A Brief Look at Biblical Repentance

Repentance is hard to define.

It seems that everyone has their own idea on what it’s supposed to mean. In particular, if you follow any sort of celebrity news, you might be familiar with Hollywood-style apologies.  Tiger Woods, after being caught in adulterous acts, made the statement that: “I have let my family down and I regret those transgressions with all of my heart…I convinced myself that normal rules didn’t apply…I ask you to one day find room in your heart to believe in me again.”[1] And just searching the term “apology video” in YouTube will bring up a large number of videos shot by stars who tearfully express their regrets and public mess ups.

But do these celebrity apologies display genuine repentance?

It’s not up to me to decide the heart-motives of Tiger Woods or James Charles. However, through this medium, I would like to explore the Bible’s definition of repentance and the application it should have on a believer’s life. This blog will be the first of many that will address this subject. I wish to be thorough, so I hope to tackle it from many different angles. But, for now, let’s start by simply defining some terms and examining the elements that should be found within a statement of confession.

The Word “Repentance” In Scripture

In the Old Testament, one word that’s often rendered “repentance” in English is the Hebrew shuv שׁוּב. At its most basic level, shuv simply means “to turn back/return.” It’s used to express the return of the dove to Noah in Genesis 8:9 and Ruth’s sister-in-law’s return to her own land in Ruth 1:15. Obviously, it’s also used in a theological way. Psalm 51:12 contains the hiphil imperative of shuv (“restore!”). Actually, that entire Psalm has to do with concepts of repentance and forgiveness. We will return to it in a moment.

Another Hebrew word that’s rendered “repentance” in English is nacham נָחַם. Nacham has more to do with expressing sorrow or feeling regret. For example, in Judges 21:6, the Israelites were said to have nacham (were sorry/wished to express compassion for) for the tribe of Benjamin. And in Jeremiah 8:6, God’s prophet explains that not one person was nacham (relenting/sorry) for his sin actions in all of Israel.

In the New Testament, strepho στρέφω is used to express a similar action to that of shuv. Jesus tells the disciples in Matthew 18:3 to strepho (turn) and become like children. John 12:30 quotes the LXX’s rendering of Isaiah 6:10: “strepho (turn) and I should heal…” And similarly, the New Testament’s metanoio μετανοέω expresses an action like the Old Testament’s nacham. It means something like “to change one’s thoughts/purpose/mind,” and it is the word that Jesus uses in several places when he declares that we should metanoio (repent) for the kingdom of God is at hand.

Taking all of that data into consideration, we might conclude that biblical repentance is the turning from sin to God through Jesus. And this turning has both physical and mental elements to it.

Psalm 51 and the Elements of Biblical Repentance

Psalm 51 has been attributed to King David. Its superscription explains that it was a prayer that the king offered up to the Lord after Nathan confronted him for raping Bathsheba and murdering Uriah (2 Samuel 11). David committed an egregious sin and this psalm is a plea to God for forgiveness.

We can also learn a whole lot about repentance from Psalm 51 ourselves.

vv. 1-6 – Confession of Sin and Guilt

David does not shy away from admitting his wrongdoing. He does not side step or give a half-apology. In fact, in the first two verses alone, David uses three different words to describe his action: פְשָׁעָֽי (transgression/rebellious act), מֵעֲוֹנִ֑י (iniquity/wrongdoing), חַטָּאת (sin). And then, in verses 3-4, he doubles down. David knew he was guilty before God and that the Lord was “just” in confronting him (51:4b). He had no right on which to base an appeal; he was guilty and deserved death.[2]

It should be noted that David expresses contrition within this psalm. The king explains that this is what the Lord requires in 51:17, but throughout the entire thing he’s grieved to the core over his sin. In this confession, he expresses deep sorrow. It’s clear that his actions have bothered him.

So, when we repent of sin, do we express contrition? Are we deeply bothered by our offending of God? The Lord holds us to the same standards as He did David. Or, do we convey attrition, a false superficial type of repentance.

I think we can distinguish between these two by considering the motives of the one repenting.

Someone who is contrite confesses their wrongdoing because they know they’ve offended a holy God. They also know that nothing they can do within their own power can resolve the relationship. It must be the other party, in this case: God, that offers forgiveness. In contrast, someone who expresses attrition isn’t really sorrowful over their sin. They might express sorrow, but that expression comes more from being upset that they’ve been caught instead of sadness over the act itself. Or, they might be upset because their image has now been tarnished. Their pride has been hurt.

In other words, someone who is repenting with an attrite heart is more concerned for himself instead the person they’ve offended. But someone repenting with a contrite heart is genuinely grieved because their focus is on the offended party.  

Just as an aside, go back up to the introduction of this blog post. What type of confession do you think Tiger Woods made? Contrition or attrition?  

vv. 7-12 – Plea for Forgiveness

David continues on by pleading to God for forgiveness.

He starts off with a petition for cleansing. He wishes to be purified similar to how sin offerings are made in the tabernacle with hyssop and water. He also wishes to be washed whiter than snow. Ultimately, David hopes that the Lord will wipe away all of the guilt he has brought upon himself as he does know that it’s in God’s nature to forgive (51:1).

Here’s where shuv comes back into play. David knows that asking for forgiveness alone will not help. He needs God to change his heart so that he can begin living for the Lord. His judgement has been corrupted by sin and God needs to bring about change on a spiritual level. So, that’s exactly what David asks for. He petitions that God shuv (restore) him so that he can experience the joy of His deliverance, and then sustain him so that he can continue to live in a way that honors the Lord.

vv. 13-19 – Commitment to Change

In the last section of Psalm 51, king David makes a commitment to change.

That is, if the Lord does grant him forgiveness,[3] he vows to teach others about God’s mercy (51:13), praise Him publicly (51:14-15), and worship Him rightly (51:16-19). But again, David knows that if he were to do these acts without God’s forgiveness, they would be in vein. It would make him a hypocrite. It’s the kings desire to fully confess his sin and find forgiveness before taking action.[4]

Conclusion

How then should we repent of sin as believers? How might we turn from our wickedness to God through Jesus? Well, after studying Psalm 51, here’s what I think should be found in a statement of repentance:

  1. A contrite expression of sorrow for one’s sin: “I hate that I have sinned before God. My actions have offended Him.”
  2. A proper apology and a confession of the wrong committed: “I have done X. I am aware that my actions were in violation. I take responsibility for them, and I am sorry that I have committed such sin.”
  3. A plea for forgiveness: “Please forgive me for X.”
  4. A resolve to turn from sin and toward a restored relationship: “I promise to turn from X. Instead, and if I am granted the ability to, I will commit to X with the hope of reconciliation.”

Again, this is the first blog of many that will tackle the topic of biblical repentance. This is an important topic to study and our blog today really only skims the surface.


[1] https://www.eonline.com/fr/news/547754/the-17-best-or-worst-celebrity-apologies-where-does-jonah-hill-rank

[2] Allen P. Ross, A Commentary on the Psalms: Volume 2, Kregel Exegetical Library, (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Academic, 2013). 189.  

[3] The phrase אֲלַמְּדָ֣ה “then I will teach” is a piel cohortative. This is a type of Hebrew verb often used to express a wish or ask for permission to do something. This is exactly what David is doing here. He’s asking to be forgiven so that he can have the permission to do these acts. Food for thought: when we wrong someone else, is it ever appropriate to preform acts of reconciliation without first gaining their forgiveness?

[4] Allen P. Ross, A Commentary on the Psalms: Volume 2, Kregel Exegetical Library, (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Academic, 2013). 201-202.

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