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Repentance is the feeling and act in which one recognizes and tries to right a wrong, or gain forgiveness from someone that they wronged. In religious contexts it usually refers to repenting for a sin against God. It always includes an admission of guilt, and also includes at least one of: a solemn promise or resolve not to repeat the offense; an attempt to make restitution for the wrong, or in some way to reverse the harmful effects of the wrong where possible.
In Biblical Hebrew, the idea of repentance is represented by two verbs: שוב shuv (to return) and נחם nicham (to feel sorrow).
In the New Testament, the word translated as 'repentance' is the Greek word μετάνοια (metanoia), "after/behind one's mind", which is a compound word of the preposition 'meta' (after, with), and the verb 'noeo' (to perceive, to think, the result of perceiving or observing). In this compound word the preposition combines the two meanings of time and change, which may be denoted by 'after' and 'different'; so that the whole compound means: 'to think differently after'. Metanoia is therefore primarily an after-thought, different from the former thought; a change of mind accompanied by regret and change of conduct, "change of mind and heart", or, "change of consciousness". One of the key descriptions of repentance in the New Testament is the parable of the prodigal son found in the Gospel of Luke 15:11.
In the Hebrew Bible
The Hebrew Bible postulates repentance as the indispensable condition on which the salvation and redemption of the people of Israel, as well as of every individual man, depends. (Gen. 4:7; Lev. 4, 5; Deut. 4:30, 30:2; I Kings 8:33, 48; Hosea 14:2; Jer. 3:12, 31:18, 36:3; Ezek. 18:30-32; Isa. 54:22, 55:6-10; Joel 2:12; Jonah 2:10).
Judaism emphasizes the redeeming power of teshuvah, which is nothing else than man's self-redemption from the thraldom of sin.
The full meaning of repentance in the Hebrew Bible is indicated in the Hebrew term teshuvah (lit. "return"). This implies: (1) Transgression and sin are the natural and inevitable consequence of man's straying from God and His laws (comp. Deut. 11:26-28; Isa. 1:4; Jer. 2:13, 16:11; Ezek. 18:30). (2) It is man's destiny, and therefore his duty, to be with God as God is with him. (3) It is within the power of every man to redeem himself from sin by resolutely breaking away from it and turning to God. God's loving-kindness is also extended to the returning sinner. "Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the Lord, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon" (Isa. 55:7) (4) Because "there is not a just man upon earth, that does good, and sins not" (Eccl. 7:20; I Kings 8:46), every mortal stands in need of this insistence on his "return" to God.
The Torah (five books of Moses) distinguishes between offenses against God and offenses against man. In the first case the manifestation of repentance consists in: (1) Confession of one's sin before God (Lev. 5:5; Num. 5:7), the essential part being a solemn promise and firm resolve not to commit the same sin again. (2) Making certain prescribed offerings (Lev. 5:1-20). Offenses against man require, in addition to confession and sacrifice, restitution in full of whatever has been wrongfully obtained or withheld from one's fellow man, with one-fifth of its value added thereto (Lev. 5:20-26). If the wronged man has died, restitution must be made to his heir; if he has no heir, it must be given to the priest who officiates at the sacrifice made for the remission of the sin (Num. 5:7-9).
Repentance in the view of the Biblical prophets
Other manifestations of repentance mentioned in the Bible include: pouring out water (I Sam. 7:6); prayer (II Sam. 12:16); self-affliction, as fasting, tearing the upper garment, and wearing sackcloth; sitting and sleeping on the ground (I Kings 21:27; Joel 2:13; Jonah 3:5).
The Prophets disparaged all such outer manifestations of repentance, insisting rather on a complete change of the sinner's mental and spiritual attitude. They demanded a regeneration of the heart, i.e., a determined turning from sin and returning to God by striving after righteousness. "O Israel, return unto the Lord thy God; for thou hast fallen by thine iniquity. Take with you words, and return unto the Lord: say unto him, Take away all iniquity, and accept us graciously: so will we render as bullocks the offerings of our lips" (Hos. 14:1-2, Hebrew). "Rend your heart, and not your garments, and turn unto the Lord your God: for he is gracious and full of compassion, slow to anger and plenteous in mercy, and repenteth him of the evil" (Joel 2:13).
Repentance brings pardon and forgiveness of sin (Isaiah 55:7). Outside of repentance the prophets and apostles know of no way of securing pardon. No sacrifices, nor religious ceremonies can secure it. Not that repentance merits forgiveness, but it is a condition of it. Repentance qualifies a man for a pardon, but it does not entitle him to it.
Repentance in Judaism
Rabbinic Jewish literature contains extensive discussions on the subject of repentance. Many rabbinic sources states that repentance is of paramount importance to the existence of this world, so that it was one of the seven provisions which God made before the Creation (Talmud, tractes Pesachim 54a; Nedarim 39b; Midrash Genesis Rabbah 1)
"The Holy One, blessed be His name, said to Elijah, 'Behold, the precious gift which I have bestowed on my world: though a man sinneth again and again, but returneth in penitence, I will receive him'" (Yer. Sanh. 28b).
"Great is repentance: it brings healing into the world"; "it reaches to the throne of God" (comp. Hos. 14:2, 5); "it brings redemption" (comp. Isa. 59:20); "it prolongs man's life" (comp. Ezek. 18:21; Yoma 86a, b).
"Repentance and works of charity are man's intercessors before God's throne" (Shab. 32a). Sincere repentance is equivalent to the rebuilding of the Temple, the restoration of the altar, and the offering of all the sacrifices (Pesiḳ., ed. Buber, 25:158; Lev. R. 7; Sanh. 43b).
Sincere repentance is manifested when the same temptation to sin, under the same conditions, is ever after resolutely resisted (Yoma 86b). "He that confesses his sin and still clings to it is likened to a man that holds in his hand a defiling object; though he batheth in all the waters of the world he is not cleansed; but the moment he casteth the defiling object from him a single bath will cleanse him, as it is said (Prov. 28:13): 'Whoso confesseth and forsaketh them [his sins] shall have mercy'" (Ta'an. 16a; "Yad," l.c. ii. 3).
Prerequisite of Atonement
According to Jewish doctrine, repentance is the prerequisite of atonement (Talmud Yoma viii. 8). Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, derives its significance only from the fact that it is the culmination of the ten penitential days with which the Jewish religious year begins; and therefore it is of no avail without repentance (Talmud Yoma viii. 8; Midrash Sifra, Emor, xiv.). Though man ought to be penitent every day (Ab. ii. 10; Shab. 153a), the first ten days of every year are the acceptable time announced by the prophet (Isa. lv. 6): "Seek ye the Lord while he may be found, call ye upon him while he is near" (R. H. 18a; "Yad," l.c. ii. 6).
Repentance and the Day of Atonement only absolve one from sins committed against God; from sins against another person they absolve only when restitution has been made and the pardon of the offended party has been obtained (Yoma 87a; "Yad," l.c. ii. 9).
No one need despair on account of his or her sins, for every penitent sinner is graciously received by God. (Jer. 31:9)
Jewish doctrine holds that it is never too late, even on the day of death, to return to God with sincere repentance for "as the sea is always open for every one who wishes to cleanse himself, so are the gates of repentance always open to the sinner" (Pesikta., ed. Buber, xxv. 157; Midrash Deuteronomy Rabbah ii.; Midr. Teh. lxiii.), and the hand of God is continually stretched out to receive him (Talmud Pesachim 119a; Deut. Rabbah ii.). One view in the Talmud holds that a repentant sinner attains a more exalted spiritual eminence than one who has never sinned (Berachot 34b.) It is a sin to taunt a repentant sinner by recalling their former sinful ways (B. M. 58b; "Yad," l.c. vii. 8).
Repentance occupies a prominent position in all the ethical writings of the Middle Ages. Bahya ibn Paquda devotes a special section to it in his 'Hovot ha-Levavot", "Gate of Repentance." Maimonides devotes the last section of "Sefer ha-Madda'" in his 'Mishneh Torah' to the subject.
Repentance in Christianity
The doctrine of Repentance in the Scriptures appears to be very prominent. See the description of repentance in the Hebrew Bible above for repentance in the Old Testament. In the New Testament, John the Baptist began his public ministry, as did Jesus also, with a call to repentance (Matt. 3:1, 2; 4:17).
When Jesus sent forth messengers to proclaim his gospel, he commanded them to preach repentance (Luke 24:47; Mark 6:12). Teachings on repentance are found in the New Testament in Peter, (Acts 2:38); Paul, (Acts 20:21). God wants everyone to repent (2 Pet. 3:9; Acts 17:30). Indeed, failure on the part of man to heed God's call to repentance means that he shall utterly perish (Luke 13:3).
Saint Isaac of Syria said, "This life has been given to you for repentance. Do not waste it on vain pursuits."
The nature of repentance
There is a three-fold idea involved in true repentance:
As touching the intellect
Matt. 21:29--"He answered and said: I will not; but afterward he repented, and went". The word here used for "repent" means to change one's mind, thought, purpose, views regarding a matter; it is to have another mind about a thing. This change is well illustrated in the action of the Prodigal Son, and of the Publican in the well-known story of the Pharisee and the Publican (Luke 15 and 18).
As touching the emotions
2 Cor. 7:9--"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." See also Luke 10:13; cf. Gen. 6:6. The Greek word for repentance in this connection means "to be a care to one afterwards," to cause one great concern. This meaning is exemplified by the repentant person who not only has profound regret for his past but also the fulfilled hope in the potential of Godís grace to continually bear the fruit of healing and true reconciliation in himself, with others, and most especially with God.
The Hebrew equivalent is strong as well, and it means to pant, to sigh, or to moan. So the publican "beat upon his breast," indicating sorrow of heart. See also Psalms 38:18.
As touching the will and disposition
One of the Hebrew words for repent means "to turn." The Prodigal Son said, "I will arise... and he arose" (Luke 15:18, 20). The part of the will and disposition in repentance is shown:
In the Confession of Sin to God
Psa. 38:18 -- "For I will declare mine iniquity: I will be sorry for my sin." The publican beat upon his breast, and said, "God be merciful to me a sinner" (Luke 18:13). The prodigal said, "I have sinned against heaven" (Luke 15:21).
There must be confession to man also in so far as man has been wronged in and by our sin (Matt. 5:23, 24; James 5:16).
In the Forsaking of Sin.
Isa. 55:7 Prov. 28:13 ("He that covereth his sins shall not prosper: but whoso confesseth and forsaketh them shall have mercy."); Matt. 3:8-10 ("Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance:... And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.").
In Turning Unto God.
It is not enough to turn away from sin; we must turn unto God. 1 Thess. 1:9; Acts 26:18.
How repentance is produced
Repentance is a divine gift
According to Christians, acts of repentance does not earn God's forgiveness from one's sin; rather, forgiveness is given as a gift from God to those who he saves. Acts 11:18--"Then hath God also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life." 2 Tim. 2:25 -- "If God peradventure will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth." Acts 5:30, 31.
In this view, people are called upon to repent in order that we may feel our own inability to do so, and consequently be thrown upon God and petition Him to perform this work of grace in our hearts. Many church fathers have made reference to it as the "gift of repentance" or as the "gift of tears".
Yet it is produced through the use of means
Acts 2:37, 38, 41. The very Gospel which calls for repentance produces it. When the people of Nineveh (Jonah 3:5-10) heard the preaching of the word of God by Jonah they believed the message and turned unto God. Not any message, but the Gospel is the instrument that God uses to bring about this desired end. Furthermore, this message must be preached in the power of the Holy Spirit (1 Thess. 1:5-10).
Rev. 3:19; Heb. 12:6, 10-11. The chastisements of God are sometimes for the purpose of bringing His wandering children back to repentance.
2 Tim. 2:24-25. God oftentimes uses the loving, Christian reproof of a brother to be the means of bringing us back to God.
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