A feeling of regret, a changing of the mind, or a turning from sin to God. As a feeling of regret the term can apply even to God. In the days preceding the flood, God was sorry that He had created the human race (Genesis 6:6-7). He later regretted that he had made Saul the king over Israel (1 Samuel 15:11,1 Samuel 15:35). God also repented in the sense of changing His mind (Exodus 32:14). Most occurrences of the term in the Bible, however, do not refer to God but to people. These also do not indicate mere regret or a change of mind; they mean a reorientation of the sinner to God. In this more common sense, then, God does not repent like humans (1 Samuel 15:29).
Old Testament In ancient Israel repentance was first expressed corporately. When national calamities such as famine, drought, defeat, or a plague of locusts arose, the people did not feel responsible individually for these catastrophes. Rather, they sensed that the incidents were caused by the guilt of the nation. All shared the responsibility and, consequently, the ritual of repentance. Fasting, the wearing of sackcloth (the traditional attire for mourning), the scattering of ashes (Isaiah 58:5;
Daniel 9:3), and the recitation of prayers and psalms in a penitential liturgy characterized this collective experience of worship.
With the use of such outward tokens of repentance, however, the danger of sham or pretense also arose. Ritual not accompanied by a genuine attitude of repentance was empty. Against such misleading and, therefore, futile expressions of remorse, the eighth-century prophets spoke out. Their attacks upon feigned worship and their calls for genuine contrition on the part of the individual gave flower to the characteristic biblical concept of repentance. What was needed was not ritual alone, but the active involvement of the individual in making a radical change within the heart (Ezekiel 18:31) and in seeking a new direction for one's life. What was demanded was a turning from sin and at the same time a turning to God. For the prophets, such a turning or conversion was not just simply a change within a person; it was openly manifested in justice, kindness, and humility (Micah 6:8;
New Testament A direct connection between the prophets and the New Testament is found in John the Baptist. Appearing in the wilderness, he, like they, issued the call to his own generation for this radical kind of turning. He baptized those who by confessing their sins responded to his invitation (Mark 1:4-5). Likewise, he expected that those who had made this commitment would demonstrate by their actions the change which they had made in their hearts (Luke 3:10-14). He differed, though, from the prophets in that his message of repentance was intricately bound up with his expectation of the imminent coming of the Messiah (Luke 3:15-17; see also
The Messiah came also preaching a message of repentance (Mark 1:15). Stressing that all men needed to repent (Luke 13:1-5), Jesus summoned his followers to turn and become like children (Matthew 18:3). He defined His ministry in terms of calling sinners to repentance (Luke 5:32). Moreover, He illustrated His understanding of repentance in the parable of the prodigal who returned to the father (Luke 15:11-32). Like John, he insisted that the life that was changed was obvious by the “fruit” that it bore (Luke 6:20-45).
Jesus also differed from His predecessors in His proclamation of repentance. He related it closely to the arrival of the kingdom of God (Mark 1:14-15) and specifically associated it with one's acceptance of Him. Those who were unrepentant were those who rejected Him (Luke 10:8-15;
Luke 11:30-32); those who received Him were the truly repentant. In His name repentance and forgiveness were to be proclaimed to all nations (Luke 24:47).
Acts shows this proclamation was made. Peter (Acts 2:38;
Acts 5:31) and Paul (Acts 17:30;
Acts 20:21) told Jews and Gentiles alike “that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds appropriate to repentance” (Acts 26:20 NAS). The apostolic preaching virtually identified repentance with belief in Christ: both resulted in the forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38;
“Repentance” is infrequently found in Paul's writings and never in John. Both speak of faith which entails both a rejection of sin and a positive response to God. Other apostolic writings also note the relationship of faith and repentance (Acts 20:21;
Hebrews 6:1). In 1 John, moreover, confession of sins is tantamount to repentance from sins (Hebrews 1:9).
Other Usages Not all references refer to turning to God from sin. Judas repented of what he had done (Matthew 27:3). The Greek term differs from the normal word for repentance. In this context the meaning is regret or remorse; Judas' repentance was not the type that leads towards salvation.
Paul described an earlier letter he had sent to the Corinthians which caused them grief, but which eventually led them to repentance. Here Paul described a change in the Corinthians' attitude about him (2 Corinthians 7:8-13). Their repentance resulted in their reconciliation with him.
Renewal of commitment or reaffirmation of faith seems to be the meaning of repentance in the letters to the seven churches in Revelation (Revelation 2:5,Revelation 2:16,Revelation 2:21-22;
Revelation 3:3,Revelation 3:19). Twice the letters call for the readers to remember and thereby to return to what they had been. The call is for rededication and not initial conversion. See Confession; Conversion; Faith; Kingdom of God; Sackcloth.