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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Repentance (2)

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REPENTANCE.—In Christ’s own life repentance has no place. The four Gospels contain no expression, direct or incidental, of any feeling of penitence or of regret for anything He ever did or left undone, for anything He ever said or left unsaid. He never prays for forgiveness. He never knows of a time when He was not in peace and harmony with God; He never speaks of coming into peace and harmony with God. Though He teaches insistently that all others must repent and become sons, and even then must pray for the forgiveness of their sins, yet He Himself knows nothing but that He is the Son of His Heavenly Father, and He never loses by any act the consciousness of the Father’s approval. See, further, art. Sinlessness.

1. Christ’s teaching on repentance.—In the teaching of Jesus the fundamental category was the Kingdom of God (βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ), i.e. the spiritual rule of God in the heart of a man or in the hearts of men. This βασιλεία simply means God’s authority established, God exercising His will and having His way, whether it be in a single human soul, or in a Church, or in a Christian community (as in the primitive Church of Pentecost), or in the Church universal, or in the world. God’s Kingdom has come, that is, His rule is established, when and where His will is done as it is supposed to be done ‘in heaven,’ that is, ideally, whether that be in a single heart or ‘on (the whole) earth.’

This enables us to understand why Jesus has so much to say about righteousness. Righteousness was another name for the fulfilling of the will of God; it was doing what God wanted done; it was the realizing of the rule of God. Hence men were called on to repent and become righteous. Repentance, as conceived and taught by Jesus, meant a change of the whole life, so as to subject it and to conform it to God, a radical and complete revolution of one’s view of God and attitude toward God. This involved a change of the whole of life in its inlook as well as in its outlook; a change, in short, of one’s self, one’s motives, aims, pursuits.

Jesus’ primary thought was of a change to. For His starting—point was God. Hence the burden of His message was God and righteousness. But this implies that there was something to change from. Men were to free their mind from one thing and to fix it on another. They were to exchange one habitual, fixed state of mind for another—for its opposite, namely, for one that recognized, preferred, hungered after and sought for righteousness as the fulfilment of the will of God, as the realization of the rule (Kingdom) of God.

What was it then that they were to change from? Naturally it was from that which was the opposite of righteousness, that which refuses the rule of God and excludes Him from life. In other words, it was from sin. In turning to God it was necessary, in the nature of the case, to turn from that which is opposed to God, from that state of mind which loves, chooses, enjoys sin, which is permeated and dominated by sin, and which brings about the inevitable consequence of living in the practice of sin. So that, while Jesus had much to say about righteousness, He had much to say, and inevitably, about sin. We are now better prepared to understand what He meant when He called on people to repent. Popularly, repentance is understood to be a sense of regret and self-abasement, looking to the forgiveness of the wrong-doings of the past. This is one part of repentance, but it is the least part. Sin lies deeper than the act. It is in the unrenewed, perverse nature behind the act. So repentance goes deeper than the act. Sin has its root in the inherent condition of man’s nature; repentance contemplates a change in this condition. And until this change is effected, sin will inevitably continue to rule. Repentance then, while it is a sense of regret and sorrow for the wrong-doings of the past, is far more. It is an agonizing desire, leading to an agonizing and persistent effort, to realize such a radical change in the state of the mind as will secure and ensure against wrong-doing in the future. Born of a realization, more or less clear and pungent, of our natural sinward tendency and of our hopeless inability to correct it or control it, it impels us to desire above all things and to seek before all things that change of mind and moral condition which will not only lead us to choose righteousness, but also enable us triumphantly to realize righteousness. Repentance goes to the root of the matter. The very word goes to the root of it. For what is μετάνοια but a ‘change of mind’? That this was the meaning of the word in the thought and intent of Jesus, the whole drift of His teaching implies. But it is specifically shown in those sayings of His which reveal His view of the inherent sinfulness of human nature: ‘If ye being evil’ (πονηροὶ ὄντες, Matthew 7:11); ‘a corrupt tree cannot (οὐ δύναται, Matthew 7:18) bring forth good fruit’; and that terse statement of the whole situation which in one epigrammatic sentence sums up all that St. Paul says in the seventh and eighth chapters of Romans: ‘That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit’ (John 3:6). It is what St. Paul calls ‘the mind of the flesh,’ and as good as calls the mind of sin (see Romans 7:17; Romans 7:20).

Repentance, as used in the Synoptic Gospels, covers, as a rule, the whole process of turning from sin to God (as in Luke 24:47). So that in the broad, comprehensive sense of the Synoptics, it includes faith, which is a part of the process, the last step of it. It is so used also in the discourses of the early chapters of the Book of Acts. There the comprehensive condition of admission to the brotherhood of believers and of participation in the life of the Spirit is repentance (Acts 2:38; Acts 3:19; Acts 5:31). Faith is not mentioned, though, in the nature of the case, it is included.

In the Fourth Gospel the reverse is the case. There faith is the condition of salvation (John 3:15-16; John 3:36) But while repentance is not specifically mentioned, it is included in the notion of faith. Faith is the trustful commitment of one’s self to God for forgiveness of sins, and deliverance from sin; but it is psychologically impossible to commit one’s self thus to God without renouncing and turning away from all that is contrary to God. And this impossibility is expressed or implied in the discourses of the Fourth Gospel. For they clearly set forth the moral conditionality of faith. A man cannot exercise faith whose heart is not right, whose moral condition and attitude of will are opposed to the right (John 5:44). And this moral conditionality of faith is exactly what is meant by repentance, in its narrower sense. Faith is the condition of entrance into the experience of salvation, the enjoyment of eternal life; but repentance is the psychological and moral condition of faith. As eternal life is unattainable without faith, faith is unattainable without repentance.

But Jesus was a preacher, not a theologian. Consequently His call to repentance is, as a rule, in the form of those exquisite parables that speak to the heart. Such is the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican (Luke 18:9-14), and that of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-24). The latter of these is the truest, the humanest, and the tenderest picture of repentance to be found in the Bible. The essential elements in the repentance of the Prodigal are (1) a realization of his desperate condition: ‘He came to himself’; (2) a definite mental determination to reverse his course and retrace his steps at any risk: ‘I will arise and go to my father’; (3) the decisive act of breaking away from his surroundings and going straight into the presence of his much wronged father: ‘He arose and came to his father’; (4) his absolute, abject, self-effacing humility: ‘I am no more worthy to be called a son of thine; make me as a servant’; (5) his open, outspoken, unreserved, unqualified confession: ‘I have sinned to the very heaven, and my sin is against thee, O thou best of fathers.’

2. How Christ leads men to repentance.—If repentance means what we have seen, namely, the change from the self-centred life to the God-centred life, then Jesus is the author and inspiration of repentance. No other was ever able to reach down deep enough into human nature to effect this change. And He does it (1) by means of the revelation which He gives of the beauty and blessedness of righteousness in contrast with the ugliness and wretchedness of sin. This revelation makes one ‘hunger and thirst after righteousness.’ (2) By means of the revelation which He has given of God and the Fatherly compassion of God toward alienated and sinning men. (3) By means of the surpassing and compelling exhibition of His own love in renouncing self and enduring such suffering as He did for the reconciliation and redemption of men. (4) By working in man through His Spirit that sorrow for sin and hatred of sin which lead men to renounce it and to turn away from it, seeking forgiveness and deliverance. (5) By holding out to men and giving to men the power to forsake sin and to overcome the tendency to sin. (6) Through the convincing effect of examples of that moral transformation which He is continually working in men and women of all sorts and conditions. In short, the history of Christianity in the past and the Christendom of the present both form a solid commentary of fact on the pregnant and potent words of St. Peter: ‘Him hath God exalted as Prince and Saviour, to give repentance and forgiveness of sins’ (Acts 5:31).

Literature.—Bruce, Kingdom of God; Wendt, Teaching of Jesus; Stevens, Theology of NT; Beyschlag, NT Theology; Alexander, Son of Man; Weiss, Life of Christ; Stapfer, Jesus Christ before His Ministry; Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible , art. ‘Repentance’; W. Herrmann, Communion with God, 253; de Witt Hyde, Jesus’ Way (1903), 55; Gilbert, Revelation of Jesus (1899), 62; C. A. Briggs, Ethical Teaching of Jesus (1904), 68; J. Watson, Doctrines of Grace (1900), 25; J. Denney, ‘Three Motives to Repentance’ in Exp. 4th ser. vii. (1893) 232; C. G. Montefiore, ‘Rabbinic Conceptions of Repentance’ in JQR [Note: QR Jewish Quarterly Review.] xvi. (1903) 209; P. J. Maclagan, The Gospel View (1906), 71; H. Black, Edinburgh Sermons (1906), 89.

Gross Alexander.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Repentance (2)'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdn/r/repentance-2.html. 1906-1918.

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