“Repentance” Word Study
By Bill Fallon -
There has been much confusion and damage caused among both believers and the unsaved
by the misunderstanding of, and the misuse of the word “repent.” If the unbeliever
hears an unclear or inaccurate Gospel message, then it is less likely that he will
believe and become saved (2 Cor. 4:4; John 3:16). If the believer is unclear in his
Good News presentation, then he will become less fruitful in his primary purpose
of glorifying God by bearing much fruit (John 15:8). In addition, he brings a curse
from God upon himself for polluting the grace message (Gal. 1:6-
We frequently hear the so-
The purpose of this study is to clarify the meaning of the words “repent/repentance” and discover what God means in the Bible when He uses these words.
Repent in the Old Testament:
There are two Hebrew words that are translated “repent” or its cognates. These are “shuwb” bwv, and “nacham” Mxn. In the King James Version (3) “repent,” “repented,” etc. are found 46 times in the Old Testament in 45 verses. Please see for the complete list.
There are Bible teachers who are of the persuasion that “repentance” means that we must “be sorry for our sin,” “turn from our sins to God” or something similar in order to become eternally saved. Some of these same teachers remind us that in the OT, the word used for repent, “shuwb,” means to “turn” or to “return”(4) as in turning from sin or to God. This is presented as “proof” that we need to repent of sin or turn from sin in order to be eternally saved.
There is truth to this claim about the meaning of the word. The Hebrew word “shuwb”
is often translated as “turn” or “return.”(5) A very important point that is often
neglected in this discussion is that the word “shuwb” is only translated as “repent”
two times out of over one thousand times that it is used. The other forty-
Dr. Bob Wilkin, in his excellent dissertation about repentance,(6) makes some informative statements about the use of “shuwb” in the Old Testament:
This term is the twelfth most common word in the OT.(7) It has a basic sense of “to turn,” “to turn back,” “to go back,” or “to return.”(8) In the vast majority of its uses it refers to literal changes of direction. For example, Moses, after being in the tabernacle, “would return to the camp” (Exod 33:11). Of its 1,056 OT uses only 203 occur in religious contexts.(9) In all but one passage those religious uses refer to Israel or God turning toward or away from one another.(10)
“Nacham” is used 108 times in the OT and is translated some form of "repent" 41 times. It is translated as "comfort" or "comforter" 66 times. Whereas "shuwb" means something similar to "turn" or "return," "nacham" has a different meaning similar to being "eased" or "comforted." Neither word seems to have the identical meaning as the most common New Testament Greek word for "repent" (metanoeo), which basically means " a change of mind."
Summary of OT usage of "Repent"
Neither word that is translated "repent" in the OT is consistently translated as such; "Shuwb" about 2/10 of 1% and "Nacham" 38%. This could indicate that "repent" may not even be the best translation in many cases. The majority of the time it is God who repents or does not repent, indicating that "repent" in the OT does not categorically mean to "turn from sin" or to "be sorry for sin."
Nowhere in the OT is repentance associated with receiving eternal life. We cannot establish from the OT that we must "repent of sins" to be eternally saved.(11)
Repent in the New Testament:
Forms of the word "repent" or "repentance" are used in the New Testament 66 times in 60 verses. Please see verse list in Appendix E. The majority of the time it is translated from the Greek words metanoia; noun, and metanoeo, verb. It simply means "to change one's mind."(12) The object of the change of mind has to be determined by the context. A person can repent or change his mind about anything. Sorrow or a changed life after repentance may or may not occur but it is not in the meaning of the word itself. As opposed to the OT, the words used in the Greek NT for repent/repentance are consistently translated as such. Six of the occurrences in the New Testament "repent" are translated from a form of the Greek word "metamelomai" and it can have a meaning of "caring afterwards, or "regret."(13) (Appendix D).
Many times the unsaved person is exhorted by well-
When a person hears that he must "repent of sin" in order to be eternally saved, he usually thinks that he must give up his sin in some vague manner or at least be sorry enough to be willing to attempt to reduce his sinning to some degree. Logically speaking, this takes a person who is already blinded by Satan (2 Cor. 4:3,4) and thrusts him into an endless sea of subjectivity. How much sin must be eliminated and for how long? What if he succeeds today in some area of sin but fails tomorrow? Does he lose his salvation? Should he just be concerned about the "popular" sins; the ones that legalistic people judge us for but that God does not mention as sins (e.g. smoking, drinking, dancing, certain clothing, etc) and ignore those which God does mention such as pride, gossip, etc.? Just how good does he have to be to enter Heaven? The answer to that is that he must be "perfect." That will only occur when we have Jesus' righteousness imputed to us by faith alone. (2 Cor. 5:21). Though many would dispute the easily provable claim that the term “repent/repentance of sin” is not used in the Bible, it may surprise more to realize that repentance (by any definition) is not presented in the Word of God as being a requirement for eternal life.(14) The realization of this fact should drastically alter the “salvation” message of many Bible teachers and evangelists.
Though the terms "repent of sin" and "repentance of sin" are not to be found in the Bible, the concept of repentance of sin is found. Usually, this is a message for those who have already believed in Jesus and have eternal life. Some examples of this are:
1. Simon the sorcerer in Acts, Chapter 8. In verse 12 and 13, we read that Simon believed in Jesus along with others. In verses 18 and 19, Simon then sees the phenomenon of the Holy Spirit being given and offers the apostles money so that he could have the same power. Peter admonishes him and tells him to "repent of this thy wickedness," and pray that he might be forgiven. Please note that this is speaking of a believer’s forgiveness, not an unsaved persons’ justification. Forgiveness is a fellowship issue, not a forensic issue.
2. In 2 Corinthians 7:8-
3. In 2 Corinthians 12:21, we find the Apostle Paul lamenting that he might find the Corinthian believers still in a deplorable state of disobedient Christian living. He mourns that some "have not repented of the uncleanness and fornication and lasciviousness which they have committed."
4. In Revelation, Chapters 2 and 3, we find admonitions to believers in five of the seven churches to repent of specifically mentioned patterns of sin in which they were engaged. (15) Please note that in none of the abovementioned instances did the repentance have anything to do with them being eternally saved.
5. Even in Luke 15, there is good reason to believe that the two references to the “joy in heaven over one sinner who repents,” (verses 7, 10) are frequently misused; as both of them are referring to straying believers and have nothing to do with an unsaved person becoming justified in God’s sight (just as the “prodigal” son later in the same chapter who remained a son, though a disobedient and straying one, until he repented and judged his sin).(16)
6. Repentance is also commanded to a crowd of unknown spiritual status in order to avoid God’s temporal judgment. For example, a pair of often misused verses is Luke 13:3, 5; “I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.”(17) The word “likewise” should tell us something about the meaning of the exhortation. Both verses refer in the context to those who experienced sudden and calamitous deaths. Verse four implies that this exhortation is addressed to them because of their ungodly attitude about their own sin. This prophecy was most likely fulfilled during the siege of Jerusalem by Titus in 70 AD (verses 34, 35). According to Josephus, around 1,100,000 Jews died during this Roman siege. Please note also, that the one requirement for eternal justification given over 150 times in the NT; belief, is not mentioned once in this passage. It is not a passage telling us how to be eternally saved.
6. In Revelation 9; 20, 21 and 16:9, 11, we find examples of God's temporal judgment upon the unbeliever for not forsaking mentioned patterns of sin. This again is not in the context of believing in Jesus and receiving eternal life. This also is referring to what will occur during the Great Tribulation period.
Some who proclaim the message of "repent of sin and believe in Jesus" legitimately lament the sad state of the average believer and even the general condition of the body of Christ today. With some, the rationale seems to be that since believers are living such a carnal lifestyle, that we need to make it "hard" to get saved; that they need to have some level of obedience to Jesus before they even receive that gift of eternal life. If we have to earn it, it no longer is a gift.
There are those who would require a believer to "turn from sin" in order to be saved.
This is sometimes called "front-
In either case, the requirement is made that we must do something of ourselves to add to Christ's perfect payment that He made on the cross for us. Isaiah 64:6 tells us that "all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags." If we require some level of Christian growth before a person is born again, we also negate the process of Christian growth that God commands in the believer's life. Though the intent of this spurious message may be admirable, we cannot properly correct error by teaching more error.
Jesus said, speaking of His Holy Spirit which was to come, that He would “…reprove
the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment: Of sin, because they believe
not on me;…” (John 16:8, 9). He did not say that the Holy Spirit would convict the
world of not repenting of their sins (plural), but that He would convict them of
the sin of unbelief. (Italics added) Should not this make a vital impact upon our
Gospel presentation? How often do we hear a false but well-
The stated purpose of the Gospel of John is that people would believe and have life through His name (John 20:31). John does not mention the word “repent” anywhere in the book of John. Therefore, I conclude that John, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, does not think that repentance is necessary for someone to believe and have life. I also am unable to find any NT verse which requires repentance for the receiving of eternal life. Repentance, sorrow for sin, gratefulness, etc. may accompany the circumstances of someone believing in Jesus but only belief is stated as the requirement.
There are verses which refer both to repentance and “forgiveness” or “remission”
of sins. Forgiveness and justification are two different issues. It appears that
the Jews of Palestine during the ministry of John the Baptist who nationally had
a part in rejecting and crucifying Jesus had some different requirements for forgiveness
and even receiving the Holy Spirit, (Mark 1:4; Acts 2:38; 3:19, compare with the
Gentile, Cornelius, in Acts 10).(18) The Jew of that locale and time, just as anyone
in any age was still justified by faith alone in Christ alone (Gen. 15:6). Along
with the above-
Conclusion and Summary
All this controversy about the purity and clarity of the gospel of eternal salvation
may seem to be "nit-
"Repent and believe"(19) or "turn from your sins and believe" is a commonly heard "gospel" message today. It is confusing as the unbeliever does not quite know how much of his own goodness is required. Many have repeatedly tried and failed, then finally "threw out the baby with the bathwater." I have shared the John 3:16 message to many who had already wisely rejected the false message and then when they realized that salvation was by grace through faith, believed in Jesus and received the gift of eternal life. Some of these have gone on into obedient living but all who believed will live eternally with Jesus. This erroneous message confuses the unsaved and hinders reproduction of the believer. It is contrary to God's word.
The Old Testament words for "repentance" are not even consistently translated as such and we are frequently told that God repented. The word does not mean to "to turn from sin." Repent in the OT is not stated as a requirement of being eternally saved.
The Greek word used most in the New Testament for "repent" means "a change of mind." Frequently the context refers to a change of mind about some sinful pattern in which a person is engaged, but not in order to be eternally saved. The word does not mean, "turn from sin," or "sorrow for sin."
The message of Acts 16:31, is "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved." If we must do more of ourselves in order to merit our eternal life, we must discard this verse and many more which state that belief/faith in Jesus is the means for us to receive eternal life. Repent in the NT is not stated as a requirement of being eternally saved.
May we consistently speak the good news of eternal salvation to the lost in a clear, accurate, loving manner. This is one good way to fulfill the mandate of Matthew 28:19, 20, and to glorify Jesus by bearing much fruit (John 15:8).
(1) The KJV translates “anathema” () in Galatians 1:8, 9, as “let him be accursed.” The New International Version inaccurately translates it as “let him be eternally condemned.” (Italics added in both cases) If this were so, then we would have to discard all the verses in the Bible related to eternal security.
The Greek word “anathema” is used only six times in the NT. It appears that in only one instance could it be referring to an eternal type of judgment. In the others, including this one, it seems that the context demands “anathema” to be temporal in nature.
The NIV, by its own admission uses the concept of “dynamic equivalence” in its translation. In other words, it is not a very literal translation, but conveys what the translators think is the general meaning of the text. In some cases this becomes a transliteration and more of an interpretation or commentary than a literal translation. It also appears to me that, in some cases, theological bias has improperly influenced the “translation.” It is also the conviction of this writer that the NIV, along with almost all other modern translations uses a less accurate Greek and Hebrew text than does the KJV and NKJV. This is a separate issue not to be covered in this paper.
(2) The concept of repentance of sin is in the Bible and is usually a command to
the believer or to God’s covenant people: Israel. For a more in-
(3) The King James Version (AKA Authorized Version) is used in this paper unless
otherwise noted. We are not “KJV-
(4) Number of times “Shuwb” is translated as:…return 391, ...again 248, turn 123, ...back 65, ...away 56, restore 39, bring 34, render 19, answer 18, recompense 8, recover 6, deliver 5, put 5, withdraw 5, requite 4, misc. 40; for a total of 1066 times.
Greek and Hebrew definitions in this paper are from the Online Bible Hebrew or Greek Lexicons unless otherwise noted.
(5) The two verses are:
1Kings 8:47 “Yet if they shall bethink <shuwb> themselves in the land whither they were carried captives, and repent <shuwb>, and make supplication unto thee in the land of them that carried them captives, saying, We have sinned, and have done perversely, we have committed wickedness;”
Ezekiel 18:30 “Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according
to his ways, saith the Lord GOD. Repent <shuwb>, and turn <shuwb> yourselves from
all your transgressions; so iniquity Please note that in both of these verses, “shuwb”
occurs twice. Perhaps part of the reason that the translators translated “shuwb”
as repent, once in each of the two instances, is the tendency for them not to repeat
the same word in the same context for the sake of proper-
(6) This paragraph, including footnotes is from “Part 2: The Doctrine of Repentance in the Old Testament” found at by Dr. Bob Wilkin. I would recommend the diligent student to read the whole paper along with many other excellent articles available at the same website.
Due to subsequent Bible study, Dr. Wilkin later adopted a different view of repentance
than indicated in his earlier paper on the subject. (see
) This writer also encountered a similar experience. I had known for years that the
word “repentance” meant a change of mind. I inferred that this meant a change of
mind about Jesus and a resultant belief in Him. This interpretation does not conflict
with the basic premise of salvation by faith/belief alone, but my study for a number
of years brought me to another conclusion which I believe concurs not only with the
Biblically congruent faith-
I suggest any serious student to honestly read and re-
The hard copy contains a very helpful scripture index.
(7) Holladay, SUBH, 2.
(8) Brown, Driver, and Briggs, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament
s.v. “bwv” 996-
(9) Wurthwein suggests (“metanoia,” 984), but does not demonstrate, that there are
only about 118 theological uses.” Holladay (SUBH, 116) suggests that there are 144
“covenantal uses of the verb and 19 of derived nouns and adjectives. However, through
my own study I have found 203 religious uses. See Robert N. Wilkin, Repentance as
a Condition for Salvation in the New Testament. (Th.D. dissertation, Dallas Theological
Seminary, 1985), 210-
(10) Jonah 3:5-
(11) One might object to this assertion by suggesting that after Jonah finally got
right with God, that Nineveh repented and was saved. “…Salvation is of the LORD”
in Jonah 2:9, should not be construed as speaking of eternal life. The context refers
to the saving of Jonah’s physical life and possibly an indirect reference to the
potential physical salvation of the Ninevites if they repent. Of the 300-
I propose that the message that God told Jonah to preach was not what we usually
think of as a "gospel" message of believing in Jesus in order to receive eternal
life. Let's see if the text actually shows that he was to preach a city-
In verse 10 we read, "And God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God repented of the evil, that he had said that he would do unto them; and he did it not." (Underline added) We do not receive eternal life by our works or by turning from our evil way (Eph. 2:8, 9). This was obviously speaking of a physical destruction of the city as 4:11 speaks of God sparing Nineveh, both the human and bovine members. Cows are not candidates for eternal life.
Though I think it likely that there was also some message about faith in Yahweh for eternal life (cf. 1:14, 16), this is not the purpose of the text and it is not stated.
In two of these verses both "shuwb" and "nacham" are used:
Jon 3:9 Who can tell if God will turn <shuwb> and repent <nacham>, and turn away <shuwb> from his fierce anger, that we perish not?
Jon 3:10 And God saw their works, that they turned <shuwb> from their evil way; and God repented <nacham> of the evil, that he had said that he would do unto them; and he did it not.
(12) "Metanoeo" comes from two Greek words: "meta" (), with the accusative means "after." and "noeo" (), "to perceive, understand, comprehend; from "nous" () the mind, intellect. It literally means an "afterthought” or “a change of mind."
(13) Bauer, Arndt, and Gingrich's Greek-
The following verses translate "metamellomai" as repent. The usual Greek word is a form of "metanoia."
Mt 21:29 He answered and said, I will not: but afterward he repented, and went.
Mt 21:32 For John came unto you in the way of righteousness, and ye believed him not: but the publicans and the harlots believed him: and ye, when ye had seen it, repented not afterward, that ye might believe him.
Mt 27:3 Then Judas, which had betrayed him, when he saw that he was condemned, repented himself, and brought again the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders,
2Co 7:8 For though I made you sorry with a letter, I do not repent, though I did repent: for I perceive that the same epistle hath made you sorry, though it were but for a season.
Heb 7:21 (For those priests were made without an oath; but this with an oath by him that said unto him, The Lord sware and will not repent, Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchisedec:)
In addition, the following verses using metamelomai, with a negative prefix
Ro 11:29 For the gifts and calling of God are without repentance. (
2Co 7:10 For godly worketh repentance () to salvation not to be repented of: () but the sorrow of the world worketh death.
(14) Please see the study at . This study covers some of the verses that are commonly used in an attempt to establish the false claim that repentance is a requirement for eternal life. Please see also this writer’s study on Luke 13:3, 5, at which is also frequently used for the same purpose.
(15) Revelation 2:5(x2); 2:16; 2:21(x2); 2:22; 3:3; 3:19.
(16) Again I recommend the serious student to honestly read and re-
This book adequately explains Luke 15, and many other common objections to the grace message in relation to repentance.
(17) Helpful Bible studies on Luke 13:3, 5, can be found at
(18) These verses are ably covered in the book recommended in footnote 16.
(19) The only Bible verse which uses the term "repent and believe" is Mark 1:15. The context is the exhortation to believe the "gospel of the kingdom." This was a message to the Jew and it had to do with the earthly kingdom offered to them as a nation and not to eternal life. The Jews wanted the Kingdom but the leaders rejected the King. See footnote 15.
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