What Does the Word “Repent” Really Mean?

When John MacArthur teaches that repentance is mandatory for salvation, multitudes of people grow furious and quickly fire off the charge that if one must repent to be forgiven, than salvation is based on works, and so MacArthur’s teaching is heresy.  These accusations aren’t reserved for MacArthur, either.  I have been told on many occasions that when I preach repentance as a part of the Gospel that I am mandating the work of men into our Lords free message of grace.  The word has become so unpopular, that very few modern-day pastors will dare to use it (never mind the prolific use the word got on the lips of Jesus, John the Baptist and the Apostles).  I’m not the sharpest knife in the drawer, so to speak, but think I have finally pinpointed the reason for all the debate around this simple little two-syllable word.

I have come to the conclusion that the word “repent” is almost always completely misunderstood.  The definition of this word has been so blurred (if not completely butchered) by the legalistic, screamin’ style preaching of the past that the meaning has been lost.  I will endeavor to carefully explain what the word means. The CARM online dictionary defines it this way:

Repent = To repent means to turn, to have a change of mind. 

and the Westminster Theological dictionary has this to say:

The linguistic roots point to the theological meaning of “a change of mind”.

Folks, when Christ (or even a modern preacher) tells people to repent, he is telling them to change their mind.  To recognize what sin really and truly is (that being wicked and self-centered rebellion against their creator who is patiently allowing them time to recognize the severity of their actions).  True repentance is always followed by a change in actions, because what we do is dictated by what we want and what we believe.  If one truly recognizes the depravity of a certain sin, they will always strive to avoid it once they have come to that recognition.  They may fall from time to time, but that sin will not be in the pattern of their life because it isn’t in the pattern of their beliefs and desires.  Repentance isn’t “turning from bad deeds to start doing good deeds”.  It really isn’t.  Find a dictionary and see for yourself.  Repentance is an awakening, a change of mind, not the performance of deeds.  The charge of works-righteousness is ridiculous against those preaching repentance, because repentance is simply adopting God’s opinion of sin.

Our Lord instructed us as to the content of the message we are to proclaim.  See for yourself:

Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.  And he said, “Yes, it was written long ago that the Messiah would suffer and die and rise from the dead on the third day.  It was also written that this message would be proclaimed in the authority of his name to all the nations, beginning in Jerusalem: ‘There is forgiveness of sins for all who repent.’  You are witnesses of all these things.

Luke 24:45-48 (NLT)

Instead of blasting every preacher who dares use this word with the serious and weighty charge of heresy, maybe we should all take a moment to reflect on what the word “repent” actually means.  And then maybe we should examine the sin in our own lives and practice a little repentance right then and there.  So I guess in reality, this little blog post isn’t only about repentance, but it is also a call to repentance!  I am asking you to change your mind, to repent of your false definition and see the word “repent” in its true light. Ironic, eh?

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3 Comments on “What Does the Word “Repent” Really Mean?”

  1. The Master's Slave Says:

    Repentance means two very important things…
    …In order to repent, I must be wrong
    …In declaring that I am wrong, I am admitting that there is a better way and I have to give up my stuff/lifestyle/sin in order to walk that better way.

    All in all, it always boils down to pride and ego.


    • ChurchSalt Says:

      As soon as I put the last line in this post, I knew I would be hearing from you, my Canadian friend! You are right, in order to change one’s mind the person must admit it needs changing. Pride greatly inhibits that, as does the love of pleasure and worship of self.


      • The Master's Slave Says:

        I had a moment between my trapping and trading, so I thought I would send a line. I know of so many people who call themselves Christian, and they are so proud. Proud over their works mostly and you just know that they are in trouble. But to tell them? Offense and insult comes in like a flood.


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