The Greek verb for “to repent,” metanoeô, has the basic meanings of “change of heart,” “turn from one’s sins” or “change one’s ways.” Often, though, these meanings direct us to focus only on the individual who repents; they obscure the relational dimension at the heart of repentance. The concept of repentance assumes sin against someone, forgiveness that we seek from another and the hope and promise of reconciliation with the offended party.
In the biblical context, the one ultimately whom we have offended and to whom we must be reconciled is God. Repentance is not a single act, but a process of coming to know God more fully, learning what God wants from us and realizing that what God ultimately desires is a deeper relationship. And when that relationship is breached by sin, God seeks our reconciliation. God is the initiator of repentance, because God longs for us to restore our broken relations so that we may live the life intended for us: abundant and eternal.
This is why God takes the initiative in calling out to Moses to rescue the captive people of Israel, whom God describes as “my people.” But it is also why Moses asks God’s name, the first step in restoring Israel to God. While God had remembered the people of Israel, the people had not remained in relationship with God. God’s actions on behalf of Israel demanded a renewal of relationship. God said, “I am who I am,” defining his eternal essence, but God also reintroduced himself by hearkening back to the past relationships with their ancestors. Moses was directed to tell the people, “The God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.”
The Psalmist tells us that first God “made known his ways to Moses” and then “his acts to the people of Israel.” Forgiveness and reconciliation could occur once the relationship was restored, since God is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” Forgiveness is the essence of God, for God “does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities,” yet repentance is essential. As the apostle Paul notes, many Israelites were struck down during the wilderness wandering because of a variety of sins.
Paul cautions the Corinthians, using the Israelites as an example, writing, “If you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall” (N.R.S.V.). The New American Bible adds a subtle variation to Paul’s caution: “Whoever thinks he is standing secure should take care not to fall.” Repentance demands that we not create a false sense of security about our relationship with God, but must always be asking how it can be built, strengthened and understood. Turning from sin is a constant necessity.
Jesus warned that repentance is required of us all, not just those whom we tend to consider as “worse sinners.” Jesus asked the people about some Galileans whom Pilate had killed: “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way, they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.” Relationships demand constant attention, and our relationship with God is similar; repentance is not static, it is not done, it is not complete, and to think of it as so is spiritually dangerous. Repentance is the constant acknowledgment that we desire to follow God and remain in relationship with God.
And God wants to be in relationship with us. God is calling to us, so that we can be forgiven and accept reconciliation. God calls for us to recognize our sin, to turn from our sin, to repent. The better we know God, the more we want to be in relationship with God, and the more we desire repentance. Repentance is not a sign of failure in our relationship with God but a sign of our growing love for God.