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Conviction and Contrition are Not Repentance
There are some concepts in Scripture that are easy to gloss over, yet transformational when properly understood. “Repentance” is one such concept. In our culture, to “repent” often means little more than feeling sorry or regretful about something we’ve done wrong. It’s seen as an obsolete religious term with little relevance to modern life. Yet, true repentance, as described in the Bible, revolutionizes relationships and unlocks the door to salvation, sanctification, and spiritual rebirth.
The Original Meaning
The Old Testament was originally written predominately in Hebrew, while the New Testament was written in Greek. When we explore the original words used in Scripture to convey repentance, a deeper meaning emerges.
Change Your Direction
In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word for repentance is “shuv” (šûḇ), which basically means “to turn back or return.” It signifies making a 180-degree change in direction, to do an about-face and reverse course completely. So, when God called His people to repent, He wasn’t merely telling them to feel sorry for what they had done. He was urging them to completely reconsider the path they were on, dramatically reverse course, and walk back into a right relationship with Him.
The prophets powerfully confronted Israel and Judah, pleading with them to “shuv” (šûḇ) and turn back to God. “Return, you backsliding (faithless) children, and I will heal your backslidings (faithlessness),” implored Jeremiah (Jer. 3:22). Ezekiel echoed, “Repent, turn away from your idols, and turn your faces away from all your abominations” (Ezek. 14:6). True repentance meant decisively abandoning idolatry, or anything detestable to God, and returning to exclusive worship of Him.
Change Your Mind
In the New Testament, we find an expanded vocabulary around this concept. The key Greek word translated “repent” is “metanoeó,” which combines meta, meaning “change,” with noeó, meaning “mind.” So “metanoeó” literally means to “change one’s mind or purpose.” It involves a transformed way of thinking that plays out in a changed way of living.
When Jesus began His ministry, His first declared message was “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 4:17). To truly repent was to embrace a new paradigm and purpose for existence defined by God’s Kingdom rather than the value system of the world. It was a complete change of direction, focus, priorities, and allegiance.
Feeling Sorry Isn’t Good Enough
Interestingly, Scripture records many instances of individuals feeling conviction or contrition about their sin, but then failing to truly repent. They were sorry for what they had done, or the consequences they were experiencing, yet there was no change of mind, purpose, or behavior.
After his notorious betrayal, Judas was seized with remorse and returned his blood money to the temple priests and elders, admitting, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood” (Matt. 27:3-4). Yet, rather than return to Christ and the disciples to seek reconciliation and forgiveness, Judas descended further into despair and ended his life. His contrition did not lead to genuine repentance.
Similarly, Pharaoh repeatedly confessed his sin when faced with God’s plagues on Egypt, pleading with Moses to ask the Lord to remove each scourge. Yet he repeatedly hardened his heart after each plague passed rather than permanently changing his treatment of God’s people (Ex. 8-10). His confessions were temporary and coerced by his circumstances, and they did not produce real repentance.
Even King Saul repeatedly admitted wrongdoing in his jealous pursuit of David, but could not ultimately depart from his evil and obsessive ways (1 Sam. 15:24, 26:21). Conviction alone— even aggressively vocalized and heartfelt— does not amount to biblical repentance.
The Blessings of True Repentance
True repentance transforms beliefs and behaviors. It turns us from faithlessness to faith, from idolatry to worship, and from hard-heartedness to tenderness. We not only feel sorrow for the sins we have committed, but we long for reconciliation and restoration to the One we transgressed against— Christ. And we grow closer to the One we have offended by our actions, attitudes, and devotions when we turn around and again realign our lives with God’s Kingdom principles and purposes. This is the nature of true repentance.
The Scriptures link repentance tightly with forgiveness, refreshing, renewal, and rebirth. Just look at the contrast between Pharaoh’s coerced confessions compared with David’s heartfelt cry after the tragedy of his adultery and its aftermath:
“Have mercy upon me, O God, according to Your lovingkindness; according to the multitude of Your tender mercies, blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin… Hide Your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquity. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me” (Psalm 51:1-2; 9-10).
David powerfully models heartfelt repentance and its renewing impact. Pharaoh, not so much.
Repentance and the Higher Christian Life
True biblical repentance is far more than simply feeling sorry for our sins. It is a fundamental reorientation of our mindset and behaviors back into a right relationship with God. Rather than being merely an obsolete religious notion, genuine repentance brings hope of a new beginning and a renewed intimacy with God. And it opens the door for God’s forgiveness and the powerful transforming and renewing of our inner life (1 John 1:9)— which is another phrase for the Higher Christian Life.
The difference between heartfelt repentance and temporary contrition is the difference between light and darkness or life and death. Many admit wrongdoing and even have intense sorrow over sin, but fail to truly repent. Like Judas, Pharaoh, and King Saul, they may vocalize confession and sorrow, but cling to the same path that severed them from God in the first place. It’s only when we decisively turn from our sin and disobedience that we can walk into a life of spiritual renewal and rebirth. And the door to this blessed life is opened by true repentance.
Remember, God’s promise still stands to all who will meet His call: “Return to Me, and I will return to you” (Zech. 1:3). Our loving Father longs to run out to meet and embrace the repentant sinner headed home. However deep we have drifted into the “far country,” and however long we have remained there, it is not too late. Just ask the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). As we truly turn our minds, hearts, and behaviors towards God, we will encounter the power of His forgiveness and the miracle of spiritual rebirth.
Repentance may be a neglected concept, something the woke mob considers out of vogue, but properly understood, it makes all the difference between remaining separated from God versus entering into a reconciled relationship and walking together down the path of life. That’s His path— the right path. The believer’s walk is thus marked by a spirit of continual repentance and refreshing renewal through God’s amazing grace.
Repentance is the key that opens the door to salvation, sanctification, and the Higher Christian Life. So what are you waiting for? Repent— genuinely repent of your sins before Him, today.