What does “repent” mean?
A. Change one’s mind
B. Change one’s heart
C. Turning from sin to God
D. Having sorrow over sin
E. Regretful of the past, hope in Jesus Christ
F. All of the above
G. All of the above except A
To the extent that we go with what we think and what we’ve heard – versus what Scripture simply says – to that extent we’ll be less effective witnesses.
Jayne and I are taking a class from Tyndale Theological Seminary called Prolegomena. Prolegomena can be translated to mean “before we speak” and is an introductory course taught by the highly esteemed Christopher Cone whom I’ve spoken of before. This is a foundational Bible study class that attempts to get its students to read God’s Word without adding anything to it or deleting from it. Jayne and I are not too far into it, and yet we’re just blown away more by each session we take.
One of the most convicting aspects of the course is how much baggage we put upon Scripture. I like to say that most of us – we included, perhaps more than many – filter the Word through the world instead of filtering the world through the Word.
A good starting point to understand Scripture, to understand God’s will, to understand our place in the universe is simply this: If God didn’t mean what He said, then He would have said something else.
Repent – The English Translation Isn’t Bad
So, what does repent mean? Actually, I’m more concerned with what the original Greek and Hebrew words that we translate to repent mean, but let’s start with what we know or think we know.
Many of us who have tried to recover from 12 years of government schools can sort of break apart “repent” and decipher its true meaning. Being somewhat sloppy and non-technical if I may be, the “re-” sort of means to repeat something doesn’t it?
Our word for repent comes from its Latin roots. If you know even a little of one of the Romance languages (Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Latin, or French) then you probably can guess the meaning of the “-pent” part. If not, consider an English word we get from that root word: Pensive. To think about something.
Repent literally means to rethink something, or in context with its usage, to “change our minds.”
There are no Theo roots, no Dio roots, nothing in the English word “repent” that means God. Nothing that means sin either. The English word “repent” means what it says: To change one’s mind.
Who Cares What the English Says?
Agreed. Whether or not an English translation is accurate is less important than the original Greek or Hebrew Word that was inspired by God for His Book.
Still, we can only use what we’re able to use, and for many of us an English translation is what we have to work with.
It turns out that English word “repent” is a superb translation for the original terms used in the original language!
Without getting into the Greek and Hebrew words here, you can do so if you want. Logos Bible Software (God’s favorite Bible software by the way) (On a related parenthetical note, I often wish we still stoned false prophets… except when I prophesy) – Logos Bible Software is a great aid to seeing underlying meanings and original languages.
Could You Beat God on a Game Show?
As I said above, “repent” – meaning to change one’s mind – is an extremely close approximation to the original Greek and Hebrew words. So, what does that mean for us?
It means that when we read the English word repent in Scripture, we should stick with its accurate meaning of changing one’s mind. Anything else we add does little but subtract from God’s Word. Until we’re smart enough to win Jeopardy against God, we should probably stick with just listening to Him and taking Him at His Word.
Our Tools Are Biased
God’s Word helps us understand God’s Word. Often, the immediate context of a word in Scripture, the surrounding context, the book it’s in, the time period it’s written in, and its place in Biblical history will all help us understand a word better.
The moment we use a source outside of Scripture to understand Scripture we risk bringing errors into the mix. By checking commentaries, Bible dictionaries, and even Hebrew and Greek lexicons, we bring man’s thoughts and words and agendas into the understanding. That’s often not a bad thing… if man’s words are accurate. Man’s are often not.
Any time we use external tools to gain an understanding of Scripture we run the risk of clouding things.
Yet, often those external tools can greatly enhance our understanding of a word, passage, chapter, or book. We don’t toss out all our study tools because they can be in error. But we use them knowing they can and often do bring in biases that can cloud the original meaning.
Bible Dictionaries and Lexicons Can Be Biased
Go ahead, check the meaning of “repent” in your Bible dictionary or lexicon. If the book you use brings into the definition “sin” or “God” or “sorrow” or “regret” – that “tool” is adding to the word’s meaning due to its writer’s bias.
Let me be clear – Repentance, a change of mind about what we’ve been doing for example, often leads to regretful sorrow about how we’ve hurt God and others in our lives with our sins. But none of that is part of repent’s definition. Repent can be a catalyst for those results but none of that is part of repent’s meaning.
Oh, how vital it is that we understand this!
In a recent post, I poked fun at how some people today say this: when God says that He repents, they say that He really means that He does not repent.
I believe God says He repents more than 25 times in Scripture. He says a fewer number of times that He doesn’t repent. Yes, we have to work out what’s going on here. God isn’t psychotic or bipolar; we must read His Words and figure out what He is teaching us when when He uses context to teach us. (Hint: It turns out that this seeming contradiction is one of the simplest things to understand in Scripture. God often was either going to bless or bring destruction onto a person or nation and then, due to man’s change in one direction or another, God rethinks and changes what He said would happen. Or, due to man’s stubbornness to not change direction, God didn’t rethink or change what He was going to do. Those times He refuses to repent.)
Still, if we only used the number of times God says something as having more weight, God certainly seems to repent of what He was about to do several times.
By sticking to what words actually mean, we can begin to attack errant beliefs. And by “errant” I truly mean errant from the literal Word of God, not just those who disagree with us.
This post is already too long and I’ve probably lost most readers’ interest already. That is common, I’m not complaining. It’s my fault, I need to be less wordy!
But one of the arguments, on what I’ll call the “errant side” of certain debates, when they say “God means that he never repents those 25+ times He says He repents” – That side often uses the common and incorrect definition of repent.
They use “repent” in the sense that it’s a sorrowful remorse of past sin. They say God can’t be repenting because He didn’t sin. That is correct. So they are using an incorrect meaning of “repent” to support their position. We can attack their argument on that one word basis. We have more power to get closer to the truth when we don’t allow them to change the meaning of words.
So when both sides accept an improper use of a key term, such as “repent,” then our debates are meaningless to our true goal of this answer: “What did God say?”
If we both begin with true meanings, then the debate has to change.
I suggest the debate is simpler to argue when we use proper terminology and meanings. When we use “repent” in the original Hebrew/Greek’s accurate meaning – “to change one’s mind” – then the whole issue of “God turning away from sin” disappears.
We can still debate whether or not God can change His mind. That, in my opinion, is a step in the right direction. We’re not wasting resources on ancillary topics that have nothing to do with the debate. We’re then not debating if it’s possible for God to be sorrowful for His sins.
He’s not. He doesn’t need to be. He is Holy. He cannot sin.
But can He change His mind? That is a more accurate and useful debate.