A matter of definition
The words regret, remorse and repentance appear to carry very similar meanings in the english language. Indeed they are often used interchangibly in conversations across the board. A quick check of any dictionary will bear this out. For example the websites of Merriam-Webster, Cambridge and Dictionary.com have the following definitions;
Regret - to be very sorry for, expression of distressing emotion
Remorse - gnawing distress arising from a sense of guilt for past wrongs
Repent - to feel regret or contrition
Regret - feel sad or sorry for a mistake
Remorse - strong feeling of guilt and regret over something you have done
Repent - to be very sorry for something bad done, and wish you had not done
Regret - feel sorrow or remorse
Remorse - deep and painful regret for wrongdoing
Repent - feel sorry, be conscience-stricken about a past action, or attitude,
What's in a word?
The bible however tends to use one word more often the the other two. A quick check of any concordance will reveal that the word 'repent' occurs way more frequently. This is because 'repent' carries a deeper more nuanced meaning than regrert or remorse does. So, what does 'repent' actually mean, and how does it differ from regret or remorse?
In the original language of the New Testament, the greek word that is most often translated as 'repent' is the word "metanoeo". It is a compond word made up of meta - "changed after being with", and noieo - "think". It literally means to 'think differently afterwards', or to 'change one's mind'.
Repentance goes way beyond mere feelings of regret, guilt, contrition, sorrow, although these emotion may be present and genuine. It involves a change of one's mind, attitude, purpose, which leads to a transformation of one's actions and behaviour.
Actions speak louder than words, and one must walk the talk if they are truly repentant.
This precise meaning of the word repent is well captured by the incident involving John the Baptist in Luke 3:7-8
When the crowds came to John for baptism, he said, “You brood of snakes! Who warned you to flee the coming wrath? 8 Prove by the way you live that you have repented of your sins and turned to God. Don’t just say to each other, ‘We’re safe, for we are descendants of Abraham.’ That means nothing, for I tell you, God can create children of Abraham from these very stones.
True repentance must be accompanied by a change of attitude, behaviour and will.
Feelings of sorrow, guilt, regret are valid emotions, but they are just the first step. One must take the next step and desire to change and re-orientate one's mind and will, that leads to a change in conduct.
Repentence is a major theme in the New Testament. John the Baptist's ministry was heralded with the words
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” - Matthew 3:2
Jesus, at the onset of his public ministry in Galilee echoed the same words (Matthew 4:17). This pattern continued in the book of Acts. Many of the sermons by the apostles conclude with a call to repent and turn to God.
In the Old Testament, a recurring theme of the prophets was for Israel to repent of their ways and return to God.
Is repentance on-going?
Is repentance a one time event that occurs only when we first become a Christian? Is it only necessary at that time when we acknowledge our sin, turn away from our old way of life, put our faith in Jesus Christ, and are born again?
In the book of Revelations, 5 out of the 7 letters to the churches called on the believers there to repent. Even after becoming a Christian, we still struggle with sin. Everytime the Holy Spirit convicts us, we need to repent and strive to grow in holiness.
Some sins keep coming back to haunt us, despite our best efforts. Are we perhaps merely feeling sorry, remorseful and guilty, but haven't truly repented i.e. sincerely desiring to change our hearts, minds and purpose. At the end of the day, God knows our hearts. He knows when we are honest and sincere in our repentance and will give us the victory in his time.
True repentance in action
A good example of true repentance in action can be seen when comparing the reactions of king Saul and king David when they were confronted with their sin.
In 1 Samuel 15:1-3, God, through the prophet Samuel had a clear message for Saul.
Samuel said to Saul, “I am the one the Lord sent to anoint you king over his people Israel; so listen now to the message from the Lord. This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt. Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.’”
To understand the background to this seemingly vicious and savage command, we need to refer to Deuteronomy 25:17-19
Remember what the Amalekites did to you along the way when you came out of Egypt. When you were weary and worn out, they met you on your journey and attacked all who were lagging behind; they had no fear of God. When the Lord your God gives you rest from all the enemies around you in the land he is giving you to possess as an inheritance, you shall blot out the name of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!
Despite crystal clear instructions, Saul chose to do his own thing.
But Saul and the army spared (king) Agag and the best of the sheep and cattle, the fat calves[b] and lambs—everything that was good. These they were unwilling to destroy completely, but everything that was despised and weak they totally destroyed.
1 Samuel 15:15
When confronted with his blatant disobedience, Saul tried to justify his actions.
“But I did obey the Lord,” Saul said. “I went on the mission the Lord assigned me. I completely destroyed the Amalekites and brought back Agag their king. The soldiers took sheep and cattle from the plunder, the best of what was devoted to God, in order to sacrifice them to the Lord your God at Gilgal.”
1 Samuel 15:20-21
Saul did eventually admit to sinning, but his confession somehow rang hollow and insincere. He appeared more concerned not to lose face among his people
Saul replied, “I have sinned. But please honor me before the elders of my people and before Israel; come back with me, so that I may worship the Lord your God.”
1 Samuel 15:30
When the prophet Nathan confronted king David for committing adultery with Bathsheba, and having her husband killed, David simply responded
Then David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.”
2 Samuel 12:13
There was no attempt to try and justify his actions. He simply held up his hands and confessed. In Psalm 51, David pours out his regert, remorse, but most importantly his repentance.
Create in me a clean heart, O God. Renew a loyal spirit within me.
The sacrifice you desire is a broken spirit. You will not reject a broken and repentant heart, O God.
David truly desired to change his heart and mind (repent) and obey God.
May we practice true repentance in our daily walk with God, and continue to grow in holiness.
© 2022 Ferdinand-J-K