Intellectually, "human beings must apprehend sin as unutterably heinous, the divine law as perfect and binding, and themselves as falling short of the requirements of a holy God" (ISBE, 4:136) This is evident, for example, with Job, who when confronted by Yahweh confessed, “I have declared that which I did not understand” (Job 42:3). Once Yahweh revealed his sin to him, his response was to “retract, and I repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6). Similarly, when Nathan the prophet revealed to King David the wickedness of his actions, David responded by solemnly admitting, “I have sinned against Yahweh” (2Sam 12:13), and by calling out for grace: "Be gracious to me, O God, according to Your lovingkindness; According to the greatness of Your compassion blot out my transgressions" (Ps 51:1ff).
However, a mere intellectual understanding of our sin is not Biblical repentance. If your repentance remains only in the intellectual realm, it has fallen short of Biblical repentance. There are a number of examples in Scripture of people who express a knowledge of their sin and an intention to turn from it, but who do not repent.
The oppressive Pharoah repeatedly demonstrated his obstinacy regarding letting the people of Israel go from their oppression in Egypt. After the plague of hail, however, he seemed to have repented from his wickedness: "Then Pharaoh sent for Moses and Aaron, and said to them, 'I have sinned this time; Yahweh is the righteous one, and I and my people are the wicked ones'" (Ex 9:27). That sounds good. He's confessed to his sinfulness and to Yahweh's righteousness, and then repeats that he and his people are acting wickedly. In the next verse he promises to let them go (Ex 9:28). However, "when Pharaoh saw that the rain and the hail and the thunder had ceased, he sinned again and hardened his heart, he and his servants. Pharaoh's heart was hardened, and he did not let the sons of Israel go" (Ex 9:34-35). And so Pharaoh's intellectual 'repentance' was no repentance at all.
We see similar stories in the case of the evil prophet Balaam, who though he confessed his sin and expressed a desire to obey (Num 22:34), is nevertheless remembered by Scripture as a teacher of error (Jude 1:11) who loved the wages of unrighteousness (2Pet 2:15). We also remember the wicked King Saul who rejected the word of Yahweh by failing to destroy Amalek (1Sam 15:26). Even though he seemed to intellectually repent (1Sam 15:24-25), Yahweh did not receive him, demonstrating that his repentance was not genuine. Repentance, therefore, is not merely intellectual.
Biblical repentance also requires that there be an emotional component. This is that sorrow and regret so beautifully captured by nacham. It is Ephraim’s smiting of his thigh (Jer 31:19), Job’s humiliation on the ash heap (Job 42:6), and a mourning over one’s sin (Mt 5:4) that longs to be restored to the joy of the salvation which belongs to Yahweh (Ps 51:12). It is the godly sorrow which leads to repentance and to life, as opposed to a mere worldly sorrow which leads to death (2Cor 7:9-10). The case of the ultimate traitor, Judas, demonstrates this very thing. Upon seeing that Christ had been condemned, he "felt remorse" (Mt 27:3) and returned the blood money to the chief priests and elders, and said, "I have sinned by betraying innocent blood" (Mt 27:4). Here is someone who had been affected emotionally to the point of both action and confession, and yet his was not the Biblical repentance that leads to salvation, but the worldly sorrow that leads to death (2Cor 7:10; cf. Mt 27:5). Thus, while sorrow and emotional response are not the equivalent of repentance, they may often be a powerful impulse to a genuine turning from sin (ISBE, 4:136). In other words, repentance should not be equated with sorrow, but often godly sorrow will be the impetus that leads one to repentance.
Finally, there is a volitional component which involves the penitent's necessary genuine turning from sin (cf. shuv). Herein is the change of the sinner's mind, his will, and his whole purpose which is expressed so well by metanoéō. This is illustrated by John the Baptist's response to those who ask him what their lives should look like after they repented. He responds by saying a man ought to stop being greedy and indifferent and begin to lend liberally to his neighbor (Lk 3:11). He said that the tax collector should cease from exacting more money from their debtors than they ought and to "collect no more than what you have been ordered to" (Lk 3:12-13). He said that soldiers should no longer steal and accuse people falsely, but to be content with their wages and to to testify truthfully (Lk 3:14).
It is further illustrated in the case of the rich chief tax collector Zaccheus who demonstrates his repentance from his wicked extortion by making restitution fourfold and donating to the poor (Lk 19:5-10). After Jesus told him that He desired to stay at his house, Zaccheus said to the Lord, "Behold, Lord, half of my possessions I will give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will give back four times as much" (Lk 19:8). And Jesus saw that his repentance was genuine, and declared, "Today salvation has come to this house" (Lk 19:9).
It is clear, then, that the will must be involved in true, Biblical repentance. However, though such acts of the will are essential to Biblical repentance, "God will accept no external substitute for the necessary internal change. … Not material sacrifice, but a spiritual change, is the inexorable demand of God" (ISBE, 4:136). Though a willful obedience on the part of the repentant sinner is necessary, it is not the mere obedience itself that is repentance. It is not like a business transaction or a quid pro quo, where we simply "do better" this time, and God rewards our good deeds. These volitional acts come from a heart that is changed. Hence Yahweh calls
And so is our summary of the exegesis of Biblical repentance. It is an emotional, affected turn of the heart in obedience away from sin and toward God, which amounts to a fundamental change of the whole man: a change in mind, in heart, and in desires.
Next time, we will begin to look at how to apply this understanding of Biblical repentance to one who is already a Christian, yet who because of his continual sin needs to continually repent.
1.1. Nacham: Biblical Repentance Involves the Emotions
1.2. Shuv: The Heart's Obedient Turn from Sin to God
1.3. Metanoeo: A Fundamental Change of the Whole Man
2.1. Summary and Discussion: Intellectual, Emotional, Volitional
2.2. Repentance for the Christian
3.1. Repentance vs. Penance
3.2. Counsel to a Sinning Brother
3.3. Homework for Sinning Brother
3.4. The Effect on My Personal Walk with Christ