Does Jesus call us to ‘repent’?

u-turnThe idea of ‘repenting of sin’ causes us a bit of a problem nowadays. It causes us a problem in relation to those outside the Church as well as those inside the Church and faith. For those outside, there is a sense that Christians are ‘holier than thou’, and are telling them that they are ‘sinners’ whilst we are ‘righteous’, which feels like a put down. And there are wider questions about whether the language of ‘sin’ communicates anything at all; it is not a category that ordinary people understand.

But there is a problem for those on the inside too. Last week at New Wine, Danielle Strickland suggested that we need to recover a sense of God’s creation and blessing of us, rather than continually dwelling on our sinfulness. Some might have heard in this echoes of Matthew Fox’s ‘original blessing’, but others welcomed it; a well-respected evangelical leader said to me ‘We need to get away from our obsession with Augustine on this!’

Part of this question relates to different understandings of atonement, and whether (for example) we should understand Jesus’ death and resurrection as dealing with the problem of human sin and God’s wrath, or whether (as I believe) there is a range of different ways of understanding this. But there is a much more straightforward issue to consider: the question of Jesus’ own language in relation to his announcement of the kingdom of God.

There is no doubt that the coming of God’s kingdom means the inversion of current structures of power and the dethroning of the rich and powerful, as Mary in the Magnificat eloquently expresses in Luke 1.46–55. This contradicts many human expectations, and is expressed by Jesus in the saying that ‘The first will be last, and the last first’ (Matt 19.30, 20.16 and elsewhere).

But centre of Jesus’ teaching is the proclamation of the kingdom—even the most sceptical NT scholar has agreed that his teaching in Mark 1.15 belongs to the historical core of what Jesus said and taught. And the announcement come with the invitation not just to receive good news, but also to ‘repent’. The background to this language is the idea of God’s coming in the OT, and in particular the idea that develops of the ‘great and terrible day of the Lord’. But this idea is distinctly ambiguous. On the one hand it will involve the deliverance of Israel from its enemies who will be judged by God (Is 2.12, an idea which we also find in Luke 1.71), but also accountability of Israel to her holy God (Amos 5.18). The visitation of God is consistently associated with the purification of his people as well as with their vindication.

It is hardly surprising, then, that John the Baptist’s announcement of the coming kingdom is expressed in the language of judgement, both in Matthew and in Luke. Some of the elements of judgement are not carried over into Jesus’ teaching (compare Jesus’ quotation in Luke 4.18–19 with the original in Isaiah 61.1–2), but the consistent feature of Jesus’ teaching is the inclusion of the language of ‘repentance.’ When I mention this in an online conversation a few days ago, a friend responded ‘Ah, but metanoia is a much richer idea than that.’ Is it? And what precisely does it mean?

I was recently pointed to Craig Keener’s helpful article on ‘Bible interpretation methods you should avoid‘ and it included this important observation:

One should also avoid determining the meaning of words by their etymologies.  That is, you cannot break a word down into its component parts and always come up with its meaning, and you usually cannot determine the meaning a word has by looking at how it was used centuries earlier or how the word originated…

For example, some take the Greek word for “repent,” metanoieo, and divide it into two parts, of which the second, noieo, is related to thinking.  Therefore, they say, “repent” simply means a change of mind.  The problem with this interpretation is that the meaning of words is determined by their usage, not by their origins!  The New Testament generally uses “repent” not in the Greek sense of “changing one’s mind” but in the sense of “turn” in the Old Testament prophets: a radical turning of our lives from sin to God’s righteousness.

It was interesting to see the despair and anger in the comments online when this was posted; earnest clergy were cross that Craig’s comments were robbing them of well-used methods of word study in teaching and preaching, and he was accused of being ‘elitist’ in his restriction of how we are allowed to read the Bible! The challenge here is the question of how we ever know what words mean.

Many people will look to etymology—the origin of a word. But ‘nice’ originates in the Latin word for ‘foolish’, and that is not what we usually mean when we use the word. (The idea that the meaning of words is shaped by their origin is called the ‘genetic fallacy’). We might then look at surrounding culture—how was the word used in Greek and Roman culture? Metanoia is indeed used in the sense of ‘a change in thinking’ in Plato and Menander (according to the Liddell and Scott lexicon), but this was several hundred years earlier, and in a different context. Just think of how words are used differently in a church context from wider culture.

Keener puts his finger on a key question: how was this term used in the Greek Old Testament, the Septuagint (referred to as ‘LXX’). I have a print lexicon (Abbott Smith) which gives exactly this information: what Hebrew word does this Greek word translate. This is vital because of continuity between the OT and the NT, because the NT writers quote the OT so much, and because, when they do, they most often quote from the LXX rather than translating from the Hebrew—because it was the LXX which was most read by both Jesus followers and the diaspora Jewish community. And the verb metanoeo translates the Hebrew term shuv, which literally means ‘to turn around’ and is used in the way we would used the word ‘repentance‘.

Repentance, which literally means to turn, is the activity of reviewing one’s actions and feeling contrition or regret for past wrongs. It generally involves a commitment to personal change and the resolve to live a more responsible and humane life.

The other issue that Keener raises is the use of the term in the NT, and reviewing this is sobering. If you do a word search, you will find that, far from being a ‘rich idea’ associated with ‘thinking again’, the verb and the noun metanoeo and metanoia are straightforwardly used in the sense of turning from sin in response to the invitation of God.

Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. (Matt 11.20)

And the consequences of failing to repent are judgement and death.

Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish! (Luke 13.2–5)

Gentle Jesus, meek and mild? I think not!

There are, of course, rich resources in the NT in relation to ‘thinking again’, not least Paul’s invitation to us to allow God to ‘renew our minds’ in Romans 12.2. And, crucially, grace is linked to repentance, in that it is only God’s grace which gives us the moment, the resources, and the opportunity to repent:

Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance? (Romans 2.4)

For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self–controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age. (Titus 2.11–12).

This does not immediately answer either the ‘inside’ nor the ‘outside’ questions in relation to sin that I started with. But when Jesus (and others) talking about ‘repentance’, they really do mean ‘turning from sin’ and turning to the invitation of God, rather than anything more sophisticated which we might find rather more congenial.

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28 thoughts on “Does Jesus call us to ‘repent’?”

  1. Thanks for this Ian. The LXX lexicon bit was especially useful. I was once in a deanery chapter looking at Jesus’ teaching in that verse and one of the clergy said that they had never called anyone to “repent”. Yet it is at the core of Jesus’ message.

    Reminds me of Luther’s radical first thesis 499 years ago: ” all of life is repentance”.

  2. A helpful post. Thank you. I agree there is a real problem in using the language of ‘sin’. People either do not understand it at all or think they do but hold such a narrow interpretation of the word as to remain smug in the belief that ‘it does not apply to me/people like me’. One problem I think we can have as Christians is to think of repenting from sin only in individual terms. Yes, as individuals, we are called to turn away from sin and turn back to God – a constant process of repentance and conversion.. On the other hand we can forget that often in the Bible the call is corporate. It is to a whole people, a community. Recently when I’ve joined in a formal prayer of confession in church I have found this community aspect on my mind. I am rather hoping you might post something on this aspect. Or have you already?

    • Nancy,

      What’s interesting is that many (if not most) people have an understanding of offence and moral failure. They are also perfectly capable of telling others what they find offensive or morally harmful, e.g. racism, homophobia, paedophillia, or other egregious crime.

      In our post-modern culture, what many find just as offensive is for Christians to proclaim their belief in a Messiah who could declare thst the alternatives for our eternal destiny to be so starkly different and uncompromising.

      There’s also no end of churches and preachers willing to tell people what they want to hear. As Isaiah explained: ‘They say to the seers, “See no more visions!” and to the prophets, “Give us no more visions of what is right! Tell us pleasant things, prophesy illusions.’ (Is. 30:10)

      And the modern-day counterparts of such false prophets promote the more palatable idolatrous illusion is of a god, who is nothing more than an avuncular superhuman, whose displeasure is incurred by nothing less than the most egregious crimes.

      In describing why Paul’s forthrightness about divine wrath in Romans, one writer explained:

      ‘The reason, of course, is that Paul was God-centered, rather than man-centered, and he was concerned with that central focus. Most of us are weak, fuzzy, or wrong at this point. Paul knew that what matters in the final analysis is not whether we feel good or have our felt needs met or receive a meaningful experience. What matters is whether we come into a right relationship with God. And to have that happen we need to begin with the truth that we are not in a right relationship to him. On the contrary, we are under God’s wrath and are in danger of everlasting condemnation at his hands.

      There is a problem at this point, of course, and the problem is that most people think in human categories rather than in the terms of Scripture. When we do that, “wrath” inevitably suggests something like capricious human anger or malice. God’s wrath is not the same thing as human anger, of course. But because we fail to appreciate this fact, we are uneasy with the very idea of God’s wrath and think that it is somehow unworthy of God’s character. So we steer away from the issue.

      The language of sin (ii.e. that God could take offence and punish wrongdoing of any kind) is popularly vilified by our so-called ‘enlightened’ society.

      In Psalm 50, in describing His tacit forbearance, God reproves: When you did these things and I kept silent, you thought I was exactly like you.

      It’s as true today as when it was written.

  3. Thanks for a helpful post Ian. I found it interesting when talking with people a while back about what the gospel actually is. If you look to the way Jesus summarises it – e.g. Mark 1:15, Luke 24:47 – repentance is a key idea.

    I’ve come to the conclusion that repentance is actually fundamental to growth as a Christian – it is as we continually are faced with our own sinfulness, we recognise the grace of God in forgiving us, and our response is loving obedience. This is what I do appreciate about the puritans – they were intense but their appreciation of their own sinfulness and the grace of God is really clear.

    Rosaria Butterfield in her more recent book (Openness Unhindered) talks about repentance being our ‘posture’ towards God, which I think is quite helpful.

    • The teaching in Hebrews suggests that going on to maturity as Christians is dependent upon getting repentance right from the start.

  4. I’m not sure what to think about this. On the one hand I think the question in the title must surely be rhetorical, of course we’re called to repent! I’m shocked at the idea that there might be people who think otherwise?

    To my understanding repentance is a conscious and deliberate decision (often, but not always, a painful one) to fundamentally change both the way one acts (what they do, say and model to others) AND the way one looks at both the world and God (what they see, hear and discern). Anything less than this is inconsistent with scripture. Repentance is an inward decision, yes, but if that inward change is genuine there should be visible (noticeable) outward change too, otherwise it wasn’t genuine repentance.

    Is that too controversial, I hope not.

    • Mat, if you think that this is in dispute, then note my introductory comments, and the example cited by Dave G-Jones above. The answer is: yes it is! Considerably!

  5. Fascinating, this understanding of words. Of course we read everything through our own cultural spectacles and therefore are in danger of finding in the text what we expect to find. This can then become absorbed uncritically into our doctrine. Making a wider study of the word ‘diakonia’ has meant that John Collin’s work in doing so has been a game-changer in our understanding of our diaconal vocation and ministry, and has given us a signpost which was absent previously, simply because we’d absorbed the status quo and hadn’t done the hard research necessary to understand better and more deeply.

  6. Thanks for this Ian. Re ‘original blessing’ is repentance at both individual and corporate level a part of the process of accepting the blessings of creation – and delighting in it? When the Tower of Siloam fell I wonder whether the sin was primarily individual or corporate – a failure of the ‘people of God’ to be the ‘people of God’, wanting rather to be like other nations – effectively rejecting God’s call and blessing. The implication being that without repentance the same fate will befall Jerusalem at the hands of the Romans.

  7. Thanks Ian. I like that to ‘turn’ or ‘re-turn’ holds in it an action – rather than just a change of thought patterns or ideas – so it is about doing life differently (which seems to be implicit in the call to ‘follow’ Jesus); and also it results in a new direction. If we turn around, we will inevitably go to(wards) somewhere different than if we’d carried on in the same trajectory as before. So to repent as turning away and re-turning towards, will lead us somewhere new – both the journey and the end point are re-configured by the turning.

    • Thanks, that’s helpful. Yes, I think the language Jesus uses does have that more Hebraic, holistic understanding as change of action and direction, and less of a more Greek sense of thinking again…though no doubt it involves that.

      And are you now in Nottingham, so you can ‘re-turn’ to Froth for coffee…?

  8. 🙂 Similarly, when I first studied this word for myself I realised that many preachers were wrongly claiming that ‘repent’ at Mark 1:15 meant “turn around” – an understanding based on etymology of the English translation!

    So I agree that study of a word’s use in LXX is usually extremely valuable and that pure etymology is often abused. But in this case I think that it’s a case of ‘both and’.

    As you mention, Paul writes a number of times about having our minds renewed. ‘Repent’ as ‘change you mind’ likely linked to this idea, so that the early Christian saw his new faith as a ‘way’ which led him to think differently – seeking to have the ‘mind of Christ’ [Phil 2]

    In the LXX and in Luke-Acts, we find ‘repent’ coupled with ‘turn around’ (epistrepho) [1Sam 15:29; Isaish 46:8; Joel 2:14; Luke 17:4; Acts 3:19; Acts 26:20]. The coupling of these words seems to suggest a change of thought accompanied by a change of heart – a determined decision to change how you live. Although the words ‘repent’ and ‘turn’ are often used separately in the New Testament, they are often used within the same context, with regard to our decision to turn from sin to God.

    I’d say that, all in all, it’s fair to grant that the word at Mark 1:15 calls for a ‘change of mind’. However, when people suggest this is the limit of its meaning, or ignore the many uses of the word for ‘turn’, THAT is where the problem lies – another case of pick ‘n mix!

    Note that Jesus’ call to ‘repent’ follows hot on the heals of John’s “baptism of repentance’ [Mark 1:4], so ‘repent’ at Mark 1:15 must be understood against the background of John’s message and the need to have our sins washed away, as John’s ‘baptism of repentance’ – Mark’s backdrop to Jesus’ mission – illustrates.

  9. The teaching of Hebrews 6 implies that maturing as Christians is dependent on getting repentance right from the beginning of spiritual experience.

  10. Repentance is not just necessary (as in essential) for all Christians but it is also a constant.

    It is true that we live in a world that no longer understands the meaning of the word “sin” but noticeably those vehemently attacking the Church want to be accepted as they are and NOT have to repent at all. They do not wish Christ to change them at all. Bizarrely they think that those in the Church are already accepted so why can’t they be? Yet those in the Church and those outside are accepted – but those in the Church (ALL of them) have to be willing to be changed. Acceptance does not simply get frozen and stop at who we are.

    • Clive I think that’s definitely “nail on head.” We all see how others should change, but the modern secular fashion for demanding unlimited self-realisation and affirmation (with those behaviours still considered “egregious” attracting ever more vilification and demands for savage punishment in proportion as their number decreases) and insisting everyone else back down and shut up (from “no-platforming” to outright terrorism) has inevitably had its effect. Many families are destroyed by their most selfish member insisting they are “not loved” unless they can always have their own way – while the resentment which that breeds festers away silently and itself unrepented beneath.
      I have a favourite quote from “Hudibras” about those who
      “Compound for sins they are inclin’d to,
      By damning those they have no mind to”
      And Jesus is probably the only human who’s never done it *wry smile*

  11. “Repent, G_d’s, kingdom,now!”! The 4 little words that are the basis of The Gospel of Jesus (Yeshushua). For me, these form the corner piece around The Cornerstone. How? “Repent”Rush a key to The Gospel it is something accessible to all. We fall “short of the glory of G_d”. We by our very nature’s fail to reflect That Glory: by our very nature, we sin. But what is sin? Nothing short of the defamation of The Image of G_d either in His Creation (if we do not acknowledge G_d as The Creator or discern His handiwork in Creation we defame Him, we sin. If we abuse that Creation in any way, shape or form, we sin, we defame Him Who is Creator.), In Man (anthropon) who is Made in The Creator’s image (when we depreciate another human being, we sin, we defame G_d.) [So unwarranted acts of violence against an individual or group are sin agains G_d.] or in the Triune G_d head its self (That is any denial of deity, ultimately worship, deferance, obedience or acceptance of any person of The Trinity) is defamation of The Trinity, therefore of G_d and is sin. All of this needs to be 1) reconsidered in the light of His Revelation, through what we have as scripture, though what we understand of Him through His Creation and what we understand of Him in His Holy Incarnation His Son who is Jesus (Yeshushua) and has come in flesh as a man for all Men (anthropon). 2) We must change our thought life an as a consequence, our actions in with reconsiderations. This then opens us up to the Character of G_d as best revealed in Jesus (Yeshushua) The Messiah. 3)This reveals a Kingdom that is G_d’s where Divine Activity, G_d’s Providence and G_d’s Miracles are possible and one may by the route of repentance, faith and acceptance become part of this Kingdom of G_d. The final point is: this is all available in the “now”: immediately, in this time an in this space.

    Repentance is the Key to This Door, even if it is just the confession of “Jesus you are My Lord and My G_d” al a Thomas Diddimus or Paul’s fuller confession outlined in the Book of Roman’s chapter 10 verse 10.

    This is but a start, not the whole journey; the destination is being like Jesus (Yeshushua) in practice and Anointing.

    The realisation that we fall short of G_d’s best should lead us in a quest of self improvement repentance depending, not; ultimately, by the power of self alone, although my “self” must acceded to it, but in the True Power of The Person of Jesus (Yeshushua) Messiah and The Ruah Hakodesh.

  12. Love what was said about not being able to get the meaning of a word by breaking it down like that. That really has been a problem for many people. Context does always tell us the meaning and if not then the standard meaning of the day must be used.

    I’m glad to see someone else tackling this issue of repentance since I have seen far too many people refuse to acknowledge that turning to God also means turning FROM sin. I hope you don’t mind but I would like to share a little more information on the subject to help drive your point home. I had written this on the subject a while back in my Christianity 101 Course

  13. Repentance is clearly important, indeed critical, but the issue is not whether repentance is necessary, but more from what, to what.

    I suspect a lot of the problem that the outside world sees with the church talking about “sin” is very much as Ian described about “you lot moralising to us lot”, and I suspect they are right in many cases.

    Part of the problem seems to be the sins that the church often focuses on: sexual sins of all kinds, personal morality issues, even such trivia as using uncouth language etc.

    This bears more resemblance to Victorian cultural prudery than to focus on the sins that are actually causing considerable harm to our society.

    Both the “turn” and “changed thinking” are critical to our society at present. We, as a society, need to move beyond thinking what we can get out of the world, but to what we can put in, we need to stop turning our backs on injustice, and face the fact that our individual actions perpetuate it, whether this be by buying a newspaper which proclaims hatred and intolerance, of buying our trainers from a shop described as a modern workhouse.

    Our transformation of mind needs to be that we see ourselves as loved and forgiven by God, that this is nothing to do with anything that we have done, but just what God has done and we have received, and thus we have nothing to be proud or sanctimonious about. Nevertheless, once this transformation occurs, we cannot, knowing what the love and acceptance we have, be unmoved by the needs of the world.

  14. Clint,

    Luke records John the Baptist promoted the restoration of justice, but on a practical, personal level.:
    What should we do then?” the crowd asked. John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”

    Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?” “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.

    Some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?” He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.” (Luke 3:10-14)

    It’s clear that the focus of reprintance is on turning away from the greed, whereby over-consumption and accumulation are vain attempts to silence our underlying foreboding of unbearable suffering and deprivation, whether here or elsewhere in the world.

    What’s surpring is that he didn’t tell the tax collectors to cease all tax farming on behalf of the Romans. They were simply to cease extorting more than was in keeping with their agreement with the State.

    By modern social justice standards, he would appear to be conniving at Roman imperialism. For him, working for the Kingdom of God on earth didn’t involve direct action agents the agents of oppression. He did challenge the hypocrisy of Herod Antipas proclaiming himself to be King of the Jews, while contravening the laws of those he had a duty to lead by marrying his brother’s wife.

    I’m not sure what you mean by ‘uncouth words’, but James warns us all by calling the tongue ‘a world of iniquity’. Christ Himself said: ‘But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken’ (Matt. 12:36)

  15. Hi Ian,

    I may be a bit late to the party on this one and you may not ever see this but here’s hoping 🙂

    Have you come across Guy Nave’s book ‘The Role and Function of Repentance in Luke-Acts’? In it he suggests that it Metanoeo/Metanoia are used in the LXX to translate the Hebrew ‘nahim’, whose referent is usually God and that it is epistrepho that is predominantly used to translate shuv, whose referent is usually people.

    The question seems to be why metanoeo/metanoia became the predominant term in the NT for repentance rather than epistrepho? I think its simply that metanoeo/metanoia are closer in meaning to nahim, which carries the idea of a change of mind and action motivated by sorrow and/or regret and that epistrepho and shuv both carry the more explicit, but either literal or figurative, directional sense of ‘turning’.

    However, they are often used together and as Behm points out in his article in TDNT ‘they both denote movement away from a position previously adopted’ and so any distinction made mustn’t be too extreme.

    What say ye?

  16. ‘Part of this question relates to different understandings of atonement, and whether (for example) we should understand Jesus’ death and resurrection as dealing with the problem of human sin and God’s wrath, or whether (as I believe) there is a range of different ways of understanding this’.

    Ian, are you saying that these different ways are all true, including the view that Christ’s death turns away God’s wrath from those who submit to Christ and delivers such from God’s just condemnation which they face because of their sins? Or are you saying that only one of these ‘different ways’ is true, and the propitiation/deliverance from condemnation way is not that true way?

    Phil Almond

  17. How often should one repent? Clearly when one becomes a Christian that (certainly for the Evangelical) is a must. But the weekly confession, in church, often feels like lip service. And the traditional “there is nothing good about us” seems (in today’s culture) to diminish self worth – particularly when repeated weekly for decades.

    I suspect the things I really need to repent of are the things I not aware of: attitudes and behaviours which lurk beneath respectability waiting for the Holy Spirit’s conviction.

  18. This was a great explanation. I have some friends who are in the free/hyper grace belief and they always push the changing of mind and repenting of unbelief only. They say repenting is a work and don’t believe in it. Also, they are hung up on the Greek word mentonia and always say it’s changing your mind period. It’s frustrating to have a discussion with them when their attitude on sin is so non existent. I don’t know how to talk to them anymore . Thank you


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