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T.W. Brents

We have arrived at a proper stand-point from which to consider the subject of repentance, and to it we invite the reader’s attention for the present. Its importance is admitted by all religious parties and teachers of our times. When John came to prepare a people for the reception of the Messiah, though he came to the Jews who had long been the recognized people of God, he found them steeped in wickedness; hence he said: “Repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Matt. iii:2. When John was cast into prison and his ministry ended, “Jesus began to preach, and to say, Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Matt. iv:17. When Jesus sent the twelve apostles to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, “they went out and preached that men should repent.” Mark. vi:12. Jesus said to those who came to Him, “Except ye repent ye shall all likewise perish.” Luke xiii:3, 5.


When He gave the final commission to His apostles He said that “repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.” Luke xxiv:47. When the apostles began to operate under this authority, they commanded believers to “repent and be baptized … in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins.” Acts ii:38.

When the disciples were convinced that salvation was not confined to the Jews, they “glorified God, saying, Then hath God also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life.” Acts xi:18. Then, as repentance is so important a condition in the gospel plan of salvation, it is important that we know what it is, that we may know when we have obeyed the divine mandate.




We find that the word repent occurs in our common English Bible forty-two times; repented occurs thirty times; repentance twenty-six times; repenteth five times; and repentest, repenting, and repentings one time each — in all, one hundred and six times. Repent is used with reference to God sixteen times, and with reference to man twenty-six times. It is used to indicate sorrow eleven times, a change of mind or purpose fourteen times, and includes the idea of reformation of life eighteen times. Repented is used with reference to God thirteen times, and with reference to man seventeen times. It is used to indicate sorrow twelve times, a change of mind eight times, and includes a change of life or reformation ten times.


Repentance is used with reference to God twice, and with reference to man twenty-four times. It is used to indicate sorrow twice, a change of purpose once, and extends to reformation of life twenty-three times. Repenteth is used with reference to God three times, and with reference to man twice. Twice it indicates sorrow, once a change of mind, and twice includes a change or reformation of life. Repenting and repentest are each used once with reference to God to indicate a change of purpose. Repentings is once used with reference to God to indicate sorrow. With reference to God the word is sometimes used in a negative sense; as, “God is not a man that he should repent” (Num. xxiii:19); The Lord hath sworn and
will not repent.” Ps. cx:4; Heb. vii:21. Sometimes it is used with reference to God affirmatively; as, “It repented the Lord that he had made man on the earth;” “It repenteth me that I have made them.” Gen. vi:6, 7. At other times it is used with reference to God conditionally; as, “If that nation against whom I have pronounced turn from their evil, I will repent of the evil I thought to do unto them…. If it do evil in my sight, that it obey not my voice, then I will repent of the good wherewith I said I would benefit them.” Jer. xviii:8,10. Again, it is sometimes used in petition or supplication to God; as, “Turn from thy fierce wrath, and repent of this evil against thy people.” Ex. xxxii:12.


In all the forms in which the word is used it refers to God thirty-seven times, and with reference to man sixty-nine times. It is used to indicate sorrow or regret twenty-eight times, a change of mind or will twenty-five times, and a change of mind resulting in reformation of life fifty-three times. We are not concerned or interested in the use of the term as applied to God; its application to man is that which more directly concerns us, and to it we will confine our examination. When used in the New Testament as a command to the alien in order to the remission of sins, it always indicates such a change of mind as produces a change or reformation of life under circumstances warranting the conclusion that sorrow for the past would or had preceded it. When so used it is invariably a translation of the Greek word metanoio; and when used to indicate sorrow or regret it is always from metamelomai — a different word, though improperly rendered the same in English. Had these words been properly translated we think it likely that much of the confusion on the subject of repentance would have been prevented.


Regret is certainly a much more fitting representative of metamelomai than repentance, and why it has not been so translated is more than we can tell. A striking example of the difference in the meaning of the word repent when derived from these different Greek words will be found in 2 Cor. vii:8-10: “For though I made you sorry with a letter, I do not repent [metamelomai, regret], though I did repent [metamelomen, regret], for I perceive that the same epistle hath made you sorry, though it were but for a season. Now I rejoice, not that ye were made sorry, but that ye sorrowed to repentance [metanoian, reformation]: for ye were made sorry after a godly manner, that ye might receive damage by us in nothing; for godly sorrow worketh repentance [metanoian, reformation] to salvation not to be repented [metameleton, regretted].” Surely, nothing could be more apparent than the difference in the use which Paul makes of these two Greek words, though both rendered repent in the common version. Paul wrote the Corinthians a letter which made them sorry, and he regretted it, but he ceased to regret it when he saw that their sorrow worked in them repentance: i.e., such a change of mind as culminated in their reformation.

The words repentance, in the commission, Luke xxiv:47, and repent, as used by Peter, Acts ii:38, and iii:19, are from the Greek metanoio, and not from metamelomai, and hence means more than sorrow for past sins. We say more, because that change of mind which we call repentance always implies that sorrow for the past has preceded it. When the Jews at Jerusalem, on the day of Pentecost, heard Peter’s preaching, and by it were  convinced that they had truly crucified and slain the Son of God; they were pierced in their hearts, and cried out, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?” Acts ii:37.



Can we conclude that the hearts of those who asked this soul-stirring question were not filled with sorrow for the sins from which they desired salvation? Yet they were commanded to repent. But it may be said that the sorrow which they had was not godly sorrow, and this is the reason why it was not repentance. Their sorrow was the product of their faith, and their faith was produced by Peter’s preaching, which was dictated by the Holy Spirit, sent that day from heaven, by Him who sat at God’s right hand. Surely, if this was not godly sorrow, then there can be no such thing connected with conversion.


But is godly sorrow repentance? Paul did not so think. He says: “Now I rejoice, not that ye were made sorry, but that ye sorrowed to repentance, for ye were made sorry after a godly manner, that ye might receive damage by us in nothing. For godly sorrow worketh repentance unto salvation not to be repented of; but the sorrow of the world worketh death.” 2 Cor. vii:9, 10. Here we learn that godly sorrow precedes repentance, but certainly is not repentance. Godly sorrow is produced by respect for God and His violated law, and produces a change of mind which induces reformation or change of life; while the sorrow of the world may be produced by the fact that the party has been detected in crime — is subjected to the frowns of men or the punishment inflicted by human laws – perchance because his schemes have proven unprofitable and have resulted in loss to him. Such is the sorrow of the world, and makes no man better, but ends in death. The repentance contemplated in the commission, and required by Peter of those to whom he spake, began where they gladly received his words, with a fixed purpose to reform their lives in accordance therewith, and it was preceded by deep sorrow for the wrongs they had done.




But we have a definition of repentance incidentally given us in the Scriptures which will make the matter, if possible, more plain. Jesus on one occasion said: “The men of Nineveh shall rise in judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonas; and, behold, a greater than Jonas is here.” Matt. xii:41. Jesus here says that the men of Nineveh repented at the preaching of Jonas; if, therefore, we can learn what the Ninevites did, we can thence learn what Jesus meant by repentance. “God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God repented of the evil that he had said that he would do unto them, and he did it not.” Jonah iii:10. Then, the change of
mind which resulted in turning the Ninevites from their evil ways constituted their repentance.



The determination to reform must be such as will lead the party to a reparation of injuries done to others, as far as may be in his power to make restitution. In vain may anyone tell me that he repents slandering me while he refused to correct his false statements concerning me, or that he repents stealing my horse while he continues to ride him without my consent. A circumstance recorded on page 256, Christian System, which, whether real or imaginary, so aptly illustrates our view of this subject, that we feel constrained to transcribe it:


“Peccator wounded the reputation of his neighbor Hermis, and on another occasion defrauded him of ten pounds. Some of the neighborhood were apprised that he had done both. Peccator was converted under the preaching of Paulinus, and, on giving a relation of his sorrow for his sins, spoke of the depth of his convictions and of his abhorrence of his transgressions. He was received into the congregation and sat down with the faithful to commemorate the great sin-offering. Hermis and his neighbors were witnesses of all this. They saw that Peccator was penitent and much reformed in his behavior, but they could not believe him sincere because he had made no restitution. They regarded him either as a hypocrite or self-deceived, because, having it in his power, he repaid not the ten pounds, nor once contradicted the slanders he had propagated. Peccator, however, felt little enjoyment in his profession, and soon fell back into his former habits. He became again penitent, and, on examining the grounds of his falling off, discovered that he had never cordially turned away from his sins.

Overwhelmed in sorrow for the past, he resolved on giving himself up to the Lord, and, reflecting on his past life, set about the work of reformation in earnest. He called on Hermis, paid him his ten pounds, and the interest for every day he had kept it back, went to all the persons to whom he had slandered him, told them what injustice he had done him, and begged them, if they had told it to any other persons, to contradict it. Several other persons whom he had wronged in his dealings with them, he also visited, and fully redressed all these wrongs against his neighbors. He also confessed them to the Lord, and asked Him to forgive him. Peccator was then restored to the church, and, better still, he enjoyed a peace of mind and confidence in God which was a continual feast. His example, moreover, did more to enlarge the congregation at the cross-roads than did the preaching of Paulinus in a whole year. This was unequivocally sincere repentance.”

Dr. Adam Clarke, in his commentary on Genesis, says: “No man should expect mercy at the hand of God, who, having wronged his neighbor, refuses, when he has it in his power, to make restitution. Were he to weep tears of blood, both the justice and mercy of God would shut out his prayers if he make not his neighbor amends for the injury he has done him.”

This principle seems to have ever characterized God’s dealings with men. In the Jewish law it is said: “When a man or a woman shall commit any sin that men commit, or do a trespass against the Lord, and that person be guilty, then they shall confess their sin which they have done; and he shall recompense his trespass with the principal thereof, and add unto it the fifth part thereof, and give it unto him against whom he hath trespassed. But if the man have no kinsman to recompense the trespass unto, let the trespass be recompensed unto the Lord, even to the priest.” Num.v:6-8. Now, it will be seen that,
during the existence of this law, a trespass against a man was regarded as a trespass against God, the Giver of the law forbidding the trespass; and it was not only necessary to recompense to the party aggrieved, but it was necessary to add a fifth part to it. And if he could not find the party to whom recompense was due, he should make it to his kindred if he had any; and if there were none, then it was required to be made to the Lord through the priest. There was no escape from making restitution. See also Lev. vi:1-7.


Indeed, it is difficult to conceive it possible for the heart of a man to be wholly subjugated to the will of the Lord and he not feel a desire to restore anything unjustly taken from any one. If his pretensions be real he will make restitution if in his power to do so. We do not mean that all this must be consummated before remission of sins and adoption into the family of God can take place; but we insist that the disposition or purpose of heart must be present before the party is in a fit frame of mind to further obey God in anything. And if the purpose thus formed is abandoned and not carried out, “it had been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than after they have known it to turn from the holy commandment delivered unto them.” 2 Pet. ii:21.


Zaccheus said: “If I have taken anything from any man by false accusation, I restore him fourfold. And Jesus said, This day is salvation come to this house.” Luke xix:8, 9. Thus we see that the principle of restitution met the approval of Jesus, even to the extent of fourfold. Once more: Jesus once said to a distinguished lawyer: “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” Matt. xxii:39. If we do this, will we not do by our neighbor as we do by ourselves? As the golden precept which crowned the rich casket of jewels contained in the sermon on the mount, it is said: “Whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do you even so to them.” Matt. vii:12. Do we desire that others withhold from us that which they have wrongfully taken from us? Or do we not rather desire them to restore to us that which is our own? If so, then we are bound to make that restitution to others which, under like circumstances, we would have them make to us. True, this is a strait and narrow path, and few there be who walk therein; but it is nevertheless “the law and the prophets.”   He who would come to God must come with a clean breast; hence “let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water.” Heb. x:22.




We come now to look for the order or place of repentance in the scheme of salvation presented in the gospel. From the fact that repentance is mentioned before faith, in a few places in the New Testament, many have concluded that men must repent before they exercise faith. We will very briefly examine these scriptures, that we may see whether or not they prove the doctrine in question.


“Now after that John was put in prison, Jesus came into Galilee preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, and saying, The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel.” Mark i:14,15. These persons were not required to believe the same gospel that was to be preached to every creature alluded to in the commission given after the resurrection of Jesus,
but they were simply to believe in the good news that the kingdom of God was at hand. This was the gospel which Jesus preached to them. They were Jews who had previous faith in God whose laws they had violated; hence for this they were required to repent and then believe in the coming reign of Messiah.




In like manner Paul preached to the Ephesians “repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus

Christ.” Acts xx:21. Their repentance was toward God, in whom they believed before the Messiahship of
Jesus was proclaimed to them. Hence toward Him their repentance was directed. There is still another passage worthy of note in this connection: “John came to you in the way of righteousness, and ye believed him not; but the publicans and harlots believed him: and you, when you had seen it, repented not afterward, that ye might believe him.” Matt. xxi:32. Here we not only have the word repentance before faith, but expressive of that which was necessary to faith; but it is from metamelomai, indicating regret, and not from the word indicative of that change of mind which is truly repentance. It was the pride of the self-righteous Pharisees that kept them from believing the proofs and accepting the ministry of John. When they saw the publicans and harlots acting more consistently in submitting to His teaching, as they believed in God by whom John was sent, they should have regretted that these outcasts outstripped them in obedience to the servant of the God in whom they believed; and had they been filled with such regret, it would have prepared them for faith in the glad tidings proclaimed by John.


Having seen that the strongest proofs relied on do not support the theory, it may be well to see whether the interpretation given to these scriptures by the advocates of the theory be not contradicted by other scriptures the import of which we cannot mistake. Paul says: “Whatsoever is not of faith is sin.” Rom. xiv:23. If repentance precedes faith, it cannot be of faith, and is therefore sin. Again: “Without faith it is impossible to please him, for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.” Heb. xi:6. If repentance precedes faith, it is without faith, and hence cannot be pleasing to God. Surely, then, there must be error in the theory.


Finally: The advocates of this doctrine associate repentance with prayer, generally, at the mourner’s bench. Now, if these prayers, connected with repentance, are before faith, they cannot be in faith. James says: “Let him ask in faith, nothing wavering, for he that wavereth is like a wave of the sea, driven with the wind and tossed; let not that man think that he shall receive any thing of the Lord.” Jas. i:6, 7. Will God hear and answer these prayers made in connection with repentance (so called) before faith? James says: “Let not that man think that he shall receive any thing of the Lord.”  If there be truth in Holy Writ, a prayer made before faith will not be answered. Perhaps it may be well to examine the history of a few actual cases of repentance, and see whether it preceded or succeeded faith.


We have seen that Jesus himself said that the Ninevites repented at the preaching of Jonah; let us see whether or not faith in Jonah’s preaching preceded their repentance: “And Jonah began to enter into the city a day’s journey, and he cried and said, Yet forty days and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” Jonah iii:4. Here is the preaching; what was the first effect of it? “So the people believed God.” Here is their faith, the first thing. What next? “They proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them even to the least of them. For word came unto the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, and he laid his robe from him, and covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. And he caused it to be proclaimed and published through Nineveh, by the decree of the king and his nobles, saying, Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste any thing: let them not feed, nor drink water: but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily unto God; yea, let them turn, everyone, from his evil way, and from the violence that is in their hands. Who can tell if God will turn and repent, and turn away from his fierce anger that we perish not? And God saw their works, that they turned from their evil ways.” Jonah iii:5-10.


Here is their repentance. Who cannot see the order of events? First, Jonah preached the message which God gave him to say to them. Second, The people believed God. Third, They turned from their evil way. On the day of Pentecost the order was similar.

Peter preached, the people heard, believed, were cut to the heart, asked what to do, were commanded to repent and be baptized. In the narrative already twice quoted from Paul, 2 Cor. vii:8-10, he wrote them a letter; they believed it — were made sorry by it – they sorrowed in a godly manner, and their godly sorrow worked repentance.



It will be admitted that repentance is produced in some way by some cause. If it precedes faith, faith cannot be the cause of it, and we would be pleased to learn what does produce it. Do you admit that a belief with all the heart in God, Jesus, heaven, hell, apostles, prophets, and all things written and spoken by inspiration, precedes and causes repentance? then will you please give us a minute description of the faith that follows repentance — what it is, and how it comes. We acknowledge the want of light along here. We are not very well prepared to understand how we are to repent for transgressing the laws of a king in whom we have no faith. To us the doctrine seems not only contrary to the order of the Bible, but at war with every principle of reason and common sense.

But we may be told that repentance is the direct gift of God. The distinguished Watson says:


“But if repentance be taken in the second sense and this is certainly the light in which true repentance
is exhibited in the Scriptures, then it is forgotten that such is the corrupt state of man that he is incapable of penitence of this kind. This follows from that view of human depravity which we have already established from the Scriptures, and which we need not repeat. In conformity with this view of the entire corruptness of man’s nature, therefore repentance is said to be the gift of Christ, who, in consequence of being exalted to be a Prince and a Savior, gives repentance as well as remission of sins — a gift quite superfluous if to repent truly were in the power of man and independent of Christ. To suppose man to be capable of a repentance which is the result of genuine principle is to assume human nature to be what it is not.” Watson’s Institutes, vol. ii, pp. 98, 99.

It seems to us that the dogma of hereditary depravity is the Pandora’s box from which have sprung most, if not all, the errors which distract the religious world. This doctrine once received, and everything else is tried by it. Hence man cannot repent because the total depravity of his nature renders him incapable of it; and though God has commanded him to repent, and told him plainly that he shall perish if he does not repent, yet He must give him repentance before he can repent!! Suppose God never gives the man repentance, and per consequence the man never repents, what then? Will God damn him for His own neglect? Surely not. We know it is said: “Him hath God exalted with his right hand to be a Prince and
a Savior, for to give repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins.”



Acts v:31. Again, “Then hath God also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life.” Acts xi:18. Are these passages sufficient to prove that man is incapable of repenting? God gives us bread, but we have to work and make it, nevertheless. So God gives us repentance by placing motives before us to induce it; hence Paul asks: “Despisest thou the riches of his goodness and forbearance and longsuffering; not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance?” Rom. ii:4. God has manifested His love for man in the gift of His Son, through whom salvation is offered on certain conditions, among which repentance holds a prominent place. He has revealed Himself to man in all the loveliness of His true character. The joys and bliss of heaven are set forth in a revelation adapted to his comprehension, and thus the goodness of God leads man to repentance; hence Paul says: “The servant of the Lord must not strive; but be gentle unto all men, apt to teach, patient; in meekness instructing those that oppose themselves; if God peradventure will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth; and that they may recover themselves out of the snare of the devil, who are taken captive by him at his will.” 2 Tim. ii:24-26. Why should the servant of the Lord manifest such patience, and so meekly instruct the opposers, if God gives them repentance directly? Does not this case clearly show that God gives men repentance by a system of means calculated to produce it?

He gives man faith by giving him testimony calculated to produce it, and will damn him if he does not believe it. He gives man bread by giving him the means with which to make it, but unless he uses the means he will starve for food. So God gives man repentance by causing repentance and remission of sins to be preached among all nations in the name of His Son, yet he who does not repent will surely perish. Then let no man wait for God to give him repentance directly, until he is willing to sit, with folded arms, and wait for God to give him bread in the same way.

 Recommended articles:

Introducing the Church of Christ – Ronny Wade

God’s Sevenfold Unity – Jerry Cutter

Repentance – J. W. McGarvey


The Ancient Faith website is a thematic collection of scholarly yet simple Bible essays and sermons, many of which were composed by Restoration preachers such as J.W. McGarvey, Moses Lard, Benjamin Franklin, and Alexander Campbell. These courageous men of faith through hours of Bible investigation studied themselves out of denominationalism, asking for “the old paths” (Jer. 6:16) and seeking to return to “the faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). We hope you will join with these men in their fervent plea to restore “the ancient order,” “the ancient gospel” or, as it was sometimes called, “the ancient faith.”