Author's Bias | Interpretation: conservative
Inclination: dispensational
Seminary: Dallas Theological

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The Doctrine of Repentance in the Old Testament (R. Wilkin)

A Series on Repentance: Part 2

1. In Ezekiel 18:21-22 the Lord God of Israel spoke the following words: "If a wicked man turns from all his sins which he has committed, keeps all My statutes, and does what is lawful and right, he shall surely live; he shall not die. None of the transgressions which he has committed shall be remembered against him; because of the righteousness which he has done, he shall live." Is that the Gospel? Did the OT teach that one had to turn from his sins to obtain salvation?

The Hebrew words which deal with salvation are general and not specific. That is, one must look to the context to determine what type of salvation is in view. This is also true of the English terms for salvation. For example, the exclamation "I’ve been saved!" could mean a number of things depending on the context in which it was spoken or written. A person rescued from an icy river would mean, "I have been delivered from a watery grave." Lee Iacocca, the Chief Executive Officer of the Chrysler Corporation, upon receiving a $1.5 billion loan guarantee from the U.S. government would mean, "Chrysler has been saved from bankruptcy." A death row inmate granted a Presidential pardon would mean, "My life has been spared." Only in a context where one’s eternal destiny was in view would the meaning be "I have been saved from eternal condemnation." This may seem to be an obvious point which has little to do with the subject at hand. Actually, it has everything to do with our subject and it is far from obvious to many who write and preach about the OT doctrine of salvation.

There are fifteen different Hebrew words for salvation used in the OT. The vast majority of OT references to salvation refer to various types of temporal deliverances: from one’s enemies, from physical death, and from various troubles. (1)

For example, five of the most common and most important OT words for salvation are yasha, padâ, ga al, malat, and natzal. Of the 812 uses of these terms in the OT, only 58 (7.1%) refer to eternal salvation. (2) Those refer to the future salvation of the nation of Israel by the Lord-a NT theme as well (Rom 11:26). In some cases the Messiah is indicated as the Savior (Mic 5:2, 6; Zech 9:9-10). It is interesting to note that these verses deal with the fact of the coming kingdom, not the condition for entrance into it.

In addition, there are a number of other OT passages which refer to eternal salvation, yet without using the terms of salvation: Gen 3:15; 15:6; Ps 22:27; Isa 6:10; 10:21; 19:22; 52:1-53:12; Jer 24:7; 31:31-34; and Hab 2:4.

Consideration will now be given to the OT terms which deal with repentance. The reader should remember that our aim is not merely to discover the OT teaching on the role of repentance in eternal salvation. Rather, our goal is to discover the OT teaching on the role of repentance in all types of salvation.

2. Scholars are in agreement that there is no OT word which in all or even in most of its uses refers to repentance. (3) However, two words are commonly cited as sometimes having that meaning. Those words are shûb and naham. Take a moment to look these up in a lexicon.


This term is the twelfth most common word in the OT. (4) It has a basic sense of "to turn," "to turn back," "to go back," or "to return." (5) In the vast majority of its uses it refers to literal changes of direction.

For example, Moses, after being in the tabernacle, "would return to the camp" (Exod 33:11). Of its 1,056 OT uses only 203 occur in religious contexts. (6) In all but one passage those religious uses refer to Israel or God turning toward or away from one another. (7)

A. The Turning of the Lord

There are four categories of God’s turning or returning in the OT. All four grow out of the blessings/curses provisions of the Mosaic Covenant (cf. Leviticus 26; Deuteronomy 28) whereby the Lord promised that He would bless obedience and curse disobedience.

The non-technical nature of shûb is shown in the fact that it was often used to refer to the turning of the Lord. Obviously, if it were a technical term which always referred to turning from one’s sinful ways, it could never have been used of God.

1. The Four Categories of the Lord’s Turning.

First, the Lord returned Israel’s evil upon its head. He withdrew His blessings and sent temporal judgments whenever the nation turned away from Him in disobedience. (8)

Second, the Lord turned back (or, negatively, did not turn back) His anger from Israel. He withdrew temporal judgments and sent blessings whenever the nation turned away from her sinful deeds and turned back to Him in obedience. (9)

Third, the Lord returned Israel to its former place of blessing. Whenever Israel turned back to the Lord from her sinful ways, He restored the nation’s blessings. (10) In some texts the specific blessing that the Lord promised and provided was to return the nation to the promised land.

Fourth, the Lord returned to the nation. (11) In the three types of the Lord’s turning just discussed, there was always a specific object of the turning indicated in the context (i.e., He returned evil; He turned back His anger; He returned blessings). However, in passages containing this fourth type of turning, no specific objects were mentioned. This bare expression referred generally to the Lord removing temporal judgments and sending temporal blessings.

2. Temporal, Not Eternal, Blessings and Curses. With the lone exception of Jer 32:40 (which refers to millennial and ultimately eternal blessings which the Lord has promised to bestow on Israel as part of the New Covenant), the Lord’s turning toward or away from the nation with blessings or curses always referred to temporal experiences. The turning of the Lord in the OT did not concern eternal salvation or eternal judgment.

3. Israel Reaped What She Sowed. When the nation was obedient, the Lord sent blessings. When she was disobedient, He sent curses. The Lord’s love for the nation moved Him to discipline and reward His chosen people so that they might learn to obey Him.

B. The Turning of Israel

1. The Biblical Concept. As alluded to in the preceding section, the OT record shows that the nation of Israel repeatedly turned away from the Lord. In each instance the nation would experience temporal judgments (reaping the curses of the Mosaic Covenant) which prompted her to turn back to the Lord. There are three categories of Israel’s turning, in a theological sense, found in the OT.

First, Israel turned away from the Lord in disobedience. Israel turned away from the Lord by turning to idolatry (12) and to other forms of willful, cold-hearted disobedience. (13) The following passages are illustrative.

"The Amalekites and the Canaanites are there before you, and you shall fall by the sword; because you have turned away from the LORD, the LORD will not be with you" (Num 14:43, italics mine).

And it came to pass, when the judge was dead, that they reverted and behaved more corruptly than their fathers, by following other gods, to serve them and bow down to them. They did not cease from their own doings nor from their stubborn way. Then the anger of the LORD was hot against Israel… When the children of Israel cried out to the LORD, the LORD raised up a deliverer for the children of Israel, who delivered them: Othniel the son of Kenax… So the land had rest for forty years. Then Othniel the son of Kenaz died. And the children of Israel again did evil in the sight of the LORD. So the LORD strengthened Eglon king of Moab against Israel, because they had done evil in the sight of the LORD…And when the children of Israel cried out to the LORD, the LORD raised up a deliverer for them: Ehud the son of Gera… When Ehud was dead, the children of Israel again did evil in the sight of the LORD. So the LORD sold them into the hand of Jabin king of Canaan… (Judg 2:19-20; 3:9, 11-12, 15; 4:1-2, italics mine).

The non-technical nature of shûb is thus further seen in that when it referred to Israel it often dealt with turning away from the Lord and to sinful ways.

Second, the nation turned to the Lord in obedience. Israel turned back to the Lord by turning away from idolatry (14) and from other forms of willful, cold-hearted disobedience. (15) Obedience was a condition for temporal deliverance from the curses of the Mosaic Covenant.

(cf. Leviticus 26; Deuteronomy 28). Turning away from one’s sinful practices was never presented in the OT as a condition for escaping eternal wrath. (16)

One chapter in the OT seems to contradict the point just made. Ezekiel 18 links life with turning from one’s sinful practices and death with failing to live righteously. The following verses are representative:

"If [a man] has walked in My statutes and kept My judgments faithfully-he is just; he shall surely live!" says the Lord GOD (Ezek 18:9).

"The soul who sins shall die" (Ezek 18:20).

"But if a wicked man turns from all his sins which he has committed, keeps all My statutes, and does what is lawful and right, he shall surely live; he shall not die" (Ezek 18:21).

"When a righteous man turns away from his righteousness, commits iniquity, and dies in it, it is because of the iniquity which he has done that he dies" (Ezek 18:26).

"I have no pleasure in the death of one who dies,"" says the Lord GOD. "Therefore turn and live!" (Ezek 18:32).

Some interpret those verses to mean that eternal salvation was conditioned upon turning from one’s sins. (17) Such an interpretation is, however, unwarranted.

There is no reference in Ezekiel 18 to the Lake of Fire, eternal death, eternal life, entrance into God’s kingdom, exclusion from the kingdom, justification, or anything remotely associated with eternal judgment. Nor is that chapter ever cited in the NT as dealing with any of those subjects. What is at issue in Ezekiel 18 is life and death-physical life and physical death. The Hebrew terms for life and death are commonly used in this way throughout the OT. (18)

Dyer comments: "God was not saying that a saved Israelite would lose his [eternal] salvation if he fell into sin. Both the blessing and the judgment in view here are temporal, not eternal. The judgment was physical death (cf. vs 4, 20, 26), not eternal damnation." (19)

Similarly, in introducing his discussion of Ezekiel 18, Charles Feinberg notes, "The subject of justification by faith should not be pressed into this chapter; it is not under discussion." (20) Later, commenting on verse nine (which refers to life being conditioned upon obedience to the Law of Moses) he writes, "This statement, we must caution again, does not have eternal life in view, but life on earth. Eternal life is not obtained on the grounds mentioned in this portion of Scripture." (21)

The blessings/curses motif is a prominent OT theme. The conditions of the Mosaic Covenant are spelled out in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28. Obedience would be attended by temporal blessings. Disobedience would be met with temporal curses which would intensify until the nation turned back to the Lord. While salvation is indeed the subject of Ezekiel 18, that in no way suggests that eternal salvation is in view. As Ross notes, "Throughout the OT the salvation or deliverance Israel sought or enjoyed seems most concerned with the promises of the covenant as they relate to life in this world as the people of God" (italics mine). (22)

There are many OT examples of blessings and curses, both involving the nation and individuals in it. One might consider, for instance, Abraham (Gen 24:1; Heb 11:8-19), Moses (Exod 14:30-31; Num 20:12; Heb 11:23-29), the golden calf incident (Exod 32:34-35), Joshua and Caleb (Num 14:30-45), the rebellion of Korah (Numbers 16), Nadab and Abihu (Lev 10:1-3), Achan (Josh 7:1-26), Gideon (Judg 6:11-28), David (2 Sam 1-10, under blessing; 12-22, under cursing), Solomon (1 Kgs 3:5-15; 4:20-34; 11:1-13), and the fall of the Northern (2 Kgs 17:5-18) and Southern (2 Kgs 24:1-25:21) Kingdoms. This does not mean that all OT blessings and calamities were a direct result of obedience or disobedience (cf. Job; Luke 16:19-31; John 9:2-3). Sometimes God allowed the righteous to suffer and the wicked to prosper. However, what it does mean is that as a rule obedience brought temporal blessings and disobedience brought temporal curses.

Ezekiel 18 is simply an example of the OT blessings/curses motif.

Third, one day the nation will turn to the Lord in faith. A small number of OT texts use the term shûb to refer to a future turning of Israel (and Egypt and all the ends of the world) to the Lord. In these contexts (cf. Ps 22:27; Isa 6:10; 10:21; 19:22; Jer 24:7) turning to the Lord is used as a circumlocution for faith.

Isaiah 6:10 illustrates how this conclusion is drawn. It speaks of returning to the Lord and being healed. Christ interpreted this passage for His disciples. After presenting the Parable of the Sower, and as a lead-in to His explanation of its meaning, Jesus quoted this passage. He equated Isaiah’s reference to returning to the Lord with receiving the Word and believing the Gospel (cf. Matt 13:3-23; Luke 8:5-15, esp. vv 12-13). He also identified the healing spoken of as eternal salvation (Luke 8:12).


1. For further discussion of OT salvation and its temporal emphasis, see James K. Zink, "Salvation in the Old Testament: A Central Theme," Encounter 25 (1964): 405-414; Allen P. Ross, "The Biblical Method of Salvation: A Case for Discontinuity," 161-78, 352-56 in Continuity and Discontinuity: Perspectives on the Relationship Between the Old and New Testaments (Westchester, IL: Crossway Bcoks, 1988), edited by John S. Feinberg; Cohn Brown, s.v. "Redemption," NIDNTT, 3 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1978) 3: 201-209.

2. These figures are derived from the author’s personal study. The 58 references to eternal salvation include 2 Sam 23:5, Ps 14:7; 49:5; 53:6; 130:7, 8; Isa 1:27; 12:2 (twice), 3; 19:20; 25:9 (twice); 33:22; 35:4, 9, 10; 45:17, 22; 49:6, 8, 24, 25 (twice); 51:6, 8, 11; 52:7, 9, 10; 56:1; 62:1, 11, 12; Jer 23:6; 30:7, 10, 11; 31:7; 33:16; 46:27; Ezek 34:12, 22, 27; 36:29; 37:23; Dan 12:1; Hos 13:14; Mic 5:6; Zeph 3:17, 19; Zech 8:7, 13; 10:6, 8; 9:9, 16; 12:7.

3. See Aloys Dirltsen, The New Testament Concept of Metanoia, 148; William Holladay, The Root SUBH in the Old Testament, 156-57; C. G. Montefiore, "Rabbinic Conceptions of Repentance," Jewish Quarterly Review 16 (1904): 212-13; George Foot Moore, Judaism in the First Centuries of the Christian Era, the Age of the Tannaim, 3 vols., 1: 507; Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, s.v. "metanoew, metanoia," by E. Würthwein, 4 (1967): 980.

4. Holladay, SUBH, 2.

5. Brown, Driver, and Briggs, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament, s.v. "shûb," 996-97; Holladay, SUBH, 51-115.

6. Würthwein suggests ("metanoia," 984), but does not demonstrate, that there are only "about 118 theological uses." Holladay SUBH, 116) suggests that there are 144 "covenantal uses" of the verb and 19 of derived nouns and adjectives. However, through my own study I have found 203 religious uses. See Robert N. Wilkin, "Repentance as a Condition for Salvation in the New Testatment" (Th.D. dissertation, Dallas Theological Seminary, 1985), 210-12 for a complete listing.

7. Jonah 3:5-10 refers to non-Israelites (i.e., Ninevites). They turned to the Lord and, as a result, He then turned His burning anger away from them.

8. See Deut 23:14; Josh 24:20; Judg 9:56, 57; 1 Sam 25:39; 26:23; 2 Sam 16:8; 1 Kgs 2:32; Neh 4:4; PS 7:12; 54:5.

9. See 2 Chr 12:12; 29:10; 30:8, 9; Ps 78:38; 106:23; Isa 5:25; 9:12, 17, 21; 10:4; 12:1; Jer 4:8, 28; 18:20; 23:20; 30:24; Lam 2:8; Dan 9:16; Hos 14:4; Joel 2:14; Amos 1:3, 6, 9, 11, 13; 2:1, 4, 6; Jonah 3:9 (non-Israelites).

10. See Deut 30:3; 2 Sam 15:25; 1 Kgs 8:34; 2 Chr 6:25; Ps 14:7; 80:3, 7, 14, 19; Jer 32:37; 33:7, 11; 42:12; Hos 6:11; Nah 2:2; Zeph 2:7.

11. See 2 Sam 16:12; 2 Chr 30:6, 9; Jer 15:19; 18:8; 32:40; Zech 1:3; Mal 3:7.

12. See Judg 2:19; 8:33; 1 Kgs 9:6; Isa 57:17; Jer 11:10; Hos 11:7.

13. See Num 14:43; Josh 22:16, 18, 23, 29; 1 Sam 15:11; Jer 34:16; Ezek 3:20; 18:24, 26.

14. Great emphasis in the OT is placed on the nation turning away from (or failing to turn away from) idolatry and to the Lord. The prophetic summons to repentance often was a call to the nation to turn from her idolatry. See, for example, Deut 4:30; 1 Sam 7:3; 1 Kgs 13:33; 2 Kgs 17:13; 23:25; 2 Chr 7:14, 19; 15:4; 30:6, 9; 36:13; Isa 31:6; Jer 3:1, 7, 10, 12, 14, 19, 22; 4:1; 8:4, 5; 18:8, 11; 25:5; 26:3; 35:15; 36:3, 7; 44:5; Ezek 14:6; and Hos 3:5; 5:4; 6:1; 11:5; 14:1, 2, 4. These citations refer to temporal judgments being sent or removed depending on whether the nation continued in her idolatry or turned away from it to the Lord.

Two passages, Isa 31:6-7 and Hos 3:5, indicate that in the latter days-a reference to the Millennial Kingdom-the nation will put away its idols and will turn to the Lord and fear Him. Thus while the OT reports that the people often turned away from the Lord to idolatry (even to the point that one of Israel’s greatest kings, Solomon, died as an idolator [1 Kgs 11:1-l3ff.]), it also prophesies a day when those things would no longer characterize the nation.

15. See, for example, Deut 30:2, 10; 1 Kgs 8:33, 35, 47, 48; 2 Chr 6:24, 26, 37, 38; Neh 1:9; 9:26, 29, 35; Job 22:23; 36:10; Ps 7:12; 51:13; Jer 5:3; 15:7; 23:l4; 34:16; Dan9:13; Amos 4:6, 8, 9,10, 11; Jonah 3:8, 10.

16. One might think that the OT taught that an idolator would have to turn from his idolatry to obtain eternal salvation. However, no verses support this view. See footnote 14 above. If idolators could not get into God’s kingdom then Solomon would be excluded (1 Kings 11)-a very unlikely possibility in light of the way he is spoken of in the Old and New Testaments (cf. 1 Chr 22:10; 28:5-7; Matt 6:29; 12:42; Acts 7:47). Of course, anyone who trusted in idols to grant him a blessed afterlife would have to give up such confidence in order to trust only in the God of Israel (cf. Acts 17:30). However, it seems that Israel did not turn to idols for that reason. Rather, Israelites worshipped idols to fit in with the surrounding nations and to obtain temporal blessings if possible.

17. See, for example, G. A. Cooke, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Book of Ezekiel (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1936), 201-202; Walther Eichrodt, Ezekiel: A Commentary (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1970), 242-49, esp. 244 (N. B.: Eichrodt suggests that both temporal and eternal salvation are in view); H. L. Ellison, Ezekiel: the Man and His Message (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1968), 74-75; John B. Taylor, Ezekiel: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale OT Commentary Series (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1969), 150-52. In addition, see John Calvin, Commentaries on the First Twenty Chapters of the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel (Edinburgh: The Calvin Translation Society, 1850), 247-49, and Patrick Fairbairn, An Exposition of Ezekiel (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1960), 198-202. While Calvin and Fairbairn suggest that Ezekiel 18 is dealing with eternal salvation, they suggest that the ability to turn from one’s sins and do good is a gift from God which apart from His enablement is humanly impossible. They believe that Ezekiel 18 is thus showing men their absolute need of salvation and grace.

18. See Brown, Driver, Briggs, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament, 311, 559-60.

19. Charles H. Dyer, "Ezekiel," in The Bible Knowledge Commentary Old Testament Edition (Wheaton: Victor Books, 1985), 1261, edited by John Walvoord and Roy Zuck.

20. Charles Lee Feinberg, The Prophecy of Ezekiel (Chicago: Moody Press, 1969), 99.

21. Ibid., 101.

22. Ross, "The Biblical Method of Salvation," in Continuity and Discontinuity 163. Also see Zink, "Salvation in the OT," 405-406.

Continued: The Extra-Biblical Concept. How did the Jewish rabbis understand the OT teaching on repentance?

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Series: Repentence (R. Wilkin)
Part 3: The Doctrine of Repentance in the New Testament

Series: Repentence (R. Wilkin)
Part 1: The Doctrine of Repentance in Church History

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Topical Index: Salvation>Salvation From the Penalty of Sin>Conviction / Repentance / Confess

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Author Index: Wilkin, R.

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