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Repentance (1)

H A Barnes, Westhoughton


In our Authorised Version, words to do with repentance occur sixty-six times in the New Testament, but in only six of these instances is the idea of sorrow, remorse or regret an adequate translation, namely Matthew 21.29 & 32; 27.3; 2 Corinthians 7.8 (twice) and Hebrews 7.21. For all the remaining sixty occurrences, repent, repentance, etc. are used to translate two other closely related Greek words which have to do with "changing one's mind" or "a change of mind". To get the most out of New Testament teaching on repentance, we need to explore this alternative translation. Of course a person can repent in this way, i.e. change his or her mind, about any kind of wrong thinking, so the precise subject of the change of mind has to be determined by the particular context. If repentance is preached, the audience and their situation determine the subject, so for instance, John the Baptist's preaching to repent was addressed to self-righteous and complacent Jews on the banks of the Jordan ("We have Abraham to our father", Lk 3.8), and the Apostle Paul's preaching was to proud, idolatrous, novelty-seeking philosophers on Mars Hill (Acts 17), but in both cases it was the same mental thought process urged upon them, i.e. a change of mind about themselves. Then carnal and careless Christians are castigated by the Lord Jesus Himself in chapters 2 and 3 of the book of Revelation, who told them that they needed to repent (i.e. 2.5,16,21,22; 3.3,19) or face serious consequences.

John Nelson Darby's writings can often be quite convoluted, indeed he himself said to Charles Henry Mackintosh (CHM), "You write to be understood. I only think on paper". However, as far as repentance is concerned his writings are remarkably straight-forward and helpful, viz. "[Repentance] is literally an after or changed thought, a judgment formed by the mind on reflection, after it has had another or previous one; habitually, in its use in Scripture, the judgment I form in God's sight of my own previous conduct and sentiments, consequent on the reception of God's testimony, in contrast with my previous natural course of feeling. Of course this may be more or less deep. Godly sorrow works repentance never to be regretted. Repentance is the judgment we form, under the effect of God's testimony, of all in ourselves to which that testimony applies…Conversion itself may follow repentance; that is, conversion as the full deliberate turning of the heart to God…Repentance is the changed thought, or judgment, we have of things, bringing in with it often, when it concerns self, the sense of a change of feeling". So repentance is a change in what we believe about ourselves.

(In the scientific world the equivalent of this "change-of-mind" type of repentance is the term "paradigm shift" defined as a radical change in thinking, i.e. belief, from a previously accepted point of view to a new one. Science usually advances by such "paradigm shifts", from old to new ideas, for instance Newton's Laws of Motion, Einstein's Theory of Relativity and the theory of Continental Drift.)

Sorrow, or a change of mind?

It is worth taking a little more time highlighting the difference between the two original sets of words translated as "repent" and "repentance". This is best carried out by considering one particular passage where the two original ideas – regret and change of mind - are both expressed by the words "repent" and "repentance" in our Authorised Version. When Paul wrote his second epistle to Corinth, he told the Corinthian believers about his feelings when Titus brought good news of how, by and large, the assembly at Corinth had reacted positively to his critical letter (i.e. 1 Corinthians). He heard from Titus that they were sorry (2 Cor 7.8), but their sorrow had led to repentance, "ye were made sorry unto repentance; for ye were made sorry after a godly sort" (v.9, RV). This is because it is always true that "godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of: but the sorrow of the world worketh death" (v.10), or, as Darby helpfully translates it in his New Translation, "For grief according to God works repentance to salvation, never to be regretted; but the grief of the world works death". So we find that grief for their sin was not itself repentance, but if the grief was consistent with God's view of things ("grief according to God"), so it produced repentance. When such true repentance-to-salvation is experienced, it is never regretted! They changed their mind about their complacent, proud, carnal view of sin in the assembly – as exposed by Paul in the first epistle - following their deep sorrow (grief), and this had led to deliverance (salvation) from their sad condition. This grief was not of the worldly sort, which characterised their carnal state, and which could only produce death. "Grief according to God" arose from the conviction of the Holy Spirit. (We will see later that this is equally true for sinners with regard to salvation.)

"The sorrow of the world" might be the fear of getting caught or regretting what has happened because of one's actions, cp. Judas who certainly regretted, but he did not truly repent. Many people recognize the unpleasant consequences of their sins and are persuaded that they are guilty. This results in a superficial sorrow that may lead to a temporary reformation but not to a genuine turning to Christ for forgiveness. Godly sorrow, on the other hand, is accompanied by conviction of sin and is the work of the Holy Spirit, see Acts 2.37. This stems from the realisation of offending a holy God and leads to genuine repentance.

Out of the ten or so people in the Bible who said, "I have sinned," probably only five actually repented (changed their minds), viz. David (2 Sam 12.13), Nehemiah (Neh 1.6), Job (Job 42.5-6), Micah (Micah 7.9), and of course the prodigal son (Lk 15.18). On the other hand, Judas's worldly sorrow literally led to his death (Mt 27.3-4) not being of the godly sort, neither was Cain's, Esau's, Pharaoh's (Ex 9.27–30) or Saul's (1 Sam 15.23–30).

To be continued.


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