The following is a response to a question I received from an LDS student on the nature of repentance in the Bible.
Hi K----, thanks for the excellent question and for putting it so well.
Whenever we study the Bible we have to understand that there is more than meets the eye, because for one, we are told very explicitly that we are dealing with mystery (1 Cor. 2:7; Eph. 3:3-4, 9; Col. 1:26, 2:2; 1 Tim. 3:16, etc.), and two, the Bible deals with two very clear covenants, an old and a new covenant, and failure to distinguish between these, or the merging of them, results in nothing but confusion. Romans 16:25 actually says, "Now to him that is of power to stablish you according to my gospel, and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery, which was kept secret since the world began..." This means that the gospel of Christ was a mystery hidden in God since the world began and had only at that time begun to be published, or made public. All I am saying is that the Scriptures may not be so "plain" as we may have thought them to be, but requires careful attention to details and careful distinguishing between the covenants; that is, distinguishing what belongs to the Old Covenant and what belongs to the New. There is a vast difference between them, yes?
The primary Hebrew word translated "repent" or "repentance" in the Old Testament is shuwb or shub. It is an incredibly common word and is used all through the Old Testament in a variety of applications. Hebrew has a rather condensed vocabulary and so it uses the same word for many things. All shub means is to turn. There is absolutely no indication of what the turning is from or to - that must be provided by the context. This is extremely important. In the Old Testament God very often "repents", or does shub. For example, "Wherefore should the Egyptians speak, and say, For mischief did he bring them out, to slay them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth? Turn from thy fierce wrath, and repent of this evil against thy people." (Exodus 32:12) Now here the word repent is used, but does it have anything to do with turning from sin? No, of course not, for it is God who repents and it has nothing to do with Him turning from sin. Rather, he turns from punishing the people. Many other examples could be cited.
Now I in no way am excluding the usage of shub in connection with sin. Certainly in the Old Testament the prophets are constantly calling the sinful nation of Israel to turn back to God by obeying the law and putting away their false gods. But the context determines this. We cannot immediately assume that repentance is talking about sin every time it is used, but we must check the context and find out its application.
When we come to the New Testament the same thing applies. The Greek word translated "repent" or "repentance" is metanoia. Once again we find that metanoia has absolutely nothing to do with sin in and of itself unless the context applies it to sin. It simply means to "think again" or "change one's mind". Literally, a person thinks one thing but then changes his mind and thinks another. This is the simple meaning of repentance in the New Testament, and therefore the word by itself it doesn't tell us what is being re-thought or what the change of mind is about. The context is necessary to answer that question.
Unfortunately today, repentance has become a religious word. You don't hear non-believers using the word in everyday speak, and it has come to mean "turn from sin" without any consideration of context. This is an error largely due to the word "repentance" itself as it sounds like the word "penance", which word came out of Roman Catholic theology. Penance was the sinner's work of atoning for his sins by means of good deeds, restitution or self-inflicting punishments. Penance was thought necessary to show God how sorry you are and to make Him merciful and forgiving toward you. That is a perverted and wicked idea that has no grounds in the New Testament. But repentance has traditionally become associated with it, and today it has stuck. Say the word repentance and you immediately are thought to mean "turn from sin" in some fashion. This is a major source of misunderstanding.
Here is an example of metanoia in non-Biblical classical Greek literature:
"We were inclined to conclude that for man, as he is constituted, it is easier to rule over any and all other creatures than to rule over men. But when we reflected that there was one Cyrus, the Persian, who reduced to obedience a vast number of men and cities and nations, we were then compelled to change our opinions [metanoia, repent] and decide that to rule men might be a task neither impossible nor even difficult, if one should only go about it in an intelligent manner." (Xenophon, Cyropaedia 1. 1. 3.)
They thought one thing and then re-considered and thought another thing. No reference to sin whatsoever. If a man thinks he wants chocolate ice cream, goes to the ice cream store, but while he is there he changes his mind and now wants vanilla ice cream, he has repented.
So all this is to say that we need to examine the context and not assume that repentance refers to sin. I'm thankful that you did this in your survey of the Old Testament.
Now here is where we need the Spirit to help us understand the two covenants in Scripture. Certainly under the Old Covenant obedience to the commandments of God were required in order to be right before God and to have relationship with Him and to obtain the forgiveness of sins and the blessings of the covenant. The terms are spelled out very clearly. Therefore when the prophets call people to repent, we find that in context they are calling the people to turn from lawbreaking to lawkeeping, from disobedience to God to obedience to God. So this kind of call comes up all over the Old Testament as you have shown. Ezekiel chapter 18 is probably one of the best and clearest examples of the call to repent under the Old Covenant - very simple: turn from your unrighteousness to righteousness and live; but turn from your righteousness to unrighteousness and die. It couldn't be more clear. And in fact, it is so severe that if a person turns from his righteousness to unrighteousness and commits any evil, all his previous righteousness is forgotten! That's tough. It becomes even more scary when you notice Ezekiel's usage of the word "all". God requires total and exact obedience, and anything less than that is disregarded. Such is the Old Covenant.
Now this is where the gospel comes in, and this is where the mystery comes in - something that is so radically far above our own thinking that we could never understand nor see it were it not for the Spirit of God (1 Cor. 2). The Old Covenant way of being righteous before God was by obedience to the laws and commandments of God. But in the New Covenant a new way of being righteous before God is manifested: it is the way of being righteous before God by faith in Jesus Christ.
"But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference: For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus. Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? of works? Nay: but by the law of faith. Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law." (Romans 3:21-28)
Please read the above carefully. It is the heart and core of the gospel and of the New Covenant mystery. It is so radical that most people totally miss it. What it is saying is so amazing and foreign to our religiously earthbound minds that we cannot accept the simple truth of what is being said. We think there must be some catch or that some word must be redefined to fit our categories. We come up with objections like, "surely the "law" must refer to "the ceremonial law of Moses"", and we miss the whole point of what is being said. If we simply read it (and read it in it's context from chapter 1-5), you cannot conclude that mere ceremonial commandments are in view (see Evidence that "the Law" Includes the Moral Law). What the New Covenant promises and declares is that anyone who puts their faith in Jesus Christ and ceases to seek righteousness by works, that person is justified [declared righteous] before God, and God is able to do this because Jesus Christ died on the cross for their sins and is the propitiation for them. This concept is so mysterious that many stumbled at it (read Romans 9:31-10:4 very carefully). These words, "justification" and "propitiation" are extremely important. Radical? That God would justify the ungodly who do not work, simply because of faith in what Christ has done (Rom. 4:5)? You bet! The Scripture warns that there is no other way to be righteous before God. If you seek to obtain righteousness by works you will of course fall short and be destroyed forever, for God's holy judgment is inflexible and uncompromising; but if you give up all hope in obtaining righteousness through works and turn solely to Jesus Christ for your righteousness, and believe that He satisfied the wrath of God on your behalf at the cross, then you are justified and have peace with God and eternal life with God - a free and totally undeserved gift (Rom. 5:17-19, 6:23). This obviously reveals just how much God loves (Rom. 5:8-11)!
"For if by one man's offence death reigned by one; much more they which receive abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness shall reign in life by one, Jesus Christ. Therefore as by the offence of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life. For as by one man's disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous." (Rom. 5:17-19)
Notice it is by the obedience of one that many shall be made [Greek: declared] righteous. That is amazing! It is not by our obedience that we are justified, but by the obedience of Jesus Christ that we who believe in Him are justified! What an unspeakable gift!
Now we can see what repentance is all about in the New Testament. It is in fact a changing of one's mind, but the context is now supplied. It is changing one's mind about the way of righteousness - it is thinking again about how we are justified before God. I thought I had to keep all the commandments to be right with God... then I realized that this way was hopeless and that I was doomed to perish for my sins, and then I realized that Christ had died for me and done all the obedience to make me right with God. All I was to do was trust in Him and not in my own obedience for righteousness. The lights click on! "Amazing grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me! I once was lost but now I'm found, was blind, but now I see." Galatians 3:21-24 teaches us this very thing, that God gave the law to show us our need for justification by faith in Jesus Christ alone. My own repentance occurred when I was reading this very passage, and when I suddenly understood that God never gave a law to make us righteous, but that law was given to show us our need for grace (see also Rom. 3:19-20).
And thus Jesus preached: "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel." (Mark 1:15) What are we to do? Repent and believe the gospel. That is, change your mind and believe the gospel. There is nothing about stopping your sins here, but everything about changing your mind from non-gospel thinking to gospel thinking. And what is gospel thinking, but that: "Whosoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life." (John 3:14-16, 36, 5:24, 6:28-29, 35, 40, 8:24, 20:31, etc.)
Of course, there is a whole theology about law and gospel which can be seen by carefully studying the book of Romans, which I would most urgently recommend you do. There Paul explains the purpose of law, the gospel of grace through faith, how the gospel does not ignore or loosen law but gloriously establishes it, and how Christians are free from all obligation to law so that they can now live a life of love and grace freely from the heart. It's all there, you just need to ask the Spirit to give you spiritual eyes to see it because it's so far above our religious categories. It truly is a "great mystery". Be a Berean (Acts 17:11) and find out if what I am saying is true. If you have any questions at all as you read through Romans, feel free to ask me them.
For a detailed explanation of repentance and its usage in the Bible, I recommend you read through Robert Wilkin's dissertation which he wrote for his PhD. You can find it here on my message board.
For an outstanding summary of repentance in the book of Acts, where it is clearly seen as changing your mind to believe the gospel, I highly recommend Dr. Lewis Sperry Chafer's article, The Terms of Salvation. Chafer was the founder and late president of Dallas Theological Seminary. Any serious student of the Bible ought to read this.
Well, K----, I hope this is a helpful start. May God give you the willingness to go all the way for the truth, whatever the cost.
Sincerely, your friend,