The Chicago Daily News recently reported that Billy Graham, in talking about what Americans need most, stated: “It is absolutely impossible to change society and to reverse the moral trend unless we ourselves are changed from the inside out. Man needs transformation or conversion.… Our only way to moral reform is through repentance of our sins and a return to God.”

The Old Testament in no uncertain terms reiterates the same truth over and over again. A representative and very specific statement to that effect is found in 2 Chron. 7:14: “If my people, who are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”

Meaning of Repentance and Conversion in the New Testament. Two Greek words are translated as repentance. Metamelomai has the basic connotation of feeling differently, or remorse (Matt. 21:29, 32; 27:3). Judas repented only in the sense of remorse, not with the idea of abandoning sin. Paul used this word with such a meaning (2 Cor. 7:8). Metanoeo (metanoia, noun) is regularly used to express the requisite state of mind necessary for the forgiveness of sin. It means to think differently or to have a different attitude toward sin and God, etc.

For conversion, strepho (strophe, noun), the root word, is used twice: Matt. 18:3, “Unless you become converted and become as little children you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven”; John 12:40, “become converted, and I will heal them.” The preposition prefix epi occurs on the word in the other passages where the sense of conversion is expressed. The basic idea of the word is to turn, and in most passages, where it denotes conversion, it is used in the active voice.

The Usage of These Words in the New Testament. In two passages in the New Testament both of these words occur, and in both cases the word for repentance precedes the other. Acts 3:19, “Therefore repent and turn (be converted) in order that your sins may be blotted out, so that seasons of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord”; Acts 26:20, “that they should repent and turn to God and perform deeds worthy (i.e., expressive) of repentance.”

In the above quotations we note that both words are used to describe an experience which has two aspects, namely that of turning away from displeasing God to pleasing him. And both words are used to denote the human volition and act by which man, convicted of sin by the Holy Spirit, determines to make his life conform to the will of God. Regeneration and justification are terms that denote God’s part in transforming an individual, while the words faith, repentance and conversion are used to express man’s necessary response to Christ and God if regeneration is to be experienced.

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Repentance without turning one’s life over to God does not obtain remission of sins, neither does turning one’s life over to God without repentance, as we shall indicate, bring remission of sins. Thus it is obvious that the two words deal with the right commitment of one’s self to God with the definite intent of doing his will as long as life lasts. But before one makes such a life-transforming and epoch-making decision he of necessity must have faith, believing that God “rewards those who seek him” (Heb. 11:6). An example of this is cited in Acts 11:21, “a great number that believed turned to the Lord.”

The Emphasis Placed on Repentance in the New Testament.Mark 1:4, 5: “John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance [i.e., a baptism expressive of repentance, genitive of description in Greek] for the forgiveness of sins. And all the country of Judea and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and, confessing their sins, they were being baptized in the river Jordan.”

Luke 3:7–14: “Who warned you, you serpent’s brood, to escape from the wrath to come? See that you do something to show that your hearts are really changed [metanoias]! Don’t start thinking that you can say to yourselves, ‘We are Abraham’s children,’ for I tell you that God could produce children of Abraham out of these stones! The ax already lies at the root of the tree, and the tree that fails to produce good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

“Then the crowds would ask him, ‘Then what shall we do?’ And his answer was, ‘The man who has two shirts must share with the man who has none, and the man who has food must do the same.’ ”

“Some of the tax collectors also came to him to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Master, what are we to do?’ ‘You must not demand more than you are entitled to,’ he replied.”

“And the soldiers asked him, ‘And what are we to do?’ ‘Don’t bully people, don’t bring false charges, and be content with your pay,’ he replied” (J. B. Phillips’ translation).

Matt. 3:5–12 is closely parallel to the statement in Mark and Luke, except that Luke has gone into greater detail in pointing out how the crowds, the tax collectors, and the soldiers were to demonstrate genuine repentance in their respective spheres of activity in society by using their time, talents, substance, and social position to serve others.

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All three of the synoptic writers, we note, picture John the Baptist as being adamant in demanding real repentance and insisting on the expression of it in everyday living. They made it clear that being a descendant of Abraham was not enough, that fleshly descent would not abate God’s wrath. Any Israelite who did not repent became subject to the severe judgment of God. But apparently John also preached the necessity of openly and publicly confessing sins before or at the time of baptism, for both Mark and Matthew state that the baptismal candidates were confessing their sins. Furthermore, the repentance that was demanded was not to be only personal and negative, a cessation of sinning, but it was also to be social and postive.

But we are indebted mostly to Luke for the detailed and specific spelling out of how one’s repentance should and can be expressed in helpful acts of service to others. Jesus, like John, stressed the need of repentance and true conversion. “By their fruits you shall know them. Not everyone who says to me, Lord, Lord, shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 7:20, 21).

Repentance a Prerequisite to Baptism in the New Testament. Wherever any details are given either by direct statement or by inference, repentance (also faith) was regarded as a necessary prerequisite to baptism, according to the New Testament record. In Acts 2:38 the priority of repentance to baptism is stated very definitely: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.” And certainly it can be stated with less fear of contradiction that repentance was always regarded as a necessary prerequisite to forgiveness as the above passage implies. Note also Luke 13:5; 24:27; Acts 8:22; 17:30.

The Philippian jailer demonstrated his repentance before being baptized by his washing and treating the wounds of Paul and Silas (Acts 16:33). And since baptism in apostolic times was a public confession of faith in Christ it was very unlikely that anyone who had not repented and experienced regeneration would submit to baptism. For both among Jews and Gentiles hostility to the point of severe persecution at times was experienced by new converts to Christianity. Social pressure was so intense against becoming a Christian that people would not have had the courage to break with family and community traditions and customs unless the grace of God had been experienced in their lives. And repentance was a necessary prerequisite to that.

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A correct interpretation of two expressions in the Greek New Testament throws additional light on this phase of the subject. One, baptisma metanoias, baptism of repentance, occurs four times, Mark 1:4; Luke 3:3; Acts 13:24; 19:4. The word translated repentance in this phrase is in the genitive case and is descriptive in function. It was a repentance baptism, i.e., the baptism was characterized by and expressive of repentance. And without question the Lukan context in which the phrase occurs makes it very definite that baptism was not administered without some evidence of repentance. The Pharisees and Sadducees, the religious and political leaders at that time, who came to John for baptism, were called a “brood of vipers” and were told to “bear fruits that befit repentance” (RSV, Luke 3:7–8). Or in other words, John refused to baptize them on the grounds that they were not fit candidates for it. “John demands proof from these men of the new life before he administers baptism to them” (A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, vol. I, p. 8).

The other expression is in Matt. 3:11 and is translated in the RSV, “I baptize you with (in, Greek) water for repentance.” The Greek preposition, translated for above, is eis, and is used to denote cause at times in the Greek of the first century and in the New Testament. Our word for can be used to express cause; for instance, “He was arrested for stealing.” In at least four Modern Speech translations eis is translated as having causal significance in Matt. 3:11. In Weymouth it is on profession of, in Goodspeed it is in token of, in Williams it is to picture and in Phillips it is as a sign of; all of these are causal in force.

(The most exhaustive and recent scholarly discussion on the causal use of eis in Matt. 3:11 and in the Greek of New Testament times is found in the Journal of Biblical Literature. Four articles appeared on the subject, three in 1951 in vol. LXX, and one in 1952, vol. LXXI. Two were by Ralph Marcus of the University of Chicago, two by myself. Numerous examples from secular and sacred Greek were cited to illustrate how eis was used with casual significance.)

Repentance and Conversion in Everyday Life. As is generally known, people do not repent and become converted until they know that they are sinners and that they need the Saviour. Hence as a precursor to salvation, people of necessity must become informed of the salient elements of the Gospel. LIntil they realize that they are shortchanging themselves and are jeopardizing their future, that they have brought the eternal wrath of God upon themselves, there is little likelihood of their becoming convicted and turning to Christ as Savior. Consequently there is urgency that every means available should be used to proclaim and to live the Gospel so as to lay the groundwork for the Holy Spirit to use the truth so disseminated to induce conviction and conversion. Jesus depicted graphically and bluntly the terrible doom that awaits the impenitent: “And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matt. 25:46).

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Not only do men need to know that their sins will bring the inescapable judgment of God upon themselves, but also that they can never enjoy life in its fullness here and now until they become converted and experience God’s marvelous transforming grace. Jesus offered a better existence when he declared, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). And he promised: “that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full … and your sorrow will turn into joy … and no one will take your joy from you” (John 15:11; 16:21, 22). And the Apostle Paul described this experience in these words: “Wherefore if any one is in Christ he is a new creature; the old has passed away, behold it has become new” (2 Cor. 5:17).

The only normal man is the converted man. Only then is he most free from the tensions and frustrations of life. He is most likely to be at peace with both God and men. Then only does he enjoy in its fullness a clear conscience and freedom from guilt and fear. For the first time he is living in harmony with God’s will for his life. The realization that God’s favor is upon him and that “all things will work together for his good” cheers his spirit and fills his life with joyful expectancy. Like the Psalmist he visualizes as his possession the “goodness and mercy” of God and expects to “dwell in his house forever.”

Erik Routley in The Gift of Conversion in describing the benefits of conversion has stated: “Personality is not blurred or made negative in conversion. On the contrary, the converted man is more of a person than he was. The tension between what he is and what he would wish to appear to his neighbors is eased, and the result is a simpler, more direct, more clearly drawn personality. Confusion is replaced by integration and harmony.” In Galations 5:23 the Apostle Paul has mentioned nine exceedingly precious acquisitions of life and character that become one’s immediate or potential possession when he is truly converted: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” How lovely life would be if we and all our associates always manifested such gracious characteristics!

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Sinners, turn, why will you die?

God, your Saviour, ask you—Why?

He who did your souls retrieve,

Died himself that you might live.

Will you let him die in vain?

Crucify your Lord again?

Why, you ransomed sinners, why

Will you slight his grace and die?

—John Wesley

Bibliography: W. D. Chamberlain, The Meaning of Repentance; R. O. Ferm, The Psychology of Christian Conversion; E. Price, The Burden Is Light; E. Routley, The Gift of Conversion.

Former Professor of New Testament

Northern Baptist Theological Seminary

Chicago, Illinois

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