What Does It Mean To Repent?

Jun 19, 2024 | Faith, Harold Sala

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A young man who grabbed a watch in the open market and stuffed it in his jeans was arrested and taken before a judge and charged with theft.  “How do you plead?” asked the judge. “Innocent,” replied the young man. But because of some confusion resulting from the statement of a witness, the youth was again brought before the judge, who told him he had been acquitted of the charge. Not understanding what the word meant, the youth asked, “Judge, does that mean I have to give back the watch?”

Words and what they mean can result in great confusion. Take, for example, the English word repentance, which comes from a Latin word, pentitentia. Obviously, the word penitence comes from the same source. And with the passing of time, we have come to associate regret or sorrow that something happened with the word. Saying “I’m sorry” has become the equivalent of biblical repentance, at least in our thinking.



But the Latin word which is the basis of our understanding is not an overlay of the Greek word—the one found in the New Testament which we also translate “repentance,” or “to repent.”  The word Jesus and the disciples used meant a change of mind, emotionally and spiritually.  It reflected not a sorrow that something came to light, or even a sorrow that you did something, but the depth of emotions which also served as a wall strong enough to ensure that you would, in all probability, never go back and repeat the misconduct.

Here’s what some of the Church Fathers said about the process: St. Ambrose said, “Repentance is to cease from sin.” St. Anselm observed, “God has promised pardon to him that repents, but he has not promised repentance to him who sins.” Augustine touched upon the motive of the misdeed, saying, “Before God can deliver us we must undeceive ourselves.”

Saying “I’m sorry” may help assuage the embarrassment, but being sorrowful to the point that you determine never to go back even if you could get away with what you did is genuine meaning to repent.

Nearly a millennium later, Martin Luther, the monk turned reformer, said, “To do it no more is the truest repentance.” But perhaps the most striking and understanding observation about the whole issue was made by C. S. Lewis, the Cambridge University professor, who said that repentance “is not something God demands of you before He will take you back…; it is simply a description of what going back is like.”

And this seems to bring into focus the whole reason we fail to understand the issue. God has been left out of the whole issue, as though wrongdoing is strictly a personal, private matter, devoid of any moral or spiritual meaning.

Paul wrote that it is the goodness or the kindness of God that brings us to repentance (Romans 2:4). When you are embarrassed over something you have done, you may do penance; you may even make restitution for what you did. But when you are overwhelmed by the moral failure or have deep sorrow because of what you did, you can thank God because the Holy Spirit enlightened you to the extent that you understood—at least in a measure—the enormity of wrongdoing.

Saying “I’m sorry” may help assuage the embarrassment, but being sorrowful to the point that you determine never to go back even if you could get away with what you did is genuine meaning to repent.

Interested in understanding what repentance really means? Then make a study of Psalm 51, which describes how David felt following his affair with Bathsheba. Thank God when you feel genuine conviction because it’s the prelude to the kind of repentance that brings forgiveness and restoration.

Resource readings: Psalm 51.

Speaker, author, and Bible teacher, Dr. Harold Sala founded Guidelines in 1963. Pioneering the five-minute commentary on Christian radio, Dr. Sala’s daily “ Guidelines-A Five Minute Commentary on Living ” is broadcast in 49 of the 50 states and is heard the world over in a variety of languages.

Sala, who holds a Ph.D. in biblical text, has authored over 60 books published in 19 languages. He speaks and teaches frequently at conferences, seminars, and churches worldwide. Residing in Mission Viejo, California, Harold and his wife, Darlene, have three adult children and eight well-loved grandchildren.

You can read more of Dr. Sala’s articles HERE!

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