What is repentance?

Repentance is properly understood to mean a change of mind - a change of the intention from wanting to sin to not wanting to sin - that results in a change in action. It involves the decision to make a change of behavior and/or attitude about something. Biblically, repentance means to turn from sin with a heartfelt desire to change and not do it again. Of course, desiring to never sin again and actually not sinning again aren't always the same thing. We Christians often fail in our war with our sin (Rom. 7:19). We may have remorse over it and honestly desire to not commit sin again; but sometimes because of our fallen nature and our profound weakness, we often fail to completely carry out our repentance. Nevertheless, by the grace of God, we are able to turn to him yet again and receive the cleansing that is guaranteed through Christ.

This does not mean that it is okay to go out and seek a sin and then try to repent of it later. There is a difference between (1) an honest struggle (which is a sign of regeneration) and (2) a casual attitude about committing sin so that a person can repent later (a sign of not being regenerate).

In the Old Testament, there are two main words that are rendered as "repent," "repentant," and "repentance."

  1. Nacham, נָחַם. It means to turn, to be sorry for, regret, etc. The KJV translates it as “comfort” 57 times, “repent” 41 times, “comforter” nine times, and “ease” once. 1 to be sorry, console oneself, repent, regret, comfort, be comforted.1
  2. Sub, שׁוּב,  The KJV translates as it as “return” 391 times, “ . . . again” 248 times, “turn” 123 times, “ . . . back” 65 times, “ . . . away” 56 times, “restore” 39 times, “bring” 34 times, “render” 19 times, “answer” 18 times, “recompense” eight times, “recover” six times, “deliver” five times, “put” five times, “withdraw” five times, “requite” four times, and translated miscellaneously 40 times. 1 to return, turn back 2

As you can see, there are a variety of ways to translate the words; but the basic meaning is to turn  -to have an attitude of change so as to not do wrong again.

In the New Testament, there is one main Greek word that is translated into English as "repentance": metanoeo, μετανοέω and from that word we also get "repentant" and "repentance." The word is derived from the basic roots meta to change place or condition, and noeo to exercise the mind, think, comprehend."3




  • 1. Strong, J. (1996). The exhaustive concordance of the Bible: Showing every word of the text of the common English version of the canonical books, and every occurrence of each word in regular order. (electronic ed.). Ontario: Woodside Bible Fellowship.
  • 2. ibid.
  • 3. Zodhiates, S. (2000). The complete word study dictionary: New Testament (electronic ed.). Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers.

About The Author

Matt Slick is the President and Founder of the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry.