The three main views on the definition of metanoia are: (1) an actual turning away from one’s sins (not just a willingness or resolve to do so); (2) the intention, resolve, or willingness to turn from sins; (3) to change one’s mind (about something). Metanoeo and metanoia do not mean “to be remorseful,” “to be sorry,” or “to regret;” that is the primary meaning of metamelomai. It is more than a “change of mind.” It is not simply “turning over a new leaf.” Rather repentance involves a change in the mind and conduct, which involves (at least) a resolve to turn away from sins that produces demonstrable results. Some have bemoaned that these words were translated by our English word repent. Dement says that the concept of repentance is “very difficult to express in other languages” (Dement, “Repent,” 136). Kümmel prefers the translation “conversion” or “convert.” Genuine repentance contains three elements: cognitive (understand some things about God and sin), emotional (abhor sin), and volitional (determination to forsake sins).
Some would accuse those viewing repentance this way as denying justification by grace through faith (alone). This understanding does not make repentance a work; rather Scripture clearly calls it a gift (so Richardson, Stagg). This is brought out specifically in Rom 2:4 and 2 Tim 2:25: repentance is not achieved, but received. It is not a work; it is not a way to merit or be rewarded salvation. Therefore, it is a God enabling human response.
Can the OT help to understand the NT meaning of metanoia? The data is agreed upon but conclusions differ. If anything, the idea of turning from sins may not have been dominant and changing one’s mind may have been. But conclusions are tenuous. This is the reason that the emphasis has remained on the evaluation of the data from the NT.
Two aspects of repentance need to be distinguished. The emphasis in Scripture is upon the initial act of an unbeliever turning away from his sins and coming to faith in Christ. However, repentance is also a part of progressive sanctification, whereby Christians continually confess and align their lives with God’s will (see Luke 22:31–32; Eph 4:22–23; Rev 2:5, 16; 3:3, 19). It exists throughout one’s Christian life.
Therefore, this study sides with definition (2) described above, while finding much sympathy for the first definition.
Summary of Findings
Matt 3:7–9__Genuine repentance includes good fruit
Mk 1:14–15__Repentance and faith are inseparable, linked; repentance precedes faith
Matt 12:41___Repentance linked to turning; also related to believing
Acts 3:19____Repenting and turning are related
Acts 10:43___Repentance, believing, and turning are all related to each other
___________and to forgiveness of sins
Acts 11:19___Believing and turning are related
Acts 20:20___Repentance is directed toward God; it precedes believing
Acts 26:20___Paul characterized his preaching ministry as a call to repent
Who believes what?
Those who side with the first definition above include:
James Montgomery Boice, James Graham, George Peters, Charles H. H. Scobie, A. W. Tozer, Bruce Demarest, William Barclay, F. C. Grant, Daniel Fuller, Mark R. Talbot, Walter Chantry, J. I. Packer, Robert N. Wilkin, and Zane Hodges, (who says repentance is turning, but that it has nothing to do with salvation, just a harmonious relationship with God).
Those who side with the second definition above include:
Billy Graham, George Ladd, John R. W. Stott, and A. W. Pink (at times Pink seems to say it is an actual turning, at other times a determination to turn).
Those who side with the third definition above include:
Lewis Sperry Chafer, G. Michael Cocoris, H. A. Ironside, and Charles C. Ryrie.