Last year, my wife and I took our son, Zachary, to the doctor and she diagnosed him with an ear infection; and, like good doctors do, she not only prescribed the medication for him but she also provided the right dosage – you could say – how he was supposed to take the medicine: amoxicillin, twice a day, with a specific amount of milligrams. In like manner, when we are sharing the Gospel we want to make sure we properly tell people howto appropriate and receive the great news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ; namely, repent and believe. If we provide the right medicine without giving the proper way for that medicine to be received, our job is in incomplete.
I think remembering the Biblical roots associated with the call of repentance helps protects us from leaving the word “repentance” by the wayside. John the Baptist came and preached, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mt. 3:2). And then in the following chapter we’re told that Jesus began to preach and say, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mt. 4:17). Jesus, Himself, said, “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance” (Lk. 5:32). Likewise, in the first sermon preached after the Holy Spirit had been poured out on Pentecost, Peter preached, “Repent and be baptized…” In the next chapter he said of Israel, “Repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out” (Acts 3:19). Paul told the Ephesian elders that he testified to both Jews and Greeks, “repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:21). Clearly, repentance was a part of the Gospel call. And if God is calling all men everywhere to repent, then preachers, missionaries, and all of God’s people have the responsibility to vocalize that (Acts 17:30).
Biblically, repentance is a change of thinking that results in a change of behavior. The Greek word for “repentance” is metanoia, and it literally means “a change of thinking.” For some, their definition of repentance stops there; but it shouldn’t. The reason being – the Scripture often presents a clear connection between repentance and behavioral change.
John the Baptist, for instance, told his hearers to “bear fruits worthy of repentance” (Lk. 3:8). So, for starters, John was telling the people that there should be some verifiable evidence of repentance, i.e. fruit. The people wanted more specifics, so they asked, “What shall we do then?” And John said, “He who has two tunics, let him give to him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise” (vs.11). The tax collectors likewise asked the same question and John told them, “Collect no more than what is appointed for you” (vs.13). And then the soldiers followed suit, asked the same question, and John told them, “Do not intimidate anyone or accuse falsely, and be content with your wages” (vs.14b). So that’s why we say that repentance is a change of thinking that results in a change of behavior.
Yes, fundamentally, repentance will involve a change of thinking that produces a new way thinking about Christ (Acts 20:21), i.e. seeing Him as the Messiah whose sacrificial work is so completely sufficient that the prospect of adding works into the ‘divine recipe’ of forgiveness is abominable, but that kind of repentance is inextricably linked to repenting from works that bring death (Heb. 6:1b), which would inevitably be tied to a desire to avoid those behaviors (Rom. 6:21), a reality the Scripture defines as an “elementary doctrine” (Heb. 6:1 ESV).
The Origin of Repentance
Also, concerning repentance, it is something that is granted by God. Paul told Timothy that “a servant of the Lord must not quarrel but be gentle to all, able to teach, patient, in humility correcting those who are in opposition, if God perhaps will grant them repentance, so that they may know the truth” (2 Tim. 2:24,25 emphasis added). Repentance is not something independently birthed from the heart of fallen men, it is a gracious gift given by God to His elect. Similarly, when Peter told those gathered at Jerusalem about how the Gentiles in Caesarea believed the Gospel and received the Holy Spirit, they became silent and glorified God saying, “Then God has also grantedto the Gentiles repentance to life” (Acts 11:18 emphasis added).
Repentance, thus, is not a work, it is a God-granted change of mind that results in a change of behavior; it is a renouncing of sin; and it most immediately expresses itself in reliance upon the person and work of Christ for forgiveness.