Repentance is often defined as the review of one’s life, contrition for bad behavior and a commitment to a
personal change in thought and life. How is this verb used in the Bible and who is the object of repentance?
Three Greek words describe various nuances of repentance: "metamelomai", "metanoeō" and "epistrephō". Through
the study of these word groups in the New Testament, one may gain an understanding of genuine repentance and how
it may lead to genuine faith or sanctification.
The word "metamelomai" is found in Matthew 21:29, 32;
2 Corinthians 7:8;
and Hebrews 7:21 which quotes
Psalm 110:4. Read within its context, "metamelomai" means to
"regret" and conveys the sense of feeling sorry or sad about a previous act that the person realizes was wrong
or mistaken. In all the instances found in the New Testament, the verb "metamelomai" is used with a human being
as its object.
An example of this can be seen in Matthew 27:3
where Judas realizes that Jesus was wrongly condemned. In view of
Matthew 26:24, where Jesus implied the absence of a saving faith,
Judas’ "metamelomai" was towards the Jewish religious leaders.
"Then when Judas, who had betrayed Him, saw that He had been condemned, he felt remorse
(metamelomai) and returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders,"
In the Parable of the Two Sons (Matt 21:28-32),
"metamelomai" reflects a judgment one makes on his previous views or behavior and causes one to change their mind
"But what do you think? A man had two sons, and he came to the first and said, ‘Son,
go work today in the vineyard.’ And he answered, ‘I will not’; but afterward he regretted it (metamelomai)
and went. The man came to the second and said the same thing; and he answered, ‘I will, sir’; but he did not go."
In all of the instances of "metamelomai" used in the New Testament, this term for "regret" is largely confined
to a specific act or thought and includes the feeling of repentance; however, it does not involve the turning of a
person to God. God is not the object of one’s "metamelomai."
Genuine repentance is directed towards God. It involves a significant judgment of oneself and prompts one to
turn to God; genuine repentance includes the concept of a radical change – a conversion.
The word "metanoeō" develops this concept of "conversion" with its meaning of "to change one’s mind." The term
places an emphasis on the thought or the will of a person, and it is in this context that the concept of repentance
and conversion arises. This can be seen in the following examples:
"Now in those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea, saying,
'Repent (metanoeō), for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.'"
John the Baptist’s urgent call for repentance
Luke 3:3) was based on the proximity of the kingdom of God;
judgment was at hand (Matt 3:7;
Luke 3:7)! "Metanoeō!" Change your current thoughts and wills
and seek forgiveness for your sins from God, because the Messiah is coming!
"Now after John had been taken into custody, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching
the gospel of God, and saying, 'The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent
(metanoeō) and believe in the gospel." (Mark 1:14-15)
"Now when Jesus heard that John had been taken into custody, He withdrew into Galilee;
and leaving Nazareth, He came and settled in Capernaum, which is by the sea, in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali.
This was to fulfill what was spoken through Isaiah the prophet: 'The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali,
by the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles - The people who were sitting in darkness saw
a great Light, and those who were sitting in the land and shadow of death, upon them a Light dawned.' From that
time Jesus began to preach and say, 'Repent (metanoeō), for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.'"
The arrest and imprisonment of John the Baptist heralds the start of Jesus’ public ministry.
Resembling the preaching John the Baptist; the kingdom of God is near; however, Jesus indicates that
it is both present and in the future. It is near
spatially in the person of Jesus and in the future temporally when God completes the recovery of His Creation.
Just as John the Baptist linked the call for repentance to the kingdom of God, Jesus implied
that forgiveness of one’s sins from God makes one holy and gains entrance into the kingdom. However, it is not
the covering of sin by the Mosaic Covenant (Matt 12:41) but
the once and for all forgiveness through a person: Jesus the Messiah.
"… solemnly testifying to both Jews and Greeks of repentance (metanoeō) toward
God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ." (Acts 20:21)
As Paul speaks to the Ephesians, he connects repentance and faith, which indicates that they
are distinctly different. The object of repentance is God, and the object of faith is Jesus Christ. In making the
association of repentance to faith, Paul summarizes the natural process of reconciliation: a) a self assessment
and change of mind, b) the plea for forgiveness from God and c) have a trusting belief that Jesus Christ paid the
redemption price for his sins and restored his relationship with God.
In the New Testament, the Greek verb "epistrephō" can be used with a secular or theological meaning. When
used as a secular term, it means "turning," "returning" or "turning away"
2 Pet 2:22). When used as a theological term, it has the
meaning of "return" with a sense of "conversion."
"… so that WHILE SEEING, THEY MAY SEE AND NOT PERCEIVE, AND WHILE HEARING, THEY MAY NOT
HEAR AND NOT UNDERSTAND, OTHERWISE THEY MIGHT RETURN (epistrephō) AND BE FORGIVEN."
"Therefore it is my judgment that we do not trouble those who are turning (epistrephō)
to God from among the Gentiles," (Acts 15:19)
"… but whenever a person turns (epistrephō) to the Lord, the veil is taken away."
(2 Cor 3:16)
Whereas "metanoeō" has a meaning of "change of mind," "epistrephō" appears to have a wider meaning including
a complete conversion of a repentant person. A person "turns" his will from himself to God, or a person "turns
away" from sin to "turns" towards holiness.
Genuine repentance involves a fundamental "change of mind" at both a moral and spiritual level; it is about
one’s concept of sin and God.
It can be a "change of mind" of one’s concept of Jesus
It can be a "change of mind" of one’s concept of God
It can be a "change of mind" of the seriousness of one’s sins
It can be a "change of mind" about anything that prevents one from trusting Jesus.
1. Brown C ed., Dictionary of New Testament Theology Vol. 1, Grand Rapids: Zondervan
Publishing House (1979).
2. Brand C, Draper C and England A, eds., Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Nashville:
Holman Bible Publishers, (1998).
3. Swindoll CR and Zuck RB, eds., Understanding Christian Theology, Nashville: Thomas
Nelson Publishers, (2003).