The word ‘repent’ has fallen on hard times. It has the outdated feel of old English coupled with the self-righteousy tinge of soapbox preaching. There are some who have completely cut both the word and the concept of repentance out of their theology- to their own destruction. There are others who’ve decided to keep the concept but update the word, using phrases like “turn” and “do a complete 180”. And then there are those who hold on to the word as if it had magical power to convict all whom it’s screeched at- to the detriment of the concept of repentance.
While it’s a perfectly good word- and a perfectly biblical word at that- it might not be the best word for your situation. Now before you go labeling me a liberal heretic, hear me out. I’m not arguing that we should drop the idea of repentance out of our theology or evangelistic methods- I’m not even arguing that we drop the word at all. What I do want to argue, in a similar vein as the second group described above, is that we might consider using a different phrase in order to draw out the rich meaning behind the word ‘repent’.
I’ve often heard Christians tell non-Christians that they need to repent of their sins and turn to Jesus. Now to me, a Christian, this makes perfect sense. But why do we expect non-Christians to understand repentance? We toss this word around as if we all have the same understanding, but we all certainly do not have the same understanding- that’s the whole reason we’re begging them to repent in the first place!
I’ve worked as an evangelist with college athletes for the past four years. When I ask them to tell me what comes to mind when they hear the word ‘repent’, most of them say something like: “it makes me think of those crazy rednecks who come to campus with their sandwich boards that say ‘dirty dancers and fags are going to hell’”. That’s not great. I confess, I’ve had a similar picture in mind for most of my life.
So why? Why don’t people understand repentance? Why has this perfectly good word, and biblical concept, fallen on such hard times? I’m sure there are lots of different reasons. One reason could be that we’ve tossed it around like a grenade that we ourselves don’t understand and have expected The Holy Spirit to pull the pin and set it off for us. After all, isn’t it God who grants repentance? (2 Tim. 2:25-26). Yes and amen! However, while God ordains the ends, like repentance and salvation, He also ordains the means, like us sharing the gospel, explaining the reasons for our hope in Jesus, and teaching disciples to observe all that Christ has commanded. For how are they to believe in him whom they have never heard and how are they to repent of their sins if they don’t know what repent means?
So what does “repent” mean? A quick Google search tells us that to repent is to “feel or express sincere regret or remorse about one’s wrongdoing or sin.” Now, that’s a decent definition, but I think we can do better. For an even more clear understanding of repentance we can turn to the Koine Greek (the common Greek of the first century) word that the authors of the New Testament used: μετάνοια (metanoia, met-an’-oy-ah). Metanoia, means “change one’s mind”. Noia, means thought, like in paranoia. But meta, as a prefix usually has to do with abstractness or beyondness, like in metaphysics, so I’m not quite sure I understand the etymology, but that’s not important- don’t side track me!
Change of mind! Metanoia! That’s a richer expression. True repentance isn’t behavior modification alone and It’s not only about regretting that you’ve done wrong. Repentance is about transforming your thoughts. Think about it, you could end your adulterous affair with your neighbor’s wife, but still love adultery in your heart. If you change your outward behavior but still treasure your adulterous memories, then you haven’t repented. Repentance is about changing your mind. Change your behavior, absolutely. Stop having sex with your neighbor’s wife immediately! But change your mind about it as well. Change the way you think about your actions, about your sin, about your neighbor, about your neighbor’s wife, about God- change your mind!
Changing your mind is what the Christian life is all about. Think about Mark 1:15: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” You have one way of thinking and it will lead to your death (Proverbs 14:12), change your mind from that way and believe the gospel- a new way, a different way, the only way that leads to life. Change your mind about God, change your mind about your deeds, change your mind about Jesus Christ and believe.
Christians are called to think differently than the rest of the world. Though all of mankind was created to image God, we’ve all turned aside and worshiped the created rather than the Creator. As redeemed image bearers, Christians are to once again think God’s thoughts after Him. Think about Romans 12:2, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Change your mind, think differently than the world thinks, be transformed in your thinking. Repent of your worldly thoughts and think like God thinks.
Consider Ephesians 4:17-24:
“17Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. 18They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. 19They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. 20But that is not the way you learned Christ!— 21assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, 22to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, 23and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, 24and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.”
That is what it means to repent. Change your mind about your old life, change the way you think, change your desires and think about everything the way God does. As long as we have thoughts that are not in conformity with God’s, we’ll have a need for repentance. Repentance is a way of life, a daily endeavor. But If you’ve ever tried to change someone’s mind, or even your own mind, you know how difficult it is. People hardly ever change their minds- even on pointless issues. How much more difficult is it to change your mind about worldview issues like your view of yourself or your view of God? Indeed, with man, repentance and faith is impossible- but with God, all things are possible!
So is repentance important? The concept of repentance- changing your mind- is a matter of life and death; it’s of everlasting importance. But is it important to mention the word ‘repent’ in every evangelistic encounter? Surely it’s not, especially if using that word gets in the way of conveying it’s meaning! I think it’s time for all of us to change our mind about the word ‘repent’.