Repentance: I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means

“Rabbi, what good thing shall I do that I may have eternal life?”

Intrigued yet not puzzled by the sudden question, Jesus looked away from the group of curious followers around him to see a young man approaching him from his right, an aura of confidence and regality trailing him with each step. The man had a finely trimmed beard and a beautifully-dyed cloak with a brilliant purple mantle draped over his head, his eyes wide and perceptive as a reflection of his youth. He could not have been over twenty-five, but he was visibly wealthy, wise to the world, and intelligent. It was something about his very demeanor that made this clear.

Jesus smiled, turning away from the people before Him so that He faced the man directly. “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God.” He paused for a moment, looking deep into the man’s eyes. “But if you want to enter into life, keep the commandments.”

By the expression on the man’s face, he had clearly expected such an answer. His smile was respectful, but the look in his eyes showed that he was interested in testing the teacher, who was known for having not only intelligence and seemingly infinite wisdom, but a great wit. “Which ones?” he asked, his lips curling up in curiosity and a bit of teasing.

But Jesus was prepared. He smiled back, playing into the man’s game. “‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not steal,’” He began, quoting the first ten laws Moses had presented to the Israelite people on those stone tablets nearly 1500 years before. Then, moving onwards to list some more commands of general etiquette: “‘You shall not bear false witness,’ ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” He paused, allowing the rich young man some time to think.

“All these I have kept. What do I still lack?”

Jesus couldn’t help but smile even larger, his eyes looking directly into the man’s opposite him, whose gaze spoke nothing but confidence and self-assurance. “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.” He paused, allowing this to process in both the ears of the man and those who listened in. “And come, follow me.”

At this the man’s confidence and reassurance drained from his eyes and very demeanor. In an uncharacteristic moment of self-condemnation, he staggered backward, pierced by the rabbi’s words, and gazed down at his luxurious robe, his hands suddenly grasping the fine jewelry that hung from his neck. He looked back up at Jesus, his expression like that of a man who was willing to do anything to earn eternal life. Anything but give up his own possessions. Anything but that.

Without even another word, the man took a few more steps backwards, tears forming in his eyes as he solemnly nodded towards Jesus and turned away, walking back from the way he had come.

Jesus watched until the man disappeared over the hill, and then, pushing His sadness of the situation away, turned back to the remainder of those gathered to answer more questions.


If I were to ask you in this very moment what the word “repentance” meant to you, you would likely say something along the lines of “turning away from sin” or “confessing your sins to God,” correct? If I were to ask you what comes to your mind when you hear that word, you would probably mention a man standing at a pulpit and wagging his finger while proclaiming that you should “Repent of your sins and be set free from within!” or perhaps a man on the side of the street holding up a cardboard sign that said “Repent of your sins, for the end is near!” Repentance in the modern-day context has an air of self-justification with it, the idea of mending our relationship with the Father by constantly asking for Him to forgive our sins and declare us void of any wrongdoing and thus righteous through the blood of His Son.

But what if I were to tell you that if we used the word “repentance” in this context back in the day of Jesus, Inigo Montoya would step straight out of the Princess Bride, approach you, look you in the eyes, and say, “You keep using that word…I do not think it means what you think it means?” What if I told you that our modern-day understanding of what God means by repentance is actually far different than what He actually means by it when He commands us to repent? What if I told you that your entire life, you’ve been seeing repentance under an entirely wrong light?

Well, I guess we will know the answer to all of these questions fairly soon, because today, that’s exactly what I’m telling you. Repentance, you keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

If you were to go on Google right now and look up the definition of repentance, you would get this: “the action of repenting; sincere regret or remorse.” But, if you open up an interlinear Bible and find the word used in verses such as Mark 1:15, Luke 5:32, Acts 11:18, and many more, you would find that the actual word used in place of repentance is the Greek word metanoia (μετάνοια), a word which doesn’t have any direct translation into the English language.

In actuality, metanoia actually means “change of mind” of “to turn away from,” a definition that more so invokes the idea of realization and a call to action rather than the modernized idea of "feel guilty and justify yourself with God by pleading forgiveness” as the modernized idea repentance typically invokes in our own minds and hearts. Our entire lives, people have told us that we must ask God for forgiveness of each of our sins, but this, in reality, isn’t what Jesus commands us to do.

You see, our idea of repentance in the modern world takes a very legalistic approach to the word, an idea that much more resembles a tactic that would have been taken by the Pharisees of Jesus’ time rather than those who actually followed Him and the message He proclaimed. This strange yet far-too-common idea of repentance is a very performance-based concept, an uncalled for mentality where people feel they must both obtain and maintain a proper relationship with God – trying to justify themselves (sanctification) – through their actions by going to Him and consistently asking Him to forgive them.

But this simply isn’t true! It’s not what Jesus intended. When Jesus says, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15), He is not saying to continually ask for forgiveness and subsequently believe in the Word; instead, He is saying that we should turn away from the Law by changing our minds and placing our focus on Christ. Rather than continually focusing on what we do, we are instead instructed to change our way of thinking; it’s not about what we do, it’s about what Jesus did. We aren’t called to continually feel guilty for sinning and then always go running back and asking for forgiveness; instead, we are meant to, in our moments of weakness, change our way of thinking and remember that Jesus came down and died for us so that even through our failures, we could attain salvation through Him. This is what repentance truly is, and it’s something we need to latch onto.

In saying this, I must also clarify that in no way am I arguing against the Christian desire to do good works and turn away from sin, as repentance typically insinuates in our mind. In fact, this couldn’t be further from the truth! Works do no earn salvation in any way whatsoever (Eph 2:8-9), but they are most definitely an expression of our love to the world, which is in fact the greatest evidence of Christ’s manifestation within us as Christians, as Jesus clearly tells us in John 13:35. Instead I argue against the act of “dead works,” the idea of trying to do good purely to earn favor or salvation with or from God. If you ask for forgiveness purely because you think you are justifying yourself, you are merely fooling yourself, for this is not true repentance. Repentance is the act of recognizing what Christ has done for you, and in realizing this, God will see your guilt as a result of sin and it will be a much clearer expression of repentance than the “dead works repentance” that result from us trying to justify ourselves by verbalizing our sins. You see, we must break apart from our dead works.

NOW LET’S BE HONEST…it’s good to do good things, but if we are doing them to earn something from God, we in fact need to REPENT of our good works (change our way of mind) and instead realize that the only thing that good works benefit us are satisfaction in this life.

This brings us back to the story of the rich young ruler (Matt 19:16-22, Mark 10:17-27) that I used to kick off this blog post, because in that story we can further see Jesus’ explanation of what true repentance is. You see, the rich young ruler approaches Jesus and asks him what he can do to inherit eternal life, a law-based question centered around self-justification. Fittingly, Jesus decides to play along with this methodology and replies with a law-bound response, and since the Law given to Moses was meant not to be followed but to highlight our incapability of achieving perfection, the young man is left walking away in sorrow because he realizes he cannot ever earn salvation through the law; there will always be something that he is lacking, and he realizes this through Jesus’ response.

But as I have established in previous blogs, Jesus is not bound by the law of man. While He did not come to abolish the Law, He in fact came to fulfill it (Matt 5:17), and in doing what we could not, He thus transferred our hope into Him, who had thus overcome the world (John 16:33). Jesus bore our griefs and carried away our sorrows, and thus we have salvation through Him.

See, this is the truth we have through Jesus: in the covenant of old – the covenant that the young ruler tried to follow – forgiveness was temporary, but in the New Covenant – that which we are meant to follow – forgiveness is eternal. The blood of the bull and goats had to be repeated consistently, but the blood of Jesus lasts forever (Heb 10:4).

In summary, I want to drive home the entire point of this entire article: in Christ, IT IS FINISHED. Did He not say these words upon that cross (John 19:30)? We don’t have to continually go back for forgiveness – as we often are told as the modernized idea of repentance is pressed upon us – for once we have accepted His Spirit into our hearts we are given a forgiveness that lasts forever, through the end of time. We no longer need to continue asking for that which we are already given! To repent, in actuality, is to change our frame of mind, not to live in guilt and repeatedly ask for that which we have already been given. This is repentance, and this is what it means for us.

So go and repent, my friends. Change your way of mind and turn away from that which you thought you knew.

(Further references: John 3:20, Romans 10:3, Galatians 5:4, Hebrews 6:4-6)