The Repentance Factor

The Established Meanings of "Repentance"
I. "Regret"

Contrary to the claims of some Free Grace brethren, the primary and well-established meaning of the English word "repent" is universal and clear. It simply means "to regret, feel remorse, or remember with sorrow." It can also mean "regret with a change of mind or heart," but the defining element is "regret" (or similar).  Of course, every instance in the Bible must be considered in its context, but the general meaning is clear. Thus with true repentance there is an element of regret or it is not repentance. Words have meaning. Repentance is not simply a logical acknowledgement ("I see your point") or a whimsical change in preference (vanilla ice cream instead of chocolate). It is changing one's mind to a completely new understanding and in turn regretting his previous choices and path.

For instance, concerning the knowledge of Christ, one could change his mind from believing Christ didn't exist to believing He did (in an historical sense) without any regret of being wrong (or ignorant) previously. This is just a logical acknowledgement. He changed his mind but he did not repent. This is the same as those on Malta who "changed their minds" when Paul didn't die of the snakebite (Act 28:6). There was no cause for remorse.

All the standard English dictionaries concur and plainly declare the essence of "repent" is regret for past actions. This was commonly understood at the time the KJV was translated and ever since. Only recently have some dictionaries tried to "revise" the meaning.

Webster's 1828 Dictionary has five definitions as "repent" as an intransitive verb and applied to man all express regret or sorrow. One definition,

To change the mind in consequence of the inconvenience or injury done by past conduct,

even uses Exodus 13:17 as an example. (See also, Webster's Unabridged Dictionary, 1913). Another definition says, sorrow or be pained for sin, as a violation of God's holy law...

This one gives Luke 13:3 and Acts 3:19 as scriptural examples.

The Oxford English Dictionary likewise says (with several examples),

To feel contrition, compunction, sorrow or regret for something one has done or left undone; to change one's mind with regard to past action or conduct through dissatisfaction with it or its results.

All is clear. The primary meaning or repentance is not a change of mind, though a changed mind is usually part of it, but regret, remorse, or sorrow for past actions. Or as Samuel Johnson said in his dictionary (1755), "To remember with sorrow." This is the way it has been understood by the English speaking people since the word was first formed.

The Bible's First Usage Confirms

The first time one finds a form of repent in the Bible is in Genesis 6:6-7,

And it repented the LORD that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart...for it repenteth me that I have made them. (Gen 6:6-7)

The context is the wickedness of the earth and this wickedness "repented" the Lord. Notice how it is worded. It doesn't have the Lord saying, "I repent that I made man...." It says in past tense "it [the wickedness] repented the Lord...." The wickedness was the source of the repentance; not the Lord himself. The ongoing wickedness was repenting the Lord all the time it was happening.

It is obvious the core meaning of "repent" is meant here; that is, regret or remorse. Even all the modern translations agree. Both the context and word meaning dictate it. Some will do their best to insert a change of mind into the text insisting the passage means, "And it changed the mind of the Lord that he made man...for it changed my mind that I made them," but this doesn't even make good sense. Can one go back in time and effectually change his mind to undo an action? No, not even the Almighty Lord has done that. All one can do is regret the decision that was made and go forward from there.

Suppose you bought a car and it soon showed itself a "lemon," causing you chronic trouble over the following years. Would you say "It changed my mind that I bought that car" or I change my mind about buying it? No, that's silly and a convoluted way to speak. You would say you "regret getting it," are "sorry I got it," or in Bible parlance say "it repented me that I bought that car."

Moreover, by denying repent means regret here one cheats himself from half of the equation. He may concede to the grief in the passage and try to pretend that it includes regret, but the words are not synonymous. Repent (as regret) speaks of one's mental attitude toward the decision while grief speaks of the decision's affect on the heart.

This is only one example of how "repent" should be primarily understood as "regret" in the Scriptures. There are more (1Sam 15:11, 35, etc.).

Paul Confirms

The Free Gracers make much of the fact that Paul in his epistles does not mention repentance very much. They insist that is because repentance is actually included in faith or belief, but this is nonsense. Paul actually gives a very clear definition of repentance in Romans 2 by contrasting with its opposite, impenitence,

...not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance? But after thy hardness and impenitent heart treasurest up unto thyself wrath.... (Rom 2:4-5)

These two verses alone declare the biblical meaning of repentance and all who refuse to acknowledge it do so to their own peril. Notice how in vs 4 Paul says God's goodness with individuals will lead them to "repentance" and in the same breath says if they keep a hard and "impenitent" heart they are storing up wrath. The word "impenitent" simply means "unrepentant," and is defined as,

"Not penitent; not repenting of sin; not contrite; obdurate; of a hard heart." (Web 1828)

The most current Merriam-Webster dictionary (2022) has it as,

"not feeling or expressing humble or regretful pain or sorrow for sins or offenses."

There is no other definition and this is the only instance of this word in the Scriptures. It is the opposite of the "repentance" he just mentioned. In their rush to redefine repentance the "Bible believing" Free-Gracers forgot to redefine its opposite, and it is this opposite that confirms the true definition of its counterpart. It is impenitent people, people who have no regret or contriteness of heart about their sins and standing before God who are treasuring up wrath. Not people who only neglected to change their mind about something.

The King James Bible is clear, repentance speaks of regret, contriteness, and sorrow in the heart whether it is in the heart of God over the state of mankind or the heart of man over the guilt of his sins. One definition down; two more to go.

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