie fur protestantische Theologie und Kirche.
Byron H. Dement