Repentance vs. Penance – Introduction


In Evangelical Christianity today, there are some believers who have a tendency to practice penance rather than repentance.  Though the term penance is many times associated with Catholicism, in this context, it does not mean that large numbers of Evangelicals are turning Catholic, but simply that there are some within Evangelicalism who, after initially being converted, try to pay for their sins by their own good works and sufferings.  The difference between biblical repentance and evangelical penance is vast, has significant personal ramifications, and must be addressed practically in the church today.

Biblical Definition ofRepentance in the New Testament

[1] In order to define what repentance is, it is important to look at  what the Bible says because it is not enough to reason from one’s own opinions or to argue philosophically, for the truth does not come from men, but from God.  God has revealed the truth to us in His Word – His Word is truth (John 17:17).  And since the Bible was not written in English, it is many times helpful to read and study it in the original languages in order to gain insight into its meaning.  Therefore, to begin the search for a biblical definition of repentance, we will look at the Greek terms used in the New Testament that convey the idea of repentance.  Returning to that first word of the Gospel spoken by Christ  in Matthew 4:17, we find that the word translated as “repent” is metanoeite (μετανοειτε) which comes from the root word metanoeo (μετανοέω).  The word, metanoeo along with its nominal equivalent metanoia (μετάνοια) is used fifty-seven times in the New Testament and means simply to, “change one’s mind.”[2] Literally, metanoeo means “to perceive afterwards” (meta means after, implying change and neoe means to perceive) therefore it, “signifies to change one’s mind or purpose, always in the N.T., involving a change for the better, an amendment.”[3] There are two other words in the New Testament which convey the concept of repentance, epistrepho (ἐπιστρέφω), and metamelomai (μεταμέλομαι).  The word epistrepho brings with it the idea of “to turn,” “turn around” and therefore “to return”,[4] being very similar to the meaning of metanoeo.  Metamelomai, however, means “to experience remorse”[5] referring specifically to the feelings a person has towards something rather than to the fact that a person has arrived at a different position on something as metanoeo implies.

Biblical Definition  Repentance in the Old Testament

Continuing the search for a biblical definition of repentance, a student discovers that in the Old Testament, there are primarily two Hebrew terms that are used to denote the idea of repentance.  The first term is sub (שׁוּב) which means “to turn back, return”[6] and many times expresses a person’s change of attitude toward God and sin (Dt 4:30; Neh 1:9; Psa 7:12; 85:4; Jer 3:14),[7] denoting “a conscious, moral separation and a personal decision for forsake sin and enter into fellowship with God”.[8] The second Hebrew term used to denote repentance is naham (נחם) which means “to be sorry, rue, repent,”[9] and many times refers to a change in God’s dealings with humans as required by His justice (1 Sam. 15:29; Psa 110:4; Jer 4:28).[10]

Repentance as Defined by the Whole of Scripture

Looking throughout the whole of Scripture, a picture of what biblical repentance is begins to be seen clearly.  There are rituals of repentance such as the tearing of one’s clothing, fasting, sitting in sackcloth, sitting in ashes, (2 Kings 22:11; Jonah 3:6; Dan. 9:3); in addition, repentance is related to baptism as the start of a person’s life in Christ (Acts 2:38; 13:24; 19:4).  It is connected with faith (Acts 20:21; 26:18; Heb 6:1), with forgiveness (Luke 24:47; Acts 3:19; 8:22; 2 Cor. 12:21; Heb 6:1; Rev. 2:22; 9:20), and with a return to God (Acts 20:21; 26:20; 1 Pet 2:25; Rev. 16:9) that is based on the righteousness of Christ alone (Acts 3:19; 5:31; 17:30).[11] It is essential to note that throughout the Scriptures, “Repentance and faith are two side of the same coin”.[12] Biblically it is “repent” or “perish” (Luke 13:3, 5), “repent” or go to “hades” and “torment” (Luke 16:23, 28, 30).  But for those who do repent, there is “joy in heaven” (Luke 15:7, 10), and so it can be concluded, that repentance is representative of the “entire response bringing about eternal life, including faith when it is not stated…Repentance must not be separated from its flip side of faith (Mark 1:15; Acts 20:21), or from the realization that it sometimes stands for the package of human response to the good new of Jesus Christ.”[13] In summary, repentance is simply a change of mind that implies a conscious personal decision to forsake sin and turn to God.

Definition of Penance

Contrary to the wealth of information in the Bible regarding the word “repentance” and its derivatives, the word “penance” never appears in any major English version of the Bible.  The concept of penance, however, is not foreign to the Bible.  Simply stated, penance is “a religious attitude deeply rooted in the human heart which prompts men to attempt to pay for their own sins by their good works and sufferings.”[14] Several examples of biblical penance will be discussed in the midst of looking at three major differences between biblical repentance and “evangelical” penance.

[1] All Scripture references taken from the New American Standard Bible (La Habra: Lockman Foundation, 1995).

[2] Bauer. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957), 513.

[3] W. E. Vine. An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words (Los Angeles: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1952), 279-280.

[4] Bauer. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957), 301.

[5] O. Michel. “μεταμέλομαι,” Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1967), IV:626.

[6] Brown, Driver, and Briggs. A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977), 996-999.

[7] Irvin A. Busenitz. “Divine Forgiveness: Conditions and Limitations”, (D.Th. diss., Grace Theological Seminary, 1980), 64.

[8] Byron H. DeMent. “Repentance,” The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988), IV:135.

[9] Brown, Driver, and Briggs. A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977), 636-637.

[10] Irvin A. Busenitz. “Divine Forgiveness: Conditions and Limitations”, (D.Th. diss., Grace Theological Seminary, 1980), 63-64.

[11] W. A. Quanbeck. “Repentance,” The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (New York: Abingdon Press, 1962), 4:34.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Joseph P. Healey and A. Boyd Luter, Jr. “Repentance,” The Anchor Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday 1992), 5:673-674.

[14] C. John Miller. Repentance and the 20th Century Man (Fort Washington: Christian Literature Crusade, 1980), 19-20.


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