Preaching Repentance and Forgiveness (1): Repentance
Reformed Free Publishing Association
By Martyn McGeown
On the third day after his sacrificial and atoning death on the cross Jesus Christ rose from the dead. On the same day he appeared to various individuals and groups. He appeared to certain women, he appeared to Mary Magdalene, he appeared to certain disciples on the road to Emmaus, he appeared to Simon Peter, and he appeared to the ten disciples (Judas Iscariot had perished and gone to his own place, and Thomas—doubting Thomas—was absent). In one of those appearances Jesus commissioned his disciples to preach:
And he said unto them, These are the words which I spake unto you, while I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms, concerning me. Then opened he their understanding, that they might understand the scriptures, and said unto them, Thus it is written, and thus it behooved Christ to suffer, and to rise from the dead the third day: and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. And ye are witnesses of these things. And, behold, I send the promise of my Father upon you: but tarry ye in the city of Jerusalem, until ye be endued with power from on high (Luke 24:44-49)
The content of the message that the apostles were called to preach was this: repentance and remission of sins. “Preach,” says Jesus “the necessity of my sufferings, death, and resurrection; and preach repentance and the remission of sins.”
Repentance: A Change of Mind
The word “repentance” is the translation of the Greek word metanoia. Think of another word beginning with meta, metamorphosis. Metamorphosis is a change of form or shape. For example, a caterpillar undergoes metamorphosis to become a butterfly. If metamorphosis means a change of form of shape, metanoia means a change of mind. The word paranoia which has the same ending as metanoia also concerns the mind: para means beside, so that paranoia is “beside the mind.” The word noetic means “relating to the mind.” Theologians sometimes speak of the noetic effects of sin, the effects of sin upon man’s mind. Repentance, therefore, is a change of mind. Another way to understand the word metanoia is to think of meta meaning “after”: metanoia or repentance is an afterthought.
Greek scholar, Richard C. Trench, writes concerning μετανοέω (the verb “repent”) that it means “to know after” and that repentance is “the change of mind consequent on this after-knowledge” and “regret for the course pursued resulting from the change of mind consequent on this after-knowledge.” The word, adds Trench, “gradually advanced in depth and fullness of meaning, till [it came to express] that mighty change in mind, heart, and life wrought by the Spirit of God” (Synonyms of the New Testament [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, repr. 1969], pp. 257-258, 260).
What happens, then, in our souls when we repent? Perhaps we snap at our spouse, or we make a cruel, cutting remark against our sibling, or we speak disrespectfully to our parents, or we lie to our friend. When we did those things, we initially did not feel guilty; we thought that we were right in doing or saying what we did. We justified ourselves. But then we remember God’s commandments, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God,” “Thou shalt love thy neighbor,” “Honor thy father and thy mother,” “Thou shalt not kill,” “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” We remember that God forbids such words and actions, and the Spirit begins to work in our hearts. We feel guilty. Our conscience smites us. We change our mind. We see the evil of our words and actions. We have an afterthought; we regret what we did, we feel sorry about it. That is metanoia or repentance.
Repentance does not end in a change of mind, but it bears fruit so that we turn from our sin and we stop the evil activity, and we change our behavior. We apologize to our spouse, our sibling, our parents, our friend. We may not say, “I repent,” while denying that our action is sin, while refusing to confess it as sin, and while continuing to commit the sin. That is not repentance, but impenitence. “He that covereth his sins shall not prosper, but whoso confesseth and forsaketh them shall have mercy” (Prov. 28:13).
Fundamentally, then, repentance is a change of mind.
Repentance is a change of mind about a number of things. First, repentance is a change of mind about God. An impenitent unbeliever is in rebellion against God, he hates God, he refuses to submit to the will and law of God, and he has all kinds of false ideas about God. A repentant sinner changes his mind and turns to the true God. Paul speaks of “repentance toward God” (Acts 20:21). The Thessalonians as the fruit of their repentance “turned to God from idols to serve the living and the true God” (1 Thess. 1:9). Repentance always results in turning from sin to God. Second, repentance is a change of mind about Jesus Christ. An impenitent unbeliever has wrong notions about Jesus Christ. On hearing the gospel, if God grants repentance, a sinner changes his mind about Jesus Christ, he sees him as the altogether lovely Savior and Lord, and he believes in him. Third, repentance is a change of mind about ourselves and our sins. An impenitent unbeliever views himself as good, as not needing salvation, as not needing the cross of Jesus Christ, as not needing to turn from sin. Before repentance we view our sins as good, as something to be loved and cherished. But when God brings us to repentance, we see our sins as God sees them—as horrible, odious—and we hate them. Because we hate them, which is a radical change of mind concerning them, we turn from them. We have spoken of impenitent unbelievers, but we can be impenitent too: then we have a wrong view of God, Christ, and ourselves, and our sins. Then we must have a change of mind. We must repent.
Here, then, is the message that the risen Lord Jesus commissioned his disciples to bring: “that repentance… should be preached in his name” (Luke 24:47). And the apostles obeyed the Lord’s commission. In Acts 2:38, when Peter exposed the Jews’ sin and the Spirit pricked their hearts, Peter said, “Repent.” In Acts 3:19, after the miracle of the healing of the crippled man, Peter said, “Repent ye, therefore.” The Jews were called to a fundamental change of mind: they had rejected Jesus; now they must receive him as Lord and be baptized in his name; they had been self-righteous; now they must forsake their self-righteousness. Those actions flow from a change of mind, metanoia, repentance. The same thing applies to the Gentiles and was preached to them. When Peter preached to Cornelius’ household, the response of the Jews was not, “The Gentiles have believed,” which was true, but “then hath God also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life” (Acts 11:18). When Paul preached in Athens, he said, “But now commandeth [God] all men everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30). Very few repented in Athens, but those who repented changed their mind about God, about Jesus Christ, about themselves, and about their sin.
To be continued