by J. Hampton Keathley III




The Greek Words in Question


Since our English word is a translation of the Greek of the New Testament, we need to look at the original language. “There are two New Testament Greek words which are translated repentance in the modern English translations: metanoia (and its verbal counterpart metanoeo) and metamelomai.  The former term is so translated fifty-eight times in the New Testament; the latter only six times.”5  This study will be concerned primarily with metanoia.


Metamelomai means “to regret, change the mind” and may connote the idea of sorrow, but not necessarily.  It is translated by “regret, change the mind, and feel remorse” in the NASB and NIV, and in all but one of the passages where it is used, the primary idea is a change of mind (cf. Matt. 21:29, 32; 27:3; 2 Cor. 7:8; Heb. 7:21).


Metanoia, the primary word, without question, means “a change of mind.”  It refers to the thinking of people who thought one thing or made one decision and then, based on further evidence or input, changed their minds.  So, the basic sense is “a change of mind.”  This is its meaning and use outside the New Testament and in the New Testament.  It is a change of mind that leads to a different course of action, but that course of action must be determined by the context.  In a context that deals with forgiveness of sin or receiving eternal life as a gift from God, the course of action is a change of trust because one now sees Jesus as the only means of salvation from sin.


Ryrie writes:


Sorrow may well be involved in a repentance, but the biblical meaning of repentance is to change one’s mind, not to be sorry. And yet that change of mind must not be superficial, but genuine. The presence or absence of sorrow does not necessarily prove or disprove the genuineness of the repentance. 6


That sorrow does not necessarily prove or disprove the genuineness of repentance is clear from 2 Corinthians 7:9-10. Sorrow may lead to a genuine change of mind, or as in the case of Judas, it may not. The point being that sorrow and repentance are not the same thing.


But again, the nature of the change and what is changed must be determined by the context. So, another question must be asked. About “what do we change our mind?” Answering that question will focus the basic meaning on the particular change and issue involved.


The Object of Repentance


Many today make repentance and faith two distinct and necessary requirements for salvation. In his book, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, J. I. Packer writes:


The demand is for repentance as well as faith. It is not enough to believe that only through Christ and His death are sinners justified and accepted.… Knowledge of the gospel, and orthodox belief of it, is no substitute for repentance.… Where there is … no realistic recognition of the real claims that Christ makes, there can be no repentance, and therefore no salvation. 7


Is this what the Bible really teaches? Believe and repent are never used together as if teaching two different requirements for salvation. When salvation from eternal condemnation is in view, repent (a change of mind) and believe are in essence used as synonyms.  Dr. Lewis S. Chafer wrote:


Too often, when it is asserted – as it is here – that repentance is not to be added to belief as a separated requirement for salvation, it is assumed that repentance is not necessary to salvation. Therefore it is as dogmatically stated as language can declare, that repentance is essential to salvation and that none could be saved apart from repentance, but it is included in believing and cannot be separated from it. 8


Roy B. Zuck writes:


Repentance is included in believing. Faith and repentance are like two sides of a coin. Genuine faith includes repentance, and genuine repentance includes faith. The Greek word for repentance (metanoia) means to change one’s mind. But to change one’s mind about what? About sin, about one’s adequacy to save himself, about Christ as the only way of salvation, the only One who can make a person righteous. 9


In Luke’s rendering of the Great Commission he uses repentance as a single requirement in the same sense as believing in Christ (Luke 24:46-47).  As Dr. Ryrie says of this verse, “Clearly, repentance for the forgiveness of sins is connected to the death and resurrection of Christ” (p. 97).  The repentance comes out of the recognition of one’s sin, but the object of repentance is the person and work of Christ, or faith in Christ.  Interestingly, in Luke 8:12 he uses believe alone,


Those along the path are the ones who hear, and then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved.”


A comparison of other passages clearly supports the fact that repentance often stands for faith in the person and work of Christ. Compare Acts 10:43 with 11:17-18; 13:38-39 with 2:38. Also, note Acts 16:31 which uses “believe” alone.


The stated purpose of the Gospel of John is to bring men to faith in Christ (20:31), yet John never once uses the word repent, not once. If repentance, when used in connection with eternal salvation, is a separate or distinct requirement from faith in Christ, then John does not give the whole Gospel. And if you can believe that, you can believe anything. Speaking of the absence of John’s use of repent in His gospel, Ryrie writes:


And yet John surely had many opportunities to use it in the events of our Lord’s life which he recorded. It would have been most appropriate to use repent or repentance in the account of the Lord’s conversation with Nicodemus. But believe is the word used (John 3:12, 15). So, If Nicodemus needed to repent, believe must be a synonym; else how could the Lord have failed to use the word repent when talking to him? To the Samaritan harlot, Christ did not say repent. He told her to ask (John 4:10), and when her testimony and the Lord’s spread to other Samaritans, John recorded not that they repented but that they believed (vss. 39, 41-42). There are about fifty more occurrences of “believe” or “faith” in the Gospel of John, but not one use of “repent.” The climax is John 20:31: “These have been written that you may believe … and that believing you may have life in His name.” 10


What about Acts 20:21? “…solemnly testifying to both Jews and Greeks of repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.”  Some would say, “Doesn’t this passage teach that faith and repentance are not synonymous and that repentance is a separate requirement?”  NO!  Paul is summarizing his ministry in Ephesus and what he solemnly proclaimed to both Jews and Greeks, specifically, repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.  The two words, repentance and faith, are joined by one article in the Greek text which indicates that the two are inseparable, though each focuses on a different aspect of the one requirement of salvation, namely, faith in Christ.Editors 1


We can legitimately translate it like this.  “Solemnly testifying …a change of mind about God, and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.”  Repentance, metanoia, focuses on changing one’s mind about his previous conception of God and disbelief in God or false beliefs (polytheism and idolatry) about God (see 1 Thess. 1:9).  On the other hand, belief in Christ, as an expression of a change of mind, focuses on the new direction that change about God must take, namely, trusting in Christ, God’s Son, as personal Savior.

It has also been suggested that in this summary Paul is emphasizing the distinction between the particular needs of Gentiles and Jews.  Gentiles who were polytheistic needed to change their minds about their polytheism and realize that only one true God exists.  Jews needed to change their minds about Jesus and realize that He is their true Messiah (Ryrie, p. 98).





Metanoia is sometimes used through a metonymy as a synonym for eternal salvation. A metonymy is a figure of speech by which one name or noun is used instead of another to which it stands in a certain relation. These involve a metonymy of cause for the effect. The CAUSE is a change of mind about Christ and His gospel. The EFFECT is eternal salvation (compare 2 Pet. 3:9,  1 Tim. 2:4, Luke 5:32). 11


A Non-Saving Repentance (metamelomai)


Under this category we might also include repentance in the sense of remorse, regret with the use of metamelomai. This aspect of non-saving repentance is a repentance or change of mind that does not lead to eternal life or the spiritual blessings sought.  Two examples are Judas (Matt. 27:3) and Esau (Heb. 12:17). Compare also Matt. 21:28-32.


A Salvation Repentance


Salvation repentance is a change of mind that results in eternal salvation.  This involves a change of mind about self, about one’s sinful condition and inability to save oneself combined with a change of mind about Christ, that He is the Messiah Savior and the only one by whom man can find salvation (Acts 2:36-38; 17:29-31).  Salvation repentance means a change in confidence; it means turning away from self-confidence to confidence in Christ, faith alone in Christ alone.  The irony of all of this is that any other viewpoint is really not biblical repentance because it virtually borders on faith in oneself.  “In this use metanoia occurs as a virtual synonym for pistis (faith).” 12





This is a change of mind regarding sinful behavior. An illustration of this kind of repentance is found in 2 Corinthians 7:8-11; 12:21; Revelation 2:5, 16, 21; 3:3, 19. By Paul’s use of lupeo (to distress, grieve) and metamelomai in 2 Corinthians 7:8-11 he clearly illustrates that metanoia does not mean to feel regret, but involves a change of mind.


For though I caused you sorrow (lupeo) by my letter, I do not regret (metalomai) it; though I did regret (metalomai) it – for I see that that letter caused you sorrow, though only for a while – I now rejoice, not that you were made sorrowful (lupeo), but that you were made sorrowful (lupeo) to the point of repentance (metanoia); for you were made sorrowful (lupeo) according to the will of God, in order that you might not suffer loss in anything through us. For the sorrow (lupe) that is according to the will of God produces a repentance (metanoia) without regret (metamelomai), leading to salvation; but the sorrow (lupe) of the world produces death. For behold what earnestness this very thing, this godly sorrow (lupeo), has produced in you: what vindication of yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what longing, what zeal, what avenging of wrong! In everything you demonstrated yourselves to be innocent in the matter (2 Cor. 7:8-11).


Wilkin writes:


On some occasions metanoia is used in contexts where the change of mind in view is clearly indicated as having to do with one’s sinful practices. For example, in Luke 17:3-4 Jesus taught the disciples that they were to forgive all who sinned against them if they came and indicated that they had changed their minds regarding their sin. In this case and others like it “repentance” would be a good translation choice. 13




Ryrie writes:


To return to the main point of this chapter: Is repentance a condition for receiving eternal life? Yes, if it is repentance or changing one’s mind about Jesus Christ. No, if it means to be sorry for sin or even to resolve to turn from sin, for these things will not save.. Is repentance a precondition to faith? No, though a sense of sin and the desire to turn from it may be used by the Spirit to direct someone to the Savior and His salvation. Repentance may prepare the way for faith, but it is faith that saves, not repentance (unless repentance is understood as a synonym for faith or changing one’s mind about Christ). 14


In the third of a series of excellent articles on the meaning of repentance, Wilkin writes:


I wish we could retranslate the New Testament. It would make teaching and preaching passages using metanoia simpler. It would eliminate the confusion many have when they read their Bibles and see the word repent… 


In most cases when the English word “repent” occurs in the New Testament it is translating metanoia. Metanoia is not the equivalent of the Old Testament term shub. It certainly does not mean “penance.” Nor does it normally mean “repentance.” Rather, in the New Testament it retains its pre-Christian meaning of a change of mind. The English reader thus generally needs to read “change of mind”—not turn from sins—when he sees the word “repent” in the New Testament. The context must be consulted to determine the object of a person’s change of mind.


The only times repent is actually a good English translation is when the object of metanoia is sinful deeds. A change of mind about sinful behavior is equivalent to repentance. 15 ¢


In the next edition of the Grace Family Journal, we will continue this study on the “Common Assaults on the Gospel” by examining assault #2, Believe Plus Make Christ Lord.  This will be followed by 3 more assaults:


· Believe and Be Baptized

· Believe and Confess Christ Publicly

· Believe and Do Good Works




5    Bob Wilkin, Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society, Autumn 89, p. 13.


6    Charles C. Ryrie, So Great Salvation, (Victor Books), p. 92.


7    J. I. Packer, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, pp. 72-73.


8    Vital Theological Issues, Zuck, General Editor, Kregel Resources, p. 119.


9    Kindred Spirit, Summer 1989, a quarterly publication of Dallas Seminary, p. 5.


10  Ryrie, p. 98.


11  Bob Wilkin, Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society, Autumn 1989, pp. 18.


12  Ibid.


13  Ibid.


14  Ryrie, p. 99.


15  Bob Wilkin, Journal of Grace Evangelical Society, Vol. 2, No. 2, Autumn 1989, p. 20.



Editor’s notes:


1 Regarding Acts 20:21, Greek scholar Daniel Wallace has an excellent note regarding the use of the Granville Sharp Rule (TSKS construction) in this verse.  Wallace writes…


One major exegetical problem of the text relates to the Pauline kerygma and the use of meta,noian’’,vv here.  Two of the most commonly-held views are at odds with each other. On the one hand, some scholars regard the construction as a chiasmus: Jews were to have faith and Greeks were to repent.  Although it is true that turning toward God is a typical component in Paul's gospel presentation to Gentiles (cf. Gal. 4:8; 1 Thess. 1:9), it is hardly atypical of the message he addressed to the Jews.  Nor is it atypical of Luke's theology. Further, the TSKS construction in the least implies some sort of unity between meta,noian’’,vv and pi,stivj.  Those who embrace the chiastic view do not address this problem. On the other hand, several scholars argue that the two terms have an identical, or nearly identical referent, being persuaded apparently by the supposed force of the TSKS construction.  Although this second view takes into account the structure in Greek, it does not reckon with the impersonal nature of this construction.


The evidence suggests that, in Luke's usage, saving faith includes repentance. In those texts which speak simply of faith, a "theological shorthand" seems to be employed: Luke envisions repentance as the inceptive act of which the entirety may be called pi,stivj.  Thus, for Luke, conversion is not a two-step process, but one step, faith-but the kind of faith that includes repentance.  This, of course, fits well with the frequent idiom of first subset of second for impersonal TSKS constructions.



J. Hampton Keathley III, Th.M. is a 1966 graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary and a former pastor of 28 years. Hampton currently writes for the Biblical Studies Foundation.



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