The Radical Redefinition of Repentance

by David Servant

After His resurrection, Jesus told His apostles that “repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:47, emphasis added). Clearly, according to Jesus, forgiveness of sin from God is predicated upon repentance. That does make sense, as it would seem odd to think of God forgiving people who have no intention of turning from the behavior of which He is forgiving them. It would also seem odd for anyone to expect forgiveness from God—or from anyone for that matter—if they intended to continue the behavior for which they are asking forgiveness. If they did, they really wouldn’t be asking for forgiveness, but rather for a license to continue their offensive behavior.

The Radical Redefinition of Repentance by David Servant

Jesus’ post-resurrection words to the apostles about God’s forgiveness being predicated on human repentance were no surprise to them, because at least some of them had heard John the Baptist preach, as Scripture declares, “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark  1:4; Luke 3:3, emphasis added). Specifically, John preached, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 3:2).

Beyond that, all of the apostles heard Jesus proclaim the identical message, that is, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 4:17). In order to be ready for the coming kingdom—over which a King would obviously reign—people who were not currently submitted to that king needed to change what they were doing and submit to that king.

Moreover, when Jesus initially sent out the 12 in pairs throughout Galilee, we are told that “they went out and preached that men should repent” (Mark 6:12). Again, Jesus’ apostles knew that repentance was the starting place for a right relationship with God.

I’ve only mentioned a small sampling of New Testament scriptures about repentance. It is not an obscure biblical topic. In the New Testament alone, you can find it mentioned by name in: Matt. 3:2, 8, 11; 4:17; 11:20-21; 12:41; Mark 1:4-15; 6:12; Luke 3:3, 8; 5:32; 10:13; 11:32; 13:3, 5; 15:7, 10; 16:30; 17:3; 24:47; Acts 2:38; 3:19; 5:31; 8:22; 11:18; 13:24; 17:30; 19:4; 20:21; 26:20; Rom. 2:4; 2 Cor. 7:9; 12:21; 2 Tim. 2:25; Heb. 6:1, 6; 12:17; 2 Pet. 3:9; Rev. 2:5, 16, 21; 3:3, 19; 9:20; and 16:9, 11.

Beyond those references, the concept of repentance—that is, turning from behavior that displeases God to behavior that pleases Him—is certainly alluded to without actually mentioning the word “repentance,” in many other places in the New Testament. Every New Testament admonition to behave in a certain way is a call to repentance to those who are not already behaving that way.

Tragically, however, some modern “Bible teachers” have redefined what repentance actually is. It is not, they say, to “turn away from sin.” Rather, abusing the fact that the Hebrew and Greek words that are most often translated “repent” in the Bible fundamentally denote a change of mind or direction, they claim that repentance is merely a change of mind or change of direction that may not result in a change of behavior, such as “turning from sin.”

Although it is certainly true that the Hebrew and Greek words most often translated in the Bible as “repent” or “repentance” fundamentally denote a change of mind or direction, like so many other words in every language, they often carry additional connotations that can be determined by the context in which they are used. For example, the word “eat” fundamentally denotes “to put food into your mouth, chew and swallow it.” But it can connote more than that if warranted by the context. If I told you, for example, “Last evening, we ate at a Mexican restaurant,” you would assume that we put Mexican food in our mouths and chewed and swallowed it.

Or, if I said to you, “We ate while our horses also ate,” you would not assume that we ate the same food that our horses ate. People and animals both eat, but they eat different foods.

Similarly, we can read in the Bible of both God and people repenting. However, just because God never repents of sin (since He never sins) is not proof that “repent” never connotes “turning from sin” when it refers to a human action. That would be like claiming, “Since horses never eat pineapples, that proves that people never eat pineapples.”

Yes, God sometimes repents, according to the Bible. When He does, we rightly assume that He simply changed His intentions about something. For example, if someone whom He intended to punish for their sin repents, God might change His intention to punish them. When we read, however, of “sinners” repenting, it is safe to assume that they were turning from their sins. That is always obvious from the context.

For example, what do you suppose Jesus’ audience thought the word “repent” meant when He used it in the following context:

Now on the same occasion there were some present who reported to Him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. And Jesus said to them, “Do you suppose that these Galileans were greater sinners than all other Galileans because they suffered this fate? I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or do you suppose that those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them were worse culprits than all the men who live in Jerusalem? I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:1-5).

Although Jesus corrected His audience’s assumption that certain unfortunate people were exceptional sinners, He did not deny that those unfortunate people were indeed sinners who deserved their fates. Moreover, He clearly did not want His audience to wrongly think that they were lesser sinners than those who perished, or that they were in no danger of suffering a similar fate. On the contrary, they were just as sinful, and in just as much danger. But they could avoid suffering a terrible fate if they repented.

How do you suppose they interpreted His call to repent? Did they think He just wanted them to “change their minds” about something? Or perhaps “change their direction” in some way that had nothing to do with their moral behavior or obedience to God’s commandments? Obviously not. Everyone in Jesus’ audience surely understood that He was calling them to change their sinful behavior.

Light from John

As I mentioned earlier, John the Baptist’s ministry was characterized by him “preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Luke 3:3). Did his audiences think that he was only calling for them to change their minds or their direction in a way that had nothing to do with their moral behavior or obedience to God’s commandments?

We don’t have to speculate about that if we just read the biblical record:

So he [John] began saying to the crowds who were going out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruits in keeping with repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father,’ for I say to you that from these stones God is able to raise up children to Abraham. Indeed the axe is already laid at the root of the trees; so every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Luke 3:7-9, emphasis added).

Everyone knew that John was calling them to change their behavior by “bearing fruits in keeping with repentance.” And thus they even asked John to tell them, specifically, what they should do to demonstrate their repentance:

And the crowds were questioning him, saying, “Then what shall we do?” And he would answer and say to them, “The man who has two tunics is to share with him who has none; and he who has food is to do likewise.” And some tax collectors also came to be baptized, and they said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Collect no more than what you have been ordered to.” Some soldiers were questioning him, saying, “And what about us, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not take money from anyone by force, or accuse anyone falsely, and be content with your wages” (Luke 3:10-14).

Notice that in no case did John tell people, “You don’t have to do anything! That would be salvation by works! Anyone who says you must do something is a legalistic Pharisee!” No, John believed that true repentance results in changed behavior, and that changed behavior is not antithetical to salvation, but rather is essential for salvation. People who don’t repent will be “thrown into the fire” (Luke 3:9).

Notice also that John never told his audiences that God required them to “repent of all their sins.” Some modern teachers mock those of us who preach repentance by arguing that “no one can repent, or ever has repented, of all their sins.” But that is a strawman argument. No one whom I know is telling unsaved people to “repent of all their sins,” if for no other reason than the fact that no unsaved person is fully aware of all their sins. John the Baptist instructed his convicted listeners to focus on turning from a few of their greatest sins. If they would, that would demonstrate the sincerity of their repentance, and it would be the start of their journey of sanctification, that is, their ever-increasing growth in obedience to God.

Can Addicts Repent?

But what about those who are in some way addicted to their sin? What about drug addicts, alcoholics, or porn addicts? Is it not true that it is impossible for them, in their own power, to turn from those addictive behaviors? And since it is, should we therefore not tell them to repent, but rather to “invite Jesus into their hearts,” and once Jesus indwells them, He will deliver them?

Again, repenting does not imply instant sinlessness and perfection. It implies a turning from sin within one’s heart and an intention to do what is right in God’s eyes. And if it is genuine, it will result in some change of behavior. The porn addict can cancel his porn site subscriptions and put his computer in a public place. The alcoholic can pour his vodka down the drain. The drug addict can flush his drugs down the toilet and check into a rehab. They can all do something to turn from sin, and that something may even have no relationship to their addictions. But once they are born again, they gain the advantage of being freed from their sins and possessing the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit.

Do the Repentant Become Sinless?

Please note, those of us who call the unsaved to repentance don’t say, “You must never sin again, because that is what it means to repent!” No, we call them to “turn from their sin.” That is to say, “You have been living your life in rebellion toward God, walking away from Him, as proven by your sinful lifestyle. Now turn towards God and start walking towards Him, as proven by your first, feeble attempts of obedience.” If they will do that and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, they will be born again, and the Holy Spirit will come to indwell them and empower them to live for Jesus.

That the word “repent” does not imply “instant sinless perfection” is proven by Jesus’ use of the word in Luke 17:3:

Be on your guard! If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times a day, and returns to you seven times, saying, “I repent,” forgive him (emphasis added).

Clearly, a man who repents seven times in one day before the same offended brother does not entirely cease from the sin of which he repents, at least not for very long! But each time he returned and repented before his offended brother he revealed, by his actions, his good intentions, feeble as those intentions were.

I’m willing to bet that every reader has experience repeating sins that he or she repented of in the past with the sincere hope and intention of never repeating them again. Welcome to the club of Christians!

What the Bible Allegedly Never Says

One teacher who redefines repentance claims that, because the exact phrases “repent of sin,” “repented of sins” and “repentance from sin” are not found in the Bible, that proves repentance does not imply “turning from sin.” That logic, however, is fallacious, as we have already seen in Jesus’ and John the Baptist’s preaching.

Jesus told people that they were “sinners” who needed to “repent” or else they would “perish” as had other “sinners.” So, because Jesus didn’t tell those sinners they needed to “repent of sin,” but only to “repent,” that proves that repentance has nothing to do with turning from sin?

John the Baptist called people “broods of vipers” who needed to “flee from the wrath to come,” which would seem to indicate he thought they were sinners. He told them to “bring forth fruits in keeping with repentance,” and he also told them specific sins they should avoid and specific good works they should do. But because he only told them to “repent,” and he did not tell them to “repent of sin,” that proves that repentance has nothing to do with turning from sin? Please!

And what about 2 Cor. 12:21, where Paul wrote:

I am afraid that when I come again my God may humiliate me before you, and I may mourn over many of those who have sinned in the past and not repented of the impurity, immorality and sensuality which they have practiced (emphasis added)?

Because Paul didn’t use the phrases, “repent of sins,” “repented of sins,” or “repentance from sin” in that passage, that proves that the repentance of which Paul wrote had nothing to do with turning from sin? Although Paul indisputably believed that some of the Corinthians might need to “repent” of “impurity, immorality, and sensuality,” yet he didn’t believe that repentance has anything to do with turning from sin?

What about Jesus’ words regarding a self-proclaimed prophetess who was negatively influencing the church in Thyatira?:

I gave her time to repent, and she does not want to repent of her immorality. Behold, I will throw her on a bed of sickness, and those who commit adultery with her into great tribulation, unless they repent of her deeds (Rev. 2:21-22, emphasis added).

Because Jesus didn’t use the phrase, “repent of her sins,” but “repent of her immorality” and “repent of her deeds,” that proves that repentance of which Jesus spoke had nothing to do with turning from sin?

What about John’s report of the hardness of people’s hearts when God pours out his wrath upon the beast’s kingdom:

Then the fifth angel poured out his bowl on the throne of the beast, and his kingdom became darkened; and they gnawed their tongues because of pain, and they blasphemed the God of heaven because of their pains and their sores; and they did not repent of their deeds (Rev. 16:10-11, emphasis added).

Because John didn’t say that they “did not repent of their sins,” but “they did not repent of their deeds,” that proves that repentance of which John wrote had nothing to do with turning from sin?

What about Jesus’ words about joy in heaven over one sinner who repents?

So He told them this parable, saying, “What man among you, if he has a hundred sheep and has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open pasture and go after the one which is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!’ I tell you that in the same way, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Luke 15:3-7).

So, because Jesus said, “There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents” rather than “over one sinner who repents of sin,” that proves Jesus thought that repenting had nothing to do with turning from sin? Heavens, no! Jesus contrasted a “sinner who repents” with “ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” People who “need no repentance” are “righteous” because they are not “sinners.” How much clearer could it be?

A Prodigal Repents

I listened recently to a repentance-redefining teacher claim that Jesus’ Parable of the Prodigal Son perfectly illustrates Jesus’ definition of repentance, which he described as “not turning from sin,” but rather, “returning to the Father.” He also claimed that there is nothing in the story that says the prodigal “repented of his sin.”

Yet the prodigal in Jesus’ story, after wasting his entire inheritance on a sinful lifestyle, finally came to his senses while longing to feed himself with pig food. And at that very moment, he repented. He resolved in his heart to return home to his father, with the intention of saying to him upon his arrival, “Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me as one of your hired men” (Luke 15:18). That is repentance! He turned away from sin, acknowledging and regretting it, and turned humbly towards his father, with the intention of serving him for the rest of his life as his servant.

And he followed through with his intentions, making his confession before his father. He was a different man than when he had left home months before. And his father graciously responded.

How could anyone claim that the prodigal son didn’t turn from sin, but only turned to his Father? How could he possibly have turned to his father without turning from his sin? And how would his father have reacted if he had not repented, returning home instead with a prostitute in both arms, a bottle of wine in each hand, and a request for a loan? The fattened calf would surely have survived another day!

Once the former prodigal son returned home, was he 100% obedient to his father? No one knows. But it doesn’t make any difference, because repenting does not imply perpetual sinlessness. It implies a heart that is inclined to serve God.

What About Repentance from “Dead Works”?

At least one repentance-redefining teacher makes the claim, from Hebrews 6:1, that the New Testament does not teach that people need to repent of sin, but rather of “dead works.” Let’s read it in context before we scrutinize his definition of “dead works”:

Therefore leaving the elementary teaching about the Christ, let us press on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God (Heb. 6:1).

Dead works, he declares, are defined in Scripture as “those works that we do to please God and be acceptable to Him.” He goes on to say, “The biggest dead work in the world is repentance from sin.”

Although he claims that “dead works” are defined in Scripture, he offers no scriptural reference to prove his claim. His definition of “dead works” is pure speculation.

Let us first note that the author of Hebrews declares that the two most foundational Christian truths are “repentance from dead works” and “faith toward God.” That would lead most Bible students to assume that “dead works” is a synonym for sin for the simple reason that the entire New Testament affirms that salvation becomes effectual for those who repent of their sins and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. Yet, somehow, “dead works” are actually “those works that we do to please God and be acceptable to Him.” And apparently, anyone who “repents” by turning away from sin is trying to merit their salvation. So, those who have repented in that wrong way need, as he claims, “to repent of their repentance.” I am not making this up!

The phrase “dead works” is only found in two places in the New Testament, both in Hebrews. All that we know from Hebrews 6:1 is that “dead works” are something everyone needs to repent of, just like everyone also needs to have “faith towards God,” which is also mentioned in Hebrews 6:1. That being said, the need for everyone to repent of “dead works” would indicate that “dead works” are not “those works that we do to please God and be acceptable to Him,” because not every unsaved person is doing those kinds of works.

The other place where the phrase “dead works” is found is Hebrews 9:14, where we learn that the “blood of Christ” can “cleanse our consciences” from “dead works” so that we can “serve the living God.” If dead works are “those works that we do to please God and be acceptable to Him,” that means Jesus’ blood can cleanse our consciences of “those works that we do to please God” so that we can then do works that please God, which is another way of saying, “serve the living God.” For this reason, it seems rather unlikely that “dead works” is a reference to attempts at doing good works.

Moreover, we should not assume that when we see the word “works” in the Bible that it implies good works rather than evil works. The Greek word translated “works” in both places in Hebrews that mentions “dead works” is ergon. It is also often translated as “deeds.” The New Testament speaks of both “good ergon” and “evil ergon.” For example, Galatians 5:19-21 says, “Now the deeds [ergon] of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality…” Jesus spoke of evil deeds (ergon), for example, in John 3:19-20 and 7:7. Paul wrote of evil deeds (ergon) in Colossians 1:21 and 2 Timothy 4:18.

All of this is to say that there is no reason that “dead ergon” cannot refer to evil deeds/works that result in death, just as the New Testament repeatedly teaches that sin results in death, which is why people must turn from sin to be saved. And this interpretation of “dead works” certainly harmonizes with the rest of the New Testament, in which we read repeated calls for unsaved people to turn from their evil deeds in repentance. No wonder the New Living Translation renders Hebrews 6:1b: “Surely we don’t need to start again with the fundamental importance of repenting from evil deeds and placing our faith in God” (emphasis added).

What’s Wrong with Trying to Please God?

I am concerned that the redefinition of repentance is just one more ploy by hyper-grace teachers to “turn the grace of God into licentiousness” (Jude 4). When someone denigrates the idea of trying to please God, as if any who try to please Him are trying to earn their salvation, beware! The New Testament epistles are full of admonitions for believers to do all they can to please God, and the obvious implication in every one of those references is that obedience pleases God. When so-called Bible teachers say things such as, “There is nothing you can do to be more pleasing to God, and if you even try, you don’t understand grace, and you are trying to earn your salvation,” you are listening to false teaching. Allow me to close with a list of scriptures that affirm this:

But I want you to be free from concern. One who is unmarried is concerned about the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord; but one who is married is concerned about the things of the world, how he may please his wife (1 Cor. 7:32-33, emphasis added).

Therefore we also have as our ambition, whether at home or absent, to be pleasing to Him (2 Cor. 5:9, emphasis added).

Walk as children of Light (for the fruit of the Light consists in all goodness and righteousness and truth), trying to learn what is pleasing to the Lord (1 Cor. 5:8-10, emphasis added).

We have not ceased to pray for you and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you will walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work (Col. 1:9-10, emphasis added).

But just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not as pleasing men, but God who examines our hearts (1 Th. 2:4, emphasis added).

Finally then, brethren, we request and exhort you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us instruction as to how you ought to walk and please God (just as you actually do walk), that you excel still more (1 Th. 4:1, emphasis added).

By faith Enoch was taken up so that he would not see death; and he was not found because God took him up; for he obtained the witness that before his being taken up he was pleasing to God. And without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him (Heb. 11:5-6, emphasis added).

And do not neglect doing good and sharing, for with such sacrifices God is pleased (Heb. 13:1, emphasis added).

Now the God of peace…equip you in every good thing to do His will, working in us that which is pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever and ever (Heb. 13:21, emphasis added).

And whatever we ask we receive from Him, because we keep His commandments and do the things that are pleasing in His sight (1 John 3:22, emphasis added).