In Part One, we saw that, while people can make positive changes in their lives, true repentance—the kind that counts toward salvation—only occurs after God has invited a person into a relationship with Him. Human beings are full of sin, and our natures compel us away from the path that God has revealed to lead to the Kingdom of God. Once God initiates the relationship, and we believe and vow to seek Him and His Kingdom, then real change for the better can commence and continue throughout the rest of our lives.
Knowing that we need to repent, however, still does not tell us what true repentance is. Repent and repentance are words that we have a vague understanding of what they mean, but like many theological terms, they stand for a great deal more than their simple definitions tell. It will take a little digging to come to a full understanding of the concept.
The English word repentance derives from a Latin word, penitere meaning "to make sorry." It is closely related to penitence, which means "contrition leading to change of behavior," and is a distant relation of the word pain. Its native English equivalent is rue, "regret, sorrow, remorse." Other than its association with penitence, repentance can strike an English speaker as a mere feeling of sorrow, regret, or contrition. However, we realize that biblical repentance goes beyond mere feeling.
Even so, this etymology provides a clue about an element of true repentance: It involves pain, particularly emotional pain. To repent is wrenching to the psyche. It really hurts because it is difficult to do. Oftentimes, what we must do is a bitter pill to swallow because it means changing ingrained attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors that have set hard like concrete in our lives. From this, we can conclude that any repentance that comes easily is probably not true repentance. If we have not felt some measure of pain in repenting, it is likely that we have not seen the depths of our sinful ways.
The writers of the Old Testament used two different words to convey the idea of repentance. The first is naham, which means "to be sorry" or "to rue." The Hebrew writers use this word to describe God's "repentance" in the few instances when He decides against an intended action. In this case, "repent" is an unfortunate translation of naham, as it would be better translated as "relent" or perhaps "regret." Being perfect, God has no need to repent.
For instance, in I Samuel 15, Samuel orders Saul to attack the Amalekites and utterly destroy them and their livestock. However, Saul disobeys, sparing the life of Agag, the Amalekite king, and the best of the animals. Because he did not obey God's command explicitly, Samuel writes, ". . . the LORD regretted [naham] that He had made Saul king over Israel" (I Samuel 15:35). Here, God was sorry that He had raised Saul to be king over His people; He rued that decision. However, God made it work out for good ultimately.
The essence of the meaning of naham lies in the action of breathing strongly. A person will often display this kind of behavior when something has gone wrong and he is sorry for it. In his regret, he may try to control his emotions by taking deep breaths that may descend into sobbing or even painful wails of remorse. This sort of repentance contains a strong emotional character.
Nevertheless, we need to remember that true repentance is not an entirely emotional experience. It is not just feeling sorry, not just an emotional outburst about something one regrets. There is more to it than that. Matthew 27:3-5 contains an account of an emotional, regretful repentance, but Scripture makes it clear that it is not a true one:
Then Judas [Iscariot], His betrayer, seeing that [Jesus] had been condemned, was remorseful and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders, saying, "I have sinned by betraying innocent blood." And they said, "What is that to us? You see to it!" Then he threw down the pieces of silver in the temple and departed, and went and hanged himself.
Judas experienced a deeply emotional reaction to what he had done. He felt regret and remorse about betraying an innocent Man to His cruel death. But, instead of seeking forgiveness and changing his behavior, what did he do? He immediately compounded his sin by committing suicide! In no way could this be considered true repentance because it led only to sin and death (see Proverbs 14:12).
Obviously, any person under the influence of human nature will sin after he repents, but his sin should decrease in both the level of iniquity and frequency. Matthew's use of "remorseful" in Matthew 27:3 is similar to the Hebrew use of naham, suggesting not repentance but only emotional regret. It can be part of true repentance, but alone, it is not biblical repentance, lacking the vital element of character growth.
In II Corinthians 7, the apostle Paul makes a distinction between regret or remorse and true repentance. The Corinthian church had allowed a great sin to continue unopposed, and Paul had written to them in a stern, corrective manner (see I Corinthians 5:1-13). He had told the whole congregation that they had been sinful in this matter, having become proud of their "love" toward the sinner, which was really an extreme tolerance of sin. After some time elapsed, Paul writes another letter, having heard of their subsequent repentance:
For I perceive that the same epistle [I Corinthians] made you sorry, though only for a while. Now I rejoice, not that you were made sorry, but that your sorrow led to repentance. For you were made sorry in a godly manner, that you might suffer loss from us in nothing. For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death. For observe this very thing, that you sorrowed in a godly manner: What diligence it produced in you, what clearing of yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what vehement desire, what zeal, what vindication! In all things you proved yourselves to be clear in this matter. (II Corinthians 7:8-11)
While Judas may have been sorry, it led only to his death. The Corinthian example, though, shows us what godly sorrow really is. The strong emotion produces a determination to clear matters up, to clear oneself of guilt. It gives way to new emotions like anger at sin and fear of punishment for their transgressions. All that the truly repentant person wants to do is to attack the problem and overcome it in order to be vindicated through Christ. Repentance does include regret, but it must produce these other qualities to complete the process.
In Part Three, we will consider the second Hebrew word rendered as "repent."
- Richard T. Ritenbaugh