What is Repentance? A Biblical Study

What is Repentance? A Biblical Study by Jack Kettler

After a recent study on sin, it seems appropriate to look at the scriptural teaching on repentance. This study is far from an exhaustive study. As a brief study, this will be an overview. Unfortunately, there are many seeker friendly churches that never preach on the topic of repentance. This is unfortunate, because, without repentance, there can be no salvation. There are plenty of texts in Scripture on repentance. It would be prudent to look at several passages.

For example:

“He that covereth his sins shall not prosper: but whoso confesseth and forsaketh them shall have mercy.” (Proverbs 28:13)

“Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance.” (Matthew 3:8)

“From that time Jesus began to preach, and to say, Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 4:17)

“Repent ye therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, when the times of refreshing shall come from the presence of the Lord.” (Acts 3:19)

“For godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of: but the sorrow of the world worketh death.” (2 Corinthians 7:10)

“Remember therefore how thou hast received and heard, and hold fast, and repent. If therefore thou shalt not watch, I will come on thee as a thief, and thou shalt not know what hour I will come upon thee.” (Revelation 3:3)

“When they heard these things, they held their peace, and glorified God, saying, then hath God also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life.” (Acts 11:18)

We can see from these passages that repentance is necessary for salvation. Without repentance and faith, there is no hope of salvation.

A definition of repentance:

Repentance: “A God-worked change within the sinner whereby he hates his sin and becomes genuinely sorry for it, turns from his sin to Christ, committing himself to walk in obedience to Him.” *

Two impossibilities: Repentance without faith and faith without repentance.

“They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us.” (1 John 2:19)

This passage is cited because not every manifestation of what may appear to be grace in a person’s life is necessarily real.

This is why the apostle exhorts the church:

“Wherefore let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall. There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it.” (1 Corinthians 10:12-13)

What are the characteristic of true repentance?

1. Conviction of sin brought about by the illumination of the Holy Spirit.

2. Grieving for sin caused by the softening of the heart through the work of the Holy Spirit.

3. Longing to be freed from and hating sin evidencing the regeneration caused by the work of the Holy Spirit…

4. Putting away and resisting sin by battling the Devil and the flesh with the new nature and power of the Holy Spirit.

A detailed word analysis of the word regeneration:


A. Verbs.

1. METANOEO, lit., “to perceive afterwards” (meta, “after,” implying “change,” noeo, “to perceive”; nous, “the mind, the seat of moral reflection”), in contrast to pronoeo, “to perceive beforehand,” hence signifies “to change one’s mind or purpose,” always, in the NT, involving a change for the better, an amendment, and always, except in Luke 17:3, 4, of “repentance” from sin. The word is found in the Synoptic Gospels (in Luke, nine times), in Acts five times, in the Apocalypse twelve times, eight in the messages to the churches, 2:5 (twice), 16, 21 (twice), RV, “she willeth not to repent” (2nd part); 3:3, 19 (the only churches in those chapters which contain no exhortation in this respect are those at Smyrna and Philadelphia); elsewhere only in 2 Cor. 12:21. See also the general Note below.

2. METAMELOMAI, , as in No. 1, and melo, “to care for,” is used in the passive voice with middle voice sense, signifying “to regret, to repent oneself,” Matt. 21:29, RV, “repented himself”; v. 32, RV, “ye did (not) repent yourselves” (KJV, “ye repented not”); 27:3, “repented himself”; 2 Cor. 7:8 (twice), RV, “regret” in each case; Heb. 7:21, where alone in the NT it is said (negatively) of God.

B. Adjective.

AMETAMELETOS, “not repented of, unregretted” (, negative, and a verbal adjective of A, No. 2), signifies “without change of purpose”; it is said (a) of God in regard to his “gifts and calling,” Rom. 11:29; (b) of man, 2 Cor. 7:10, RV, “[repentance (metanoia, see C)] … which bringeth no regret” (KJV, “not to be repented of”); the difference between metanoia and metamelomai, illustrated here, is briefly expressed in the contrast between “repentance” and “regret.”

C. Noun.

METANOIA, “afterthought, change of mind, repentance,” corresponds in meaning to A, No. 1, and is used of “repentance” from sin or evil, except in Heb. 12:17, where the word “repentance” seems to mean, not simply a change of Isaac’s mind, but such a change as would reverse the effects of his own previous state of mind. Esau’s birthright-bargain could not be recalled; it involved an irretrievable loss. As regards “repentance” from sin, (a) the requirement by God on man’s part is set forth, e.g., in Matt. 3:8; Luke 3:8; Acts 20:21; 26:20; (b) the mercy of God in giving “repentance” or leading men to it is set forth, e.g., in Acts 5:31; 11:18; Rom. 2:4; 2 Tim. 2:25. The most authentic mss. omit the word in Matt. 9:13 and Mark 2:17, as in the RV. Note: In the OT, “repentance” with reference to sin is not so prominent as that change of mind or purpose, out of pity for those who have been affected by one’s action, or in whom the results of the action have not fulfilled expectations, a “repentance” attributed both to God and to man, e.g., Gen. 6:6; Exod. 32:14 (that this does not imply anything contrary to God’s immutability, but that the aspect of His mind is changed toward an object that has itself changed, see under RECONCILE). In the NT the subject chiefly has reference to “repentance” from sin, and this change of mind involves both a turning from sin and a turning to God. The parable of the Prodigal Son is an outstanding illustration of this. Christ began His ministry with a call to “repentance,” Matt. 4:17, but the call is addressed, not as in the OT to the nation, but to the individual. In the Gospel of John, as distinct from the Synoptic Gospels, referred to above, “repentance” is not mentioned, even in connection with John the Baptist’s preaching; in John’s gospel and 1st epistle the effects are stressed, e.g., in the new birth, and, generally, in the active turning from sin to God by the exercise of faith (John 3:3; 9:38; 1 John 1:9), as in the NT in general. (1)

Different calls to repentance in Scripture:

There are different calls to repentance in Scripture. For example, there are prophets calling Israel and nations to repentance and in contrast, the call of repentance to an individual.

“To hearken to the words of my servants the prophets, whom I sent unto you, both rising up early, and sending them, but ye have not hearkened.” (Jeremiah 26:5) (National call to Israel)

“So, they [the apostles] went out and proclaimed that people should repent.” (Mark 6:12) (Personal call)

“When they heard these things, they held their peace, and glorified God, saying, then hath God also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life.” (Acts 11:18)

This is another aspect to repentance. What exactly is repentance unto life?

The Westminster Shorter Catechism is helpful:

Question 87

Q: What is repentance unto life?

A: Repentance unto life is a saving grace,1 whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin,2 and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ,3 doth, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God,4 with full purpose of, and endeavour after, new obedience.5

Scriptural proofs to the answer of the question:

1. Acts 11:18. When they heard these things, they held their peace, and glorified God, saying, then hath God also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life.

2. Acts 2:37-38. Now when they heard this, they were pricked in their heart, and said unto Peter and to the rest of the apostles, Men and brethren, what shall we do? Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.

3. Joel 2:13. And rend your heart, and not your garments, and turn unto the Lord your God: for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repenteth him of the evil.

4. Jeremiah 31:18-19. I have surely heard Ephraim bemoaning himself thus; Thou hast chastised me, and I was chastised, as a bullock unaccustomed to the yoke: turn thou me, and I shall be turned; for thou art the Lord my God. Surely after that I was turned, I repented; and after that I was instructed, I smote upon my thigh: I was ashamed, yea, even confounded, because I did bear the reproach of my youth.

5. 2 Corinthians 7:11. For behold this selfsame thing, that ye sorrowed after a godly sort, what carefulness it wrought in you, yea, what clearing of yourselves, yea, what indignation, yea, what fear, yea, what vehement desire, yea, what zeal, yea, what revenge! In all things ye have approved yourselves to be clear in this matter. And, Psalm 119:59. I thought on my ways, and turned my feet unto thy testimonies.

Back to Acts 11:18:

Some commentary evidence will be helpful on the Acts 11:18 and repentance to life.

From Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary, we learn:

11:1-18 The imperfect state of human nature strongly appears, when godly persons are displeased even to hear that the word of God has been received, because their own system has not been attended to. And we are too apt to despair of doing good to those who yet, when tried, prove very teachable. It is the bane and damage of the church, to shut out those from it, and from the benefit of the means of grace, who are not in everything as we are. Peter stated the whole affair. We should at all times bear with the infirmities of our brethren; and instead of taking offence, or answering with warmth, we should explain our motives, and show the nature of our proceedings. That preaching is certainly right, with which the Holy Ghost is given. While men are very zealous for their own regulations, they should take care that they do not withstand God; and those who love the Lord will glorify him, when made sure that he has given repentance to life to any fellow-sinners. Repentance is God’s gift; not only his free grace accepts it, but his mighty grace works it in us, grace takes away the heart of stone, and gives us a heart of flesh. The sacrifice of God is a broken spirit. (2)

Of particular interest is where Henry says: “Repentance is God’s gift; not only his free grace accepts it, but his mighty grace works it in us, grace takes away the heart of stone, and gives us a heart of flesh.”

Matthew Poole’s Commentary is in agreement with Henry:

They held their peace; they were fully satisfied with the reason St. Peter had given them of his admitting the Gentiles unto baptism, and fellowship with him; wisely inferring from what Peter had said, that what he had done was of God, who was to be acknowledged in it.

Then hath God also to the Gentiles granted repentance: repentance is the gift of God, as well as faith, or any other grace, 2 Timothy 2:25; nor can the greatest guilt affect the heart with true godly sorrow, until God hath quickened it. It is called repentance unto life, because God hath appointed that it should precede our entrance into life. (3)

Of particular interest here also in where Pool says: “God also to the Gentiles granted repentance: repentance is the gift of God, as well as faith, or any other grace…”

What can we conclude from these commentary citations? “For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.” (Romans 11:29)

Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers:

(29) Without repentance. —Not to be revoked or withdrawn, not even to he regretted. (4)

“Or do you despise the riches of His goodness, forbearance, and longsuffering, not knowing that the goodness of God leads you to repentance?” (Romans 2:4, NKJV).

Repentance is a gift of God and an act of man. Man is called to repent and exercise faith, and yet the Scriptures teach that both repentance and faith are gifts of God. Repentance being a gracious gift, in no way condones or excuses living or practicing sin.

“And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men everywhere to repent.” (Acts 17:30)

In conclusion:

We are not saved in the state of practicing sin. The call to repentance is genuine and real. We must repent of our sins! Exhortations to remains faithful are real. And yet, we are regenerated by God and we give Him the glory for our salvation which includes repentance after hearing the call of the gospel, the conviction of sin and confession of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

Amazing Grace by John Newton

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found;
Was blind, but now I see.
’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed.
Through many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come;
’Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.
The Lord has promised good to me,
His Word my hope secures;
He will my Shield and Portion be,
As long as life endures.
Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess, within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.
The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
The sun forbear to shine;
But God, who called me here below,
Will be forever mine.
When we’ve been there ten thousand years,
Bright shining as the sun,
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we’d first begun.

Surely, this is what the Bible teaches: ’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear.

“Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost.” (Titus 3:5)


1. W. E. Vine, An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, (Iowa Falls, Iowa, Riverside Book and Bible House), p. 951-953.

2. Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary, Acts, (Nashville, Tennessee, Thomas Nelson), p. 1735.

3. Matthew Poole’s Commentary on the Holy Bible, (Peabody, Massachusetts, Hendrickson Publishers, 1985) p. 421.

4. Charles John Ellicott, Bible Commentary for English Readers, Romans, Vol.2, (London, England, Cassell and Company), p. 240.

“But grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever. Amen.” (2 Peter 3:18)

“To God only wise, be glory through Jesus Christ forever. Amen.” (Romans 16:27) and “heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:28, 29)

Mr. Kettler has previously published articles in the Chalcedon Report and Contra Mundum. He and his wife Marea attend the Westminster, CO, RPCNA Church. Mr. Kettler is the author of the book defending the Reformed Faith against attacks. Available at: http://www.TheReligionThatStartedInAHat.com

For more Study

*repentance * For a great source of theological definitions go to Rebecca Writes at:

Rebecca Writes: http://www.rebecca-writes.com/theological-terms-in-ao/

Repentance or Faith: Which Comes First? By John Murray http://www.chapellibrary.org/files/ebooks/ggog/index_split_045.html

Faith and Repentance Inseparable by C. H. Spurgeon http://archive.spurgeon.org/sermons/0460.php
Faith and Repentance by Dr. Sinclair Ferguson https://www.monergism.com/faith-and-repentance

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