Repentance is a subject that comes up often. Repentance needs to be correctly understood, so that those who have sinned can learn how to biblically respond to their sin. The answer is repentance, but what is this? From the texts of Scripture, one can observe that repentance is a turning away from sin and turning to God instead. Wayne Grudem defines repentance as a “heartfelt sorrow for sin, a renouncing of it, and a sincere commitment to forsake it and walk in obedience to Christ.” Jay Adams would add to this definition with, “Repentance is a rethinking of one’s behavior, attitudes, and beliefs. It is coming to a different opinion or viewpoint, one so different that it calls for different thought patterns and a different lifestyle.” John Colquhoun gives a slightly more complex definition of it with:
A gracious principle and habit implanted in the soul by the Spirit of Christ, in the exercise of which a regenerate and believing sinner, deeply sensible of the exceeding sinfulness and just demerit of his innumerable sins is truly humbled and grieved before the Lord, on account of the sinfulness and hurtfulness of them. He feels bitter remorse, unfeigned sorrow, and deep self-abhorrence for the aggravated transgressions of his life, and the deep depravity of his nature; chiefly, because by all his innumerable provocations he has dishonored an infinitely holy and gracious God, transgressed a law which is ‘holy, and just, and good,’ and defiled, deformed, and even destroyed his own precious soul.
All of these definitions contain common characteristics. They call for a recognition that something is wrong in a person’s life and needs changed. They note that a different way of living is needed, and that the whole body, including the emotions and the mind, are involved in the change. They also recognize that an offense has been committed which ultimately relates to God. Repentance is going to have fruit, or effect, that comes from it, if indeed it is a biblical one. John the Baptist called for the people to “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance.” What would the fruit of repentance look like? John MacArthur points out that the Jewish Rabbis considered Isaiah 1:16-17 to record nine activities related to repentance. These activities or fruits can be seen in “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes, cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow's cause.” One then can see that there are results that flow from repentance, such as the washing, the removing of evil, the ceasing of wrongdoing, etc.
It is helpful at this point to know that the Bible uses different Greek and Hebrew words for the English word repentance, and the meaning of each is significant. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word Shub is frequently used, and means to change a course of action. It can be used to describe a turn to or away from God, but mainly it means turning from rebellion against God to God (Num. 14:43, Josh 22:16, 18, 23, 29; 1 Sam. 15:11, 1 Kings 9:6). In the New Testament, Metamelomai, Metanoeo, Epistrepho are the Greek words that are commonly translated as repentance. The primary word for repentance in the New Testament is Metanoeo, and, “it always speaks of a change of purpose, and specifically a turning from sin.” Metanoeo differs from Metamelomai in that Metanoeo speaks of true repentance and turning to God, while Metamelomai expresses a regret that does not always involve turning from sin to God. This is significant because many people commonly assume that regret or penance is the same thing as repentance. Penance is not the same as repentance, however, and the difference needs to be established. Two places in Scripture where the difference can be seen are in Matthew 27:3 and 2 Corinthians 7. Here we see that:
The example of Judas makes it clear that metamelomai and metanoeo are not simply interchangeable in the NT. When Judas recognized that Jesus had been wrongly condemned, he regretted (metamelomai) his betrayal (Matt. 27:3). However, he did not find the way to genuine repentance (metanoia). We find the same distinction in 2 Cor. 7:8-10. Paul did not regret that he had written a sharp letter to the Corinthians, for the sorrow it caused had led its recipients to true repentance (metanoia), to an inner turning to God.
The difference between repentance and penance then is that penance is sorrow that does not lead to a change of heart and direction, while repentance involves a sorrow for sin and leads to a change of heart and direction. The example of Judas in Matt. 27 shows this, with Judas regretting his actions but not turning from his sin to God and asking forgiveness. The example of Esau in Heb. 12:17 is another example of regret without repentance. Esau was sorry he lost the birthright, but did not confess his sin and turn to the Lord. Penance often is a sorrow for the consequences of sin, but not a godly sorrow that turns the sinner to Christ for the change that is needed. It is sort of like the kid who gets caught with his hand in the cookie jar and is sorry for the spanking he gets, but not sorry for the sin against God and his parents. Even a resolve not to commit the act again, or as many would make, “New Year’s Resolutions,” do not necessarily mean repentance has taken place. On the difference between penance and repentance, John Calvin remarks:
Others, because they saw the various meanings of this word in Scripture, posited two forms of repentance. To distinguish them by some mark, they called one ‘repentance of the law.’ Through it the sinner, wounded by the branding of sin and stricken by dread of God’s wrath, remains caught in that disturbed state and cannot extricate himself from it. The other they call ‘repentance of the gospel.’ Through it the sinner is indeed sorely afflicted, but rises above it and lays hold of Christ as medicine for his wound, comfort for his dread, the haven of his misery.
While Judas and Esau are examples of what repentance is not and what penance is, Psalm 51 provides a beautiful example of true repentance. David begins by admitting that what he did was sinful and primarily against a Holy God that had every right to judge him for it. David does not shift the blame like Saul in 1 Sam. 15: 24-31 (another example of penance, not repentance) but takes full responsibility. He cries to God for mercy and asks to be washed from the stain of his sin. David notes the effects of his on his body (broken bones) both in this Psalm and in even more detail in Psalm 32. David has turned from his sin and to God, asking forgiveness and then singing of the joy and gladness that follow as effects of repentance. There are a great number of other places in the Bible besides Ps. 51 that mention repentance. Some of these references include: 1 Kings 8:46-53; 2 Chron. 6:36-39; Job 42:1-6; Jer. 25:4-5, 34:15-16; Eze. 14:6, 18:30; Luke 24:47; Acts 2:38, 3:19, 17:30-31; Rom. 2:4; and Rev. 2:5, 22-23, 3:15-19.
Difference between Worldly Sorrow and Repentance
Worldly Sorrow Repentance_______________________________
Short lived Long term
Involves emotion Involves emotion and will
Makes vague resolutions Makes specific restitution
Wants public attention Humility
Desires immediate return to position
and ministry Recognizes need to rebuild trust
External displays of contrition Internal development and change
Finds fault in how treated in discipline Exhibits submission to the humbling of discipline
Hesitates to follow counsel in reconciliation
and restitution process Initiates action in restoring broken relationships and making restitution
 Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994), 713.
 Jay Adams, How to Help People Change (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986), 142.
 John Colquhoun, Repentance (East Peoria, IL: Versa-Press, 2010), 2-3.
 John MacArthur, The Gospel According to Jesus (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), 181.
 Sinclair Ferguson, The Grace of Repentance (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010), 16.
 MacArthur, The Gospel According to Jesus, 178.
 Verlyn D. Verbrugge, ed., The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology Abridged
Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), s.v. “Metamelomai.”
 John Calvin, The Institutes of Christian Religion, ed. John T. Mcneill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, vol.
1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), 596.
Taken from Davey, In Pursuit of Prodigals, 64.