(nāham, sûbh נָחַם, H5714; metanoia μετανοέω, G3566). This concept is encountered repeatedly in both Old Testament and New Testament. It means to turn about, to have a change of mind, to express regret. It is used both of God and man. The verb means the act of turning about; the noun means the result of such action.


To get an accurate idea of the precise New Testament meaning of this highly important word it is necessary to consider its approximate synonyms in the original Hebrew and Greek. The psychological elements of repentance should be considered in the light of the general teaching of Scripture.

Old Testament Terms

In the King James Version of the Old Testament God himself is described as repenting (Exod.32.14; 1Sam.15.11; Jonah.3.9-Jonah.3.10; Jonah.4.2—using nāham), in the sense that he changed his attitude to a people because of a change within the people. God] as perfect [[Deity does not change in his essential nature; but because he is in relationship with people who do change, he himself changes his relation and attitude from wrath to mercy and from blessing to judgment, as the occasion requires. His change of mind is his repentance, but there is no suggestion of change from worse to better or bad to good.

In contrast, human repentance is a change for the better and is a conscious turning from evil or disobedience or sin or idolatry to the living God (2Kgs.17.13; Isa.19.22; Jer.3.12, Jer.3.14, Jer.3.22; Jonah.3.10—using shûbh).

To Repent—"to Pant," "to Sigh"

The Hebrew word naham, is an onomatopoetic term which implies difficulty in breathing, hence, "to pant," "to sigh," "to groan." Naturally it came to signify "to lament" or "to grieve," and when the emotion was produced by the desire of good for others, it merged into compassion and sympathy, and when incited by a consideration of one’s own character and deeds it means "to rue," "to repent." To adapt language to our understanding, God is represented as repenting when delayed penalties are at last to be inflicted, or when threatened evils have been averted by genuine reformation (Ge 6:6; Jon 3:10). This word is translated "repent" about 40 times in the Old Testament, and in nearly all cases it refers to God.

The principal idea is not personal relation to sin, either in its experience of grief or in turning from an evil course. Yet the results of sin are manifest in its use. God’s heart is grieved at man’s iniquity, and in love He bestows His grace, or in justice He terminates His mercy. It indicates the aroused emotions of God which prompt Him to a different course of dealing with the people. Similarly when used with reference to man, only in this case the consciousness of personal transgression is evident. This distinction in the application of the word is intended by such declarations as God "is not a man, that he should repent" (1Sa 15:29; Job 42:6; Jer 8:6).

To Repent—"to Turn" or "Return"

New Testament Terms

In the New Testament repentance and faith are the two sides of one coin (Acts.20.21). They are a response to grace. Jesus preached the need for the Jews to repent (Matt.4.17), and required his disciples to preach repentance to Jews and Gentiles (Luke.24.47; Acts.2.38; Acts.17.30). Repentance is a profound change of mind involving the changing of the direction of life from that of self-centeredness or sin-centeredness to God- or Christ-centeredness. God’s forgiveness is available only to those who are repentant, for only they can receive it.

The positive side of repentance is conversion, the actual turning to God or Christ for grace. This is conveyed in the New Testament by the noun epistrophē (once only, in Acts.15.3) and the verb epistrephō (e.g., Acts.15.19; 2Cor.3.16). The difference between metanoia and epistrophē and metanoeō and epistrephō is only one of emphasis, for a full repentance is truly a conversion. See also Conversion.

Repent—"to Care," "Be Concerned"

The term metamelomai, literally signifies to have a feeling or care, concern or regret; like nacham, it expresses the emotional aspect of repentance. The feeling indicated by the word may issue in genuine repentance, or it may degenerate into mere remorse (Mt 21:29,32; 27:3). Judas repented only in the sense of regret, remorse, and not in the sense of the abandonment of sin. The word is used with reference to Paul’s feeling concerning a certain course of conduct, and with reference to God in His attitude toward His purposes of grace (2Co 7:8 the King James Version; Heb 7:21).

Repent—"to Change the Mind"

Repent—"to Turn Over," "to Turn Upon," "to Turn Unto"

The word epistrepho, is used to bring out more clearly the distinct change wrought in repentance. It is employed quite frequently in Acts to express the positive side of a change involved in New Testament repentance, or to indicate the return to God of which the turning from sin is the negative aspect. The two conceptions are inseparable and complementary. The word is used to express the spiritual transition from sin to God (Ac 9:35; 1Th 1:9); to strengthen the idea of faith (Ac 11:21); and to complete and emphasize the change required by New Testament repentance (Ac 26:20).

Translation Difficulties

There is great difficulty in expressing the true idea of a change of thought with reference to sin when we translate the New Testament "repentance" into other languages. The Latin version renders it "exercise penitence" (poenitentiam agere). But "penitence" etymologically signifies pain, grief, distress, rather than a change of thought and purpose. Thus Latin Christianity has been corrupted by the pernicious error of presenting grief over sin rather than abandonment of sin as the primary idea of New Testament repentance. It was easy to make the transition from penitence to penance, consequently the Romanists represent Jesus and the apostles as urging people to do penance (poenitentiam agite). The English word "repent" is derived from the Latin repoenitere, and inherits the fault of the Latin, making grief the principal idea and keeping it in the background, if not altogether out of sight, the fundamental New Testament conception of a change of mind with reference to sin. But the exhortations of the ancient prophets, of Jesus, and of the apostles show that the change of mind is the dominant idea of the words employed, while the accompanying grief and consequent reformation enter into one’s experience from the very nature of the case.

Repentance on the part of God

Repentance on the part of man other than theological

Repentance is the term used to describe Israel’s change of attitude toward Benjamin (Judg 21:6). With this may be compared Matthew 21:29 when the disobedient son changed his mind and obeyed. It has the connotation of regret, as when Paul did not repent concerning his sanctions toward the Corinthians (2 Cor 7:8). In many contexts, repentance describes a man’s change of attitude toward his fellow man.

Repentance toward God

The most important phase of this doctrine in the Bible is not in its non-theological meaning of the change of mind; it is rather a basic change in man’s attitude toward God. In much of the Old Testament there is no provision made for man to turn from his sin and to seek pardon. There is little of this in the Pentateuch. The numerous plagues reported in Exodus and Numbers were the result of man’s sin against God, for which there was no alternative but to take the punishment meted out. The one exception to this is the last of the fourteen murmurings in the wilderness as reported in Numbers 21. In this case a bronze serpent was erected by which, if people looked, they could be cured of the bite of the fiery serpents. Perhaps for the first time in Biblical history the sinner’s punishment could be averted, simply by looking with no suffering involved. No opportunity, however, appears to have been provided for the sinful actions of the sons of Eli or of Samuel; they were simply punished for their sin. When Achan sinned he was given no opportunity to repent.

One of the earliest examples of repentance is seen in King David’s reaction to Nathan’s parable. Because David said, “I have sinned,” forgiveness was granted—“you shall not die” (2 Sam 12:13). The noblest language of the repentant sinner is to be found in Psalm 51. There was something akin to repentance on the part of Ahab, when, after hearing the sentence against him, he began to “walk softly” with the result that the Lord lessened his punishment (1 Kings 21:27-29). When Amos preached to the surrounding nations, there was again no measure of hope for the sinner, only the sentence of doom. However, it is in the later chapters of Amos that one finds the earliest emphasis on repentance as a means by which the sinner could avert the wrath of God. The concept often occurs in a context where the term does not.

The 8th-century prophets often expressed the idea by means of terms translated “seek” or “return.” One of the keynotes of the prophecy of Amos is expressed in essentially two words—“seek” and “live” (Amos 5:4, 6, 14). The doctrine comes to its full flower in Hosea, whose central message was an anguished cry to Israel to repent before catastrophe fell. The people of Nineveh were accredited with having enough theology and good sense to expect that the Lord would change His mind if they changed their practices, so when they repented the Lord repented (Jonah 3:9, 10).

The classic expression for this doctrine and the place where it is most clearly articulated is in the Book of Ezekiel where it is contrasted with the older group morality. The prophet makes it clear that the innocent suffering with the guilty (as with Achan’s family) will no longer be in effect, but each man will be judged on the basis of his own conduct. This means that the sinner who changes his ways, ceases to sin, and does what is right, shall escape the penalty of his sin and live (Ezek 18; 33:10-20). Even Manasseh, one of the most wicked kings of Judah, is pictured as being shown mercy because he repented (2 Chron 33:12, 13). This so impressed a later writer that he composed the apocryphal Prayer of Manasseh, found in intertestamental literature. It was a common rabbinic teaching that if a nation repented sincerely enough, the Messiah would then come.

It is into this background that John the Baptist came preaching, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” The same emphasis was followed by Jesus and still later by Jesus’ disciples (Matt 3:2; 4:17; Mark 6:12). Indeed, repentance became the main theme of John the Baptist and in his preaching the emphasis changed from national repentance, which Ezra and Daniel called upon the people to render, to individual repentance. He insisted that repentance be accompanied by the fruits of repentance in a changed life. The synoptic gospels indicate that unless one repents and becomes like a child, he has no hope of heaven (Matt 18:1-10).

Conversely, Jesus’ severest strictures were directed to the impenitent (Matt 9:13; Luke 18:14). The term repentance is absent from the fourth gospel. The synoptic gospels and the Acts stress repentance, often in an eschatological setting. The epistles are addressed to believers, and repentance receives less emphasis. The doctrine is deliberately minimized in the letter to the Hebrews in order to underscore the danger of apostasy. The last book in the Bible again stresses the importance of repentance in the letters to the seven churches. No hope is held out for the proud person who thinks it is beneath his dignity to express regret for his sins and mistakes but assurance is given to the humble in heart that forgiveness and cleansing are given through the blood of Jesus Christ to the sincerely penitent (1 John 1:7-10).

Psychological Elements

The Intellectual Element

Repentance is that change of a sinner’s mind which leads him to turn from his evil ways and live. The change wrought in repentance is so deep and radical as to affect the whole spiritual nature and to involve the entire personality. The intellect must function, the emotions must be aroused, and the will must act. Psychology shows repentance to be profound, personal and all-pervasive. The intellectual element is manifest from the nature of man as an intelligent being, and from the demands of God who desires only rational service. Man must apprehend sin as unutterably heinous, the divine law as perfect and inexorable, and himself as coming short or falling below the requirements of a holy God (Job 42:5,6; Ps 51:3; Ro 3:20).

The Emotional Element

There may be a knowledge of sin without turning from it as an awful thing which dishonors God and ruins man. The change of view may lead only to a dread of punishment and not to the hatred and abandonment of sin (Ex 9:27; Nu 22:34; Jos 7:20; 1Sa 15:24; Mt 27:4). An emotional element is necessarily involved in repentance. While feeling is not the equivalent of repentance, it nevertheless may be a powerful impulse to a genuine turning from sin. A penitent cannot from the nature of the case be stolid and indifferent. The emotional attitude must be altered if New Testament repentance be experienced.

There is a type of grief that issues in repentance and another which plunges into remorse. There is a godly sorrow and also a sorrow of the world. The former brings life; the latter, death (Mt 27:3; Lu 18:23; 2Co 7:9,10). There must be a consciousness of sin in its effect on man and in its relation to God before there can be a hearty turning away from unrighteousness. The feeling naturally accompanying repentance implies a conviction of personal sin and sinfulness and an earnest appeal to God to forgive according to His mercy (Ps 51:1,2,10-14).

The Volitional Element

Repentance is only a condition of salvation and not its meritorious ground. The motives for repentance are chiefly found in the goodness of God, in divine love, in the pleading desire to have sinners saved, in the inevitable consequences of sin, in the universal demands of the gospel, and in the hope of spiritual life and membership in the kingdom of heaven (Eze 33:11; Mr 1:15; Lu 13:1-5; Joh 3:16; Ac 17:30; Ro 2:4; 1Ti 2:4).

The first four beatitudes (Mt 5:3-6) form a heavenly ladder by which penitent souls pass from the dominion of Satan into the Kingdom of God. A consciousness of spiritual poverty dethroning pride, a sense of personal unworthiness producing grief, a willingness to surrender to God in genuine humility, and a strong spiritual desire developing into hunger and thirst, enter into the experience of one who wholly abandons sin and heartily turns to Him who grants repentance unto life.


  • Strong, Systematic Theology, III, 832-36;

  • Broadus on Mt 3:2, American Comm.;

  • "Busse" (Penance). Hauck-Herzog, Realencyklopadie fur protestantische Theologie und Kirche.

  • “The Biblical Doctrine of Conversion,” SJT, vol. 5, 1952;

  • E. M. B. Green, Evangelism in the Early Church, 1970.