Biblical Theology of Repentance, part 1

Several weeks ago I posted an outline for a paper I was writing for my Biblical Theology course. The assignment was to find a biblical theme and trace it throughout scripture. I had selected the concept of repentance / turning to God. What a task! The assignment was 20 pages, however, a huge volume could have been written on the topic.

Some of you have expressed an interest in reading it. I am grateful and flattered. However, it isn’t the most fanciful of writing as it is only an assignment for a class. I’ve heard it said that “dissertations make bad books.” Well, it may also be true that “class papers make bad blog posts.” Nevertheless, I thought I would comply and post portions of the paper in a series of posts.

As with any paper of this sort, one must cover the necessary preliminaries. This is not the whole introduction but the section dealing with the terms and concepts relevant to the subject matter of the paper (in other words, it gets better after this stuff!).

This study will attempt to show that repentance is a crucial, important theme in biblical theology. We will examine the idea of repentance as it appears in several key passages in both testaments of the Bible. We begin with a brief survey of some of the key biblical terms around the concept of repentance as well as outline major episodes in the biblical narrative.

Biblical Terms and Concepts

If the idea of returning to God is a crucial, important theme in the biblical narrative it is helpful to briefly survey some of the key terms and concepts used to describe a turning/returning to God. We begin with the Hebrew words used in the Old Testament.

The primary term for “repent” in the Old Testament is shuv.[1] The basic meaning is “to turn” and it occurs well over one thousand times in the Hebrew scriptures. The term is used in both a general sense (as in actual physical movement), but is used in a theological sense of either negatively turning away from yhwh or positively of turning toward him in faith and obedience. A related term noun, meshuvah, is used for unfaithfulness, disloyalty, apostasy, and backsliding.[2]

In the New Testament, the verb for repent is metanoeo and means to “change one’s mind,” along with the noun, metanoia (“repentance”). This change was more than a mere shift in one’s opinion. To metanoeo meant “to change one’s way of life as the result of a complete change of thought and attitude with regard to sin and righteousness” [LN 41.52]. This manifested itself in a total reorientation of one’s outlook and conduct.

In addition to metanoeo and metanoia , there are two other NT terms to note, and which have similar semantic range. Two other terms are used for repentance: epistrepho, “to turn back, return, turn (36x’s), and strepho, “to turn” (21x’s).[3]  Although used for change in general, they are sometimes used in a religious context for turning from other gods and toward God.[4]

[1] “shuv,” NIDOTTE, 5:55.

[2] “meshuvah, shuv,” NIDOTTE, 3:1,113.

[3] LN 41.50, 51

[4] “epistrepho,” NIDNTT, n.p.

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