Repent is a confusing word. It is one of those English words that has more than one meaning. One meaning is “to feel regret” or “to feel sorry.” A strong regret, but still primarily a feeling. We see this usage in the King James Version of the Bible in places such as “God repented that He had created man” at the time of Noah.
The other meaning is similar, but not quite the same. It means “to feel such regret for sins or crimes as produces amendment of life” (dictionary.com). That is closer to the Biblical meaning, in that it goes past the feeling into the realm of acting because of the feeling. But, as a concept, does it still fall short of the full meaning of the words of Scripture? It does; it still is hampered by its origins in Old French and Latin with re meaning “extremely/intensely,” rather than “again,” and poentire meaning to make sorry. And that does not fully capture the meaning that we need.
The central message of the Gospel as preached by John, then Yeshua the Messiah himself and His disciples, is, “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” I don’t think that “be really, really sorry” entirely captures the message here. Of course, the Scriptures were not written in English and repent is just the English word that the translators felt best conveyed the meaning of the original language of the Scriptures, Hebrew and Greek. Translators are frequently hampered by the lack of a word that fully captures the meaning of a word from another language. The two words that are translated as “repent/repentance” are teshuvah (תשובה) and metanoia (μετανοώ).
Metanoia is a Greek word that was made of two words; meta: with, after, beyond, and noia: to think. Put together it means “to change one’s thinking.” However the aspect of “beyond” gives the word a sense that the change has to go beyond “changing of the mind” into the “changing of the heart.” Repentance therefore is tied up with renewing our minds.
Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Rom 12:2)
The Hebrew concept of teshuvah goes further still. This word comes from the action word shuv which means “to turn.” Teshuvah involves the action of turning away from sin and turning towards HaShem. The Hebrew takes repent from the mind and the heart of the Greek into the action of the Hebrew. This whole concept brings to mind that central Prayer of Judaism, the Sh’ma and V’ahavta.
“Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love ADONAI your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. (Deu 6:4-5)
True Biblical repentance involves a changing of the mind and a changing of the heart that leads to a changing of the strength (action). Within Judaism some rabbis speak of multiple aspects of repentance.
- Regretting the sin;
- Taking responsibility by confessing the sin;
- Turning from the sin and resolving never to do that again; and
- Receiving forgiveness for the sin.
If the sin that you have committed has affected someone else, there is the additional aspect of restitution, if possible and appropriate. Not just “sorry,” but actually taking tangible steps to “put things right.”
Too often we stop at the regretting and confessing our sin to the Lord and think that we have repented. True repentance is accompanied by actions, both to make things right and to make certain we do not repeat the sin. Do we fail sometimes? YES. That is why Biblical repentance is not once and done, but is a lifestyle. We press on towards the goal…
Not that I have already obtained this or been perfected, but I press on if only I might take hold of that for which Messiah Yeshua took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself as having taken hold of this. But this one thing I do: forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal for the reward of the upward calling of God in Messiah Yeshua. (Phi 3:12-14)